Design without Products
Milan 2017, every window was draped with design, and each design laden with meaning. On display were years and years of built up knowledge and assumed consumption. Witnessing all this it’s easy to wonder whether this accumulation of things, like arsenic, will end up killing us. But within this writhing mass of legs, certain exhibitions stood out. The first was by Raumplan Studio, a creative collective made up of writers, designers, architects, and philosophers. With this sheer mass of grey matter present it’s not hard to see why they decided to curate an exhibition called Capitalism Is Over.
Capitalism Is Over was the Alka Seltzer to the cloying design hangover that’s ever present in Milan. It was that refreshing non object first gulp you take after scraping yourself off the solid fumed oak floor. Made up of three parts, the first section you met presented a series of photographs taken by Louis De Belle titled ‘But It Used To Be So Cool’. This particular narrative was focused around the Italian company Olivetti and its transformation from the design and manufacturing powerhouse that it once was, to its less object based present. The exhibition goes on to explain that the years from 1945 -1975 were the true golden age of twentieth century capitalism, and how these Trente Glorieus saw an extraordinary amount of work produced, huge economic growth and welfare guarantees. But, this part of the accompanying text that glorifies the benevolent capitalism that flourished post-war finishes with a ‘get out of jail free card’ that reads, “at least in the Western World”. Unfortunately this almost invisible nod to the developing world seems all too often to be the trademark of the socially conscious designer. Back to the exhibition. The series of photographs that were displayed depicted Olivetti’s headquarters and archive. They described the objects and architecture pictured as ‘faded ghosts of a lost world’, this may read as dramatic. But when you take into account how Olivetti treated its employees, with the likes of housing and social services, and their ‘enlightened’ form of capitalism, one can’t help but pine for those days. The stability that was provided by an employer versus the constant feeling of unease in the gig economy we now have, makes it all too easy to say ‘but it used to be so cool’.
The flip side to this rose tinted retrospection (reflected in the colour used in the exhibition design), was the section titled Bigger, Faster, Cheaper. Here, Delfino Sisto Legnani documented the very contemporary conditions and landscapes of the logistic centres of Amazon and Ikea in Piacenza, Italy. These photographs are just as stark as the ones that portray the goings on of Olivetti. However there was an other worldly fluorescent glow to them. This unnatural light focuses our attention on the abnormal working conditions many individuals find themselves under. This peeling back of the design world to reveal the systems behind it helps to form a more complete image of the objects we buy; who’s stories and values don’t just start when they’re in the shop or pushed through our letterboxes. Capitalism is Over was an exhibition that portrayed a side of design not often seen or noticed. It laid bare some of the invisible forces that snare both us and what we consume. We think we’re in control of our actions, we think we’re the spider in this web, the masters of our surroundings; when in fact we’re actually just the fly, twitching and waiting to be consumed ourselves.
The opposite to the above exhibition, geographically and intellectually was held at the Galleria Salvatore Lanteri. The space hosted the Seeds Gallery of London and a selection of pieces curated by Studio Vedèt. The exhibition titled, Meta: Levels of Language, Strata of Matter saw a mixture of pieces who’s common denominator was the fact that ‘it is difficult to find a precise meaning in their forms, or rather non-forms’. This dedication to ambiguity felt hollow, when now more than ever there is a need for concrete meaning. That isn’t to say there isn’t a place for this type of work, but when placed in the context of a private gallery based in Kensington, one of the most expensive parts of London, you have to ask who these objects are for? The one collection that made you stop and think was by Odd Matter. Their Meta work is a series of stone sculptures, that at first glance look ordinary enough but when mulled over seem jarring, like a glitch in reality. What you see is not what you get. Made from scagliola, rabbit glue and various pigments, they formed a group of abstract and precarious shapes. These shapes are ones that wouldn’t be possible if made from their lookalike material marble. By doing this Odd Matter make us question reality, if that’s not true then what is?
While Capitalism is over stood out within the context of Milan, Meta: Levels of Language on the other hand felt very comfortable. It’s not the individual works that are at fault, they’re endemic of a material design world that is becoming increasingly insular. One that pushes against the often banal mainstream, but ends up pushing the wrong way. The most exciting designers are the ones harnessing the profession as a means of critiquing itself. They use their tools and training to reflect on their practice and the wider society. So an exhibition like Meta: Levels of Language, although containing some beautiful pieces, felt dated. This approach to design has a lot in common with the mainstream collections released in the never ending halls of the Salone, and smacks of what Timo de Rijk, the newly appointed design curator at the Stedelijk Museum Den Bosch had to say.
“I mistrust every designer who still makes vases. It focuses on a cultural audience, on collectors and museums rather than on the world. If you look into the intention, there is usually nothing left behind. That worries me.” (translation courtesy of Google)
So even if these two exhibitions seem different, they are in fact linked to this late form of capitalism where design is not what it was once was. Capitalism is over talks of how ‘the power of an increasingly monopolistic and oligarchic finance fuels great and growing inequalities’. This is the market that Seeds seems to be aiming for. One exhibition critiques the past and present but suggests a future, while the other panders to this future and its Oligarchs with inherently exclusive objects.
Words: Josh Plough
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