Narrating Design

February 26, 2017 Perspectives 3 Comments

When the status of objects shifts to that of interfaces, when their physical presence tends to be concealed and their means is to displace the experience in a dematerialized world of intense emotions, what does it happen to design and how can it be narrated by the institutions? In this story, we have asked professionals working in the design field to tell us how, broadly speaking, they are navigating our present times through their institutional role.

We begin our exploration in New York with Paola Antonelli, MoMA’s Senior Curator for the Department of Architecture and Design, who is well-known for having pioneered the acquisition of the @ symbol for the permanent collection of the museum in 2010. As she brilliantly put in this dedicated essay, “The acquisition of @… relies on the assumption that physical possession of an object as a requirement for an acquisition is no longer necessary, and therefore it sets curators free to tag the world and acknowledge things that ‘cannot be had’—because they are too big (buildings, Boeing 747’s, satellites), or because they are in the air and belong to everybody and to no one, like the @—as art objects befitting MoMA’s collection.” After that, Antonelli kept on acquiring other symbols and, being asked to tell us about her latest catch, she chose to focus on the original set of emoji from 1999: “Developed under the supervision of Shigetaka Kurita and released in 1999, these humble masterpieces of design planted the seeds for the explosive growth of a new visual language that continues to have a radical effect on human communication. Emoji tap into a long tradition of expressive visual language. Images and patterns have been incorporated within text since antiquity. Filling in for body language, emoticons, kaomoji, and emoji reassert the human in the deeply impersonal, abstract space of electronic communication.”



The Original Emoji, by Shigetaka Kurita


Across the ocean, we have set down with Design Museum’s Director Deyan Sudjic OBE to talk about Fear and Love, the first exhibition held there after the reopening of the museum in December. “Curated by Justin McGuirk,” he commented, “Fear and Love asks designers of all kinds to reflect on some of our anxieties about the impact of rapid change on the world: robotics will take away our jobs, smartphones have abolished the idea of privacy, we are losing connection with our traditions… It is a response to precisely the question that you ask about the decline in significance of the individual object. When the Design Museum first opened in 1983 in the form of the Boilerhouse Project at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, it marked the event with an exhibition titled Art and Industry. Then, when it moved to its previous home at Shad Thames in 1989, its first show was called Culture and Commerce. Fear and Love: Reactions to a Complex World even as a title suggests the continuing evolution of how we understand design; and to me, it is a way of looking at the world, of trying to understand it, rather than a collection of chairs and typewriters.”



OMA, The Pan-European Living Room in “Fear and Love: Reactions to a Complex World,” Installation view at Design Museum, London, 2016. Courtesy of OMA/AMO, Rotterdam; and Design Museum, London. Photo: Luke Hayes


An important role for the reopening of the Design Museum was played by Nicoletta Fiorucci, art and design collector as well as the founder of the Fiorucci Art Trust. In her words, the Trust is “a non-profit and independent reality,” whose idea came 8 years ago “from the desire to extend my relationship with the artists by providing them with a platform for research, one that is free from trade and exchange dynamics, and that supports contemporary art and design both in conventional and unconventional forms.” Despite the Trust is based in London, Italy is always present, and this is testified by the curatorial format Lezioni di Italiano (Italian Lessons) devised by Milovan Farronato, Director of the Trust. “From 2013, we have presented a series of performative lectures, where the invited artists—such as Patrizio Di Massimo, Chiara Fumai, Liliana Moro, Sissi, Ian Kiaer, Anna Franceschini with Diego Marcon and Federico Chiari, and Alex Cecchetti—discuss a typically Italian theme.” In those occasions, aiming to broaden the interests of the audience as well as to venture new cross-disciplinary experiences, the Trust involved Arabeschi di Latte, “a food design studio founded by Francesca Sarti, which designs food as a means of communicating dishes and projects, thus playing with the boundaries between food and creativity. For Lezioni di Italiano, we wanted to refresh the Italian gastronomic tradition by offering new recipes born of an encounter with spices from around the world, to which we integrated the sustainability principles that are the foundation of the vegan choice.”
“Alongside the activities of the Trust,” Ms Fiorucci told us, “I am a patron supporting non-profit institutions, including Chisenhale Gallery, Gasworks, Serpentine Gallery, Kunsthalle Basel, the Venice Biennale and many more. Last year I had the opportunity to support the new Design Museum in London, when in November 2016 it has finally opened its new headquarters in Holland Park. Founded by celebrated designer Terence Conran in 1989, it is a museum dedicated to the design field in all of his instances: products, industrial and graphic design, fashion and architecture. Thanks to the help of the Italian Embassy in London, I have contributed to the creation of an area of the museum called “Il Cerchio di Giotto” (Giotto’s Circle). In referring to the wonderful Florentine master, I wanted to ensure that the many Italian creatives may forever feel represented in this new venue, which is destined to be an international touchstone for design.”



BIO25; Photo: Delfino Sisto Legnani; Graphic design: Groupa Ee


Travelling East to Slovenia, we asked Design Critic and Curator Angela Rui to contextualise for us the investigation that the upcoming 25th edition of BIO – The Biennial of Design in Ljubljana will pertain, as well as the angle the designers have been invited to work from, within the broader context of the contemporary challenges which design faces nowadays. In her words, “
the initial paradigm responds to the observation that, although the city remains the model within which the evolution of contemporary society is discussed and interpreted, if it is true that the number of people living in large urban centers continues to rise, it is also true that in recent years we have seen growing the percentage of people who—on the contrary—go from the city back to other contexts. This Biennale develops from the physical exploration of seven different local conditions on which the designers were invited to reflect. It is a completely novel phenomenon: people who are young, informed, emancipated, and grown up according to an urban model will bring these values in the non-urban space. Therefore, the theoretical framework of ‘FARAWAY, SO CLOSE’ needs primarily to be understood as an experiment with the format: indeed, the designers have been asked to think of a potentially novel interpretation of the Slovenian local dimension, in order to generate new questions which hopefully are convincing also in a broader context—more European than global I would say—, especially if one considers the actual scale of the landscape, its shape and use, and its political-economic dimension. The initial paradigm is connected to the discussion of design-as-discipline per se: we tried to push the designers to work outside of their comfort-zone and, thus, with situations which are rather complicated to approach, to outline, and to interact with.”
More in general, “design today should try to raise questions in the same way it tries to answer fundamental topics for the evolution of the society we live in… To bring out such interrogations means making visible what is not so as well as creating—for design—new territories to be signified and acted upon. This is the challenge of design today. Clearly, that of ‘FARAWAY, SO CLOSE’ is an experimental dimension; in fact, our task is also to push institutions to become platforms for the production of knowledge. This exploration requires a considerable effort, in terms of research, study and work onsite, but at the same time—just as for the design process—it can create, specifically for the institution, an unexpected network of relationships and possibilities. In any case, since their inceptions, the role of the institutions has always been to make the invisible visible. To educate an audience as wide as possible. Now, the challenge is probably to find models capable of communicating with generations whose process knowledge follows still unclear dynamics.”