Disegno No.8

A New Frontier: a report into contemporary food design

Milan

20 April 2015

One of the most apparent strands of design at this year’s Salone del Mobile in Milan was based around food.

Food was present in Eat Shit, an exhibition staged by Design Academy Eindhoven’s Food Non Food design department which showed a mixture of projects by current students and past works by graduates. The exhibits were experimental, inspiring and provocative: towers built from pigeon faeces; critiques of industrial farming by means of wooden toys; bioluminescence derived from octopus bacteria.

Food design was also clear at the more industrial end of the spectrum, playing a key role in installations created by designers Matali Crasset and Thomas Sandell for Ikea Temporary, an exhibit of the Swedish brand’s Metod modular kitchen range. Looming over everything was the upcoming Milan Expo, the world fair that opens in May and is themed Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life.

Disegno commissioned an extensive report into the state of food design for our current issue, Disegno No.8. Given the preponderance of food design in Milan, we are delighted to now republish the report online, alongside an accompanying image series shot by photographer Nick Rochowski.


A New Frontier

In the past year, global revenues from packaged foods reached $2.4tn, which is more than double the $1tn in sales mustered by consumer electronics in the same timespan. Just as a mobile phone or tablet are designed, so too are the foodstuffs we eat. When you consider the intermingling of fresh ingredients, flavourings, additives, bleaching agents, replacers, colourings, sweeteners, salt substitutes, preservatives, shaping, injecting, cutting, moulding, packaging, branding, graphics and logotypes required to devise even the simplest market-ready packaged food, you realise that food can throw up design projects every bit as complex as creating an iPad. And given the scale and immediacy of its production – Mars produces 2.5m Mars Bars a day in its main UK factory in Slough – food ought to stand as one of the crown jewels of industrial design. So why isn’t food design discussed more often?

The situation is summed up well by US food designer Mike Lee:1 “I hope eventually food gets to the point where products are designed and scrutinised to the degree that people scrutinise Apple products. It’s interesting how much attention products like that get compared to food, which is so much more intimate than consumer electronics.” The reasons for this discrepancy are varied,2 but there are signs that the situation is changing. In 2014 a surprising number of food design initiatives were launched. In the early half of the year, Pratt Institute in New York began Food Design Studio, a semester-long class hosted in the school’s industrial design department; in July, Design Academy Eindhoven (DAE) in the Netherlands announced Food Non Food, a BA department headed by designer Marije Vogelzang;3 and in December, Scuola Politecnica di Design (SPD) and International University of Languages and Media (ILUM) in Milan announced a joint MA in food design, sponsored by PepsiCo, the world’s second largest food and beverage business. Food design is starting to be talked about seriously.

What is interesting about these courses is that they have been created in a design context. Training in food design has existed before – principally in the form of “food engineering” courses at technical schools – but had little traction at design and art institutes.4 Yet the courses at SPD, DAE and Pratt suggest that the design world is interested in extending its own role in the food industry, and that a giant on the scale of PepsiCo (with a turnover of $66.4bn in 2013 alone) has chosen to back food design education suggests that industry is interested in examining design too. “The world hasn’t known about designers working with food, and this type of design still needs to prove itself, especially in the outside world,” says Vogelzang. “What can it add? What can it do for us? Why do we need it? Those are very valid questions.” In other words, the three courses may begin to unravel a question that has plagued food design from the beginning. What even is it?

In terms of definitions, it’s easiest to say what food design is not. It’s not packaging design and it’s not cookery (although both of these may play a part). But because the chef/food designer conflation in particular is such a common misconception, it’s worth adding a few more words. The best way to conceive of the difference between designer and chef is to consider the difference between a furniture designer and the craftsman who executes their design. The relationship between a food designer and a chef is near-perfectly analogous. Historical context will help. The man usually credited with the creation of food design is Martí Guixé,5 a Catalonian designer whose practice in food launched when he showed SPAMT at H2O Gallery in Barcelona in 1997. SPAMT was a series of conceptual tapas (Guixé prefers the term “techno-tapas”) designed to suit the strictures of modern life.6 Guixé has always insisted that he can’t cook and denies any real interest in food beyond its status as a mass-produced object, yet his work challenged the formal design of the food we eat and in the years following SPAMT, Guixé’s example was seized upon by a small pool of designers who also found profit in exploring food and food culture. Yet food design existed long before Guixé. “Some of the first food design is cheese,” says London-based food designer Jacopo Sarzi.7 “The French ‘fromage’ comes from the Latin word ‘forma’: form or shape. So cheese can be any shape and we decide what to give it based on functionality, taste and branding. If I’m making a cheese out of goat’s milk, this will be soft and likely to break if I make it too big, so the smaller the better. You would make something that looks like a crottin,8 which is, in fact, the shape we do give it.” Given that the development of cheese predates recorded history, food design has long roots.

