Born in Front of a Live Audience


23 January 2020

“I feel it’s very boring to talk about objects today,” says designer Ramy Fischler, speaking at Maison & Objet in Paris. Given that Maison & Objet is a trade fair whose September 2019 edition received some 76,862 visitors, all presumably attending in order to see and talk about objects, this could be interpreted as contrarian.

Nevertheless, Fischler seems undaunted. A Paris-based designer of installations, furniture and objects, Fischler was appointed Maison’s Designer of the Year in 2018 – an appointment to which he responded with The Agora, a public co-working space built around banked seating. For the 2020 edition of the fair, Fischler has returned with another installation; one which he intends as a response to the monotony of obsessing over objects, and which is geared towards presenting trade fairs as sites for valuable design research.

Design, and... Action! is billed as a glimpse into the near-future of co-living and co-working; a series of installations that explore how society might live and work in the “next two, three, four, five years; not the future in 2200”. A group of five people have been placed inside three near-future spaces designed by Fischler and asked to make use of them in whatever way they see fit. The catch is that one wall of each room has been replaced with a sheet of transparent plastic to let visitors watch. Design, and... Action! is effectively the Truman Show installed in the fairgrounds of Maison & Objet, or else whichever reality show of the past 20 years takes your fancy: Big Brother, Survivor, Love Island, but set in a booth at a furniture fair. It is strangely fascinating.

Fischler’s rooms have been designed to offer a soft entry to future technology. One room features a VR gaming rig where the house mates can play virtual tennis; the kitchen is stocked with a speculative 3D printing kit for food and a hydroponics station; the living room is staffed by robots that roll around a set of tiered amphitheatre seating. Meanwhile, each room’s more speculative elements are interwoven with lighting by Flos, furniture by Ligne Roset, and tableware by Iittala and Alessi. The future, it is suggested, will be tasteful and, no doubt, expensive. “We’re in Maison & Objet,” acknowledges Fischler. “It’s a commercial arena.”

For the most part, the installation is broadly conventional in its proposals. The residents plod around, chat, play with the robots, and more or less do what you imagine anybody might do if confined to their living room for a day.1 Display boards give details of the five houseguests and their personalities, but these seem largely interchangeable. Julien is 33, interested in travel, and “bold” – I watched him play a bit of virtual tennis and then pop into the living room for a rest. For a 34-year-old sportsman, Bobo stood still and laid down a lot. Anne-Victoire is 28 and positive. She did, admittedly, seem to be treating the somewhat independently minded robots with a reasonable amount of forbearance.2 “We ask [the participants] to play with the spaces and they can do that differently every day,” says Fischler, explaining that the residents have freedom to determine their own interactions, rather than being strictly scripted. “Maybe they’ll say at the end that they didn’t like it, or don’t understand it, but that’s just part of the game.”3

Fischler’s idea seems to be that a trade fair ought not only exist to shift product, but could also play a role in shaping ideas around what types of products could be sold in future. “It’s showcasing practices and objects which exist already, but which are not yet in daily life,” he says. “So the objects are not that new, but the installation is new [in the sense that we can use it to] develop and invent objects and services that don’t exist yet. Instead of putting objects on display and explaining their functionality [in the traditional format of the trade fair], we proposed putting them in real life.” With this in mind, Design, and... Action! is peppered with a series of open-ended questions and suggested answers that decorate the side of the booth. “Where will I be having lunch in the future?” asks one sign, which also includes suggested answers like “At the automated restaurant”, “In my capsule dwelling” and “At the office”. Elsewhere, “Where will I be working in the future?” prompts “At home, like 90 per cent of French people”, “In a public garden, since it’s always warm enough outside these days”, and – my personal favourite – “Collectively, in a ‘war room’”.

Some of these questions and answers strike me as better than others, but kudos to Fischler for even suggesting that society’s consumption of product design ought to be subject to reflection, or that we have decisions to make as to the kind of near future we want. Within the context of a major trade fair, this is not always an easy statement to make. “Fiction today [that engages with our immediate future] is very dystopian and you don’t very often see a situation that gives you an optimistic view,” he says. “That’s a major problem – how can we still produce objects when we already feel dystopian? I don’t have an answer to that, but it’s what gives us the responsibility to create fictions and open the debate onto them. Today, I’m more and more working not on objects, but on situations.”

Throughout the fair, the residents’ interactions with the space are being filmed, with the resulting recordings later edited to create a series of short films about the future of living and work spaces. I am unsure as to whether much research of value will emerge from this exercise. While given a long leash, the residents are clearly performing to some degree and moderating their behaviour according to the needs of the installation. The chances of anybody going apeshit because they think the idea of having bleachers in their living room is preposterous seem slim. Similarly, even if residents really like the idea of being able to 3D print spaghetti bolognese whenever the fancy takes them, I’m not sure what anybody is meant to do with that information.

Nonetheless, Design, and... Action! stands on its own merits. As a pièce de résistance, Fischler opted to include the recording studio documenting his residents as part of the installation. It too is behind perspex, with visitors to Maison invited to peer through and see a team of camera operators and editors hard at work. When I asked Fischler why he had taken this decision, his answer was elusive: “To ask why it’s here. To have a debate about that.” Such a debate seems necessary. Contemporary trade fairs are accelerators for commerce – heaving buffet tables for the consumption of product and furniture design. At the risk of putting words in Fischler’s mouth, Design, and... Action! seems to proffer a mild check on this. His recording studio is intended to act as a site for reflection and critique, with this function placed on an equal footing with the products and room settings it diligently records. In Fischler’s installation, the scenarios he presents should not be disentangled from their subsequent analysis. It would be no bad thing if this ethos were to percolate throughout trade fair's more widely.

1 Within the confines of a family-friendly fair.

2 A colleague has since suggested to me that the residents may have been purposefully presented as a pastiche of the kind of aspirational, identikit fictional millennials whom brands increasingly feature as representative of their target audience. This strikes me as a good reading of the situation.

3 For the sake of clarity, it’s worth stressing that the residents take lunch breaks and go home at the end of the day – they’re not confined to the installation around the clock. Some of the journalists whom I toured Design, and... Action! with seemed to feel that this was a problem which diminished the aims of the project. Personally, I was quite relieved to learn that participants weren’t being locked into a deserted trade fair each night. I also thought it was broadly fine that they got to have lunch.