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

An Exercise in Style: Interviewing John Morgan

As we ascend the stairs from his subterranean studio, our conversation turns to the subject of design writers. “Are there any? And if there are, why?” A point of contention is, if they do exist, “can [they] write about a subject other than design in an interesting way…

By Jack Davison
As we ascend the stairs from his subterranean studio, our conversation turns to the subject of design writers. “Are there any? And if there are, why?” A point of contention is, if they do exist, “can [they] write about a subject other than design in an interesting way, and is there not someone else who could do it better?” This emphasis on quality is an important one, and something that defines the often indefinable work of John Morgan Studio.


Founded in 2000, the studio has and continues to work with renowned artists, architects and cultural institutions including Four Corners Books, David Chipperfield Architects, Art Review and Tate Britain. A recent project is Pierre’s, the inaugural issue of New York’s The Artist’s Institute magazine. The principle of The Magazine is to take each season at the institute as a point of departure for journalism, fiction, interviews and visual projects to be developed around the work of the exhibiting artist. This season it’s Pierre Huyghe and the issue features topics including science fiction and philosophy, alongside fake adverts designed by John’s newly formed and slightly fictitious London/New York agency Vault Six. Another recent project was their review of the signage and way-finding at Tate Britain. The studio designed a new display typeface; a scheme for the templates of maps, menus, banners and posters; captions, maps and threshold dates cast in metal and sign-painted onto the walls and floor. In the synopsis of the project the process was described as “reducing the presence of signs and promotional material to an ‘essential only’ state… the requirements for a gallery like this [mean] the signage could be less present and more dignified”.


As well as his design practice, John has run projects at a number of design schools over the last 15 years, and the recent history of art education is something of a concern. “It shouldn’t be a transactional relationship” he says, “it’s an issue for tutors and students, and the worst educational model. Survival of the fittest is fine, but not in an education environment. Those who will do well, the people who have the confidence to reach out, will thrive, but they always will. It’s people who come to London, go into college once a week and then back off to bedsit land god knows where, what’s their experience?”


We’ve crossed the street from the studio and sat for lunch at a brasserie close-by. “It’s a nice way to eat, although it’s a faux interior, the element of nostalgia tricks you” John says. “They did certain things very well at the turn of the century – the theatre of it all, the settings and the tablecloths.” In a way, such details are a visualisation of the references and intentions of the people who run the brasserie, and how they want to communicate with their audience. On that subject John says “My real audience is the author or artist I’m working with, and myself. To try to second guess anything else often ends in tears. Like the focus group for a film, a real auteur wouldn’t care and has a focus group ever improved a film? Unlikely.”

“Anyway, books aren’t products, it’s a different territory.” Describing his work with Four Corners Books he says: “sometimes you’re a cinematographer, sometimes a director and then all that falls in between. For most of the Familiars series the artist has chosen the book, so it means something to them and that can be conveyed very subtly or in a more overt way. Sometimes we make a fully integrated object and in other instances the artist will produce photographic or illustrative plates.” Although they don’t often commission illustration, “I think I have a phobia of it because there is such a specific voice”, John says. “When you get something back you have to work with that and it can be far from what you had in mind. I love the illustrations in The New Yorker, there they work perfectly well. With photography you can direct a lot more, and the evidence of the hand is a little less present.”


The question of style is an important one, and in his work John aims more for a sense of atmosphere, for want of a better word. In a conversation with eye magazine’s editor John Walters he described it as “a problematic and woolly word, but it’s the best description of what I aim for in my work. It’s the sensation you find when you walk into a building or space and it changes the way you feel… It’s hard to define what gives a book atmosphere, because it can be found in unexpected places, and many books by attentive designers lack it, but you know it when you see it or feel it.”


At this point our conversation shifts, “without being too self-reflective” John says, “I like the idea of you writing this under the construct of this situation, it’s more fun. Ideally just do the whole thing without even mentioning graphic design directly. Do the whole thing about food – who wants to read about graphic design anyway? I’d rather be reading a novel or something, the more literary this can be the better.” So I ask him what he is reading, “Michel Houellebecq, everything by him. People say he’s a misogynist but I don’t see it that way, a misanthrope maybe – but not that either. In Submission the character is an academic who takes on religion as more of a lifestyle choice than one of faith, like people who send their kids to a Church of England school because it’s the better option, this professor works in a Muslim school because the pay and lifestyle is better for him. Houellebecq is so brutally honest, it’s horrific. I’m also reading Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, best described as a love story. The author records her life, falling for a transgender artist, her pregnancy and the shifts in their own bodies as well as the relationship itself. Both Nelson and Houellebecq are equally uncompromising in their own way.”


Maggie Nelson also wrote the text for Carolee’s, the forthcoming issue of the magazine of The Artist’s Institute (with Carolee Schneemann and published later this year), designed by John Morgan studio. I ask him whether he sees himself continuing to focus on publishing, or to look more to expanding on projects such as the branding of the city of Llubijana: “working with architects, they have a much greater control of space and influence than we do, but still not the impact you’d imagine, for that you probably need to get into politics or government. And as a designer you can only make a very slight imprint, I think I will continue to work with small gestures” Although, whether he’ll stick to that is another matter: “I have this relationship with fashion where sometimes I think it’s the most beautiful thing in the world and sometimes I think it’s ridiculous. And it’s totally okay to think the opposite one day to the next, we are made up of compound sensibilities.”

