It is scarcely to be believed that 73 years have passed since MoMA in New York staged its last exhibition devoted to fashion design – Bernard Rudofsky’s Are Clothes Modern?. Rudofsky’s show proposed to examine the interplay between garments and the human body with forensic detail, breaking fashion out of discussion of trend and instead reflecting on the social value of the discipline as well as critiquing a number of its conventions. “It will not be a style or fashion show; it will not display costumes; it will not offer specific dress reform,” read the original press release. “The purpose of the exhibition is to bring about an entirely new and fresh approach to the subject of clothes”.
Paola Antonelli, MoMA’s senior curator of Architecture and Design, appears to have adopted the Rudofskian method for her exhibition that returns the museum to the topic of fashion: Items: Is Fashion Modern?. As befits the department in which she works, Antonelli seems to be approaching fashion as a species of product design, with a stated desire that the exhibition will be “Driven first and foremost by objects, not designers”. What will be served up at MoMA, if the exhibition meets expectations, is an adult discussion of fashion design devoid of glamour and razzmatazz, but rather rooted in discussion of the material development and cultural resonance of garments designed in the 20th and 21st century.
Away from New York and to Wakefield in the north of England, where the fashion designer JW Anderson is staging an exhibition at the Hepworth Wakefield art gallery. Anderson’s aim for this show, Disobedient Bodies is radically different to that of Antonelli, but similarly evinces a desire to break fashion out of its echo chamber and to recast it as a credible means of speaking about wider issues. In Anderson’s case, his target is the human body and gender, with Disobedient Bodies placing figurative sculptures from the likes of Henry Moore, Jean Arp and Louise Bourgeois alongside fashion design from Christian Dior, Jean Paul Gaultier, Rei Kawakubo and Issey Miyake. A fine companion show to Anderson’s effort, albeit on a smaller scale and less heralded, is The Museum of Transology at London’s Fashion Space Gallery. A display of trans artefacts and photographic portraiture, The Museum of Transology should make for an admirable effort to reflect on how design might intersect with consideration of gender identity – a topic that seems timely and vital in 2017.
While MoMA, the Hepworth Wakefield and Fashion Space Gallery are endeavouring to present fashion design in fresh contexts, there is also reason for introspection within the industry. Raf Simons’s tenure as chief creative officer of Calvin Klein ought to make for compelling study as he works to unite the disparate brands that make up the Klein remit. Meanwhile, Simons’s successor at Christian Dior, Maria Grazia Chiuri, is a talented designer whose work deserves close attention. The fact that she is a female creative director in an industry that remains depressingly male-centric is a secondary, although nonetheless laudable, consideration. Elsewhere, students of fashion history ought to be catered for with a raft of retrospectives, not least Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion at the V&A, Margiela – The Hermès Years at MOMU in Antwerp, and Rei Kawakubo / Comme des Garçons at the Met.
If 2016 seemed like a bumper year for the opening of major cultural institutions – London’s new Design Museum, the National Museum of African-American History and Culture in Washington D.C., the Estonian National Museum – 2017 is something else entirely. Herzog & de Meuron’s gargantuan Elbephilharmonie opens in Hamburg this month. Later in the year, Paris will greet OMA’s Fondation d'Entreprise Galeries Lafayette and the Musée Saint Laurent, which will also be complimented by a new museum in the designer’s adoptive home of Marrakech. In China, the Victoria & Albert (V&A) will collaborate on Shenzhen’s Design Centre. Set in a rather conservative white assemblage by the Pritzker Prize-winning Fumihiko Maki, it is the first fruit of the V&A’s oncoming expansion, with branches in Dundee and east London to follow before the decade’s close.
The most fertile bed for openings this year, however, is the United Arab Emirates, where little expense seems spared on large-scale cultural projects. In Dubai, OMA’s Concrete is set to bring a roughly-hewn centrepiece to the privately-owned Alserkal Avenue art district. Despite the firmness inherent in its name, OMA’s relatively subtle building features movable walls and a glass facade that, according to Alserkal Avenue, “can be positioned to create a seamless indoor-outdoor experience.” Such apparent adaptability should be a boon for the building’s other functions as a corporate events venue and conference centre.
It is in Abu Dhabi, however, that the year’s grandest designs look set to be staged. By the close of 2017, two major Western museums are planning to open Gulf branches – the Guggenheim and the Louvre. Both have faced a troubled gestation, with economic difficulties and construction delays. Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim adds brick towers and a golden pinnacle to the sinuous silver curves of its Bilbao predecessor. When even the promotional renders look like the remnants of a manic child’s Christmas unpacking, you could be forgiven for wondering whether Gehry ever laid eyes on the complete design. In 2014, Gehry dubbed 98 per cent of modern architecture “pure shit” – perhaps he has resigned himself to residing outside the 2 per cent.
Perpetuating his seeming monopoly over French cultural projects, Jean Nouvel has staged his Louvre beneath an enormous latticed dome. In France, the project was accused of commercialising the nation’s heritage, shipping parts of it off across the globe in hopes of turning a profit. Furthermore, accusations of workers’ rights abuses, with arbitrary wage withholding, passport confiscation, unsafe conditions, casts a considerable cloud over the opening.
