AnOthermag

Your First Look Inside The Met’s Ettore Sottsass Exhibition

He’s perhaps best known for his work with the design group Memphis – so-named after Bob Dylan’s Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again, the ancient capital of Egypt and the modern city in Tennessee – but Ettore Sottsass’ practice spanned a vast range of media, contexts and applications…

Murmansk Fruit Dish, 1982, Ettore Sottsass
He’s perhaps best known for his work with the design group Memphis – so-named after Bob Dylan’s Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again, the ancient capital of Egypt and the modern city in Tennessee – but Ettore Sottsass’ practice spanned a vast range of media, contexts and applications. He trained as an architect, and designed interiors, furniture, machines, ceramics, glass, jewellery, textiles and patterns, painting and photography; and his practice fluctuated between the concerns of Modernism and Postmodernism, the one-size-fits-all and the one-off. Now, in one of the first of its contemporary design-centric exhibitions, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art will open Ettore Sottsass: Design Radical at its new location, The Met Breuer. We spoke to the exhibition’s curator, Christian Larsen, while the gallery finalised the hang before the opening this week.


On curating the show

“The Met has a chequered history of modern and decorative arts. They had a curator from the 1910s ‘til 1933, Joseph Breck, who would go to Paris every year and buy Art Deco pieces direct from the studios. So we have an amazing collection from that period, but over the years there’s sometimes been a curator and sometimes not. I was hired one and a half years ago with the goal of revising, building and filling in the gaps – working out the parameters [for modern and contemporary design at the museum]. Sottsass was one of the highlights of the collection, Craig Miller [who held the position of associate curator of 20th century art at The Met between 1983-90], saw him for the genius that he is. He was was very keen on acquiring pieces and promoting connections between art patrons and Sottsass – some of whom went on to commission houses, including [photography dealer and art collector] Daniel Wolf, for whom Sottsass designed the Wolf House in Colorado.”


On his legacy and the battle between Modernism and Postmodernism

“Sottsass has been celebrated previously at MoMA [where Larsen previously worked], who championed his role in the history of Functionalism and Modernism, his work with Olivetti and his architectural drawings… they celebrate Sottsass the industrial designer and the utopian radical thinker, but they disowned anything with the faintest whiff of Postmoderism. Memphis is famously not part of their collection and that’s what The Met has – including works that are one-offs and experiments in materials, it’s a more even representation of his career. The Met’s history of Sottsass is number one. Personally, I’ve always been interested in him. Most designers know who he is, but will always raise an eyebrow as if it’s bad taste or bad form [to appreciate his later work]. As if he is a loser in history, while the winners are the Modernists, and the Postmodernists lost the battle. He’s been given short shrift, and it’s important that his reputation be reconsidered.”


On Postmodernism

“Postmodernism tries to inject Modernism with some of the values it had strayed away from: irony, humour, joy and colour, historical references… A lot of Postmodernism we see as being a historic pastiche, but it is much more than that, it’s a return to humanism. We have 5000 years of art and design to draw from, what The Met can do better than any other museum is put works in context alongside each other. Sottsass is the perfect person to do this for, as what’s missing from his reputation is a sense of context. He doesn’t come from a vacuum, he has a very sophisticated sense of his connections to the past, to ancient cultures and civilisations. He did a lot of research, and he saw the connections, which made their way into his work.”


On looking forwards

“I hate doing a show that only looks backwards, so where we could we included contemporary designers, such as protégées who were part of the Memphis group. The contemporary context didn’t necessarily fit into the the space of the exhibition, so we created an extension of the show in the museum shop, where it continues with contemporary designers. That’s where they want to be, in the marketplace. I think of him as a designer, that’s where his greatest contribution lies, but he was also a photographer, a painter and an architect. His method was drawing, and that practice of drawing is essential to the idea of the designer, who doesn’t necessarily make the objects, the work is in the concepts. And that’s true of artists too. He has a sense of colour, texture, pattern and material; he’s tuned into the social side, social responsibility. He deliberately intended certain works for a high-end market – like designers today who can seem exclusively interested in the gallery roster, and forget is the potential of mass production – but he didn’t neglect the mass.”