July, 2016

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

Royal College of Art

Head, Heart & Hand: The Greenhouse

The Greenhouse was closed in the early 1990s following the end of the Environmental course a few years prior. It had been built in 1961 according to the intention of then Rector Robin Darwin, whose studio sat at the back of the ‘house amongst the canopies John Norris Wood had been appointed tutor of Natural History and Ecological Studies in 1971, caring for the plants…

The Greenhouse, courtesy of the RCA Archive
“At the top of the Darwin Building, high above the concrete jungle of London, the Greenhouse is situated as if in a glass cloud almost oblivious to the industrial city outside…


Sir Robin Darwin had the place built as an integral part of the college, consider[ing] it important as a reminder of the natural world beyond the city limits.


The plants and animal life are now well established with mature trees up to the roof, many sub-tropical birds, fish and some reptiles. The large amount of leaf canopy and vegetation enable the birds to co-exist together, forming their own territories and social pecking orders.’



The light filters through the leaves with a glow of colour and dappled tones.


After watering, the humid air is heavily scented like a downpour on a summer’s day.


The rich warbling, musical notes of the canaries fill the air with song, accompanied by the continual ze-ze-zeee-zeee of the zebra finches.


In the background, a loud abrupt whistle interrupts the flowing cascade of the canaries. Looking down from the foliage, a large gleaming yellow eye stares like a sulphurous sun against the darkest of skies. The glossy starling watches and then with remarkable agility and quick angular wing strokes, flies off; a blaze of topaz blue and emerald green.”


The Greenhouse was closed in the early 1990s following the end of the Environmental course a few years prior. It had been built in 1961 according to the intention of then Rector Robin Darwin, whose studio sat at the back of the ‘house amongst the canopies.


John Norris Wood had been appointed tutor of Natural History and Ecological Studies in 1971, caring for the plants and animals and holding specialist drawing classes up ‘til it was shut in order to make space for new developments in the Darwin Building. As described in Boys’s book: ‘On looking further out beyond the glass is a back-drop of irregular sharp-angled buildings. The artificially created world outside is enveloping all around.’


At this point the only comparable space would be the enveloped Fern Garden, a gift from the USA Olympic Team – a thank you for ‘our’ hospitality and the lending of the College as a Conference Centre and hangout for the sporting elite.


The Fern Garden is off limits. Described as the Rector’s ‘private project’ they are protected by bolts, balconies and the backs of bureaucrats as they type faceless emails concerning the protection of the ground against artistic endeavor. Reported to have cost millions to ship from Australia, the Ferns drain further thousands on each specialist hydraulic act, momentarily flooding their canopies in this false climate.

June, 2014

All text originally published in Head, Heart & Hand by the Royal College of Art. All images courtesy of magazine and artist. All text copyright Billie Muraben.

It’s Nice That

The Ulm Model: A School and Its Pursuit of a Critical Design Practice

“My feeling is that the Bauhaus being conveniently located before the Second World War makes it safely historical”, says Dr. Peter Kapos. “It’s objects have an antique character that is about as threatening as Arts & Crafts…

Foundation course exercise, courtesy of HfG-Archiv/Ulmer Museum
“My feeling is that the Bauhaus being conveniently located before the Second World War makes it safely historical”, says Dr. Peter Kapos. “It’s objects have an antique character that is about as threatening as Arts & Crafts, whereas the problem with the Ulm school is that it’s too relevant. The questions raised about industrial design [still apply], and it’s project failed – their social project being particularly disappointing – which leaves awkward questions about where we are in the present.”


Kapos discovered the Hochschule für Gestaltung Ulm, or Ulm school, through his research into the German manufacturing company Braun, the representation of which is a specialism of his archive, das programm. The industrial design school had developed out of a community college founded by educationalist Inge Scholl and graphic designer Otl Aicher in 1946. It was established, as Kapos writes in the book accompanying the Raven Row exhibition, The Ulm Model, “with the express purpose of curbing what nationalistic and militaristic tendencies still remained [in post-war Germany], and making a progressive contribution to the reconstruction of German social life.”


The Ulm school closed in 1968, having undergone various forms of pedagogy and leadership, crises in structure and personality. Nor the faculty or student-body found resolution to the problems inherent to industrial design’s claim to social legitimacy – “how the designer could be thoroughly integrated within the production process at an operational level and at the same time adopt a critically reflective position on the social process of production.” But while the Ulm school, and the Ulm Model, collapsed it remains an important resource, “it’s useful, even if the project can’t be restarted, because it was never going to succeed, the attempt is something worth recovering. Particularly today, under very difficult conditions.”


Max Bill, a graduate of the Bauhaus and then president of the Swiss Werkbund, arrived at Ulm in 1950 – having been recruited partly in the hope that his international profile would attract badly needed funding – and tightened the previously broad curriculum, established by Marxist writer Hans Werner Richter, around design, mirroring the practices of his alma mater.


