The occasion was Maarten Baas’ Real Time exhibition. It was an installation displaying novel ways in which to tell time through the medium of film – for example a street sweeper brushing a line of dirt (in real time) to move the minutes and hours forward in a circular motion – the films were displayed within traditional forms of time telling devices. That was five years ago.
That’s why, upon leaving ECAL’s Delirious Home exhibition at Via dell’Orso in Milan last week I felt so elated. A laugh, produced by a teaspoon chasing a coffee cup, had just escaped my lips. It was a novel feeling, like a part of my brain had suddenly jolted back to life after a long slumber.
The normal setting of my brain during the Milan fair, and any other design fair like it, is one where I look, evaluate and judge. It’s a cerebral process whereby I justify my opinion based on form, material choices, quality of execution and comparison to other objects within that product category. It’s a fairly strenuous exercise, filled with insecurity over whether my reaction is “correct” and whether my memory serves me right.
For an exhibit to side-track that process and go straight from looking to joyful emotional reaction, is rare at a design fair. At least for me. Although our relationship to the objects surrounding us can be deep, they tend to be built up over time, based on their use, value or sentimental connections, but objects and furniture presented at trade fairs are normally void of that instant emotional bond. They are strangers waiting to be known.
At first I was hesitant to stroke the thorny cactus that greeted me at the entrance of Delirious Home, but once I did it let out a gentle hum. It was unexpected. A project instigated by designers and tutors Alain Bellet and Chris Kabel, Delirious Home is a humorous and playful take on the idea of the “smart home”, where students from ECAL’s Industrial Design and Visual Communication Bachelor degrees have been asked to respond to the functions of seemingly pointless “smart” home appliances and create their own take on them. “Technology has become smart but without a sense of humour, let alone quirky unexpected behaviour,” said Bellet and Kabel in the introduction to the project.
Humour is a hugely undervalued quality in design. The Dutch initiative Droog was certainly at the forefront of bringing humour into designed objects in the early 2000s and Dutch designer Wieki Somers made has made play part of her projects’ outcome, for example with Merry-Go-Around coat check system for the Boijmans van Beuningen Museum in Rotterdam in 2009. Even Phillip Starck’s lemon press Juicy Salif for Alessi from 1990 is knowingly funny in its preposterous design, in the same way that Mats Theselius’ Excalibur, a stand for one carrot, is.
But last week, in the exhibits of Milan furniture fair, humour felt largely absent. Even if it might form part of the research process – Ronan Bouroullec has for example admitted to Jacques Tati’s slapstick films as a recurring influence, and during the interviews made with Konstantin Grcic for the feature on him in Disegno No.6, he admitted that “silliness” plays a part in his studio’s creative process. But this lightness of mood or any comedic effect rarely shows up in the final work.
What Delirious Home did so well was to use humour both as a starting point and as part of the final product, without making the final result feel like a gimmick. That’s a difficult feat that was maybe most successfully demonstrated by the Ostinati collection of three gravity-defying containers. Designed by Iris Andreadis, Nicolas Nahornyj and Jérôme Rütsche, the vessels – a vase, and two bowls – were beautiful pieces in themselves, but with the mind-boggling addition of not being able to rest on the table they were placed without attempting to balance on their side, spin or tumble.
In comedy, the concept of “comic timing” describes how the use of rhythm, tempo and pausing enhance the humour of a set piece. It is not necessarily a quality one would expect students of design to possess, but it was this aspect of comic timing that was the most impressive about Delirious Home. The speed and delivery of the projects and their subtle comedy was what made it such a successful project. Il Portinaio, by Anne-Sophie Bazard, Tristan Caré and Léonard Golay beautifully presented this idea. Il Portinaio is a helpful porter in the shape of a plastic hand running along a curtain rod, following you as you walk along the curtain and then, when you stop, it helpfully opens the curtain with a fast tug. The same goes for the teaspoon following the coffeecup, Bonnie and Clyde by Romain Cazier, Anna Heck and Leon Laskowski. It was its slow, persistent crawl rather than the fact that it actually followed the cup that made it so funny to watch.
While I don’t anticipate that spinning vases will become a regular feature in anyone’s home anytime soon, Delirious Home helpfully introduced humour to a fair that often takes itself a little too seriously. It was also a welcome departure for ECAL itself – a school that year after year presents well-considered and well-designed projects, but which sometimes feel too risk-adverse.
Delirious Home was a brave risk to take. Humour is a difficult topic to broach within design and it could have just as easily ended up with visitors laughing at rather than with the exhibits. Delirious Home was a reminder of how valuable comic timing can be in an industry that often forgets to laugh.