On Sottsass’ move to America

“It was a technological society, full of suburban cookie-cutter houses. Sottsass saw the potential [of mass-production for the masses], but also recognised how it might be scary, the potential for sameness and alienation. Sottsass wanted to revise mass production and mass consumption, to establish a new model, to figure out a new way to create a personal interaction between user and object. He would work at every range and scale, making work that is beautiful and humble in its materials and approach; elevated through artistic sensitivity; great, but not necessarily more expensive. A highlight from the exhibition is the Tower Cabinet, which was commissioned by engineer Mario Tchou, who Sottsass worked with at Olivetti. I discovered at this year at the Salone del Mobile, having recognised it from photographs in an old copy of Domus magazine. It summarises all of Sottsass’ influences: from the Bauhaus and Charles Rennie Mackintosh, to Pergotta construction, Chinese lacquer gold leaf and Secessionist grids. It’s a synthesis of sensitivities into a hybrid object, a catch-all for the stuff of everyday life.”

July, 2017

All text originally published by AnOthermag.com. All images courtesy of magazine and artist. All text copyright Billie Muraben.

AnOthermag

Five Works that Defined Sussex Modernism

In the early 20th century, rural Sussex was cast as a kind of arcadia for artists and writers of diverse practice, whose spells in the countryside were acts of both retirement from and rebellion against the modern world…

Venus and Adonis, Duncan Grant
In the early 20th century, rural Sussex was cast as a kind of arcadia for artists and writers of diverse practice, whose spells in the countryside were acts of both retirement from and rebellion against the modern world. Today, the Modern Gothic architecture of Two Temple Place provides the setting for an exhibition of the work of said artists who were driven to abandon the metropolis for the county’s rolling hills. Sussex Modernism: Retreat and Rebellion, curated by Dr Hope Wolf, proves the biographical and conceptual links and detachments between members of the modernist community, with the common thread of being “out of place”. “There is a sense that modernists in Sussex identified themselves [that way] – partly to emphasise their metropolitan and cosmopolitan interests, and partly to express the experience of living in uncertain times; this was a world in which it was difficult for anyone to feel at home,” remarks Wolf in her introductory essay. Here, AnOther charts some of the key works of the exhibition that came to define Sussex Modernism. 


Mae West, by Edward James and Salvador Dalí


In 1934, Edward James, a collector and patron of the Surrealists, moved to his family hunting lodge in the midst of a scandalous divorce. “But James attracted Surrealist visitors, who fuelled his decadent rebellion against mainstream culture and helped him to fashion an alternative fantasy world,” writes Wolf. The most notable piece is a sofa shaped to replicate the lips of Mae West, designed in collaboration with Salvador Dalí. It has long ceased to shock, “but in a grand house in the countryside it would have stood out strikingly from the more prudish, tasteful domestic decoration of the time,” she continues. Monkton House also boasted quilted walls, carpet depicting a dog’s footprints, and a purple exterior with cast palm tree columns.


Venus and Adonis, by Duncan Grant


The Bloomsbury Group moved to Charleston House, Firle, in 1916. Unlike many of their modernist contemporaries, it was avowedly agnostic or atheist, feminist, and open to same-sex and polyamorous relationships. They sought to “blend beauty with utility, art with craft,” and brought to Sussex the imagery and bright colours of art from continental Europe. Duncan Grant’s Venus and Adonis is a satirical take on the classical myth, which refuses the narrative of male domination through its portrayal of a gargantuan Venus and belittled Adonis.

As well as being a feminist retelling, his version of the story is a continuation of the political position that brought him to Charleston during WW1. “Grant, a conscientious objector, had refused to enlist, and was required instead to work on the land,” writes Wolf. “In light of this, his mockery of machismo is perhaps indicative not only of a feminist agenda but also a pacifist one.”

Icon, by Eric Gill

Sculptor and typographer Eric Gill was a key member of the Guild of St Joseph and St Dominic, an organisation that described its move to Ditchling village as “an exodus from an enslaving industrial system that denied the workman responsibility for his creations, and also as an escape from a culture that preferred to worship money rather than God”. His works as a member of the Guild were controversial at the time, both to his cohort and the public, due to their eroticisation of religious imagery. An early example is Mulier, a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary pinching her nipple, which was commissioned by Bloomsbury group member Roger Fry, but later refused. Icon, a later work – from 1923, when Gill was a member of the Guild – shies away from nipple-pinching in favour of a warm embrace, but at the time, particularly for a staunch Catholic, would have been similarly controversial. In 1989, cultural historian Fiona McCarthy published a book on Gill that disclosed incestuous relations with his daughters, which have “deeply troubled his idealisation of ‘retreat’, and cast suspicion upon his attempts to set up cloistered communities away from prying eyes”.

