‘In Water Lilies #1, I integrate Monet’s Impressionist painting, reminiscent of Zenism in the East, and concrete experiences of my father and me into a digitised and pixelated language,’ explains Ai Weiwei of his latest and largest Lego artwork based on the painter’s Water Lilies (1914-26) and created for Design Museum London to coincide with Ai Weiwei: Making Sense, the artist’s biggest UK show in eight years.
He continues, ‘Toy bricks as the material, with their qualities of solidity and potential for deconstruction, reflect the attributes of language in our rapidly developing era where human consciousness is constantly dividing.’
Depicting the lily pond and garden at his home in Giverny, Normandy, Water Lilies beautifully captures nature’s serene beauty. And by choosing Monet’s painting, but then working with cold plastics and standard colours, Ai wants us to challenge our notion of reality and beauty.
And to add to the disorientation, on the right-hand side sits a dark portal, representing the door to the underground dugout in Xinjiang province where the young artist and his father, one of China’s most renowned poets, Ai Qing, were forced to live in exile in the 1960s. It forms a stark contrast to the waterlily paradise that dominates the scene.
‘Our world is complex and collapsing towards an unpredictable future,’ says Ai. ‘It’s crucial for individuals to find a personalised language to express their experience of these challenging conditions. Personalized expression arises from identifying with history and memories while creating a new language and narrative. Without a personal narrative, artistic narration loses its quality.’
At over 15m long and made from nearly 650,000 studs of Lego bricks in 22 colours, Water Lilies #1 will span the entire length of one of the walls in the Design Museum gallery in London when it goes on exhibition next month.
As the director of the Design Museum in London, Tim Marlow is on a mission to transform the institution into a lively space that examines and showcases all sorts of different idea, and from multiple perspectives.
I met up with Marlow at the west London museum to see what the former Royal Academy of Arts director has in mind for a museum dedicated to contemporary design.
During our long conversation he said: “I’d like to get to a position where I can raise enough funding so we can be the museum that examines and showcases all sorts of different ideas. We are the national design museum and should be doing this.”
art in everything, whether it be in action, a vase, a saucepan, a glass, a
sculpture, a jewel, a way of being,’ writes Charlotte Perriand, in a quote that
perhaps best captures the spirit of the maverick designer who helped shape the
story of modern design. Over the long arc of her career spanning much of the
last century, Perriand made furniture and objects, and designed interiors and buildings
that helped shape and advance modern life – especially for women.
Her tubular steel furniture includes the Chaise Longue Basculante and the Fauteuil Pivotant – both much revered and copied today. Her bibliotheques for architect and engineer Jean Prouvé’s metal workshop altered how we view bookshelves. In her role as an architect, Perriand made inventive modular kitchens for Le Corbusier’s brutalist Unité d’Habitation residential housing project in Marseille. Later in life she took on the budding mass tourism industry with thousands of prefabricated apartments at the grand Les Arcs ski resort in France.
Perriand was fearless and her approach to design always inventive. Now a new exhibition at London’s Design Museum explores the creative process and ideas behind her work. Charlotte Perriand: The Modern Life (19 June to 5 September 2021) charts her journey through the modernist machine aesthetic to natural forms, and from modular furniture to major architectural projects. Featuring large-scale reconstructions of some of her most interesting interiors as well as original furniture, her photography and personal notebooks, the curators immerse viewers in Perriand’s colourful world to great effect.
Born in Paris in 1903, Perriand studied furniture design at the École de l’Union Centrale des Arts Décoratifs. Soon after graduation, the functional studio apartment she designed for herself replete with a mini deco bar, nicknamed Bar sous le toit, caught the attention of Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret and so began a decade of working with the duo at their atelier exploring machine aesthetics. By the 1930s, Perriand had gravitated more towards nature and organic forms, an aspect that became more pronounced after her return from Tokyo where she had been invited as an advisor for industrial design to the Ministry for Trade and Industry.
Perriand would continue to collect and document random objects she found in nature – shells and stones, and a large-scale sculptural driftwood she reclaimed in 1970, which features in the exhibition halls. In her personal manifesto entitled Synthesis of the Arts, she looked at merging art, design and architecture in the interior with her friend the artist Fernand Léger creating some fascinating pieces.
A socialist, after the war Perriand became deeply involved with the reconstruction of Europe, where she evolved further her prefabricated modular designs and furnishing to create affordable and adaptable interiors – some of which have been thoughtfully reconstructed for the exhibition. She wrote: ‘Dwellings should be designed not only to satisfy material specifications; they should also create conditions that foster harmonious balance and spiritual freedom in people’s lives.’
Perriand loved the outdoors and was a keen mountain climber and skier with photographs at the Design Museum capturing her adventurous spirit. One of her final and finest projects was Les Arcs, a 1960s ski resort in France where she led an architectural collective. Developed over two decades, the building and dwellings explore her visions on the role of architecture and design in shaping how we live. The building slots seamlessly with the contours of the mountainside and, since it had to accommodate some 30,000 skiers, Perriand worked with prefabricated structures to create thousands of mini apartments which feel warm and generous and are thoroughly modern to this day.
