For London Design Festival 2016 three popup salons were curated that were open for an audience. Each time Dutch and British speakers discussed different topics around furniture & the changing position of the designer: what has changed their daily practice and what are the future changes that might come?
The classic role designer-client has changed in the last 20 years.Young designers are nowadays active in different positions: as entrepreneur, engineer, strategist, inventor, community worker, or combinations of that. They share knowledge, cooperate with scientists and academics and sometimes there is not even a physical object anymore. Digitisation and online exposure moreover seemed to have accelerated all of those developments to even bigger changes for design and the role of the designer.Cooperating with London Design Festival two informal conversations took place at Global Design Forum at the Victoria & Albert Museum.
Date & location: 23 September 2016 - London Design Festival: Victoria & Albert MuseumModerator: Max Fraser (curator, design writer and London Design Guide)Speakers: Sarah van Gameren (Glithero), Oscar Lessing (Silo Studio), Saša Štucin and Nicholas Gardner (Soft Baroque), Marjan van AubelPhotos: Thor ter Kulve
Max Fraser: The topic and title today is Engineers, Inventors and Non-Materialists and we are looking at a new approach from generation of designers that are less interested in the usual process of designing products for the mass market, but instead have taken an approach of experimentation through collaborations with other experts and makers to create new products and installations that go beyond expectations. I have a panel of four different studios here with me: Sarah van Gameren of Glithero, Oscar Lessing of Silo Studio, a duo in the love seat: Saša Štucin and Nicholas Gardner of Soft Baroque and last but not least Dutch Designer Marjan Van Aubel. We are going to hear from each of them first, so you have an understanding of what they do and than we will enter into a discussion. Shall we start with you Sarah?
Sarah van Gameren: Yes! So I am Sarah and I am the Dutch part of Studio Glithero, based in London. We are most known for installations, but we also design furniture and work with galleries.The work you see here behind me is my degree work from the RCA, where Tim Simpson and I were not working together officially yet, but we were consulting each other.This work is actually a chandelier called the 'Big Dipper' and is was here when I discovered that somewhere between the threshhold of engineering and design there was an interesting area for me that had to do with the introduction of the element of time.You are looking at a small segment of a bigger machine. The machine dips configurations of string into molten wax. So I created a machine that was very much part of the project. In many debates the question came up: if you work together with an engineer to design the machine can you than say: "I designed the machine?".
Another project that I like to highlight is called 'Fantoom' for a museum in Kortrijk, Belgium that was going to get shut at the end of its cycle. We intervened with products from its collection that we placed in the crates that were used to ship them out of the museum. By organising light and glass in a certain way a reflection was created as if the chandelier was still in place. There is a good video of it on our website. This is somehow my answer to 'the non-materialist' as in the title of this talk: a kind of non-tangible design.
The last project I like to show you is The Green Room that is now to see in the V&A. It is a wave like structure with strings hanging in a circle. It is all about time as a kind of clock. We created a mechanism with an arm that slowly revolves. When the arm moves around than the strings move in waves. You see them in different vista's in the V&A staircase and at the top of it you see the mechanism. That's us in a nutshell.
Max Fraser: So let's move on to you than Oscar!
Oscar Lessing: I am Oscar and with Attua Aparicio I am one half of Silo Studio. We met at the RCA. Attua has an engineering background and I am closer to art, but the way we do things Attua works more on the artistic level and I do the engineering.We are material focused designers, but we also look at small physical principles and look at science. Here you see a project called NSEPS. We looked at the properties of polystyrene that could be moulded with steam at a 100º. This meant you can mould it also with textiles because you can wash clothes at 100º. For us making structures with this was cheaper than making structures with steel: you can do it at home and sow the textiles yourself.
Another project we did with textiles was when we discovered a glass fiber textile that could stand a 1000 upto 1600 degrees. First we tried to dip it into metal and hoped to get an object with a thin metal-glass-fiber-like composite. That did not work, but we did found out that it was good for moulding, so we started to blow glasses in it or pour metal into it.
The last project you see is recent and is called Newton's Bucket. It is inspired by Isaac Newton's bucket argument where he filled a bucket hanging on a string and twisted it up half full of water.