Beach and Star Fish – Seven Sisters Cliff, Eastbourne, by John Piper

In Beach and Star Fish – Seven Sisters Cliff, Eastbourne, John Piper clearly depicts a Sussex coastal scene. But while the setting was on British soil, the work was “pieced together using style inspired by the paper collages pioneered by the Dada movement” and distinctly continental. “In the context of popular resistance to outside influence, modernists often used the coast as a subject through which to create unsettled works that explored themes of ‘inbetween-ness’,” says Wolf. And in Beach and Star Fish, Piper challenged the view of Sussex as a kind of idyll, and hinted at both military and civic strife: “The fragments of newspaper refer not only to Nazism in Germany but also suggest how capitalism and profit-making had transformed National Socialism. Adverts for English private schools are pasted alongside the news reporting: was Piper making an implicit critique of English society, narrowing the gap between the two countries?”

Saul Steinberg, by Lee Miller

Lee Miller moved to Farley Farm, Muddles Green with her partner Roland Penrose in 1949. “The house became a rural retreat for artists who opposed the mainstream culture and politics of the day”, and saw visits from the likes of Pablo Picasso and Henry Moore. Another such visitor was New York cartoonist Saul Steinberg, who Miller photographed in 1952 pretending to draw The Long Man of Wilmington – a chalk giant thought by some to have originated from the Iron Age. Miller established a tension between the city suit and the country walk, and “in part encouraged the placing of ‘modernism’ and ‘Sussex’ in an antagonistic relationship”. According to Wolf, “the photograph replicates a familiar opposition, so prevalent in literature and art, which associates the city with the new and the now, and the country with consistency and the past.”

February, 2017

All text originally published by AnOthermag.com. All images courtesy of magazine and artist. All text copyright Billie Muraben.

AnOthermag

Five Talking Points from Milan’s Annual Furniture Fair

Wisteria climbs and collapses over Milan’s streets in spring, and with the bustle of Salone del Mobile, its terrazzo floors and imposing concrete arches are set aflutter with throngs of design devotees and cherry-red Campari…

Salone, by Mary Gaudin
Wisteria climbs and collapses over Milan’s streets in spring, and with the bustle of Salone del Mobile, its terrazzo floors and imposing concrete arches are set aflutter with throngs of design devotees and cherry-red Campari. Built up around land which had largely been occupied by private gardens and allotments, the city’s palazzos can be quite unassuming from the street – at least in comparison to their opulent interiors and lush gardens which, during Salone, are opened up for exhibition.


Their architecture falls between, and often combines, the styles and practices of the 15th and 20th centuries, due to both the need for restoration and aesthetic whim. One architect who fell on both sides of the restoration process was Piero Portaluppi, who had been particularly popular with the 20th century Milanese bourgeoisie, renovating Casa degli Atellani, Palazzo and Villa Crespi, among others. His most famous work, thanks in part to Luca Guadagnino’s 2009 film I Am Love, is the Villa Necchi Campiglio, which would later be renovated by Tomaso Buzzi, combining Portaluppi’s Rationalism with 18th-century Rococo.


This approach, with its fluctuations and shifts of style and purpose, can be felt across the Salone, where ornament and utility sit both alongside and atop one another, and humour and earnestness in an enthralling to and fro. 


New Ornament


Such contrasting styles can also be seen at the Casa degli Atellani, which played host to Passegginata, an exhibition curated by magazine editor Martina Mondadori Sartogo and hosted by Airbnb. It featured a variety of personal collections from Faye Toogood, Forma Fantasma and Ashley Hicks; of rocks, clay forms and textiles, as well as abstract totems, curiosities and utensils.


Set against the frescoes and grand architecture of Atellani – which once played host to Leonardo da Vinci while he painted The Last Supper at the Santa Maria delle Grazie across the street – these cabinets of curiosity read as both expressions of process and abstract ornament.


Meanwhile, Nobody & Co’s Bibliochaise, exhibited down a garden trail with structures decorated by Toogood, is a chair-cum-library – and in the case of the special edition held at the garden – decorated in gold leaf.


