These are three of the questions and statements that animate A Search Behind Appearances, an installation that will adorn the windows of the La Rinascente department store at the heart of Milan. Commissioned by the shop in conjunction with London’s Serpentine Gallery, it combines fabrics with shadowplay, projected via a range of custom machines. Each window proposes a way to move past the commercially driven nature of contemporary design.
A Search Behind Appearances was created by designer Hella Jongerius and theorist Louise Schouwenberg. It is a follow-up to, and distillation of, Beyond the New, a manifesto for the future of design that became a taking point during last year’s design week. There, the frequent collaborators outlined their vision for a design world free of hype, novelty and overabundance.
In advance of the project’s opening tomorrow, Disegno interviewed Schouwenberg about the commission's aims, context and medium.
First, some background information: how did this commission come about?
Serpentine asked Hella to present her work at La Rinascente. But she was not so much interested in showing her own designs, but wanted to present a follow-up of the manifesto the two of us had presented in Milan one year before. So here we are.
Could you tell me about the working process with Hella?
Apart from being very good friends, we speak endlessly about design and its potential. By now we need half sentences to understand each other. We benefit from each other’s insights, which derive from our distinct professional practices. Hella’s the maker, the one who thinks first of all through her work and let’s herself be surprised during the hands-on making process. I’m the thinker and the educator, but at the same time I’m familiar with the unpredictable creative process via my work within education.
Why did you choose this medium of shadows, fabric and machine?
We wanted to create a visual presentation that would celebrate the potential of design. Many ideas went hind and forth and many brainstorms eventually led to the choice to create a shadow play. A temporary performance, a volatile manifestation of shadows that would mirror in various ways the design world as we see it.
At first we imagined simple white fabrics, which would merely serve as blank slates for the projections. The idea of weaving sentences into the fabric was probably the first detailing, which fitted the notion that design and context interact, and that an awareness of the meanings of a context needs to be taken into account during the design process. When the first samples of fabrics were created on the looms of Jongeriuslab, gradually they started to merge with the textile experiments Hella already works on for years. It was a natural and logic process to let the textiles gain more presence. And this, in turn, evoked new ideas and new possibilities. We continued to change and adapt the concept. Gradually the fabrics have become autonomous, expressive representations of the content of the overall shadow play.
Could you tell me how the textiles have been matched with the texts?
Two windows display fabrics with woven words, and in other windows text is projected onto the fabrics. Every time the interplay of various aspects can be ‘read’. To give an example: the constantly inflating and deflating word NEW is projected on the woven quotes of many thinkers. With this interplay we want to evoke questions about the relationship of new designs, which are launched by the multitudes at every fair, and the history of cultural production and reflection. If being New is a design’s only asset, it will merely add to the world of plenty, to the obesity of design. To sensibly move ahead we need a vivid dialogue with the past, a vivid dialogue with the archives.
A Search Beyond Appearances feels like an extension, or a distillation, of Beyond the New. How do you feel the manifesto was received?
In the open we only heard praise and agreement with our plea for ideals in design. Through the grapevine we heard critiques, such as ‘this is old news’. We agree with that. We presented ideas that others presented before. We felt the urge of reminding people.
The design world suffers from amnesia. The logic of capitalism has ruined an awareness that all elements interplay. Each decision has manifold implications and consequences. If one deals only with one layer and forgets about all connections, as happened in these past decades, any design becomes flat.
Why have these six questions and statements been chosen, and how did you select them? Are these the essential points of the manifesto?
We deem these questions and statements important, yes. Some have a clear logic, such as: ‘why design for a world of plenty?’. Others are more open, such as: ‘judge a design by the questions it evokes!’ We don’t pretend these are final statements on design. It’s a tentative search for criteria that matter, in our view, this moment in time. With this presentation we hope others will join us and start to reflect which questions they would ask, which statements they would put forward. We consider this a never-ending project.
Why did you decide to make some aspects of the manifesto physical?
It’s a way to attract the viewers’ attention on various levels. Some people will only enjoy the constantly changing spectacle of letters turning into well-known designs, of a form slowly blowing up, of water flows moving hind and forth, the intricate little machines. Others will see the spectacle and also read all texts, to then find out they are part of the same interlocking story.
How do the performative, shadow-play aspects of A Search Beyond Appearances fit with the desire to halt the “deceitful play of illusions.”
Design can change how people live, act and think. That’s quite a responsibility! With this installation we like to shake up preconceptions of what design is and can be within a commercial setting such as the Salone. Can larger issues be raised within such a setting? Will visitors also see a researching and questioning attitude among designers? We don’t pretend we can halt all negative aspects of the design world. Most of all we show the potential of design, the sheer pleasure of design, the stratification, the details with all their hidden meanings. And we offer food for thought. We have welcomed this opportunity to present experimental ideas and experimental weavings. No final works. No final answers.
Is there a contrary element to presenting in La Rinascente, a temple of consumption?
One of our predecessors was Martin Gamper, who created a fantastic project at this location! We don’t advocate the message that one needs to retreat from the real world and live in a simple hut in the middle of nowhere, saved from the temptations of consumerism. We are part of this world, which to a large extent rules according to the logic of economics. This place is actually very interesting, at the crossroads of history (Duomo di Milano), culture (Serpentine Galleries), and commerce (La Rinascente), and this context represents precisely the natural context of design. We cannot rob design of its link with commerce, nor would we want to. But we can point to the larger importance of other values.
What do you ultimately aim to achieve with A Search Beyond Appearances?
An awareness of the great potential of design. And also debate, reflection on the notion ‘cultural value’. An open call to think of new criteria for estimating a design’s quality. In many ways design has so much more possibilities than for instance art, as designers deal with the daily lives of people. Whereas visitors of an art exhibition are prepared to be confronted with layers of meaning, it’s the power of design to surprise users in more subtle ways with similar narratives. Only few designers really take the full opportunity to work on all the levels design operates on.
Do you have a clear idea as to how one could start effecting change in design?
It’s already happening. You only need to search with great care. Within a commercial setting market value seems to count foremost, but that same setting can also be used to evoke other ideas. Just look around at all the side programmes scattered throughout the city’s centre, at Palazzo Clerici, the design academies’ presentations, to name just a few. Away from the commercial venues, one can detect innovative ideas and exciting new perspectives on the discipline. There’s always a lot of nonsense in Milan, but amidst that nonsense pearls can be found. Ever more designers start to reformulate ideals and start to aim higher then merely striving for commercial success.