Perriand is one of the few female modernists who has retained her place in the history of design, yet even she suffered from a touch of twentieth century chauvinism. Her work was often overshadowed by her more famous male collaborators, namely Le Corbusier who allegedly didn’t even acknowledge her work despite using her radical prefabricated kitchens in his Unité d’Habitation. ‘She was long overshadowed by her male counterparts,’ agrees chief curator Justin McGuirk, ‘but this exhibition presents her not just as a brilliant designer who deserves wider recognition – she was also a natural collaborator and synthesiser. There is so much to admire not just in her work but in the way she lived her life.’
The Design Museum joins a slew of exhibitions and publications hoping to re-address women’s place (the missing link) in the story of art and design. This can only be a positive thing. The history of design will certainly benefit in richness and gain context from weaving in the vital role of women (and the likes of Perriand) in forming its narrative – something that could expand and explode even further, become even livelier, if it includes creatives from outside the western world, and not just as a side note.
‘Elegantly radical’, is how the exhibition describes Perriand, a term that feels fitting. For, despite her courage at working alongside and often ahead of her male counterparts, bending metal and making impossible inventions possible, her work retains a subtle elegance. And it is full of adventure and wonder. ‘A definition of the word art is the application of new knowledge to ordinary, everyday objects,’ she says animated in a video which concludes the show. ‘There is no reason not to do things artfully. You could equally say that a peasant who improves his wheelbarrow has made a work of creation. Art is everything. It is wonderful.’
The images are captivating. They show smiling children playing on pink seesaws installed across the crude brown steel slats that divides the US/Mexican border – the Trump wall. The interactive installation went up on 28 July 2019 and lasted just 40 minutes before border guards ordered its removal. Then the pictures went viral online. Now ‘Teeter-Totter Wall’ has been awarded the prestigious Beazley Designs of the Year 2020 in the London Design Museum’s annual competition.
The project is a collaboration between the Californian based architects Ronald Rael and Virginia San Fratello developed from a binational seesaw idea they conceived a decade ago. The duo chose to implement their concept on one of the most politicised border walls of recent times and in the summer of 2019 – at a moment of extreme tension when the world looked on in horror at the outgoing US president’s horrific war on immigration with innocent children at its centre.
With ‘Teeter-Totter Wall’, Rael and San Fratello want to demonstrate that actions taking place on one side of the border have direct consequences on the other – viewing the boundary as a site of severance. Not surprisingly it took a great deal of planning and preparation given the logistics of the projects. Working with Colectivo Chopeke from the other side of the border at Sunland Park, within 20 minutes the three seesaws were slotted into gaps in the steel boundary wall and screwed safely in place. Children on both sides soon jumped on the bicycle seats before the guards removed the installation.
I witness the global financial crash, enter the Arab Spring, observe Barak Obama’s vibrant presidential years, then Trump’s messy aftershock – sit in support of demonstrators in the Occupy movement and Deepwater Horizon oil spill, feel the shock and horror of the Charlie Hebdo attack and face the tragedy that is Brexit. The lack of windows and natural light in the basement gallery space at the Design Museum magnifies this feeling of complete immersion, of being wrapped within the political and social turbulence of the last decade. It also reveals the sheer visual and visceral power of the graphic images that have come to define this era.
This is the premise for the new exhibition here Hope to Nope: Graphics and Politics 2008-18(until 12 August), a study of how political graphic design reached new powers in the turbulent last decade, and how it spread with such speed to steer in the most unpredictable of directions thanks in part to social media. A decade ago, who would have guessed the way new media will completely alter how we view news, see image and digest information. What was then a new medium for communication now sits semi-comfortably with traditional media, as journalists and broadcasters work alongside hashtags and memes and influencers. We are all trying to find a balance but what is evident here at the Design Museum is that new media has completely altered how graphic political messages are made and distributed, and the power of graphic design has arguably never been greater.
Hope to Nope comprises three main sections: power, protest and personality with a large graphic timeline dissecting the gallery space to chart the role of Facebook and Twitter in global events of the last decade. Power explores how graphic design is used by the establishment to assert national and political authority, and how that iconography can be subverted by activists and opponents. Protest displays graphic design by activists and demonstrators, while personality examines the graphic representation of leading political figures. One wall, for instance, is dedicated entirely to Donald Trump, his trademark features caricatured across the covers of more than 50 international magazine covers – including The Economist, TIME, Der Spiegel, The New Yorker.
Cocooned here under the safe architectural walls of the Design Museum, I am transported to my former life, a childhood of war and revolution, of displacement, of composing childlike copy for equally naïve hand-painted political posters, of the excitement of carrying these messages to the streets. Ultimately Hope to Nope exposes the sheer power of arts and ideas to help make change.