Remake/Remodel


Sustainability and social consciousness as principles and behaviours are difficult to communicate successfully through furniture or product design. At this year’s Salone, there were a number of projects which engaged with those media as a form of resistance, or productive output, as well as advanced applications of re- or up-cycled materials.
In the lower floors of the Fondazione Luigi Rovati, Paul Cocksedge exhibited a series of tables, shelving units and sculptures made, predominantly, from his London studio floor. On being handed an eviction notice, he excavated the site, creating concrete rounds and obelisks which contribute to a comment on the uncertainty and displacement inherent to London’s property market. 


For Danish textile company Kvadrat’s new project, Really, whose aim is to up-cycle end-of-life textiles into solid textile boards, Max Lamb designed a series of benches using waste cotton and wool. Lamb’s benches employed curved edges, wavy patterns, geometric stacks and hover-effect structures in an experimental approach to an everyday material and form.


Play


Equally integral to the fair was a focus on entertainment and design as a playful distraction. At the Palazzo Serbelloni, quartz manufacturers Caesarstone collaborated with artist Jaime Hayon on Stone Age Folk, an exhibition of fantastical furniture including a mask as cupboard, clown faces and carousels.


Another exhibition which exemplified the theme was Marni’s Playground, made up of various shades of sand, rocking chairs, out-of-proportion games and picnic blankets, all in a concrete warehouse; while for Atelier Swarovski Home, Barbara Barry designed a series of multifunctional candle holders and vases in mellow, 70s hues which could be stacked, turned and repurposed.


Layers


Layers of material, layered perspectives, stacks and tiers appeared here as both practical solutions and decorative details. At Matter-Made, there was a variety of flat-colour pastel furniture, which could be stacked, slotted or reformed, doubling up materials and cascades of light. At Calico’s Imagined Landscape exhibition, Ana Kraš designed a wallpaper with a linear pattern which created the illusion of slotting papers, while Faye Toogood combined three paintings – of moors, woodlands and fields – into a single landscape.


At Louis Vuitton’s Objets Nomades, pieces were woven, spliced and formed into organic rounds and repeat patterns akin to honeycomb. Design duo Fernando & Humberto’s sculptural Cocoon chairs were suspended over the Palazzo Bocconi’s grand staircase, while cheese plants and palms filled each room, collapsing over a variety of chairs and daybeds which were made for lounging, including Patricia Urquiola’s Palaver Chair and Atelier Oï’s Swing Boat.


Narrative


Design and theatre coalesced at a number of exhibitions as immersive multi-sensory experiences, maximalist installations and temporary TV channels. In a fine example of the latter, students and alumni from Design Academy Eindhoven presented a “mashed-up media and design studio” at the Atelier Clerici, which analysed the relationship between design and contemporary media in both high and low culture. 


Another design school working with an immersive approach was ÉCAL, who presented More Rules for Modern Life, an exhibition by the Fine Art and Product Design students that considered the grey zones between the two practices via crispy golden walls, exaggerated forms and elaborate patterns. Milan-based Dimore Studio presented two exhibitions, one of an Art Deco-inspired geometric interior, the other of a plush, surreal veranda, with palms and pastel pink balloons growing out of tiled beds. Like much of this year’s Salone, the Dimore presentation imparted a sense of having stumbled upon a private oasis, works and spaces that held a wealth of elaborate tales.

April, 2017

All text originally published by AnOthermag.com. All images courtesy of magazine and artist. All text copyright Billie Muraben.

It’s Nice That

A Repetitive Day in the Life of One of Ragnar Kjartansson’s Troubadours

Of his exhibition at Barbican, Ragnar Kjartansson remarked that he hadn’t realised the extent to which his work is about, or uses, repetition until he saw the show. “Maybe it comes from being an altar boy,” he says. “You repeat stuff again and again until it becomes divine”…

Ragnar Kjartansson, Barbican
Of his exhibition at Barbican, Ragnar Kjartansson remarked that he hadn’t realised the extent to which his work is about, or uses, repetition until he saw the show. “Maybe it comes from being an altar boy,” he says. “You repeat stuff again and again until it becomes divine.” The opening work Take Me Here by the Dishwasher: Memorial for a Marriage is a case in point, a performance in which ten musicians, scattered through the gallery on bedroom-like islands, sing and play guitar for eight hours straight.


The lyrics of the song, composed by Kjartan Sveinsson of Sigur Ros, are based on dialogue between a lonely housewife and fantasy plumber, from Iceland’s first feature film Murder Story, which stars Kjartansson’s parents. The suggestion is that he was conceived at the time the film was shot, and the piece forms a memorial to their now broken relationship, blurring fact and fiction – mirroring Kjartansson’s experience of life imitating art since his birth.


