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Milan Design Week 2017: Form Follows Fiction

As the industry’s biggest annual trade fair, the Salone del Mobile is certainly an occasion to reflect on the state of design today—both implicitly and explicitly as certain schools and organizations take the opportunity to critique the commercial pretense of both the Salone and the mobile. This year, two venues in particular captured a more cerebral notion of design week, though the skepticism—about making more stuff—also took various forms around Milan.

Once again, Atelier Clerici—a perennial exhibition set in the eponymous Palazzo in the heart of Milan—served as a kind of embassy for Dutch design, anchored by the Design Academy Eindhoven and a half-dozen kindred spirits. (Full disclosure: I am currently a student in the Masters Design Curating & Writing program at the DAE.) Curated by Jan Boelen, the head of the Masters in Social Design, the heady exhibition was conceived as a high-concept critique of contemporary newsmedia in the context of design weeks, Milan, and reportage in general. Set in a darkened mock TV studio, the slick production value of #TVClerici relegated artifacts to the periphery of the double-height space, such that the daily performances would literally take center stage. 

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Once again, Atelier Clerici—a perennial exhibition set in the eponymous Palazzo in the heart of Milan — served as a kind of embassy for Dutch design, anchored by the Design Academy Eindhoven and a half-dozen kindred spirits. (Full disclosure: I am currently a student in the Masters Design Curating & Writing program at the DAE.) Curated by Jan Boelen, the head of the Masters in Social Design, the heady exhibition was conceived as a high-concept critique of contemporary newsmedia in the context of design weeks, Milan, and reportage in general. Set in a darkened mock TV studio, the slick production value of #TVClerici relegated artifacts to the periphery of the double-height space, such that the daily performances would literally take center stage.

With the galleria transformed into a black-box playhouse, #TVClerici could best be described as an overambitious bit of theater, brazenly skipping ahead to meta-meta-level critique as a performance about media. In that sense, the concept soared over the heads of visitors without quite scratching the surface of the sensationalist culture it set out to expose, not so much a mirror for society but rather another spectacle among others. After all, a daily series of scheduled performances — staged, semi-scripted segments—are not fictional events but decidedly real ones.

Contrived though the “look behind the curtain” may have been, the concept stopped short of onanism, thanks largely to the pseudo-professional production (down to the trucker caps) and earnest dramaturgy (i.e. recent grad Olle Lundin). All told, #TVClerici did offer commentary on specific issues in culture —gender, identity, etc. — precisely by renouncing design and aspiring to art.

The balance of the offerings at Atelier Clerici were rather more conventional, with several notable presentations in the gilded halls of the neoclassical former residence. As a counterpoint to the void of the stage, two other exhibitors opted for a single massive plinth in the center of the room. Amsterdam-based periodical MacGuffin (pictured above) literally and figuratively examined the sink—each issue explores a single subject at length—while the Envisions collective reprised their graphically arresting mise-en-scène of models and form studies. (Other participants included Het Nieuwe Instituut, Fictional Journal, Space Caviar, Z33, and more; see more images below and find more details here.)

See more images of Finsa by Envisions here.

If Boelen’s boldest statement was to bring the Design Academy from the periphery of Milan (i.e. Ventura Lambrate) to the very heart of the city, it was another exhibition tucked in a relatively quiet corner of town that posed a veritable counterpoint. Isolated if not insulated from the other design week festivities, Cascina Cuccagna, a converted urban farmhouse, hosted another polemical group exhibition. 

Forgoing the knowingness of a hashtag for a pithy declaration, Capitalism Is Over was clearly billed as “a provocation or parody,” its overarching message (per the title) at once blunt and pointed. Curators Raumplan commissioned editorial and documentary photography to illustrate the point, the former imagery serving as a kind of ad campaign, the latter physically and metaphorically sited at the center of the second-story space. (In the wings around the courtyard, smaller galleries offered an eclectic mix of projects in varied media, from data visualization to spoken word, to round out the exhibition.)

The spirit of the Capitalism Is Over comes in the guise of architecture photography: On one hand, “But It Used to Be So Cool” documents Olivetti’s headquarters in Ivrea as a throwback to post-war prosperity; on the other hand, “Bigger Faster Cheaper” offers Gursky-esque imagery of IKEA and Amazon logistics hubs in Piacenza. The typewriter company, of course, represents the boom time between 1945–1975, Trente Glorieuses, since eclipsed by the rise of neo-liberal economic models that have resulted in the likes of IKEA and Amazon. The two series of photographs invite facile, fertile comparison—vaguely nationalist nostalgia versus unbounded robo-futurism—in the face of a so-called post-capitalist era, the “fictional framework” of the entire exhibition.

It was a sentiment that resonated not only throughout the Cascina Cuccagna—Capitalism Is Over also included a few room-sized installations and a single “stockroom” gallery with design objects (pictured above)—but also in other exhibitions in Ventura Lambrate.

While Kvadrat launched the much-publicized upcycling initiative Really., Design School Kolding took a more poetic approach to repurposing waste materials and offcuts. For Super Supermarket, the Danish academy partnered with the textile manufacturer and 13 other brands, from Fritz Hansen to Ecco to Royal Dansk, repackaging scraps of leather, metal, plastic, and even potato pulp into faux-grocery items. Thoughtfully conceived and executed, the retail setting offered a delightfully subversive twist on both consumption and upcycling, coming as close as possible to having one’s cake and eating it too.

But perhaps the most compelling fiction came from yet another school. Further afield in the Lambrate district, Burg Halle staged How Do We Deal with This?, a performative investigation into the topic of borders. The chainlink fence and whitewashed medical setting alluded to more pressing problems in society, those for which design alone may not be able to offer a solution, literally encapsulating the placebo effect of late-capitalist consumer culture in the form of a pill.

Ostensibly about geopolitical borders, the metaphor applies to design as well: Where do we draw the line between art and commerce? At Atelier Clerici, the DAE’s transgressive presentation format was a kind of sleight of hand, eliding the distinction between the design and how it is represented. Did #TVClerici overstep the definition of design by extending it to include media writ large—i.e. conflating TV “production” with the design and manufacturing of objects? Moreover, will capitalism ever be “over?”

Either way, the show must go on.


Core77