What Guixé should perhaps be credited with, rather than the creation of food design, is initiating its gradual codification as a discipline. Which is where the exact nature of food design becomes complicated. The phrase “food design” – treated like comparable phrases “furniture design” or “product design” – suggests that the role of the food designer is clear: they design foodstuffs. In the case of Guixé and those like him, whose projects typically result in proposed designs for foodstuffs (Guixé has developed concepts for hands-free lollipops, edible corks for sake and hollowed-out apples that act as cups), this seems a good description. Yet it is a less comfortable fit for designers whose work results in outcomes outside of a defined food product. Vogelzang, for instance, has developed dinners where diners reach the table by pushing their heads and hands through tablecloths suspended from the ceiling, and a trial of tap waters from across the Netherlands to introduce the notion of terroir9 to waterways. Elsewhere, Francesca Sarti,10 founder of studio Arabeschi di Latte, has designed a coffeepot with multiple spouts to encourage communal drinking, and a restaurant that used only ingredients gathered from within the M25 motorway around London. These designers are not so much designing food, as designing with or around food. To add to the confusion, the projects Vogelzang and Sarti develop are probably better indicators than Guixé’s of the outcomes most food designers reach. “Honestly, I don’t even particularly like the definition ‘food design’,” says Sarti. “For years I tried to explain what I was doing without using it. Now I just accept it because it allows people to understand more or less what I’m doing.” Vogelzang goes further and prefers to self-identify as an “eating designer” instead. “I think food design is a smaller part of a bigger thing called eating design,” she says. “Food design is the literal design of food, which is valid and there are really interesting works done in that field, but we need to get people away from the idea we’re only there to shape food, give it different colours and make more money.”

Whether “eating design” improves upon “food design” is a subject upon which designer Emilie Baltz,11 who initiated Food Design Studio at the Pratt Institute, is particularly eloquent. “The question is, ‘What is the point of entry for a creative?’” she says. “An eating designer is maybe more like an interaction designer who focuses on the systems first, whereas a food designer is more like someone who goes off to make a table because they’ve found a new material. They test that material, tweak it to understand its properties, and from there start to address the wider systems. Perhaps the same goes for food versus eating design. You can’t have one without the other. It’s a distinction between the different points of entering the process.”

The distinction is important because it goes some way towards answering Vogelzang’s question about the discipline: “Why do we need it?” If food design is simply the creation of new products or variations upon existing products (to repeat: “the idea we’re only there to shape food, give it different colours and make more money”), then a charge of redundancy against the discipline might carry more weight. But if we shift towards looking at eating design and its engagement with the systems that surround food, it becomes easier to see the discipline’s value. “I’m not a chef, I’m not a food expert, and I’m not a farmer, but I am interested in all these domains,” says Jacopo Sarzi. “Food design really begins with the linking of those fields together and looking at how all their various elements could connect.” Vogelzang agrees: “The specific role of the designer working with food – and most other designers, actually – is to link different fields of expertise. The designer is a linking agent and that’s where I think the value is. The designer is not the specialist or the farmer, but they can work with the farmer and make the link to a different field and add some creative thinking to help solve problems.”

This is significant. If design is at root a problem-solving discipline, then the food industry has more than enough problems to keep it occupied. Consider the following, which are a quick sample of some of the issues that the food industry ought to be concerned about:

  1. Enough food is produced annually to support the world’s seven billion people, yet 805 million are still chronically malnourished. (Source: World Food Programme)

  2. Four billion tonnes of food are produced per annum, yet between 30 and 50 per cent is never eaten due to poor practices in harvesting, storage, transportation, and market and consumer wastage. UK retailers are estimated to reject 1.6m tonnes of food a year for cosmetic reasons alone. (Source: Institution of Mechanical Engineers)

  3. Livestock production currently accounts for 30 per cent of the land surface of the planet and is responsible for 18 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions (more than transport), while 70 per cent of previously forested land in the Amazon is now occupied by pasture. (Source: Food and Agricultural Organisation of the United Nations)

  4. Farmers in the UK are paid around 27p for a litre of milk, while the average cost of production is just over 30p. (Source: Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

  5. The world’s population is estimated to rise to 8.3 billion by 2030. An extra billion tonnes of cereals will need to be produced to cope with this. (Source: Food and Agricultural Organisation of the United Nations)

With these statistics in mind, consider another question often asked of food design: “Is it necessary?” Earlwyn Covington,12 one of the teachers on DAE’s Food Non Food course and a co-founder of online food design platform Thinking Food Design, has a particularly memorable response to the question. “That’s the criticism I hear most,” he says. “Oh, I don’t know, is what you put in your mouth and what comes out of your ass necessary?