When he let it go, you get a concave shape in the surface and he predicted that one day this method would be used to make telescopes and 200 years later - till today - this principle is used for it. We started to do this with liquid metal and made a series of bowls by putting a spinning construction on a drill to make a bowl, but it looked really boring and it was an expensive way to make a metal bowl. So we thought of how we could show the process and capture the physical motion and thought of colour. We added colours of a plaster-type material and turned the machine on again. When we were good at it we developed the designs and made better examples.That's kind of what we do.
Max Fraser: Marvellous, thanks Oscar! Now let's hear from Saša and Nic from Soft Baroque.
Saša Štucin: So we also met at the RCA. I come from an image making background and Nicholas from furniture making. A lot of our common interest is in surfaces of things that go further than their reality. One of our collaborative projects is this mirror with a cloud in it that is suspended from the mirror at the back of it. It is a good example as it presents the immateriality of a lot of our work.
Nicholas Gardner: It is a good example of what we play with. The function of a mirror is kind of clear: to see yourself. But here there is a cloud that obscures that. It is also quite dynamic.
Saša Štucin: Yes, we are very interested in the experience of objects rather than just their function.
Nicholas Gardner: The next year in Milan we showed the 'New Surfaces' project that was specifically designed for the design week.The installation is of blue very mat flocked planks that we constructed into a bench and two chairs. This intense colour is able to be registered by the computer and keyed out. We can replace that colour on a digital monitor with other materials. So the installation was a life feed of furniture with a screen that ran through a program that changed the materials of what you were sitting on and the furniture would get different properties. Digitally! Not in real life.
Saša Štucin: In a way it is also a comment on how we see materials today. The function of material is not so important as in the past and often materials have become pure decoration: like marble being super trendy a while ago had nothing to do with the integrity of the material but was purely based on its visual appearance. A lot of our work comments on trends in design, the way we interact with materials and the value of surfaces.
The continuation of the same idea is a project we presented in Basel this year with a gallery from Copenhagen called Etage Projects. We looked into the meaning of surfaces. We took materials like exotic wood and granite. We scanned them on a flatbed scanner, printed them digitally on silk and than composed furniture pieces - using both hard and soft material - and created illusions with these meetings of real materials with their replica's.
Nicholas Gardner: Again it is an attempt to digitise material and the decorative qualities that it has and free it from its physical properties. It is a bit of a critical project in a way where you wonder: how far can you push this? Many of our materials that we experience now are just surfaces: veneers, prints, etc. The function of these materials is symbolic.With these projects we are not going all the way digital, but we make just the decorative aspect of a material digital and reformat their tactile property.
Saša Štucin: We are testing the human eye. A lot of people do not realize what the material is till they touched it.
Max Fraser: Great! Thank you for that summary and lets hear from Marjan.
Marjan van Aubel: I am Marjan and I am one third of Caventou. I founded it with Peter Krige with who is working on the technical sides of our products. Caventou is named after the first scientist who discovered chlorophyll in plants. Our products are based on this principle of photosynthesis to create living objects: objects that breath electricity.What you see here is Current Table. The whole table top exists out of integrated solar cells and they use the properties of colours to generate electricity from daylight. What is really nice about these cells is that they don't have to be on your roof, but for the first time you can collect energy in your home. Colour - usually used just for aesthetics - gets an extra function here to generate an electric current that can work for you. On the side of the table you see USB plugs that you can use for your phone, I-pad or later on your computer as well.
This week here at the V&A I show the first production model of it plus an app that is made that tells you what happens with the energy and you can feed the light intensity and see how much it does to your batteries, so you become aware of your environment a lot. We try to collaborate with engineers to see what is possible and what is most efficient, but also how we want to live with technology in our everyday lives. We want to make beautiful things that we can surround ourselves with.
A second project is current window, a modern version of stained glass. We look for different ways to harvest energy and here people from the street and in the apartments can charge their phones through the window ledges.
Max Fraser: Excellent thank you all for a summary. It gives a good picture of what you work on although just a snapshot.When I was researching all of your work before this talk I scribbled down a few words that I thought might be quite interesting descriptors of your approaches. Maybe you agree or disagree with them: material anarchists, sensory illusionists, process performers, tactile technologists. Maybe we can revisit them later and add some more?For now I am interested - since you all started saying you studied at the RCA, presumably at different stages - what is it about that college that has given rise to this design approach. Was the college fundamental?
