Milan Design Week 2019: Day 4


12 April 2019

On Disegno's fourth day in Milan, the editorial team left the commercial buzz of the fair behind for the experimental output of three of Europe's leading design schools: HEAD, ECAL, and Design Academy Eindhoven.

An installation shot from ECAL's Ring My Bell exhibition of first-year industrial design projects. IMAGE Calypso Mahieu/ECAL.

Ring My Bell by ECAL

The first stop was at Spazio Orso, where the Swiss design school ECAL exhibited Ring My Bell, an interactive collection of doorbells designed by the school's first year industrial design students. These took a range of delightful and eccentric forms: a large school bell-style metal dome can be set off by yanking a sprung nub (Dong by Marine Fondin); a robotic drummer can launch into a triumphant trill by pushing a button (Trrrrrr by Théo Blanchard and Noémie Soriano); a wriggling slinky-like spring can be set off against a metal board, resulting in a thunderous sound effect (Braoum by Victorine Lefebvre and Theodore Simon). When Disegno went, the room was cacophonous, with visitors excitedly setting off all of the 12 bells more or less simultaneously.

The wit and ingenuity of the 12 designs were only rivalled by what was generally a very high level of formal execution. It was also heartening to see an industrial design school embracing sound as an obvious design feature. So often, as chronicled in Disegnos past, sound is seen as rather separate from what is considered the core of industrial design. Thankfully, this is beginning to change, and Ring My Bell stands as a charming example of the exciting directions young industrial designers can take sound if given the opportunity.

Spazio Orso, Via dell'Orso 16

The opening room of HEAD's Congress of Spoons. IMAGE Baptiste Coulon/Michel Giesbrecht/HEAD.

Congress of Spoons by HEAD

A short walk from Ring My Bell is via Goito, where another Swiss design school, HEAD Genève, is showing the intriguingly titled Congress of Spoons. Here, another typology is under scrutiny – the titular spoon – but the approach is much more concerned with framing the object than with reinterpreting it. Congress of Spoons features work by students and alumni from HEAD's Design, Space and Communication masters, all of which answers to a brief to stage the humble spoon – in this instance, a classic Swiss Sola café spoon – in ways that highlight the arbitrary but nevertheless powerful attachments we can make to objects. In a way, the spoon is a placeholder for any object.

There is the Spoon Palace by Naoyuki Kiyota, where spoons inhabit a kitchen-unit-cum-dolls'-house. You can look in on spoons sunbathing next to the sink-cum-pool; spoons having a nap in their drawers-cum-flats; and yes, spoons spooning in bed. Similarly, Malak Mebkhout offers an alternative universe in which spoons occupy a J.G. Ballardian high rise tower block. Spoons crowd on the lower floor of the block, with single Top Spoons inhabiting the upper floors. Together, these projects remind us of the power of anthropomorphisation in the way we relate to objects. It doesn't take much for us to experience inanimate objects as having human features and forming social relationships.

There is much more to see here: the Totem cabinet by Eleonora Pizzini, for instance – a magical box which reveals a secret compartment containing a spoon if you know where to look. There's a bewilderingly erotic seat which visitor need to straddle, embrace, and rock in order to view an undulating kaleidoscope of spoons hidden within (Peep-O-Scope by Beatriz Granado and Helena Bosch Vidal); and a spoon made of gallium, a metal which melts at 30ºC, which is slowly disintegrating under a hot lamp (The Disappearing Spoon by Lucile Burnier and Maëva Dubrez). Whatever you make of such projects, you are certain to leave Congress of Spoons with a reminder that the sense and meanings we attribute to objects are often arbitrary, irrational, and deeply personal.

Via Goito 7

Allison Crank's project examining Alibaba's AI-driven advertising strategies. IMAGE Nicole Marnati/Design Academy Eindhoven.

Alibaba: From Here to Your Home by Design Academy Eindhoven

For this editorial team, the highlight of the week was Design Academy Eindhoven's (DAE) exhibition Alibaba: From Here to Your Home. This exhibition is commissioned and curated under the auspices of the DAE's research project Geo-Design, an initiative founded in the summer of 2018 that examines design's relationship to geopolitics. Alibaba: From Here to Your Home was exhibited at the Van Abbemuseum during Dutch Design Week last autumn, but has since been expanded and tweaked for its Milan iteration. It sees nine designers or design partnerships examine different aspects of the Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba, from its AI-led advertising strategies (The Best Part of Possibilities by Allison Crank) to AliExpress's inscrutable search algorithms (Buyer's Desires by Arvid & Marie); from Alibaba CEO Jack Ma's furtive negotiations with heads of state around the world (Political Atlas of Alibaba by Maxime Benvenuto) to the inconceivably massive online shopping orgy that is Double 11 or Single's Day (Double 11 by Alice Wong and Aryan Javaherian).

Visitors can step into Allison Crank's VR experience, staged on a podium under a glaring neon light promising "The Best Part of Possibilities". It sounds like advertising and it looks like advertising, but nothing really makes much sense. Once equipped with a VR set, a world of slogans and banners presented on Las Vegas-style signposts opens up. "The Improvement", one reads. "It's the X of Science", says another. "Virtual Ideal", "See it in Your Mouth", "Place For You". The longer you look, the more you see. The more you see, the less it seems to refer to anything concrete at all. Crank has generated these slogans, she explains, by mimicking Alibaba's algorithms for AI-generated targeted advertising. Because Alibaba owns the main social media networks in China, such AI-generated advertising creeps into users' interfaces in a surreptitious manner. Crank says she is not anti-advertising. "I love advertising," she says, "when it's like in Las Vegas." In Vegas or Times Square, advertising does not pretend to be anything other than advertising. Invisibly embedded AI-generated ads is a different matter, Crank suggests. The slogans in her installation leave you with a vague sense of unease. Someone's trying to sell you something, but you can't for the life of you understand what or why.

Further absurdities are revealed in Arvid & Marie's project on AliExpress's search algorithms. The design duo was intrigued by the oddness of the products that would come up at the top of the site's search results if they put in generic search terms. A search for "bed", for example, would give you a rather bizarre double bed with a partially upholstered frame, embedded speakers and a charging socket. A search for "coat" would land you with a top result that looks like it's best suited for a polar vortex. In Arvid & Marie's installation, a number of these products are reproduced as full-scale cardboard models. As visitors circumnavigate the models, they find the product information detailed on the back of each product. As it turns out, most top search results have no previous buys and no reviews – however, they will be on thousands of wish lists. Sorting and search algorithms are proprietary software, so it is impossible to understand exactly why these strange items end up as top results. Unlike Amazon's algorithms, which seem to prioritise "accuracy" over any other factor, AliExpress appears "to want to captivate you with flashy and intriguing items to maximise the amount of time you spend on the platform," the designers hypothesise.

Maxime Benvenuto's Political Atlas of Alibaba displays printed summaries of Alibaba CEO Jack Ma's meetings with approximately 60 heads of state around the world over the past five years. From the information on such meetings that have been made publicly available, Benvenuto has amalgamated a set of 24 "themes": these include logistics, counterfeiting, startups, philanthropy, and so on. The themes are in turn presented in the form of infographics, which show the topics that crop with greater and lesser recurrence in different countries. Finally, Benvenuto has authored a mock "Alibabian" Declaration of Rights which draws on the information available about Ma's diplomatic negotiations. It's a terrifying but amusingly presented portrait of a world in which certain companies wield greater political power than entire nation states.

Via Marco Aurelio 21