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Exhibitions > Bringing the past into the present in contemporary product design

Bringing the past into the present in contemporary product design

Volker Albus, Curator


Let's take the Oriental carpet, which the Germans often just call the "Persian". For many of us, this is the epitome of an obsolete bourgeois interior. Wherever there is an Oriental rug, that's where people "live", with their sofas, sideboards, and potted plants. The kind of place where Chancellor Konrad Adenauer was at home. Here people also know the rules of good manners. And on the table there is only the classic tableware: Dresden China, Nymphenburg. Nothing embodies established "living" better than this hand-woven message from the East, but yet it is a message that is little understood, today as yesterday. That the price is determined by the tightness of the weave, and by the material and the origin of the carpet is well known, but we know nothing about the significance of the cryptic decorations. We just have to pass.

But now for quite a while this domestic value system no longer holds true - it is simply out of fashion. More than that: new generations, and above all the children of the West German post-war bourgeoisie began to decry everything that they associated with their parents' style of living as narrow-minded and reactionary - and then to immediately adopt it into their own subcultural level. What was once reserved wholly for the representation of establishment affluence was now, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, revalued as a provocative anti-façade. Bourgeois interiors became the very symbol of anti-bourgeois sentiment. What could be more provocative than to sit on an Oriental rug acquired on the cheap from a flea market, and, wearing jeans and leather, to light up a joint?
 
But that was not enough. Through their bad behaviour the anti-establishment disciples of protest culture demonstratively debunked the honourable core of established good living, yet actually came closer to the original use of these carpets for sitting on. They may have had the gall to trash these great and noble family heirlooms at flea markets, but then the carpet trade itself began to reframe this former object of value as a cheap product, now discounted, sold off en masse, and advertised brashly. Then there are all those mainly Turkish traders in colonial wares, who provide the appropriately decorated cut goods, which may be hardy and washable, but have nothing more to do with the traditional quality German needle felt.

To sum it up: there is hardly an element in our culture of interior design that has so thoroughly lost its original significance as the Oriental carpet. And hardly anyone would be much surprised if this so battered product had disappeared completely. But precisely that has not happened: the carpet is as present as it ever was, perhaps even more so. But not as the continuation of its old self, in its classical embodiment, but rather as a model, a generator of ideas and motifs, a piece of an unpretentious, enlightened and multicultural present state of affairs.

Designer Katrin Sonnleitner, for example, translates the carpet's typical decoration into a jigsaw puzzle, achieving ornamentation by separating out and then symmetrically joining series of identically shaped but differently coloured pieces. Users can decide for themselves how to put the pieces together, but must take into account given nuances and structures if they wish to create a typically oriental pattern. It they fail to do this, and put the pieces together in strips or squares just according to their colour, then the result is completely different, and also considerably more boring. 

The proposal made by Dutch designer Wendy Plomp is no less enlightened and secular - in the truest sense of the word. She also uses the Oriental carpet, translating this so historically laden motif into a more profane genre. She prints the inside of large packaging boxes with patterns reminiscent of Oriental rugs in one, two or three colours. This is a nice surprise for the receiver, and this "Message in a Box" has a further practical function. The cartons can be unfolded and used as a provisional prayer carpet, as the inside of such containers usually bears no traces or damage from their use in transport. This seems very profane, even blasphemous: cardboard box, prayer carpet, to be used provisionally; but if plastics can be mass produced and mass sold, then so can cardboard.

Richard Hutten on the other hand remains firmly within the material tradition. His updated version of this representative icon of bourgeois living is nonetheless anything but familiar. Hutten just shows a section of a carpet and only weaves a quarter of the motif he selects. The rest, the much larger part of the carpet, is made up of very finely and precisely laid but unwoven extensions of the woollen thread used in the woven and ornamental part of the carpet. His title for this intervention is "Playing with Tradition", which very exactly defines his approach to the traditional model. At the same time "playing with tradition" only partly describes what these young designers are doing, for here they are not only playing with the tradition of ornamental typology, but also with our contemporary relationship to the past - see Sonnleitner and Plomp - and above all with the increasingly profane role that this erstwhile floor-covering symbol of high-class interior design has come to assume.

All Just Water under the Bridge? 

Given the mass of material, it would be an understatement to speak of a trend here, as this word just denotes a temporary and often merely seasonal phenomenon. This is simply not true of the creative appropriation of the past we are witnessing. In the "new olds" exhibition alone, there are three more no less light-hearted carpet interpretations, and it would have been easy to find another twenty or so examples.
 