Sarah van Gameren: It is an MA that is the first thing that helps, so it offers a platform to research. You have to be a designer already before you arrive at the RCA. It buys you a couple years of time to think further. I have also taught at the RCA in the last three years and it is very interesting to see how design is challenged in a more research-way. There were people like Softbaroque that were very interested in the intangible and ephemeral and I remember a student of mine who created vases that only lasted for a certain amount of time. At the RCA you work in an open structure with the desks very close together and that means that it is easy to collaborate and build further on ideas that come up there and make those stronger.
Oscar Lessing: There is certainly a culture of cross collaboration. But till recently there was also a strong sense of autonomy, so for design there was much more of an artistic approach to explore all opportunities.
Max Fraser: You are also now working in partnerships. Is that a kind of need or continuation of this constantly questioning each other? And... what would it mean if you worked entirely alone?
Nicholas Gardner: A lot of duo's really compliment each other. Oscar was talking about the technical and artistical side. Saša works a lot on image based content and we try to incorporate this into physical objects for which I think about the construction, the materials and the process. I think these duo's work, because we all work quite broad and tackle more than one sphere in a pretty established industry.
Saša Štucin: We compliment each other, but we are also very critical amongst each other and that is something very valuable. At the RCA you have this amazing community of people who's work I found extremely inspiring and there are these ongoing debates about each others work even if you are not in a collaboration.
Nicholas Gardner: When we left the RCA it actually also felt like bit of a relief because you did not have to justify each idea as you had to when you were at college. Here everything had to make sense. Not in a dogmatic way, but everything just had to be tied together in a wonderful way.
Marjan van Aubel: I think no one does everything by himself. Even a starr designer like Marcel Wanders works together. At the RCA I collaborated so much and I wanted to explore all seven floors. It is something that I really learned there. When I arrived they said: "it is the people that are so amazing" and that was true. Everyone was so driven.
Oscar Lessing: The good thing about working closely with people is that - if the relation is good - they will offer you friction and support and honesty. Those three things are really important when you work on your ideas.
Sarah van Gameren: There are also a lot of new qualities that you need to have as a designer nowadays: you need to be a designer, a businessperson and able to be social, etc. Sometimes I think it is not really possible to have all these qualities in one person, so that is why so many of us are with two because we spread qualities.
Max Fraser: You all spoke about the freedom of experimentation during your MA which is a kind of luxury. You all seemed to have moved very smoothly out of this research-based, experimental, conceptual phase of your studies into carrying that forward into your practice and making a living. What challenges has that presented for you?
Marjan van Aubel: It does not go smoothly, I would say....
Saša Štucin: From the outside it always looks smoother than it is in reality. I feel very privileged that we can now spend so much time working on the things that we are interested in, but we are still not at a point where that can be a full time practice.
Max Fraser: Does that mean you have other work or day jobs?
Saša Štucin: Well yes.. we still work as freelancers.
Max Fraser: Still there seems to be an unstoppable curiosity amongst you all to explore as much as possible. The diversity of work that we have just seen from the three examples each is enormous and you all seem to be happiest when you are pushing boundaries. How much do you rely on the skills of other people out there, specialists and practitioners, to facilitate your ideas? Maybe the current table might be a good example?
Marjan van Aubel: I feel a bit as an orchestra leader. On the table I work with 15 people: one is a back end developer one is a front end developer. I didn't know what that actually means. I did not even know those worlds existed. Than there is this idea to develop an app and someone has to make the connection from the phone or tablet to the table There is so much to learn!
Nicholas Gardner: It was a big change for you to switch from designing other objects to a focus on that table. What made you switch?
Marjan van Aubel: For me it was not satisfying to create objects only for galleries or for very rich people. I could do research or very nice material experiments, but it did not feel good for myself. I wanted to contribute to a better world with a better vision. I really felt strong about the solar aspect and if we can show that there are other things possible, we can make a better world through design. A politician does it in his way, but this could be my contribution as a designer.
Sarah van Gameren: My concern is sometimes what will happen to the more conventional manufacturers if all designers start to think like this? High skilled techniques are now already very difficult to find for designers who do want to work with them. Sometimes you find only one glass blower in the country that can blow a certain type of glass.
Max Fraser: But isn't the point that there are too many designers doing that and that there is too much competition in that area, so you are pushing the boundaries to new area's?
Oscar Lessing: When working on new methods and other forms of making this can also create new jobs. Having said that: we work very closely with a glass blower, but it is very difficult for him to get someone on board, because no one wants to do that and wants to become a maker.
