Disegno No.5

Reinventing the High Heel


3 February 2014

Later this week the Stanley Picker Gallery in Kingston-upon-Thames will open The Liquid Game, an audiovisual project from the avant garde fashion studio Boudicca. It is an exciting prospect, with Boudicca due to mix film and photography to reflect upon the history of the gallery and its space on a small island in the centre of the Hogsmill River.

If a success, the Liquid Game will be the latest in an impressive series of projects staged by the Stanley Picker, a body founded in 1997 that is affiliated with Kingston University. The gallery has made a habit of collaborating with those within art and design whose practice is subversive, experimental or challenging and in the past years it has exhibited work from progressive studios such as Committee, El Ultimo Grito and Julia Lohmann.

Last year, one of the gallery's central projects was A Measurable Factor Sets the Conditions of its Operation, a project devised by the footwear designer Marloes ten Bhömer that set out to reengineer the high heeled shoe. The project prized itself on its curiosity, inserting engineering and scientific research into an area of design all too frequently dominated by aesthetic concerns.

Here, we republish a feature on ten Bhömer's collaboration with the Stanley Picker that was first published in Disegno No.5.

The world of cinema is populated by female heroines who live their lives in high heels, no matter what the circumstances.

In Duel in the Sun, La Dolce Vita, countless Bond films and episodes of Dynasty or Red Desert, women in stilettos wallow in mud, stumble through suburban wasteland, shamble through the desert and spontaneously collapse to lend the action suspense.

Similarly, in the short film Material Compulsion, created by the footwear designer Marloes ten Bhömer, a woman wearing generic court shoes steps into piles of flour, baked beans, lumps of coal and a jelly cube. The project is part of ten Bhömer’s research fellowship at the Stanley Picker Gallery at London’s Kingston University, in which she is attempting to create a new high heeled footwear collection informed by the principles of engineering.

“When I started defining the parameters of making a shoe, it became apparent to me that everything was up for questioning,” says ten Bhömer. “The form of walking, the substrate you step upon, the way it impacts upon the movement, and, as a result, the final shoe design.” By considering “the woman in motion” as a puzzle for engineering, ten Böhmer’s project proposes possibilities for a shoe’s configuration that extend beyond mere stylistic divagations.

Trained as a product designer at the Higher School of Arts Arnhem in the Netherlands and later in designer Ron Arad’s Design Products Masters programme at the Royal College of Art in London between 2001 and 2003, ten Bhömer is an unconventional footwear designer. Her first footwear project, a pair of tarpaulin shoes made from single pieces of industrial fabric folded over a wooden sole (2001), was the beginning of her research into reinventing the silhouette of the shoe through a process of obscurement and abstraction. “In those days, I approached the design of a shoe as an architectural problem, I was interested in how the aesthetics of footwear can be reconsidered,” says ten Bhömer. But her research at Kingston is concerned with construction and methodology, rather than aesthetics. “In my new project I want to re-imagine the typology of women’s shoes, and in order to do that I have to reinvent the process by which footwear is made,” she explains.

Ten Bhömers’ fellowship aims to refresh the footwear debate by adopting a scientific approach. Working with the sports science department in Kingston University, she examined the anatomy and movement of the foot, forming 17 hypotheses about different ways in which a shoe can make contact with the foot and floor. Taking these hypotheses as a starting point, ten Bhömer examines the structural parameters required to support the foot in a high heel position while in motion.

Her research to date was displayed in the exhibition A Measurable Factor Sets the Conditions of its Operation at the Stanley Picker Gallery earlier this year, but it will receive a second showing at the Victoria & Albert museum in London in September. Displayed alongside Material Compulsion were ten Bhömer’s White Prototypes, a series of 3D printed nylon shoe forms that map out combinations of foot and ground contact points. “When the heel of the foot hits the floor when walking barefoot or in flat shoes, it does so on the outside of the foot rather than in the middle,” says ten Bhömer. “So I made a part that creates a contact point for one of the White Prototypes that also hits the floor on the outside side of the foot.” Using pressure mapping techniques, the White Prototypes allow ten Bhömer to scrutinise the act of walking, serving as early tests for her 17 hypotheses. “The White Prototypes provide me with the contact points and, when you connect those, you create a shoe,” she says.

The prototypes seem far from structurally sound, but as with ten Böhmer’s previous designs, what something seems is not necessarily what it is. Her Blackfoldedshoe and Beigefoldedshoe, which are still sold through ten Böhmer’s online boutique, are high heeled shoes made from cut and folded stiffened leather. The shoes seems precarious, yet are strengthened by a metal heel and shank embedded between their sheets of leather. While the metal holds the foot from below, the leather sheets fold around the foot to create the same level of support that any normal shoe would.

Like the Blackfoldedshoe and Beigefoldedshoe, many of the White Prototypes are capable of holding bodyweight, although still seem as if they might collapse when worn. Yet they represent the future of ten Bhömer’s research. “I’m now working on a new version of the test shoes,” she says. “There are so many things that can change the outcome of the tests, such as a lack of abrasion of the plastic parts on the floor, or the inherent strength of the plastic and its connections. What I am planning to do next is go back to the 17 hypotheses and produce test pieces that are more specific to my hypotheses, rather than create an overall uniform system.”

Ten Böhmer’s Stanley Picker fellowship came to a close in February 2013, but Kingston University has now appointed her as a research fellow, a position that runs until 2015. While the results of the research may materialise even later than this, it is the start of this process that signals a real change. The high heeled shoe has long been due an overhaul.