Bill’s rectorship ran from 1955-58, during which “there was no tension between the way he designed and the requirements of the market.” The principle of the designer as artist, a popular notion of the Bauhaus, curbed the “alienating nature of industrial production”. Due perhaps in part to the trauma of WW2 people hadn’t been ready to allow technology into the home that declared itself as technology. “The result of that was record players and radios smuggled into the home, hidden in what looked like other pieces of furniture, with walnut veneers and golden tassels.” Bill’s way of thinking didn’t necessarily reflect the aesthetic, but it wasn’t at all challenging politically. “So in some ways that’s really straight-forward and unproblematic – and he’s a fantastic designer, an extraordinary architect, an amazing graphic designer, and a great artist – but he wasn’t radical enough. What he was trying to do with industrial design wasn’t taking up the challenge.”


In 1958 he stepped down, having failed to “grasp the reality of industrial production simply at a technical and operational level… [or] recognise its emancipatory potential.” The industrial process had grown in complexity, and the prospect of rebuilding socially was too vast for single individuals to manage. It was no longer possible for the artist-designer to sit outside of the production process, because the new requirements were so complex. “You had to be absolutely within the process, and there had to be a team of disciplinary specialists – not only of material, but circulation and consumption, which was also partly sociological. It was a different way of thinking about form and its relation to product.”


After Bill’s departure, Tomás Maldonado – an instructor at the school, “set out the implications for a design education adequate to the realities of professional practice.” Changes were made to the curriculum that reflected a critically reflective design practice, which he referred to as ‘scientific operationalism’ and subjects such as ‘the instruction of colour’, were dropped. Between 1960-62 the Ulm Model was introduced: “a novel form of design pedagogy that combined formal, theoretical and practical instruction with work in so-called ‘Development Groups’ for industrial clients under the direction of lecturers.” And it was during this period that the issue of industrial design’s problematic relationship to industry came to a head.


In 1959, a year prior to the Ulm Model’s formal introduction, Herbert Lindinger, a student from a Development Group working with Braun, designed an audio system. A set of transistor equipment, it made no apologies for its technology, and looked like a piece of engineering. His audio system became the model for Braun’s 1960s audio programme, “but Lindinger didn’t receive any credit for it, and Braun’s most successful designs from the period derived from an implementation of his project. It’s sad for him but it’s also sad for Ulm design because this had been a collective project.”


The history of the Braun audio programme was written as being defined by Dieter Rams, “a single individual – he’s an important designer, and a very good manager of people, he kept the language consistent – but Braun design of the 60s is not a manifestation of his genius, or his vision.” And the project became an indication of why the Ulm project would ultimately fail, “when recalling it, you end up with a singular genius expressing the marvel of their mind, rather than something that was actually a collective project to achieve something social.”


An advantage of Bill’s teaching model had been the space outside of the industrial process, “which is the space that offers the possibility of criticality. Not that he exercised it. But by relinquishing that space, [the Ulm school] ended up so integrated in the process that they couldn’t criticize it.” They realised the contradiction between Ulm design and consumer capitalism, which had been developing along the same timeline. “Those at the school became dissatisfied with the idea of design furnishing market positions, constantly producing cycles of consumptive acts, and they struggled to resolve it.”


The school’s project had been to make the world rational and complete, industrially based and free. “Instead they were producing something prison-like, individuals were becoming increasingly separate from each other and unable to see over their horizon.” In the Ulm Journal, the school’s sporadic, tactically published magazine that covered happenings at and the evolving thinking and pedagogical approach of Ulm, Marxist thinking had become an increasingly important reference. “It was key to their understanding the context they were acting in, and if that thinking had been developed it would have led to an interesting and different kind of design, which they never got round to filling in. But they created a space for it.”

“[A Marxian approach] would inevitably lead you out of design in some way. And the Ulm Model, the title of the Raven Row exhibition, is slightly ironic because it isn’t really a model for anything, and I think they understood that towards the end. They started to consider critical design as something that had to not resemble design in its recognised form. It would be nominally designed, the categories by which it was generally intelligible would need to be dismantled.”


The school’s funding was equally problematic, while their independence from the state facilitated their ability to independently validate their social purpose, the private foundation that provided their income was funded by industry commissions and indirect government funding from the regional legislator. “Although they were only partially dependent on government money, they accrued so much debt that in the end they were entirely dependent on it. The school was becoming increasingly radical politically, and the more radical it became, the more its own relation to capitalism became problematic. Their industry commissions tied them to the market, the Ulm Model didn’t work out, and their numbers didn’t add up.”


The Ulm school closed in 1968, when state funding was entirely withdrawn, and its functionalist ideals were in crisis. Abraham Moles, an instructor at the school, had previously asserted the inconsistency arising from the practice of functionalism under the conditions of ‘the affluent society’, “which for the sake of ever expanding production requires that needs remain unsatisfied.” And although he had encouraged the school to anticipate and respond to the problem, so as to be the “subject instead of the object of a crisis”; he hadn’t offered concrete ideas on how that might be achieved.