In addition, today's generation of thirty- and forty-year-olds is in no way limited to reforming this one striking model. These designers gain just as much pleasure and inspiration from other icons and insignia of past epochs: from stag antlers and cuckoo clocks, Baroque and Bauhaus, Dresden China and Memphis - basically from just about any domestic signifier, and any style that is characterized by a certain direct and simple message. In the same unprejudiced and open manner these designers are also making use of allegedly "old" techniques - weaving, braiding and embroidery, glass blowing, any number of techniques in woodworking, and of course all the adherent materials from gathered wood to rattan to enamel.
 
Taking recourse to past decades and their formal physiognomies is, of course, not a new phenomenon. Alongside the already mentioned protest culture of the 1970s, and considering more recent trends, it would be important to recall 1980s design, in particular by German and French young designers. Both here in Germany and across the river Rhine in France designers almost obsessively addressed their local living culture, but in very different ways. While young French designers, led by Philippe Starck, modernised the high-bourgeois style of their parents with a good deal of tact, designers from Berlin, Hamburg, Cologne and Düsseldorf took a far more critical and sometimes sarcastic position vis à vis everything that looked like yesterday. And of course so-called postmodernism should be mentioned here too, especially in architecture, where very specific classical motifs such as the arch and the pillar - the capital - were voluptuously tacked together to create all of those somehow lookalike façades in a symbolically overladen Hall of Fame.
 
Is it then all just water under the bridge? Yes and no. For the forms of distance articulated by the flea market culture of the 1960s and 1970s, the 1980s designs that formulated very clear comment and statement, and also the postmodern design that ultimately came to grief in its own limitless mannerism were all founded via a more or less constructed relationship to old established formal idioms, and a more or less consciously developed ideology. The kind of theoretical superstructure that accompanied all of these design concepts is missing in today's stylistic and highly heterogeneous remix of former styles. Today, there is no manifesto, no collection of theses and not even a collective sense of a new departure in basic approaches to design. This is not least due to the fact that manifestos and collective moods mostly do not just demand something completely "new", but instead derive their aims primarily from a radical rejection of what is allegedly "old", as in modernism, or deconstructivism. Looking at the works shown here, it is clear that this is not the case today, as a close look at one of the great icons of living culture, the Oriental carpet, has shown. But what about those other historically charged motifs, the antlers and cuckoo clocks, Baroque and Bauhaus, Dresden China and Memphis? Is there a general lack of ideology that would be confirmed by more closely examining these other examples? And where would the common ground in approaches to these historical motifs lie? Or, put more fundamentally, is there any common ground at all? 
 
From Baroque to Bauhaus 

Let's describe a few more works on show in "new olds". Designer Silvia Knüppel, for example, works on wardrobes, based on the classic Baroque-or-thereabouts model, which was particularly sucessful in what became known as "Gelsenkirchen Baroque" - heavy and imposing dark wooden sideboards and cabinets. At first glance, Knüppel's version entitled "Drückeberger" (Shirker) hardly gives a lightweight impression. But this cabinet is not at all heavy. It is made of foam, worked as a single massive block, with no doors, no drawers, no inside - just a block. And it works anyway, just differently from the usual models with doors and compartments. The designer has made numerous cuts into this block of foam, into which all manner of objects can be placed: items of clothing (but perhaps not pressed suits), newspapers, CDs, jewellery - pretty well everything that young people have everywhere but don't quite know where to put down. This is a piece of furniture that creates order, not a cabinet as we know it from the best in old-fashioned wooden design, but one that meets a purpose and still somehow reminds us of the ideals of our grandparents.
 
The "POLKA pots" by the two Austrians Marie Rahm and Monica Singer certainly remind us of grandmother's kitchen. But you quickly realize that these are not old heirlooms. Rahm and Singer create variations on the handle. For their collection of pots - two cooking pots, a sieve, a cup and a vase - they have designed a great variety of mostly circular handles. This is not just highly decorative, but also a new definition of these everyday utensils, as in the case of the sieve whose handles allow it to stand freely. Marie Rahm and Monica Singer attached the sieve's handles around its base, thus transforming it into a kind of standing bowl. Very practical.
 