A three-minute clip of the soft focus love scene plays behind the performers as they repeat the mantra “Take me here by the dishwasher” in an endless, absurd loop. Musician Phil Serfaty is one of those performers, taking on “the cliché of the bedroom singer-songwriter, a kind of pathetic, woe is me, boozing figure.”

“As someone who has done the pop music thing, while I recognise that it is a packaged, clichéd way to express yourself, it is still very familiar to me. I’ve sat around in my underpants and played guitar, sung a sappy song and drank beer before, multiple times, and I wondered if doing this I might learn something,” he says. “Take Me by the Dishwasher is like a hyper version of it, and I found that by singing this really kitsch dialogue over and over, there were things that started to ring true and effect me emotionally. There are moments when it really does start to feel like you’re singing a memorial for a marriage, it’s a love that doesn’t exist anymore, it’s dissipated and you’re honouring that”.


People respond to the chorus in multifarious ways, “some burst out laughing, others scoff, cry and some move from one individual to another, listening intently to each part. When someone walks in you can never tell how it’s going to affect them,” says Phil. “If they sit down with you it’s a boost of energy. It’s so physically demanding, and psychologically you go through all kinds of emotions – sometimes it’s a real struggle, other times it becomes this bubble of sound that is completely transcendental. If you start thinking about it as a cycle it becomes really hard, whereas if you just exist in the moment it can be really beautiful”.


As a viewer it can be strange when you first enter the space, it feels at once public and private. The room is set up with mounds of dated, pink satin, dark wood furniture and empty beer bottles; and as you move around the installation different elements of the soundscape become audible. Phil continues: “The audience controls the way they hear the piece, and you see some engaging with that maybe for the first time. We, in turn, have the power to move bodies and guide people through the room with sound. It feels very alive.”


Raised in the theatre, Kjartansson’s work makes blurry distinctions between fact and fiction – conveying the tragicomedy inherent to life, and sending up the stereotype of the singular artist as genius. His work has a lightness to it, it’s joyful and funny with the weight and absurdity coming through in the repetition common in his performances, films, paintings and drawings. Kjartansson has described art as a “slippery, devilish thing,” and in his hands that devilish character turns toward the certainties of his audience; brushing them away with the swipe of a paper scythe or in the strum of a guitar.


August, 2016

All text originally published by itsnicethat.com. All images courtesy of magazine and artist. All text copyright Billie Muraben.

It’s Nice That

Into the Unknown

Rarely does anything date faster than our visions of the future. From the flying cars and under the sea croquet parties of the En L’an 2000 cigarette cards; to the need to ‘retire’ bio-engineered replicants who travel to Earth illegally and assimilate to 2019 Los Angeles…

By Sophy Hollington
Rarely does anything date faster than our visions of the future. From the flying cars and under the sea croquet parties of the En L’an 2000 cigarette cards; to the need to ‘retire’ bio-engineered replicants who travel to Earth illegally and assimilate to 2019 Los Angeles, as proposed by Ridley Scott’s 1982 film, Bladerunner – although this isn’t necessarily so far from our reality of fake science propelled by GOOP-y ‘lifestylers’ and Trump-ed up news.


By definition, science fiction should balance the speculative with the rational, taking where we stand as the starting point, and blowing it up and outwards – pushing the boundaries of our knowledge and imaginations. The sense of wonder, and a willing suspension of disbelief are imperative, as the genre flits from the near-future to the prehistoric, the distant future to the recent past. Into the Unknown: A Journey through Science Fiction, which opened at Barbican on 3 June, features everything from Jonathan Swift’s Robinson Crusoe, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 and Margaret Attwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale; to Dune, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and The Terminator. As well as various iterations of Star Wars and Star Trek, obviously.


The exhibition design, by Ab Rogers’ studio ARD, drops you further into the already sci fi-esque architecture of the Barbican Centre—with Modernist ideals and aesthetics so often crossing over with those of science fiction—and the imposing structures require you to look up and around, at works hovering high towards the ceiling and low to the ground. Into the Unknown covers the strange and the familiar with equal weight, both in terms of subject and familiarity. It doesn’t shy away from conveying the complexity of the genre, or its potential for commercial success.


