All of this is intoned in a Microsoft Encarta-like monotone, a voice that reverberates blandly around a garage in Brompton, London. The walls of the space have been coated in sheets of silver foil reminiscent of a Lamé curtain – a sic-fi base on a budget – while a square formation of wooden display units sit in the centre of the room, on top of which rest a number of curious objects. It is a strange and wonderful display, to the far right of which is a matchbook seated next to a melting vase made of ice: objects that self destruct.
This is the set-up of The Voice of Things, a London Design Festival (LDF) exhibition curated by designers Sarah Van Gameren and Philippe Malouin. Van Gameren and Philippe Malouin are the former tutors of Platform 18, a teaching body within the Design Products Department of the Royal College of Art that recently closed after running for three years. To mark the platform’s achievements, Van Gameren and Malouin assembled 14 of their graduates for an exhibition around a single brief: to create an object that corresponds to a written description of another object, as provided by a person of the designer's choosing. The exhibitors had to produce a design that matched the description they were given, without ever having seen the original object. Hence, an object that self-destructs (a match), becomes an object that self-destructs (a melting vase).
“Both Philippe and I really like Francis Ponge, a poet who came up with this phrase ‘The Voice of Things’,” says Van Gameren. “He wrote during the 1930s and was very good at describing objects in a very accurate and meticulous way. He’s fascinating to read for designers, who are incredibly visual people, because there’s something very interesting about not triggering that visual sense immediately and leaving space to fill it in. It’s one of the ways to show your identity as a designer, because you have to form your own interpretation through the idea of translation from the textual to the visual.”
This creative space between description and reinterpretation is where The Voice of Things makes hay. Kathryn Strobach’s description of a small paddling boat that her daughter Cindy used to play in ("You loved sailing with it over the water; underneath you a small, strange world with inhabitants of the sea") is transformed into a clear disk filled with blue water and a single air bubble. By manipulating small metal arms that emerge paddle-like from the side of the disk, you can position the air bubble to reveal a tiny model of a fish that is hidden beneath the dark liquid. “It’s playful, but somehow still has exactly the same semantics as the paddling board,” says van Gameren. “It’s really interesting what happens there.”
Similar surprises abound elsewhere. Marcin Rusak takes designer Eliza Axelson‐Chidsey’s forensic description of a trowel (“A Composition. A curved triangular plane joined by a bent rod to a rounded cylinder with a hole threaded by a loop”) to produce a construction reminiscent of a crane or fishing rod, while Benno Waibel’s impression of a heart (“It is ultra complex, looks super aesthetic and weird at the same time.”) guides Jule Waibel’s latex origami forms, which bob and distort within water-filled pickling jars. Waibel’s constructions are simultaneously nothing like a heart, yet, through their evocation of specimens preserved within formaldehyde, curiously organic and organ-like.
“It’s a bit of a swan-song in a way,” says Van Gameren, “as we wanted to do something that summarised the way we worked on the platform. Our students were makers, so had no problem bashing something together to create something visual, but what we always tried is was to simultaneously activate the making part of the brain and the thinking part. This is one of those exercises that work well to trigger both at the same time. If you cancel certain parameters, in this case the visual, it sometimes gives you much more freedom.”
One of the most intriguing objects is owed to Adam Blencowe, working to a description set by graphic designer Brendan McCormick (“109 independent, identical cylindrical tubes, held together as a solid form with one singular thin, flat band”). McCormick’s honeycomb-like construction of cardboard tubes, held in place by a band that circles the perimeter and binds the objects in place, is reimagined by Blencowe as a molecular structure of exceptionally thin metal cylinders, locked into geometric constellations by a rope that passes through the centre of each cylinder and which is knotted at the exposed joints. “A form of poetry comes through in these projects almost without any effort,” says Van Gameren. “This word ‘poetry’ is used quite a lot in design, but you can really see in this exhibition what that is.”
The success of Blencowe and McCormick’s project is that it elegantly illustrates the considerable impact of a designer's interpretation and personality on a design. Even with materials as simple as cylinders and thread, radically different results can be achieved. While we are comfortable with the notion that language can be individualistic and ambiguous (as evinced by a single, fairly precise, written description being fulfilled by both a trowel and a crane), this is typically less true in regards to designed objects. Design discourse often focuses heavily on function, skewing perceptions towards the idea of objects qua tools, pieces that have limited space for individuality or personality to come through in their construction. The Voice of Things is a sharp reminder that the hand and mind of the maker is present in all the objects that we surround ourselves with, every facet of a design the result of a choice that might easily have been otherwise.
It is a point made well by Blencowe. “Sarah and Philippe’s way of working was to drive you away from referencing visually objects,” he says. "Their whole process was about how you manipulate something for practice and I think a lot of the designers in here are born out of a way of working. Although we’re aesthetically sensitive, we tend not to start from a point of view of what a chair looks like and how it should be made. We tend to think more about what a chair is made from, why it’s made, how it could be made, what the making process is, and so forth. It’s natural for us to forget everything we think an object should be and find a new interpretation. This whole exhibition is an RCA brief that never happened within the RCA.”