Another of these highly traditional motifs generally has nothing at all to do with function: the stag's antlers, complete with its head. Today, like the laid-out bearskin, it is one of the most obvious no-go areas in interior design. But the Swiss-Belgian-French trio BIG GAME (Grégoire Jeanmonod, Elric Petit and Augustin Scott de Martinville) sees this differently. Their interpretations of this big-game hunting trophy, the "Animaux", are not only very friendly to animals, but also highly original, simple, and cheap. They consist of plywood plates fitted into one another, with either the cross- or longitudinal section resembling the outline of the head of an elk or red deer. Everyone who sees a pair of these antlers is not just happy that a real animal did not lose its head to make this product, but also pleased at this very nonchalant alternative. This is a way forward too. 

Nowhere Just One Single Recipe

A playful approach is in evidence not just towards some of the great symbols of interior design, but with the greatest of them all too, the one single symbol of design culture: the chair. In this exhibition alone there are twenty-three different variations on the chair, and, just like the examples mentioned above, they are all different. There is no one single recipe. Perhaps an old and probably completely worn-out piece of period furniture is revived by using duct tape (COMPANY); or a white varnished log chair is made to simulate the Baroque (Bo Reudler). Sometimes these chairs are just simple foam forms reminiscent of bombastic boudoirs (Frank Willems); or the well-known classic materials like corrugated board, polypropylene or plywood are replaced by rattan. The strategies and materials are as varied as the models on which they are applied and tried out. These designs are all highly concentrated and employed very precisely - this is what they have in common. The means and ways they use never appear to be redundant - if for example the material is used to defamiliarise the design, then this is the only method employed, and employed with great consistency. And once these transformation offensives, which at first seem very unusual, have been accepted, then it is easy enough just to ask: why not? Why not use tape to conceal the worn-out seat cushion, why not replace Baroque flourishes with knotty natural wood, and why not use a material like rattan to produce the kind of pioneering constructions that amount to spoof classics by Thonet, Panton and Eames?

Before we attempt to draw conclusions on possible common ground, we should look at a further epoch, one which is not so clearly definable in terms of tradition as the "antlers", "Baroque", "Oriental carpets" or "enamel", and which to date has been seen to be always contemporary. This is the epoch of modernism and all the architecture and design which we associate with this phase of radical change. Blasius Osko and Oliver Deichmann have closely examined the prototype of "modern" design, the cantilever chair by Marcel Breuer and Mart Stam. In 2009 they presented their own stupendous further development of this idea, the "Straw Chair". This was so stupendous because only one detail was changed, but it was the decisive detail. In their chair the well-known silhouette is not produced by the curve of the steel rod. Rather they folded the rod over like a drinking straw - thus the name of their chair. When a straw is folded at a 45-degree angle, then a stable 90-degree progression is created, just the form that is typical of nearly all the parameters of the famous cantilever chair. And it works, at least in the first prototypes that have not yet been subjected to mass use. But whether or not one day a modification of the ageless and classic cantilever chair goes into series production, it must be noted that Osko + Deichmann have achieved something highly unusual with their proposal. In design there are doubtlessly only very few forms and styles that have so clearly become part of a general cultural consciousness as the curved technology of the steel cantilever chair. And this so generally accepted shape is suddenly not merely transcended, as instead the curves are replaced by a completely commensurate principle. The silhouette remains, with the only difference being that the joints are folded and not curved. That is all there is to it. Magnificent.
 
A Profane Look Back 

Here and in all the other examples discussed we clearly recognise the model. But we also recognise that nothing is copied 1:1, nor imitated, nor conserved. The past, or rather the forms of the past are omnipresent. But they are not idealized and not ridiculed, and also not merely used as a historical characteristic or a self-referential quotation that might titillate an audience (of whatever kind) as a decorative aside. These forms from the past are brought into the present and in the best way made compatible for everyday use and generally accessible - this is the case for all the designs mentioned here. These works that correspond to various forms from the past are recognisably contemporary, works of today, whether this is clear in the design process, their configuration, the use of material, the high technologies of their production, their function, or the way we use them. Basically all of these works further develop and write sequels to traditional techniques and traditional forms. The past, and what it holds for us in terms of tried-and-tested and emotionally resonant models, is seen as a kind of repository from which designers today can and should draw ideas. The forms found in this repository can be understood, they serve the purposes of identification and authenticity. And the ways in which these forms are reworked and remade also highlights shifts in social consciousness - if only in the simple transformation of a stag's antlers. All in all: there is nothing that so clearly shows these designers' commitment to their own present time than their masterly and enlightened, even profane, use of the achievements of yesteryear.

 

 
 
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