The show, which was curated by historian and writer Patrick Gyger, considers both Thomas More and Ahmed Khaled Towfik’s visions of Utopia. The former a socio-political satire and imagining of a parallel reality devoid of private property, published in Latin in 1516; and the latter a novel written in 2011 and set in 2023, which tells the grim account of a gated community in the north of Egypt, where the wealthy are insulated from ‘The Others’, those who remained outside of Utopia after the collapse of the Egyptian middle class and the apparatus of the state. There is an interactive piece by Territory Studio, based on their work on Ridley Scott’s The Martian, spacesuits worn by John Hurt in Alien, Sam Rockwell in Moon and Cillian Murphy in Sunshine; and Astro Black, a two-channel video installation by Soda_Jerk that looks at Sun Ra’s theories of Afrofuturism, and considers the centre or focus of science fiction and social politics in Black Atlantic sonic culture.


Into the Unknown engages with prehistoric romance, dinosaurs collaborating with humans, forgotten sea-monsters awoken by atom bombs, parallel worlds or galaxies, artificial intelligence and clones. The tales can be ones of utopia or dystopia, and are commonly interlaced with the socio-political climate of the day.


While it can be an opportunity to speculate on the potential to overcome divides, hardship and conflict; the motivations, themes and impact of science fiction, whether in the context of film, literature or comics, can also be problematic. The history of its plots and storylines is one closely aligned with the ‘othering’ of people. Along the lines of race, religion, culture or gender, the glorification of war, and visions of imperialism – although the racial dynamic in these instances is often flipped, creating sort-of self-flagellating visions of Western colonialism, somehow, and perhaps subconsciously, intended by the authors, as a means of eschewing shame or guilt.
A key example of this is H. G Wells’ War of the Worlds, which establishes the British invasion of Tasmania as analogous to the warring Martians: “The Tasmanians, in spite of their human likeness, were entirely swept out of existence in a war of extermination waged by European immigrants, in the space of fifty years. Are we such apostles of mercy as to complain if the Martians warred in the same spirit?”


There are of course instances where science fiction relates to society in an engaged and positive way. Steven Spielberg’s 1977 film Close Encounters of the Third Kind, which depicted aliens as peaceful beings, suggested that humankind may have reached a point where it was ready to interact with the cosmos. It portrays almost youthfully optimistic communication with the unknown as a positive attribute, and new technologies as a natural progression of development and an indication of health and growth. The 1976 film, Logan’s Run engages with climate change, overpopulation, urbanism and individualism; and since 1977, Star Wars has told tales of rebellion against a brutal totalitarian government.


Jean-Luc Godard’s 1965 film, Alphaville: A Strange Adventure of Lemmy Caution, was shot in and around the Modernist buildings of Paris. It follows secret agent Lemmy Caution as he tries to destroy Alphaville and its dictatorial computer Alpha 60, which has outlawed free thought, love, poetry, emotion and any form of questioning. Author of a variety of post-apocalyptic dystopian fictions, including Vermillion Sands and The Atrocity Exhibition, J G Ballard often took inner space rather than outer space as his science fiction battleground. The author is said to have despised the term ‘science fiction’, and referred to his writing as being, instead ‘apocalyptic’. He focussed on our interactions with strange and exotic technology, Brutalist architecture and gated communities, assassinations and graphic representations of collisions.


Science fiction can’t entirely be viewed through the realm of socio-political context and consciousness, it is equally important as a narrative structure for entertainment. The B Movie tradition, including Attack of the 50 ft Woman, The Blob and It Came from Outer Space, lives on in science fiction comedies like Repo Man, Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure and Class of Nuke Em High; and the aesthetic and narrative devices of sci fi have long been adopted, for better and worse, by designers in a variety of contexts.


Into the Unknown includes early advertising by the aerospace industry, which adopted the visual language and iconography of sci fi and Modernism—both associated with visions of progress—to promote jobs and feats of engineering in the midst of the highly politicised Space Race. The ads showed airships engaging with explorations of the sky, leisure and war, and utilised the language of fiction and entertainment to lighten what was, and remains to be, an ethically complex invention.


The influence of science fiction, and its potentialities that became realities alongside it—such as geodesic domes, mobile technology and space travel—can be seen in everything from Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog, which went on to influence Steve Jobs (and many other tech bros); to Archigram’s Plug-In City and Walking City; Marshall McLuhan’s writing on media; Sheila Levrant de Bretteville and April Greiman’s work for the women’s movement; Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon and early issues of Wired magazine. The aesthetic of “the future from the past” can be seen in contemporary sportswear, as details and in the form of the fabric and in generally useless wearable tech. It is being employed in an interesting, forward-facing way by designers and publishers like David Rudnick, Landfill Eidtions, Metahaven and Hassan Rahim; and illustrators Essy May, La Boca and Viktor Hachmang.