But correcting the course of capitalist infrastructure isn’t something the Ulm school could have been expected to achieve, “and although their project was ill-construed, it is productive as a resource for thinking about what a critical design practice could be in relation to capitalism.” What’s interesting about the Ulm Model today is their consideration of the purpose of education, and their questioning of whether it should merely reflect the current state of things – “preparing a workforce for essentially increasing the GDP; and establishing the efficiency of contributing sectors in a kind of diabolical utilitarianism.”

January, 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 New Look: Looking Back at Roundel’s 1980s Identity Design for British Rail’s Railfreight

At the launch of the Design Business Association in 1986, John Bateson, a graphic designer and later partner at design agency Roundel, met a product designer who was working with British Rail’s Railfreight on a repainting scheme…

Railfreight icons, Roundel
At the launch of the Design Business Association in 1986, John Bateson, a graphic designer and later partner at design agency Roundel, met a product designer who was working with British Rail’s Railfreight on a repainting scheme. To the comment on their “not really knowing what colour to paint the trains,” John suggested that it really depended on “what they were going to put on them, before they could know what colour to use”.

This was the beginning of Roundel’s identity design commission with Railfreight, a project run by British Rail’s now defunct Architecture and Design division, which was headed up by Jane Priestman. The intention was to convey the success and value of Railfreight, and its various sectors – distribution, petroleum, metals, coal and construction; and Roundel were to communicate that via both an inward and outward facing redesign that would change the perception of, and culture within, the organisation.

“The culture had been ‘dirt’. Steam railways were filthy, stations were filthy, so they were designed accordingly,” John says. “Jane Priestman said no to all that, which is why we now have white floors and white tiling in stations – because it rewards cleaning. We carried that through to Railfreight, the locos and everything. It seems like obvious stuff but it changed the culture.”


Each train belonged to a sub-sector and a depot. The sub-sectors were designed to be recognisable as a family –  with symbols containing the letter “F” which also formed an optimistic upwards arrow that sat within each mark. They rejected the drab, camouflage colours that had often been used, in favour of bright primaries that could be read at speed and from a distance. The inspiration came in part from the Mustang fighter jets employed during WWII, both in terms of markings and the need to express confidence and strength. 
The marks were designed by Roundel and drawn by illustrator and Scraperboard artist Ron Mercer, who produced each element by hand. “The tone and form was the domain of Roundel, I was the artworker. I think that since the advent of the Apple Mac there has been some merging of design and artwork but in my day the two arms were quite separate,” he says.


The major Railfreight depots each had their own mascot, including a rat, horse, and cat – “I recall that the Stratford depot were particularly keen on having the Cockney Sparrow for theirs,” says Ron. They had long been key to their unofficial identities, and as part of Roundel’s identity design they restyled each of the mascots and established them as integral elements of the locomotive livery. They appeared as depot plates on the cab side, as well as on lapel badges, mugs, sports kits and signing.

“The mascots were made in chromium, bolted plates that rewarded cleaning,” says John. “The idea was to build a sense of pride in the work and their environment. The plates clarified that the trains were theirs, and prevented the cabs from becoming dumping grounds. It was all part of the culture change.” Previously, the macho culture at the depots had meant that the trains would go around rather than through the cleaning machines, dirty being the look of the day for locomotives. But the pride of ownership engendered through the depot mascots meant that the trains were maintained and rarely out of service, as were the depots themselves. As well as their symbols and mascots, each site and sub-sector had its own internal stationery, improved seating, televisions, washing machines and crisp, bright paint jobs. All of these small details instilled pride, respect and a sense of optimism in opinions on Railfreight, from both workers and the general public.


As part of the drive to launch the new identity, Roundel produced invitations, menus, “After Freight” mints, Christmas cards and a Railfreight calendar. The calendar was shot at various locations – on main-line bridges, at depots, in stone quarries and in front of power station calling towers. “We wanted to establish the trains as heroes. The drivers thought we’d shot train sets initially because they couldn’t believe the scale of the compositions or the operation. We’d have to shut the main-line and shoot overnight, it cost a tonne,” says John. “We lit the coal chimneys with flood lights on one night, which ended up getting us a visit from the local emergency services because someone thought the whole place was about to go up in flames. We had to say ‘Oh actually no, we’re just taking some pics!’, they weren’t best pleased so after that we only had an hour or so to get the shots.” The purpose was to further demonstrate a sense of heroism, value and pride in the work of and by Railfreight, and be another element of the work towards a culture change.


Roundel’s identity design had been commissioned in response to the changes in the UK’s manufacturing industries, and amongst the threat/atmosphere of privatisation. In an internal pamphlet describing “The New Look”, Railfreight’s director Colin Driver described how the British Rail board had issued a design policy statement stressing that “design, in its broadest sense, is fundamental to the efficiency of every aspect of the railway. From livery to to locos, mess rooms to engine sheds, this applies very powerfully to Railfreight. British Rail’s design director Jane Priestman points out that ‘to remain in business we must persuade very discerning customers of the ability of THIS business to perform better than any other.’”


Further elements of their promotion were a “Strategy and Image” conference and customer brochure. The conference was based on an “airforce theme” – a principle relevant because of the aesthetic inspiration, as well as “the ethos of team spirit, interdependence and pride”. Meanwhile the brochure described the weight of experience, competitive spirit and potential to be “poised for Europe” amongst sci-fi imagery in acid tones, produced using one of the first digital editing programs.


