A new book published by ECAL in Switzerland, Making Sense is an overview and celebration of research in art and design conducted from the university’ base in Lausanne on the banks of Lake Geneva. Launched earlier this month at 10 + 10, a conference hosted at the school, the project is intended to highlight the work of designers as a form of practice that is active, searching and pressing – a form of intellectual and practical enquiry the equal of any other. To borrow from the conference’s opening remarks, owed to ECAL’s director Alexis Georgacopoulous, Making Sense is intended as a challenge to “the assumption that research is reserved for something more scientific.” It is an assertion that “creatives and all acts of creation are the result of a period of reflection […] [and] research is the mother of all curiosity.”
ECAL’s R&D department was founded in 2000 in response to Switzerland’s Federal Act on Universities of Applied Sciences, an act of government that required schools of art and design to conduct applied research and development in conjunction with their regular teaching duties. Initially helmed by Luc Bergeron, the department is today led by Davide Fornari. “Design research as well as artistic research are hot topics,” noted Fornari. “Our vision for the future is to see design and artistic research included in the curriculum.”
Based on the projects included within Making Sense, the form that this curricular integration is to take are varied – from theoretical projects such as TM SGM 1960-1990 (an assessment of Swiss Style modernism executed by analysis of the magazine Typographische Monatsblätter), through to applied research like Atrocity Exhibition – Which Curatorial Approach to Take (an exploration of curatorial strategies that resulted in two different exhibitions). Of most interest to a design audience, perhaps, are those examples of research projects which blend the two, and which aim to employ academic enquiry and practical experimentation in order to generate new forms and methodologies.
Heart of Glass, a project initiated in 2012 by Big Game’s Augustin Scott de Martinville, saw students and assistants from ECAL’s MA Product Design programme work with visiting lecturers and industry partners such as Baccarat and CIAV Meisenthal to develop a series of new tools and methodologies for production of glass objects. A project like Heart of Glass sees research as an instigator for new forms of design – it is an opportunity to yoke students, industry and established designers together in an effort to advance practice.
One of the central challenges to such an approach is the need to coordinate a number of different partners, who may have different ambitions. “When you bring all these [different partners] around the table, it’s not so easy,” noted Nicolas Henchoz, head of the EPFL-ECAL Lab and one of the speakers at the 10 + 10 conference. “You have to combine different cultures and there are very few companies that can do this. It is the duty of universities to try, however. It is important that we are not just doing research for us, but that we have partners to help us meet the end user. I think that design has been a little bit polluted with this idea of ‘design thinking’ where you bring everyone around a table and solve everything in three days.” Henchoz’s point, it would seem, is that research is not helpful when confined to an ivory tower, and ought not be seen as a silver bullet. It is an activity that benefits from different inputs, and which is not an easy route for practitioners to reach definitive answers or outcomes – it must be worked at.
It was a point with which Alba Cappellieri, a professor of jewellery and accessory design at the Politecnico di Milano, was in agreement when she spoke during the conference. Cappellieri cited the San Lorenzo necklace, a piece of jewellery that is able to pivot around seven points of articulation that was designed by Lella Vignelli and released in 1995. “They spent 10 years developing the technical side of the piece,” said Cappellieri. “Right now the majority of fashion companies can’t spend that amount of time on a single product […] fashion companies are interested in [using research] to reach new markets, but they have no methodology for this. Industry is no longer the place where you can start such inquiry. It now falls to schools.”
Even within a more straightforwardly academic context, this emphasis on industrial partners was apparent throughout the 10 + 10 talks. Skylar Tibbits is the co-director of the Self-Assembly Lab housed at MIT’s International Design Center, an institution devoted to research around self-assembly and programmable material technologies. Tibbits’ work has included academic research projects such as Fluid Assembly Furniture, in which disparate components auto-assemble into a chair form when submerged within a tank of turbulent water, as well as investigations that have been funded by industry. Rapid Liquid Printing for instance, was executed in conjunction with Steelcase. The project is a species of 3D printing that takes place within a gel suspension in an effort to speed up traditional forms of the technique, and which allows for the creation of large-scale objects created using industry-grade materials. “We do projects that are pushing a question we see in industry,” said Tibbits, speaking at the conference, “or sometimes it comes straight from industry.”
As with other speakers at the conference, Tibbits stressed the practical dimension of research and identified its capacity to have an immediate real-world impact. “A lot of people ask us to predict the future, but I’m not so interested in the future in that way,” he said. “The [technologies and methodologies] we think of as the future are actually here now. It’s just [a case of] changing the way we look at things.” Research within Tibbits’ schema, then, is not a case of unearthing and developing future forms of practice, but rather a way of clarifying the options already available to designers.
This perhaps is one of the themes that emerged most strongly through Making Sense and the 10 + 10 conference. Research should not be seen as existing in separation from a university’s teaching commitments, the day-to-day work of industry, or the projects and interests of practitioners. Rather, it is a live practise that is interwoven with all of these areas, and which is subject to their various fluctuations and vagaries. It fell to Roel Wouters, one of the conference’s speakers and the co-founder of Amsterdam-based practice Moniker, to encapsulate the difficulties of trying to predict the likely future of a vibrant research field so completely embedded within the complexities and mess of the academic-industrial complex. “It’s a super ridiculous question to even think of,” he said. “I’ll do my best [to answer] and I’m sure we won’t find any answers.”