These two buildings are just the start of Abu Dhabi’s cultural investment, with Norman Foster’s Zayed National Museum, Tadao Ando’s Maritime Museum and Zaha Hadid Architect’s concert venue to come, all jostled together along a waterside stretch. It is easy to be cynical about the emirate’s aspirations for cultural power. The silver lining is that, though the Louvre will feature artworks loaned from Paris, the others will develop a collection of local content. Equally, that these projects represent more fruitful products of Abu Dhabi’s vast wealth than yet another priapic sky-piercer can hardly be denied.
Robotics and Artificial Intelligence
In 2016, robotics and artificial intelligence loomed large within design – as they have for many years. A robotically woven carbon-fibre pavilion took centre stage inside the V&A's courtyard and in neighbouring Holland Park, at the recently opened Design Museum, a 1200kg industrial robot was installed as part of the museum’s inaugural exhibition, Fear and Love. Elsewhere, designer Yves Behar launched a robotic cot; numerous companies – Google, Audi, Nissan and BMW to name a few – revealed that they are developing self-driving cars; and efforts to bring drones into the public domain accelerated – December alone saw the French postal service announce it was to trial drone parcel delivery and Amazon successfully conduct its first commercial drone delivery.
In the design world in 2017, robotics and artificial intelligence continue to bear significance. The increasing prevalence of artificial intelligence in society, coupled with subsequent concerns about the effects of a potential world dominated by robots, has prompted several exhibitions dedicated to the subject. Hello, Robot. Design between Human and Machine opens at the Vitra Design Museum in spring. In featuring more than 150 exhibits, it sets out to offer a comprehensive exploration of how robotics is changing the way we live and how design is changing robotics. The exhibition's setting within a design institution is promising and reaffirms the relevance of robotics in shaping design.
Elsewhere at the Science Gallery in Dublin, Humans Need Not Apply explores the ethical considerations of an increasingly robot-dominated society. “In an automated world,” the exhibition asks, “is it nearly time to put humans out to pasture? Does the future resemble a leisure-time utopia or a robot-tended human-zoo?” The exhibition is timely; this January Foxconn, the Taiwanese company that manufactures Apple’s iPhone, announced plans to continue to replace human labour with robots with the eventual goal to become fully automated. The 2017 Vienna Biennale, Robots. Work. Our Future, also examines the effect of robots in society, yet opts for a more positive approach, exploring the sustainable use of robotics and the joint potential of humans and robots.
Cultural legacies of 1917
2017 marks the centenary of the Russian revolutions of February and October 1917, a momentous historical event that resulted in the instatement of a communist state in formerly tsarist Russia. A swathe of exhibitions will mark the cultural legacy of the revolutions. In Red Star Over Russia, Tate Modern will focus on Russian graphic design in the first five decades of the 20th century, featuring posters, photographs, and printed matter from the first Russian Revolution of 1905 to the death of Stalin in 1953. Russian painting from 1917 to 1932 will be highlighted at the Royal Academy of Art, while London’s Design Museum will concentrate on the post-revolutionary urban design plans for Moscow from the 1920s and 1930s in its Imagine Moscow exhibition.
The events of 1917 in Russia also led, through a concatenation of negotiations, to the Finnish declaration of independence on 6 December of that year. This centenary provides an opportunity to review the country’s much celebrated 20th-century design legacy. A major exhibition programme organised by five museums in Helsinki highlights the modernising efforts of Finnish architects and designers in the first half-century of independence — titled Modern Life!, the festival will feature a series of exhibitions and events hosted jointly by HAM (Helsinki Art Museum), the Finnish Design Museum, The Finnish Museum of Photography, Museum of Finnish Architecture, and Alvar Aalto Museum.
With the political upsets and heightened nationalist sentiments that have dominated 2016, 2017 seems an important year to think about complex histories of social upheaval, as well as the formation of modern nation states. It is to be hoped that the exhibition and events programmes prompted by this centenary year will not veer towards facile aestheticisation, but stand as earnest appraisals of the challenging role played by cultural producers in turbulent times.
Back To School
It feels a time of gradual transition in design and architecture education. At the Design Academy Eindhoven, the shock departure of creative director Thomas Widdershoven has left a significant chair to be filled this year. London’s Bartlett School of Architecture has just inaugurated a confident new building by Hawkins/Brown, while the Cass School of Art, Architecture and Design remains threatened with losing its own headquarters and moving across town. Central St Martins, meanwhile, enters 2017 with a new course director for BA Fashion. Sarah Gresty succeeds Willie Walters, who led the department for 18 years.
At the University of Gothenburg’s School of Design and Crafts (HDK) – which notably offers joint MAs in Design and Business – the addition of the designer Onkar Kular and architect Marcus Miessen might betoken an emergent new hub. At time of writing, the HDK is also searching for a crafts and textile professor to join its faculty.
Another, more unexpected, locale for design education this year is the Sicilian city of Syracuse, where the Netherlands-based design practice Formafantasma has began leading the BA Design course at the local Academy of Fine Arts. Formafantasma’s approach prioritises creativity over commercial viability. It will be fascinating to see what the practice's students concoct as the course matures.