Jane Priestman’s department, British Rail’s internal Architecture and Design resource, was one of the last centralised, public sector design departments. And the Roundel-designed brochure for A&D was fittingly of its time. The imagery was collaged by hand, and appears somewhat abstract and postmodern; the bins look like Corinthian columns, while the arches and landscape architecture reflect amphitheatres and palaces. Design for the stations is described in turn as adventurous, decorative and Classical, and it underlines British Rail’s policy of “good design [as] good business”: “Good design helps sell services, improves staff morale and brings about the clearest visual indication of control and commitment to quality performance,” said Anthony Howard, the design manager at British Rail A&D at the time.


This focus on quality and coherence, of the architecture, interior and graphic design being co-ordinated and driven by not only profit but pride seems archaic in the current climate of embedded or threatened privatisation. “Since privatisation the focus has moved towards marketing and commercial enterprise. Centralised control seems outdated and inflexible because it’s all changed. But now though we have lost much of the design clarity and visual cohesion that made for an integrated network,” says John Bateson. “Centralised control seems spooky now, because it’s all changed.” And while in a lot of ways it feels like a change for the worse, there are positives to be drawn. “Company identities can’t, and don’t need to be long-term anymore. The top-down ‘Chairman says’ stuff doesn’t really fly when a tweet can destroy a brand in a day. They have to listen and evolve, if you want to survive you have to be fleet of foot.”

November, 2016

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

It’s Nice That

Hippie Modernism: The Struggle for Utopia

Hippie Modernism: The Struggle for Utopia examined the intersections of art, architecture and design with the counterculture of the 1960s and early 1970s Shown at the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis earlier this year, the exhibition was loosely organised around Timothy Leary’s famous mantra, “Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out”…

Spread from Hippie Modernism, published by the Walker Art Center
Hippie Modernism: The Struggle for Utopia examined the intersections of art, architecture and design with the counterculture of the 1960s and early 1970s. Shown at the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis earlier this year, the exhibition was loosely organised around Timothy Leary’s famous mantra, “Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out” and charted the social, cultural and professional revolutions of the period.

The catalogue accompanying the exhibition goes further still, considering practices of radical architecture and anti-design movements that emerged through Europe and North America, as well as the print revolution and new forms of theatre and radical politics. Here we speak with the show curator and editor, Andrew Blauvelt, about the work and impact of the critically under-served movement.


Q: Although art and culture has been so clearly influenced by this period, there have been few major museum shows documenting the counterculture. Why do you think this is, and what did you hope to achieve in Hippie Modernism?


There have been many more focussed shows on discrete aspects of the period, which has really come into art historical fashion over the last decade or so. But generally speaking most major museums wouldn’t touch the material because it’s not squarely in the art camp, or the art canon of the period. Too much “ephemera,” or what we call graphic design.


When we think of the 1960s we typically associate it with many of the other important movements: Pop, Conceptualism, Land Art, Body Art, Minimalism, etc. By doing Hippie Modernism I hoped to focus more attention on these highly experimental practices, and by doing so open new spaces for understanding work from the period that didn’t conform to the canonical narrative. Just as we search for evidence of modernism in far flung geographies now, we can also look at the overlooked closer to home.


Q: Could you elaborate on the term “hippie modernism”?


It seems to be an oxymoron, mostly because of what we think modernism is or was supposed to be. I was attracted to this essential conundrum. However, in the course of making the show and the book it became clearer that the term in fact embodies the contradictions of what would later become known as postmodernism (a critique of modernism). And from today’s vantage point, it might be considered simply as “another modernism,” alternate ways of making art, using technology, and shaping society.


Q: In the introduction to the book you mention the shared sense of struggle and need to “start from zero” in the hippie counterculture and modernism. Although elements of culture and technology have progressed in many ways, we are still bound to the problems and hopes of the period, and much of what is discussed in the book and exhibition still rings true today.


Oh yes: climate change, Black Lives Matter to take just two major examples. Progress can be glacial. Struggle seems eternal. We still struggle for our own utopia. I did not want to buy into the failure narrative of the 1960s, which was after all a history underwritten by the conservative political victories of the 1980s. In my opinion, that victory was fleeting as culture continued on a trajectory set into motion during the 1960s. The struggles continue in no small part because the system transfigures its themes and ambitions. For instance, the communalism of the 1960s has been recast as the sharing economy today: couch surfing becomes Air B&B, and so on.

Q: “Stay hungry. Stay foolish”, a phrase published in the Whole Earth Catalogue, was very much key to the counterculture but has now been adopted by Silicon Valley entrepreneurs after Steve Jobs used it in a commencement speech. There is incredible irony in this, when you look back at the ideas of the period – it’s also interesting to consider that the tech industry might now see itself as a counterculture.


Ah, the catchphrase of the entrepreneur. We should remember that in the 1960s computing was the province of large corporations, big government, and the military. The countercultural dream was for personal computing. That computers (and portable video and even television too) could be radically democratic tools to unleash individual creativity and connect people. This was a revolutionary idea. Jobs and Gates were the beneficiaries of this revolution, Zuckerberg and Brin must contend with its legacy.

