This is the question posed by Riya Patel, the new curator of The Aram Gallery in London, in her debut exhibition Extra Ordinary. The exhibition, which opens today, displays the work of young designers who challenge preconceptions of the ordinary and who unveil second lives within common objects, materials, and processes.
The exhibition comprises 14 projects, five of them made specifically for this exhibition, that identify ways to reinterpret ordinary, everyday objects and imaginative methods to reuse industrial waste.
The collection of exhibits incorporates stools made of cardboard, gold rings made of euro-coins, galvanised steel furniture, snippets of architectural details, moulded bowls and panels, textiles made of cotton waste, and desk accessories made of wood offcuts.
Each project responds to different aspects of the extraordinary: a finished product, a process, or a way of thinking. “Designing an ordinary thing to make it extraordinary is quite difficult,” explains Patel. “Some of the designers have deployed an extraordinary skill. Others have displayed extraordinary thinking in the way they challenge how we perceive the ordinary. The value of an object is another aspect of the exhibition.”
A set of cardboard stools is the result of Luisa Kahlfedt’s attempt to defy the commonplace nature of the material. The shape of the final product is dictated by Kahlfedt’s experimentation with cardboard, in which she laminates and rolls the material before shaving down its edges to reveal patterns in the corrugation.
Alternatively, Structural Skin, a project by Jorge Penadés, develops a new production method rather than a single finished object. Penadés collects leftovers from the trash bins of leather factories, compressing the worthless scrap together with a biodegradable binder to form an alternative material that can be shaped into a variety of objects and furniture pieces.
Neolastic is a conceptual project by Ying Chang, that challenges preconceptions of beauty and preciousness. Objects such as vases and bottles are wrapped in bubble wrap, before heat is applied to shrink the plastic to the shape of the object. The wrap is cut off, but retains the shape of the object it once housed.
The exhibition is not grouped thematically, allowing visitors to form their own interpretations of what is extraordinary about each object. “A lot of them are quite strange objects and it is nice to tackle a little bit how somebody made that object,” says Patel. “I did not want to be too controlling; explaining each little bit. I wanted to leave a little bit of room for imagination and exploration.” Although the objects are accompanied by captions, they provide only clues rather that the whole story.
Extra ordinary is Patel’s first step into curation; she was formerly senior editor of Icon, a London-based design and architecture magazine. The transition from journalism to curation, she says, presents an alternative way to tell stories and engage with design: “You ask a lot of questions, more questions than you ever ask as a journalist as you really need to understand each project well for you to have the confidence to show it in an exhibition and prove to other people why it is good and why it is in the exhibition. You have to do a lot of research."
Extra ordinary, Patel hopes, will offer a new perspective on repurposing the ordinary. “We tend to think of ‘ordinary’ meaning low-value, everyday and common,” she says. “If you like, 'extraordinary' is the opposite of that. It is the thing that is interesting to look at, provocative, unusual, unexpected. These are criteria that I think make something worth showing in the exhibition.”