Covington’s response is successful because it’s visceral, which ties it to the nature of food itself. Simply put, everybody eats, and this means that problems surrounding food have an immediacy lacking from most areas of design; for “mouth and ass”, read “our most basic needs”. This same idea about the primacy of food is also expressed by Vogelzang, who expands it into a cultural context as well. “We’ve all been fed by our mothers or whoever took care of us when we were babies, so it’s a very basic thing,” she says. “Food and eating are things we all know and understand, and that’s true globally. If you think about culture and how that’s represented – sometimes through paintings; sometimes through architecture – it’s actually food culture that’s really alive and is recreated every day. And it has to be this way for us to live.”

Whether food designers are actually able do anything to resolve the problems facing the industry is another matter. Sam Bompas is one of the co-founders of Bompas & Parr,13 a high-profile London-based practice working in food design. Bompas & Parr has worked for the likes of the Serpentine Gallery, the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Whitney Museum of American Art, Mercedes-Benz, Kraft Foods and Heinz, and completed projects ranging from an illuminated drive-thru restaurant and cooking with lava, to jelly architectural models and banquets themed around dirt. Yet Bompas and his partner Harry Parr choose not to identify as food designers, preferring the term “experience designers” instead. “Nobody needs their food made by a food designer,” he says. “It’s a luxury and pushes things into the realm of entertainment. Some food designers might say they’re talking about society and using food as a way to highlight this, but really it’s entertainment for middle- class people who like to be entertained by these sorts of things. It’s delightful and it’s fun, but it’s not changing people’s lives.”

Bompas’s point is as much a piece of self-reflection as it is a criticism of food design – much of his studio’s work has focused on the production of events and installations for clients geared towards grabbing public attention (“And food is a very good vehicle for getting people’s attention for five minutes”) – but it still has teeth. Much current food design is conceptual, and gallery or installation- based. Equally, while many food designers have links to the food industry, it is typically in the form of ad-hoc consulting work on one-off projects, rather than ongoing positions in the development of commercial products or supply networks. And the most familiar role that food designers play in this arena, as Bompas suggests, is as quasi-marketeers. The point is ably put by Carolien Niebling,14 a food designer and recent graduate of the ECAL design school in Lausanne, Switzerland. “The work remains in the design world, which is really a world on its own: design for designers rather than for the whole world,” she says. “Maybe food design has stayed too much in this design-gallery atmosphere and the people who go to these kind of events would probably go even without the food design being there, just because they want to attend. I worry we’re targeting the wrong group.”

While sympathetic to this suggestion, other food designers would doubtless offer a rejoinder: food design has only been widely talked about since the early 2000s; you can’t expect it to have had a mass impact yet. “It wasn’t that discussion of food design was missing before the early 2000s, it’s that it was non-existent,” agrees Covington. “It wasn’t until the democratisation of the internet in 2001 that people and industry began to become aware of what was going on.” Marc Bretillot,15 one of the first practicing food designers and a colleague of Covington’s, makes a small addition to this: “One hundred and fifty years ago most furniture manufacturers didn’t work with designers either.”

Given that food design is still in its infancy, it’s unlikely that it will solve huge questions over food distribution or meeting the demands of population growth in the near future. But this is not to say that food designers ought not offer solutions to such problems, even if they are unlikely to be taken up at present. “There is a lot of development still needed,” agrees Vogelzang, “and you might not expect that designers are going to save the world. But they may be able to change the world or have an influence on what happens in other areas. That’s not going to happen instantly however. If you look at the number of graphic designers in the world and compare that to designers working on food, then that second number is still really, really tiny. To have a big impact, it needs more time to grow and develop, time to take on projects that are maybe less elitist.”

This means that the question “What is food design?” is probably better rendered as “What might food design become?” and it’s here that the courses at DAE, Pratt and SPD become particularly relevant. For the first time, a steady stream of design graduates will soon be emerging who are specially trained in food design. It is an open question as to where they will lead the discipline.