Max Fraser: I am interested in the projections of false material onto another one and add a visual skin. Why is the tactility so important!
Nicholas Gardner: I think objects, interiors and design in general are becoming a digital commodity as well. A photograph of a chair sometimes has more value when it is presented online than it has in reality. We want to discuss this where the appearance of furniture becomes a digital representation rather than a physical one. Materials have a tactile quality and you are sacrificing that by not making something in the physical realm from that actual material. Still the materials we use are very close to what you know. We flocked the planks, so it is almost like the plush kind of surface.
Oscar Lessing: You said something very interesting for me to think about. Lots of design that I enjoy is just based on what I see online. That is the way that a lot of our projects are now consumed. We watch the videos and enjoy products just by gazing at it and enjoying it on a thinking level. We do not actually have to own it and I think that is a great value! That is for me also a justification for that our products are a bit more expensive. 50% of the importance is of how it is made and that is what we share online.
Nicholas Gardner: It is important to acknowledge that that is the reality and that products live online.
Max Fraser: This is a kind of social commentary, but where do you see your products sitting? Is it work that you show in galleries? Is it work that you actually sell to take away?
Nicholas Gardner: This is a bit complicated. We do sell the blue chairs, but we sell them as representative objects of the idea.
Saša Štucin: Our objects often are like pets that you like to have around you. People have also asked us if we could personalise their library materials. Marjan is more direct by resolving environmental issues. With us that is not the case and sometimes I struggle with that as you do want to contribute with something that has a positive effect on society, especially if you are criticising a lot on how things are going.
Max Fraser: Many of your projects are selfinitiated. You mentioned that you have a bit of work on the side like teaching or freelance consulting. Are a lot of these projects that go out in the digital domain and seen widely also a way for you to get some of that other work, or to build a reputation for perhaps the big company with the big budgets?
Sarah van Gameren: No, never thought about that. Our work has never been a ticket for something else. We create installations to open up to audiences. You try to offer the work for free to be enjoyable for all. In our way we also try to be very simple and clear in our approach. We try to connect to people in a very basic way, so that also children understand how things are effecting each other and how things come about. Our work is to open up, to connect and to communicate to people.
Marjan van Aubel: As designers we always like to do the next thing. Yesterday I spoke to this guy from New York and he was very interested in getting the windows. I am already excited about new things that I want to get out.
Oscar Lessing: You are not thinking: if I do this I am getting this job out of it. If you do the things we do it is like playing, but with rigour. The main stimulus is not an economic one. It is about showing new ways of doing, thinking and making.
Sarah van Gameren: Maybe the people who want to study two more years and not make money are not really the type of people who value money.
Max Fraser: Here we are in London at the London Design Festival. Can two of you, who are not of this country, Marjan and Saša tell us what you like about being here.
Saša Štucin: I came here first of all to study in a place with all these different disciplines that sounded like heaven. After that we started to work together and now we do question being here sometimes since the rents are so expensive and the studios are small. But there are also benefits like an amazing community of designers, the feeling that you are in the time and in the place. How much I love the idea of moving to the countryside, I do think it will effect our work. Last year we did a residency in Tuscany and we did discover how important it is for us to be where we are now.Moving forward
Max Fraser: If I slightly rephrase the question for you Marjan: can you see yourself do what you do somewhere else?
Marjan van Aubel: Well I tried I moved to Amsterdam last year, but I came back. I do like the buzz in London. Sometimes I see it as a high speed train though and I have to step out of it, but there are a lot of motivated people here and that keeps me going too.
Lady in the audience: Do you feel that design is taking over some of the social commentary that traditionally was reigned by art?
Sarah van Gameren: Yes, and I think that is good.I think in design there is a lot missing. There have been a few really good Italian designers that have challenged what design could be, but when I graduated in 2007 I was really aware that this was a role that design should have and that we should pose questions. There is still a very strong difference between an artist and a designer even though people say that those borders have disappeared. As a designer you are serving your audience, your consumer, the user and that is an important thing. An artist does not have to.
Oscar Lessing: Designers always comment on the world and how it could be. I think of what Henry Ford did. He changed society and production, but it came from the thought that everyone should have an affordable car. They were social engineers engaging with an audience. It is a very big question, but designers have always been engaged in changing how things go, just think about the Werkstatt movement in Vienna or the Bauhaus. I think we are not really doing something else than that.