What unites classic expressions of science fiction is the willing suspension of disbelief, but what is perhaps the strangest, and most interesting skill of the genre is its ability to predict our most boring, limiting inventions—mechanisms that show humanity’s knack for invention but need for a higher or outside control—exemplified by the sentient computer in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, Hal 9000’s, slow refrain of “Just a moment, just a moment, just a moment.”

June, 2017

All text originally published by itsnicethat.com. All images courtesy of magazine and artist. All text copyright Billie Muraben.

It’s Nice That

The Couple that Reimagined Space: A Portrait of the Work of Charles and Ray Eames at Barbican

Charles and Ray Eames’ holistic approach to design was rooted in their interest in addressing and resolving the needs of any given problem; be that executive seating, the welfare of sea creatures, plywood leg splints or their pre-eminent vision of the “information age”…

The World of Charles & Ray Eames, Barbican
Charles and Ray Eames’ holistic approach to design was rooted in their interest in addressing and resolving the needs of any given problem; be that executive seating, the welfare of sea creatures, plywood leg splints or their pre-eminent vision of the “information age.” Established in Los Angeles in the 1940s, their studio’s initial experiments were in devising a way to mass-produce the moulded-plywood furniture Charles had previously designed for a MoMA brief with architect Eero Saarinen. Through a process of trial and error, they soon came across a way to apply their experiments to the war effort in the form of emergency transport splints and stretchers. This led to the establishment of the Eames Office as a business and was the beginning of the studio renowned for its expansive work and collaborations, “provide the best, for the most, for the least.”


Barbican’s exhibition The World of Charles and Ray Eames, designed by 6a Architects, surveys the work of the couple and their Office. It encompasses their architecture, furniture, graphic and product design, painting, drawing, film, sculpture, photography, multimedia installations and new models for education. Their prolific output is difficult to summarise but the show succeeds in guiding viewers through the Eames’ approach to the business of life. Their disciplined visual communication and consistency with materials prevents the show from feeling like a whirlwind of scale and context as it shifts with ease due to the clarity in their intentions and process.


The exhibition is accompanied by a catalogue designed by John Morgan studio, with a series of essays, stills slideshows and chapters on their home life, research and major projects on “celebration as a human need” and the “information age.” Barbican has also worked with the Eames Office on a selection of products based on Eames textile patterns and materials, including their dot pattern and scale models of their fibreglass chairs.


Structured thematically, the ground floor of the exhibition introduces the “parts” making up their set of tools: experiments in plywood, film, graphic design, textiles and architecture. The first two galleries show their abstract, painted covers for the magazine Art & Architecture, large-scale structures for aeroplanes and miniature furniture for children that includes plywood elephants and tiny tables. In an anti-clockwise progression, the next rooms give an impression of the extensive research involved in their work; with rough and perspective drawings for the Eames house, and letters between Charles and Ray concerning its development as well as films by architectural historian Reyner Banham on his thoughts on the architecture of their adopted home, Los Angeles. In the final section of the ground floor we see examples such as their film Tanks , on the health of marine life and a model of an Eames living room, giving a sense of their vibrant colour palettes and attitude towards their work in space.


As the exhibition progresses, the upper floor seems to take on these parts and develop physical or theoretical “total environments” that employ the Eames Office skill-set. Early on is their exhibition design for The World of Franklin & Jefferson, for which the Eames’ applied their unflinching approach that an exhibition should communicate the understanding of a subject by exhibition designers and curators, “limited though it may be, in such a way that it has meaning for a non-specialist but isn’t trivial or embarrassing for the person who knows most about the subject.” Their design had an array of information presented in multiple mediums and took on decorative elements according to the season, such as potted plants in spring. The section for their suggested design education curriculum in The India Report included a miniature school-like set up and showed their film Banana Leaf: Something about Transformations and Rediscovery, which explores the cyclical life of the banana leaf in Indian culture including its use as a tool for eating. In one of the final sections, the Eames’ film Powers of Ten is screened, surrounded by a selection of stills and development research. Concerned with communicating the relative size of things in the universe, the film links microcosm to macrocosm, and in perhaps the most famous scene zooms out from a family picnic to a view of the park, the city, the state, the country and through to a view of Earth from outer space.