One suggestion, owed to Martí Guixé, would be a pure product-design route. “A lot of food projects are not, in my opinion, contemporary,” says Guixé, “so consider, for example, the imitation of traditional shapes. Many potato chips are shaped industrially by injection but made to look as if they’re cut by hand – which is like injection-moulding a plastic chair but still imitating wood grain. In the classical parameters of design, that’s kitsch. Then consider how you might sit for hours on a chair and after a year start to feel pain because it’s not ergonomic. That could be transformed into how, after eating potato chips for one year, you’re obese and have health problems. Most examples of food design, if you can say they’re designed at all, are bad. Or if they’re “good”, they’re only good for making a lot of money. But by 2020 I think that there will be truly good food design products on the market, which will be entirely driven by economic reasons. They’ll be there because they’re better than the old ones.”

The idea that food designers will forge stronger links with industry is a compelling one. “Food design already exists applied to industry, but it’s an engineering component of projects at present,” agrees Jacopo Sarzi. “Take some of the Wall’s ice creams for example, which are incredible works of engineering. I think what’s changing in industry is design applied to food as a sensibility or sensitivity. Engineering alone doesn’t have that, because sensitivity isn’t purely scientific.” Given PepsiCo’s sponsorship of the SPD MA16 it seems clear that industry believes it can benefit from this input.

Mauro Porcini17 is PepsiCo’s chief design officer and one of the leading figures behind the MA. He is clear that his company wants to work with food designers. “We live in a society where consumers are hyper-connected,” he says. “They’re becoming very savvy, very spoiled and very demanding, because they know everything about everything; they can take a cell phone out of their pocket and see everything in real time. So it’s important to deliver products and create solutions that are meaningful and relevant for them, and design is really about that. Innovation is becoming more and more a must, a need. It’s expected by society and customers, and no longer a luxury like it may have been. Cycles of innovation were slower in any industry in the past, but today there are sites like Kickstarter, social media and, in the near future, 3D printing that will give people the ability to manufacture things by themselves. Competition is becoming more and more aggressive, and if a corporation doesn’t deliver innovation to its customers, then somebody else will be able to do it.”

Porcini’s belief in design’s growing relevance to the food industry gains support from Christian Saclier,18 global head of industrial design at Nestlé. “Our mindset as a company is to apply design thinking to any kind of problem, and one area we’re developing at the moment is to help people understand portion size, which isn’t always obvious,” he says. Given that 1.9 billion adults are currently overweight, he may have a point. “We’re developing ways to guide consumers about portion size, which can be communicated through packaging or the product design itself, in terms of shape or visual clues like breaks in a chocolate bar. As a company we need to have a business that’s sustainable and sustainability comes through understanding the needs of our consumers. Consumers no longer just want products, but products and services. It’s about the overall experience because there is a general consensus that people want balanced lifestyles. At Nestlé we want to provide our consumers with the best experience we can. Design can help us understand what a good experience is for our consumers.”

Yet in spite of Porcini and Saclier’s votes of confidence, caveats apply. The food industry produces on a scale foreign to any other area of design, meaning that the level of investment in tooling and stock needed to make even minor alterations to a product is vast.19 “They’re massive beasts and scared of changing big things, which is kind of understandable because one little change can have a huge effect,” says Vogelzang. “They’re really like dinosaurs: slow because they’re so big.” The result is that innovations from larger companies20 are likely to be modest in the short term (“Think of all the huge-name brands in food right now that are ubiquitous,” suggests designer Mike Lee. “Now, how many of those were creative in the last 20 years?”) and the companies themselves are likely to remain risk-averse. The last word on this should go to Sam Bompas, whose experience of working with food companies is greater than most. While Bompas defends the industry’s willingness to innovate (“I see the food industry as being an incredibly aggressive innovator, because the reward of innovating well is so huge”), he is unequivocal about its main use for design innovation: “Brands really want things simple: they want to sell loads of product. If you’ve got something that’s going to sell loads of product, they’ll lunge at it. If the idea is really niche, great, but that’s not the right avenue for them.” New industrial food design projects will almost certainly emerge; whether they’ll meet Guixé’s hope of prioritising factors other than sales is less clear.