The cross-disciplinary nature of the work of the counterculture led to what could amount to a whole “lifestyle” – as embodied by Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalogue, would you say that in some ways what was being made was a sort of active sketch of what is possible?


Yes. I say in the book that the counterculture was so successful in its moment because it actively ‘prototyped’ the future it wanted to live. If you want sexual liberation you must live it now not simply ask for it, for instance. Don’t want to work 9-5 in a soulless job, then invent a world or counter economy in which you don’t. Even if it fails, it provides a glimpse and a taste of what is possible and that has more lasting consequence and value.
These ideas have become creatively recharged and recast today, and the point is not about claims to originality but rather ideas of continuity. Why does this past look particularly appealing today?


Q: The architectural group Archigram were one who so brilliantly predicted the tethering of our bodies to digital devices, examples including the Electronic Tomato and Info-Gonks – were you surprised by any of the predictions you came across in your research?


Always. Info-Gonks as Google Glass. The Provo legacy project of the Witkar—an electric car sharing program in Amsterdam in the 1970s and 1980s. Archigram’s Room of a 1000 Delights as virtual reality. Superstudio’s Supersurface as Internet. Heineken’s World Bottle: a glass beer bottle as an upcycled building brick. The Videofreex Lanesville TV project, which prefigured community television and “user-contributed content.” Ant Farm’s Truckstop Network and YouTube. It was a visionary period.


Q: Publishing had a really interesting role, particularly in the sense that it very much took on the idea of the role of publishing as creating or being for a public, which magazines would you say exemplify the time?


Three come to mind and are in the show. Aspen, “the magazine in a box,” which was a thematic publication with a unique art director for each issue. It was an assemblage of material and media: pamphlets, posters, loose images, flexidisks, film and music reels—the message in multiple media. The other discovery was Scanlan’s, art directed by the incredible Barbara Stauffacher Solomon, who was famous for her supergraphics. It was a muckraking-type journal, which gave the world gonzo journalism and was the first to call for the impeachment of Richard Nixon. Both were essentially forced out of business ostensibly because they did not conform to postal regulations or were blacklisted by printers. Oz magazine broke ground on both the design and content front. It was subject to censorship.


The book is not like a traditional exhibition publication, in that its focus is on the subject rather than being a record of the show specifically. Could you elaborate on your thinking when putting the book together?


I worked with Emmet Byrne, the design director at the Walker, on the book’s design. We share similar concerns when making a book, on the one hand we are inspired by the content and the period yet we do not want to create a simulation of it. We hope to create something fresh and new but also something that could not have been made without having been influenced by its content.


Materially, physically, it is a mash-up of the heft of a Whole Earth Catalog (including its form as a paperback) and the colouring of the People’s Yellow Pages (a telephone book of free things in the Bay Area). Our initial plan had been to use Helvetica, which was truly revolutionary at that time, but once you see Scanlan’s typography there’s no point trying to emulate that. We needed more hippie in the mix. For the sake of time, we didn’t use rubber stamp type, although it was very tempting. The typewriter and Cooper were deployed instead.


The funky silver paper with color and black and white repros is pure Emmet. These pages function like “ads” for different works in the show, sometimes they simply recreate an actual ad, but often they are fabricated. Here we also diversified the typographic and stylistic palette, Day-Glo was invented in the Bay Area and it hadn’t really been exploited until this period, hence the fluorescent yellow.


My idea was to include the facsimile reprint of “Advertisements of a Counter Culture” that first appeared in Progressive Architecture magazine (and presumably got the editor fired). I wanted to riff on this idea of making ads for a counter culture and extend it. I wish we had time and space to make more of them.


What should the reader take from the use of Buckminster Fuller and Shoji Sadao’s US Pavilion for Expo 67 caught in flames as the cover image?


Well, when the dome burned in 1976, the bicentennial of the United States, it seemed to signify the end of the countercultural era. All those dreams go up in flames. Or do they? From the ashes of the dome (the metal lattice structure survived, the plastic coating melted away), a museum of the biosphere rose inside it. That seemed like an interesting way to think of the fate and future of hippie modernism.

April, 2016

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

It’s Nice That

A City of Contradictions: Meet the People Shaping Beirut’s Creative Future

Beirut is a city of contradictions, both buoyed and bound by its past and present the push and pull between its history and future is particularly acute in the divergent experiences of older and younger generations…

By Tanya Traboulsi

Beirut is a city of contradictions, both buoyed and bound by its past and present; the push and pull between its history and future is particularly acute in the divergent experiences of older and younger generations. The Lebanese Civil War ended in the autumn of 1990, and now the generation born at or towards its end, who have lived through its consequences and inherited its legacy from their families are working towards a new creativity, one that recognises but is not necessarily defined by history.


Ayla Hibri, a photographer who returned to Beirut in 2015 after stints all over the world, says: “Not only have we experienced a lot of trauma but we’ve inherited a lot of baggage from our parents. You want to move on and put the ugly past behind you, but you also want to analyse it and understand what the hell happened. There is the residue of war but we don’t have the same frustrations, the work being produced now is very different.”