Perhaps one of the most renowned projects, and one that communicates both the design approach of the Eames’ and the Barbican exhibition, is the IBM Pavilion. Described as “not a building but a grove”, the pavilion was “part garden of delights, part vision of the future” with an oval theatre that hosted the Eames’ multimedia experience, the “information Machine.” The design was welcoming and carnival-like, allowing IBM to introduce their automated technologies to the public in a relaxed atmosphere, one that emphasised advances in technology as a force for positive change.


The show could easily have been overwhelming, but due to the straightforward, un-intrusive exhibition design and the nature of the Eames’ work, rather than feeling exhausted by the breadth and quantity, as a viewer you are left only wanting more. To know more and see more perhaps in the hope that you’ll be able to pick up some of their ability and drive. The exhibition is much more than a survey of Charles & Ray Eames’ work, it’s a record of public life in the latter half of the 20th Century, somewhat localised but reflective of the trauma and progress happening worldwide.

October, 2015

All text originally published by itsnicethat.com. All images courtesy of magazine and artist. All text copyright Billie Muraben.

AnOthermag

The Artist Constructing Modernist Ruins in a Gallery Garden

In a garden facing onto, and somewhat consumed by, a basin of London’s Regent’s Canal sits the cavernous ruin of a modernist home. The ruin is, in fact, a fiction – one constructed by artist Alex Hartley for the exhibition After You Left at Victoria Miro’s east London gallery…

A Gentle Collapsing II, Alex Hartley
In a garden facing onto, and somewhat consumed by, a basin of London’s Regent’s Canal sits the cavernous ruin of a modernist home. The ruin is, in fact, a fiction – one constructed by artist Alex Hartley for the exhibition After You Left at Victoria Miro’s east London gallery. Built to resemble European modernism’s International Style, and California’s later iterations of the tradition, A Gentle Collapsing II transforms the gallery’s waterside garden into a scene of thriving wild ferns and material decay.


A sort-of a folly, the piece performs as an homage to utopian ideals. It seems to have been vacated without explanation, and carries an atmosphere of activity – both in terms of the traces of its absent owner, and the growth of trees, moss and supposed mould around and within what remains. The walls were planned and built up according to Hartley’s impression of what the minimum requirement would be for the structure to be understood as a Modernist home. The open stairs, metal-grated horizontal window and cut section of low-hanging roof were shaped and finished – with painted on black mould – to give the impression of an accelerated process of ageing, and the accelerated progress of time.


A Gentle Collapsing II breaks boundaries between interior and exterior, public and private, natural and manmade, all of which are themes that continue in the interior spaces of the exhibition. “It’s the battle of architecture sinking back into nature that I find interesting”, says Hartley. “The work has already changed so much with the seasons, and when the leaves entirely fall it’ll have a much more direct relationship with the surrounding architecture. This is the second iteration of A Gentle Collapsing and they do take time, both in terms of considering what works in the space and how they adapt and grow once installed.”


In contrast to the canal-side garden, indoors it is nature that feels more controlled, held within frames and drawn away from its surrounding architecture. “If there’s one thing that has run through my work all along it’s the idea of boundaries, and where they lie. When I lived in Los Angeles I’d go to see modernist houses, but because of the relationship between the garden and the building – with the outside space being treated like another room – the boundaries would always be heavily defended. I’d end up crawling through foliage and up to fences to photograph the buildings through a hedge. In the wall-based works I’m showing I’ve tried to draw out the idea of the balance between nature and architecture shifting in favour of nature. The glass-walled pavilions slip back into either the wild, or their controlled versions of it.”


The subject of utopia, and the juxtaposing back and forward-facing focus intrinsic to its study, is one that has long interested Hartley: “The 1960s and 70s was the last time we had a clear utopic vision. Maybe with what we’re pushing against now a movement will build up, but there doesn’t seem to have been the energy for it.” He describes After You Left as having “a nostalgic romance” to it: “But it’s not entirely without optimism for our time. I have a definite sense of ‘this moment can come again’. We’re still searching for the form it’ll take, and the impetus to make it happen; but it’s in periods of disenfranchisement that people coalesce and you start to get an idea of what’s possible.”

November, 2016

All text originally published by AnOthermag.com. All images courtesy of magazine and artist. All text copyright Billie Muraben.