If food design is only likely to gain traction with industry at a steady rate, a question remains as to where it might make more immediate short-term gains. Here the answer is probably to be found in a question not yet asked: why are there suddenly so many food design courses and how does this development relate to the wider emergence of a “foodie” culture that has seen television and publishing schedules bloat with cookery shows and books; Instagram flood with food photography; restaurants and pop-up cafés reviewed with the depth and cultural seriousness of art criticism; and sales of speciality foods soar in not just supermarkets, but the cavalcade of farmers’ markets, concept restaurants, food festivals and bijoux street food booths that are now in the ascendent? It’s a situation that led essayist William Deresiewicz to the following conclusion in the New York Times in 2012: “The weekend chef is what the Sunday painter used to be... Just as aestheticism, the religion of art, inherited the position of Christianity among the progressive classes around the turn of the 20th century, so has foodism taken over from aestheticism around the turn of the 21st. Now we read the gospel according, not to Joyce or Proust, but to Michael Pollan and Alice Waters.”21

“I have a suspicion that it has to do with the rise of digital technology,” says Pratt’s Emilie Baltz. “In the late 1990s and early 2000s we started as a culture to have all of our mechanical and physical tasks reduced. Everything changed. We changed relationship to our work and we changed relationship to our bodies. Lots of people have talked about this, but there is a certain amount of dehumanisation that happens with technology becoming smarter and smarter. And with that I think there comes a counterbalance. So we turned to food, which is something that uses our body, uses our emotions and uses our hearts, because we understand food through our senses. I think we’ve started to see a rise of food design as a sort of humanisation of a creative industry and a bit of a cry for help: reminding me that I’m here and that I’m not a machine. Food is this last sort of low-hanging fruit that everyone has dismissed in the past.”

In this sense, food has become a way in which we interpret our identities and the culture around us. It’s not that this was absent before – there have always been food cultures – just that the cultural role of food, a physical medium, has developed a more pressing edge in light of the mass digitisation of other areas of culture. At a time when Google vice-president and “Father of the Internet” Vint Cerf is warning of a “digital dark age”,22 in which we risk the mass loss of cultural and emotional digital artefacts (such as digital photographs and emails) as technological formats advance and old files become unreadable, food represents something tangible and physical23 to latch onto, and through which to understand the world around us. Which could leave the food designer free to assume the role of a kind of cultural provocateur. They’re there to teach us things in much the same way that any artist or speculative designer might; what separates them is the medium through which they achieve this. To return to Deresiewicz: “Food, for young people now, is creativity, commerce, politics, health, almost religion.”

Baltz’s idea is theoretical, but matches up with the way that many food designers choose to work. So Vogelzang’s suspended tablecloth dinner was not a literal proposal for how we ought to eat, but rather an effort to place all diners on the same level, thereby emphasising food’s potential as a social leveller. Ditto, while Sarti’s multi-stem coffeepot is available to buy, it’s most potent as a reminder of food’s function as a social glue. “When I started working with food, ‘food design’ just meant the industrial design of the shape of new cookies, or the shape of new snacks,” says Sarti. “Now it’s more powerful as a way to look at everyday life and where food can bring you in terms of experiencing something, or getting in touch with other people.” It is a point with which Baltz agrees. “Food is the most fundamental material of consumption,” she says. “It gives us life and when we start to see in that vein, we begin to treat it as material in a design relationship. So we have a relationship with our planet because of the way we’ve designed our agricultural system, and we should question if that relationship is healthy or unhealthy. There are positive ways and negative ways to understand the world, and one positive way is to understand that we’re in systems and relationships with things around us. Food has always been a connector in those relationships; a kind of ‘and’.”

So how do you define food design if the designers themselves seem to range from those who literally design foodstuffs, through to those who simply use food as a tool to explore cultural phenomena? The most precise definition that it seems possible to give is that a food designer is someone who designs food, or someone who designs with, around or about food; although it’s worth noting that this definition will also admit cutlery designers and their ilk as food designers. Whether this is a problem is a matter of opinion, but the following remarks from Earlwyn Covington are worth remembering: “I believe the walls between any kind of creative discipline should be blurry. I like things to cross and interlock, and I go head-to-head with academics and school administrations who want to separate things. We live in the 21st century; disciplines are definitely fluid."

This fluidity lies at the heart of contemporary food design. “I think we’re still in the exploration phase of food design,” agrees Vogelzang, “and I think it’s good to prolong that phase for as long as possible. Various people take various stands when it comes to food design and that’s great because obviously we need the right ideology when it comes to the discipline, but it’s so new that it’s still very free and open. You can make it what you want and there’s a blank slate there, which is a nice space to be in. I think we need a couple more years there yet.” And this tone of uncertainty is a good note to end on. While the emergence of the three food design MAs suggests an institutionalisation and final codification of the discipline, food design fundamentally remains frontier territory; an anything-goes hinterland.