A steadily increasing number of residency programmes, collective workspaces, independent galleries and publications have played a significant role in the emergence of a new design movement. Mansion, a 1930s villa that had been abandoned during the civil war, reopened in 2012 as a collective space. Funded by donations, as well as providing studios for local artists, designers and architects, Mansion hosts a public programme of films, discussions and exhibitions. Ghaith Abi Ghanem and Jad Melki, who run an architectural firm from Mansion say “it opens up possibilities outside of typical employment and encourages young designers to have a space to experiment and produce in the heart of the city.”


As well as Mansion, there is Alt City and The Olive Grove which is due to open this year. Designed by TWIG Collaborative, an interdisciplinary group of architects and designers who have also worked on the concept, operating model and branding for the site, The Olive Grove will be a co-working space designed to encourage collaboration. “As a design firm, but even more as a collaborative platform, we think socially responsible design is of the utmost importance. Designers play a key role in improving and enriching our lives, how we interact and the world around us,” says TWIG Collaborative’s Sirena Varma. “Our problems arise from the political situation, which has caused so many young and talented people to leave Lebanon. ‘Brain drain’ is an unfortunate phenomenon here, which is why The Olive Grove encouraging and guiding young entrepreneurs is so important,” she continues.

“There are amazing initiatives popping up everywhere despite the barriers of the city, it’s extremely motivating,” says Maya Moumne of graphic design studio Studio Safar. They launched a journal two years ago, “inspired by Mohieddine El Labbad’s series of publications, Nazar, which is Arabic for ‘vision’. Dubbed the ‘Egyptian Milton Glaser’, El Labbad’s Nazar observed and critiqued the visual culture and graphic design in the Arab world from the 1980s onwards.” It was one of few publications to focus on design in the region, and in Journal Safar they are continuing the legacy, publishing bilingual stories on graphic design, food, film, art, comics and poetry.


As is the case in most cities, there is a balance of people working freelance, in collectives or at larger studios and agencies. Beirut is fast-paced, the creative scene thriving against the odds. “It’s still nascent,” says illustrator and designer Cynthia Merhej”. “But it’s becoming more diverse. When people come back [after studying abroad] they want to do something that is going to make a change. We are more flexible [than older generations], you kind of have to be. I work as a photographer, illustrator, DJ, and now as a fashion designer. I used to also be a graphic designer. You have to diversify, nowadays you are just expected to know more”.


Working collaboratively, in groups such as Samandal Comics, a non-profit releasing magazines and comics anthologies, which was founded in 2007, can also motivate broader impact. “Samandal Comics draws attention to authors in Lebanon and the Arab world. We have gained notoriety and inspired similar initiatives in Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia,” says Joseph Kai. Late last year they were found guilty of inciting sectarian strife, denigrating religion, publishing false news, defamation and slander with a fine of the equivalent of close to £15,000. The case had been opened in 2008 after the minister of information had taken a disliking to panels in two satirical comics, which he then took out of context. On the Samandal Comics website a statement describes how “the court fell back on the vagaries of an elastic censorship law and a cohort of complacent public servants to criminalise and punish us, in the process committing several legal violations to wit.”


Beirutis defy being defined by trauma, understanding how to tackle day-to-day challenges with flexibility and adaptability. Electricity and water supplies are regularly shut off – sometimes for months; post must be sent via airmail or private couriers due to a lack of infrastructure and volatile neighbours; and in last year’s garbage crisis, refuse wasn’t collected for more than eight months after the closure of a waste dump south of the city.


Sarah Hermez, a Lebanese-American fashion designer who launched Beirut’s non-profit fashion school The Creative Space, says: “Lebanon is a pretty politically unstable country. We lack basic government services and have not had a president in place for over two years, let alone being in between Syria and Palestine, two extremely volatile places. The political gridlock and the greater humanitarian strife around us causes a lot of dissatisfaction and unrest. This, juxtaposed with our very pleasant Mediterranean environment, causes a strange tension which manifests in much of the creative work that comes out of the country.”


Unlike most cities with warmer climes, life stirs up in the summer as much of the diaspora return. “In spite of high temperatures and humidity, people keep working, running and sweating… The messiness of the city makes us want to escape but somehow we can’t seem to live anywhere else,” says art director Tala Safié”. “It’s a peculiar city. When you are away from it, it’s all you talk about. It’s alive, the food is great, the weather is perfect and it’s so small you can ski and swim in the same day. When you’re there, all you do is complain about how chaotic, loud and suffocating it is. You’re stuck in this never-ending love-hate loop – wanting to be there and wanting to leave, wanting to nurture it and turn your back on it,” says Ayla Hibri.


For writer Gilles Khoury”, it’s possible to find the positive among the chaos. “I talk about frustration with a filter of sarcasm; sadness with an aftertaste of hope, that’s how I function. In a way, political life in Lebanon can become a weapon rather than an enemy.”
Stylist Makram Bitar” adds: “I feel scattered when it comes to describing the creative scene in Beirut. There is a certain dynamism and optimism that I appreciate in people, it requires so much courage and energy to make things happen in the turmoil of a city like Beirut.”


