Local Icons


17 February 2017

The most spectacular conflagrations often originate in the most unspectacular places. The Great Fire of London began in a bakery; Hamburg’s similarly ruinous blaze stemmed from a cigar factory. The Great Chicago Fire of 1871, which devastated 3.3sqm of the city and cost at least 300 lives, is reputed to have started when the O’Leary family's cow kicked over a lantern.

This tale – which at the time stoked anti-Irish sentiment against the cow’s immigrant owners, and has more recently been sanitised as cattle’s revenge against the city’s enormous meatpacking industry – forms the basis for City of Big Shoulders, an installation by the Chicago-based designer Steven Haulenbeek. Around 20 miniature cow-like forms are arranged as if in a stampede. “I wanted,” says Haulenbeek, “to show Chicago as something other than a modern city.” Each animal is wrapped in a suede-like Alcantara material, printed with a black-and-white pattern redolent both of cowhide and the grid-like blocks of an American metropolis. By destroying the ramble-down old streets, the O’Leary’s cow opened the door for the rationally structured Chicago of today.

City of Big Shoulders is one of eight projects featured in Local Icons: Urban Landscapes North-South, the sixth collaborative exhibition organised by the textile manufacturer Alcantara at Rome’s Museum of the 21st Century (MAXXI). It is the third and final instalment of the Local Icons series, in which designers are commissioned to create installations that use Alcantara as a material. The first, Greetings from Rome, saw Italy-based designers present a collection of objects inspired by the Eternal City; the second, East/West consisted of visual “travel journals” from 10 international practices. Urban Landscapes North-South picks up where that exhibition left off. Eight designers – four from the global north, and four from the south – were asked to interpret their city using a mixture of the real and ideal.

At the MAXXI, each project is positioned on a platform, with a local photograph or pattern on a similarly sized wall behind it; the combination of planes feels like pop-up books held open. Tablet-sized screens explaining the studios’ inspirations or processes sit before these structures. Within this format, the eight pieces are diverse in both appearance and essence. “It was important,” says co-curator Guilio Cappellini, “to give the designers a sense of complete freedom.”

Freedom, that is, to create installations in which each item is coated in Alcantara. Developed in the early 1970s at the Japanese company Toray Industries and manufactured in a factory in Umbria, Alcantara is an artificial substitute for suede. Forged from polyester and polyurethane using advanced – and closely guarded – spinning and chemical processes, it steels the softness of natural suede with an enhanced resilience. The eponymous manufacturer is environmentally conscious, reusing or recycling 80 per cent of waste. In 2009, it became carbon neutral, the first company in Italy to do so.

Each project in Local Icons is thus a showcase not just for its designer but also for Alcantara. The most visually prepossessing projects are often those that make the most curious use of the material. Rio native (and Milan resident) Gustavo Martini’s Altinha, for instance, is named for a keepie-uppie football game played on the city’s beaches. The installation – which plays out against a photograph of a sunset amber enough to make a travel agent blush – simply consists of 10 hanging balls, huddled together like molecules in a particularly dense compound. The story has nothing on Haulenbeek’s foundational legend. But thanks to the texture and gradation of colours on the balls’ Alcantara panels, Altinha becomes something of beauty. The physical material elevates the thematic material.

Striking the balance between aesthetic stimulation and a worthwhile idea is the greatest challenge that confronts the designers. Yere Wolof, the New York-based studio Birsel and Seck’s interpretation of Senegal's capital Dakar, embraces Alcantara’s potential as a garment textile to create some of the most complicated patterns on display. The concept, though – that of the traditional family unit, something far from unique to Dakar – is submerged in the intricacy of the design. Liliana Ovalle’s Underlay, overlay, which depicts Mexico City, heads in rather the opposite direction. Although her suspension of punched sheets over red frames isn’t the most eye-catching on display, it boasts the most ambitious narrative, simultaneously alluding to the perforated banners of Mexican festivals, the layers of Mexico City’s history and the form of the ancient Templo Mayor whose ruins stand at its core. An interweaving of separate but related strands, this feels like something that deserves a larger canvas.

The variance of the installations both allows for novelty and makes some projects feel disparate. Urban Landscapes, after all, is an enormous purview. If there is a reoccurring chord throughout this edition of Local Icons, it is a tendency to focus on the cities’ green lungs. New Yorker Marc Thorpe’s Active/Passive re-imagines Central Park as a sofa surrounded by Alcantara curtains which haphazardly represent skyscrapers. More technically impressive is Right to Roam by Ilkka Suppanen, which posits Helsinki as a city in dialogue with nature. Backed by 45 landscape photographs arranged as an earthy colour chart, it sees Alcantara used to cover forms as complex as berries, a salmon and giant mushrooms.

With Geography of Integration, Chilean practice Great Things to People – notably the only southern entrant yet to have migrated north – provides one of the most intelligent entrants, as well as the most socially engaged. Set before an aerial photograph of one of Santiago’s cerros (hills), it consists of a series of irregularly shaped MDF mounds covered in green Alcantara. These mounds are shaped in response to statistics on the city’s social conditions and echo form of the cerro, which is used as a public park. Santaigo’s natural features thus become a symbol for a potential social levelling.

The project that feels most complete in itself, however, comes from Stockholm-based studio Form Us With Love, whose Swedish Classics X Alcantara also depicts a city in dialogue with its natural environment. A backdrop of the icy sea and forests beyond mimics the way Stockholm spills out into an archipelago spotted with summerhouses. Below, a series of colour-coded Alcantara panels each hold a found object associated with Swedish culture, including a fishing line, a bandy stick and a traditional scrubbing brush made from straw. Rather than applied wholesale, Alcantara has been used to augment these objects in a hue close to that of their panel. A small trowel-like device has a yellow fish scale pattern, while a fruit collector spills out in an imbroglio of crimson fabric reminiscent of heaped berries. The sum is an intimate, knowing, personable if not quite personal portrayal of the city, which showcases equally the designers’ sympathies and the quality of the material in an elegant, low-key manner.

Swedish Classics x Alcantara affirms that, when the equilibrium is struck right, the partnership between a material brand and a design studio can yield substantial dividends in non-commercial environment. Indeed, the most impressive aspect of Local Icons is that, though it spotlights Alcantara, it doesn’t seem an advertisement for it. When the ultrasuede sings, it does so because of the designer.