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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.


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Milan Design Week 2017: Best in Glass

Just over a century ago, Paul Scheerbart noted that “the new glass environment will completely transform mankind, and it remains only to wish that the new glass culture will not find too many opponents.” Captivated by Bruno Taut’s 1914 glass pavilion, the writer painted a utopian picture of a crystalline future, equally panoramic and kaleidoscopic, all thanks to the transparent building material. Suffice it to say that he would have been chagrined to learn that visitors to, say, Massimiliano Fuksas’ formidable Fieramilano spend more time in its hangar-like exhibition halls than they do admiring its soaring glass canopy (ditto I.M. Pei’s ziggurat-like Javits Center).

Architectural applications aside, “glass culture” continues to thrive at the scale of product design and craft. From a breakthrough in 3D-printed glass to a collection of pieces from weekend workshop in Portugal, here are a few noteworthy new glass projects from Milan this year.

The Mediated Matter Group – “Ancient Yet Modern”

Led by Neri Oxman, this research group at MIT’s Media Lab first published its findings in optically transparent 3D-printed glass back in 2015. Now, with G3DP2, the whiz-kids have scaled the technology up, from product scale to that of architecture. To show off their latest efforts, the Mediated Matter Group installed “Ancient Yet Modern,” a series of three freestanding columns embedded with synapse-light pulsing lights, at the Triennale di Milano.

Project Team: Chikara Inamura (project lead), Michael Stern, Daniel Lizardo, Tal Achituv, Tomer Weller, Owen Trueblood, Nassia Inglessis, Giorgia Franchin, Kelly Donovan, Peter Houk (project adviser), Prof. Neri Oxman (project and group director).

Project Associates: Andrea Magdanz, Susan Shapiro, David J. Benyosef, Mary Ann Babula, Forrest Whitcher, Robert Philips, Neils La White, Paula Aguilera, Jonathan Williams, Andy Ryan, Jeremy Flower.

Off Portugal presents Glass Cares

On the other end of the proverbial spectrum, OFF Portugal took the time-honored tack of gathering designers for a weekend workshop — in this case, glass-blowing in Marinha Grande. Two days in the making as opposed to two years, the resulting ten pieces offer a nice capsule collection of Portuguese design today as young designers look to move beyond the nation’s ready association with cork. The glass workshop 

The glass workshop and exhibition in Ventura Lambrate marks the debut of OFF Portugal, a joint effort between Vicara, Arquivo 237, and Cencal; future initiatives will explore other craft and manufacturing techniques.

Participating designers: Diana Medina, Eneida Lombe Tavares, Luis Nascimento, studio ojoaoeamaria, Jorge Carreira, Paulo Sellmayer, Samuel Reis, Vitor Agostinho, Manuel Amaral Netto, and Joana Silva

Salviati presents Decode/Recode

Speaking of long traditions, Venice-based Salviati is among the world’s oldest glass factories, dating back to 1859. For this year’s Milan design week, the Murano specialists presented a pair of installations at the newly minted Ventura Centrale district, a series of cavernous makeshift galleries underneath the train tracks. For Decode/Recode, Salviati invited Luca Nichetto and Ben Gorham to create modular works of glass, “Pyrae” and “Strata.”

Having long collaborated with his fellow Venetians — Salviati produced his first piece — Nichetto developed 25 modules that are combined in different configurations to create the 53 totem-pole-like figures, each illuminated from within. Meanwhile, Gorham, a perfumer by profession, opted for luminous towers to showcase glass tiles in various textures and finishes.

Spektacularis at Matter and Muse

An entirely unexpected joint effort between Filipino industrial designers and Czech master glassblowers, Spektacularis was one of three exhibitors in Matter and Muse, which occupied a modest gallery at the Palazzo Litta. The mutual unfamiliarity yielded expected results, hybrid objets d’art that incorporate elements of both cultures.

Participating designers: Stanley Ruiz, Liliana Manahan, Gabriel Lichauco, Jiri Panicek

“Prism” collection by Tomás Alonso

Atelier Swarovski Home at Palazzo Crespi

The Austrian crystal producer unveiled its latest home decor collections, developed by designers such as 2016 Swarovski Designer of the Future winners Studio Brynjar & Veronika and Tomás Alonso, who extended his collection. Scintillating though the wares may be, the gilded setting stole the show.

“Prism” collection by Tomás Alonso
“Prism” collection by Tomás Alonso
“Currents” collection by Studio Brynjar & Veronika

Other new Swarovski Home collections (not pictured) were designed by Aldo Bakker, Barbara Barry, Andre Kikoski, and Greg Lynn.

Roll & Hill launched Ladies & Gentlemen Studio‘s new “Kazimir” chandelier at Euroluce. Art/design history buffs can probably guess which Suprematist painter inspired the Brooklyn-based duo.

Also noteworthy

Naturally, this is just a selection of works in glass from design week in Milan; here are a few others that also caught our eye at the Salone and beyond. 

The New York-based lighting company also debuted the “Coax” collection by John Hogan
Meanwhile, at SaloneSatellite, Berlin’s Mendelheit Design Lab showed a mix of products, including several glass pieces. Created in a mold made from up to 128 different blocks, the “Tombola” generative vase can take countless forms.
Germans Ermics exhibited three ombre pieces at Rossana Orlandi; the chair, in particular, is an homage to Shiro Kuramata (forgive the awkward photo and check out more on his website)


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