An issue that is mirrored the world over is the lack of diversity within the arts, Sarah Hermez from The Creative Space says: “I think in order for design to be an effective tool for progress in society it needs to be inclusive. We can’t let only a select few design the world around us.” But progress is being made via the collective work-spaces and the free school, as well as new museums and galleries opening, supporting and exhibiting both contemporary and historic work. Online publications such as Raghunter also contribute: “We experience, and offer a lot of support to people around us. Especially with emerging talent, the scene is pretty open… We appreciate each other’s work, and having that type of support really helps to expand business reach and dynamism”, says editor Serene Abbas.


Beirut Madinati is a volunteer-led campaign, which in May of this year won an unprecedented 40% of the municipality vote. The campaign goal was to elect a council of non-partisan experts in the fields of urban planning, economics and waste management, who would address core problems of liveability in the city, as well as broader issues of transparency and social justice.


Graphic designers and illustrators Jana Traboulsi, Maya Saikali, Sana Asseh and Tala Safié were some of the local creatives to work on the campaign, of which Tala says: “Creative work can always be employed as an effective political tool, whether in a subtle or loud voice. The trick I think is to challenge and engage the audience, favouring active, critical readings rather than passive reception.”


Cynthia Merhej, who returned to Beirut to start a clothing line, studied at Central Saint Martins and the Royal College of Art. When she graduated in 2013 “it was ‘immigrants out’ – with the new government situation I had to leave immediately. My visa didn’t even last passed the graduation ceremony. I had to leave the country and come back on a tourist visa to be able to pack my stuff and leave. I didn’t want to come back yet so I went to New Zealand but ultimately, it didn’t work out. When I came back to Lebanon I realised opening my own business is more feasible here. There’s a good support network, people are encouraging, they like something new happening.”


But there are still social rules and expectations in Beirut, and as photographer Tanya Traboulsi describes they “stem from traditions that date back decades if not more. Some are beautiful, some are discriminating and outdated. But the period of abiding to expectations is slowly changing into more independent mindsets and ways of living.” Generations crystallise in hindsight, and in Beirut “everything somehow keeps moving” as Cynthia Merhej says. “Okay it’s not super-easy, it’s the kind of place where people just to try to find a way around things, they’re not just going to stop living because there’s no water or tourists aren’t coming anymore. You just try to be creative about it.”

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

Royal College of Art

Book Test Unit: “Who Shot J.R.?”

In the closing scene of the third season finale of Dallas, dastardly oil baron J.R. Ewing was shot by an unknown assailant The question of “Who shot J.R.?” plagued viewers until close to a year later, when it was revealed that he was in fact alive, and the assailant had been none other than…

Stills from Dallas
In the closing scene of the third season finale of Dallas, dastardly oil baron J.R. Ewing was shot by an unknown assailant. The question of “Who shot J.R.?” plagued viewers until close to a year later, when it was revealed that he was in fact alive, and the assailant had been none other than his sister-in-law and mistress, Kristin Shephard.

The device of the ‘cliffhanger ending’ has long been popular in television, film and literature; and it now applies in our reading and understanding of news and current affairs, and in an escalated form. The Guardian’s red “Live” box, and its flashing button that accompanied much of 2016 and continues to thrive in 2017—with three potential tabs going on its Minute by Minutes section as I write—has offered live updates and instantaneous reflection on the EU referendum, the US election and the March attack at Westminster. Updating information in fits and starts as events, results, impact and context are understood; establishing strange narratives that shift and change as things unfold, creating sort-of limericks out of world events.

It is not that the reporting of breaking news in the media is a new phenomenon—it has long been applied in radio, television and in newspapers, and is an important service—but live updates, ‘Breaking News’ Twitter profiles, or the BBC app that sends alerts to your phone, exacerbate the potential for ‘cliffhanger endings’ in our understanding of daily life. We can be strung to the page, clicking through as each update arises, the tension mounting when you are only halfway through a note when another part of the story unfolds. Unlike the fans of Dallas who had to wait months on their conclusion, ours are resolved and replaced, sometimes in a matter of seconds.

News, or at least the reading of news, moving predominately online and onto personal devices has, perhaps inadvertently, created a slump in investigative or reflective journalism. We often receive news in a mix, as if we are catching parts of various salacious conversations at orbiting restaurant tables, never quite catching the beginning, or most likely the end, either. Our understanding is with dribs and drabs of context, which will often be fact-checked at a later date, and edited a few times over. The expectation of substance, confirmation, and rigour has made way for news that is immediate, flexible and reactive. As the Blue-footed Booby bird feed undigested, regurgitated fish to their young, we are fed segments of information in bitesize chunks, dependent on the source, but without any particular understanding of it.

Our expectation for instant gratification has led to much-publicised accounts of our degrading attention spans, and think-pieces and advice columns on so-called digital detoxes. If we are to improve our understanding of current affairs, the impact of our decisions and the knock-on effect of events worldwide, a considerable space needs to be marked out for reporting and analysis that surpasses “Whodunnit?”

May, 2017

All text originally published in Book Test Unit, by the Royal College of Art. All images courtesy of magazine and artist. All text copyright Billie Muraben.