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Design's more humble future

A quiet introspection filters through the work of Europe’s top design graduates. Humane and sustainable much of the work contains a personal narrative that resonates with an unusually subtle beauty. 

By Gabrielle Kennedy / 23-10-2008

The future of European design is on exhibition this month at Talent 2008, the inaugural graduation show curated by the Designhuis in Eindhoven.  Hand selected by art director Li Edelkoort, the pieces represent the best offerings from this year’s design academy graduates.

Honesty isn’t a new theme in the world of design, but it’s rare to see such an introverted offering of projects that, seen together, feels like an admission and commemoration of human vulnerability. Muted and natural colours, a reliance on sustainable materials, the best design graduates of 2008 have moved modestly and found beauty in more private and confessional spheres than we have seen in a while.

“I think regular people as well as designers are acquiring a stronger sense of just how little control they have,” says Guus van Leeuwen, a graduate of the Design Academy Eindhoven.  His “Domestic Animals” project is a series of radiators made from metal tubes bent into animal shapes.  Each pet is covered in a removable wheat-lined skin that retains warmth and can be used elsewhere in the house.

Van Leeuwen is one of the co-recipients of the inaugural Prix Pierre Bergé, awarded to honour Europe’s best design graduates.  “I think that people are realizing more and more that they shouldn’t just be able to have everything, and instead should use what they already have,” he says.

“Domestic Animals” is a comment on the lack of ritual surrounding domestic warmth.  “In the past everyone would gather around in the spot where warmth was generated by a wood fire,” says Van Leeuwen.  “Most things we do in the home like eating, sleeping and bathing still entail some sort of ritual, but getting warm is something we just take for granted and I wanted to re-centralize that act and connect it back to its roots.”

And it’s not just human vulnerability, but the defence mechanisms we develop to hide and cope that Europe’s young designers are tapping. “It is hard to explain that feeling,” says Swiss designer and ECAL graduate Camille Scherrer, the other Prix Pierre Bergé recipient.  Her project, “The World of the Mountains” fuses her love of books and animation in an installation comprising a desk, an open book, a computer screen and an elbow light.  Inside the light-shade is a camera that captures a page of the open book and displays it on the computer screen.  Facial recognition software recognizes which page the screen is showing and generates a second layer of animation over the text. The animation changes depending on the page the user is reading.

“This was a very personal project,” says Scherrer.  “It represents the world I grew up with, the world of the mountains that I experienced as a child … My work is about taking such very small things and memories and showing how important they still are in real life.”

Iranian/Dutch designer Melody Deldjou Fard presents work from her “Body Merging” collection, a raw and confronting selection of fashion pieces that explores the theme of organ theft. Accessories, the body and clothes merge with organs protruding as abstract forms made from cotton and metal threaded fabric.

“I like to look at the reality of people and their interaction with society,” says Deldjou Fard who graduated from the Hogeschool voor de Kunsten Utrecht in the Netherlands.  Her work is about querying and challenging what fashion is using themes like body bags and child prostitution.  It was after being handed a pamphlet exposing the heart wrenching trade of human organ trafficking out of the developing world that she started to explore the issue for her latest collection.

Another issue Deldjou Fard’s current and former collections delve into is the complicated relationship between the human body and technological progress. “It’s how I see the future,” she explains.  “People are dressed in technologically enhanced clothes, but at the same time they are being damaged by technology.”

Renee Mennen from AKV St. Joost Breda, also in the Netherlands, explores the contradictory terrain between pretension and truth by designing an object that allows for both.  “Pretending to be Important, Expressing to be Significant” is an over-sized tulipwood and plaster side-cabinet that exudes an air of grandeur. It’s impressiveness, however is just a façade, a skin-deep act designed to cover the more humble fact that the cabinet’s capacity is limited to a single object.  The main double doors are fake and the heavy bottom drawer is completely solid, but for a tiny sculpted engraving in the back left hand corner that holds one delicate cup.

“People often pretend to be something they are not,” says Mennen.  “Like my cupboard, which pretends to be bigger than it is.”  But Mennen is not being nasty.  She strips away at pretension while at the same time offering a hand-selected object a pedestal thus reasserting a sense of grandeur, albeit on a smaller and more humble scale.

Hanna Hedman’s final project at Konstfack University College of Arts, Crafts and Design in Sweden also looks with painful honesty at human frailty and our ability to properly express or cope with grief.

“I noticed that so many people in society try to be tougher than they are,” Hedman says.  “So many people hide their grief … and that makes it impossible for others to ever feel compassion or sympathy."

Hedman’s idea then was to design objects that could communicate that usually muffled suffering.  With a nod towards the mourning jewelry worn by Victorian widows, she came up with “Enough Tears To Cry For Two”, a series of accessories that express the turmoil and trauma of loss. Made from copper, silver, paint and synthetic fibers, each piece looks like a maze of grief with moments of remembrance and beauty.  “I think sadness and struggle can also be beautiful,” she says.

While graduation projects from across Europe were included in Talent 2008, it was still the work presented from the Design Academy Eindhoven students that stood out for is conceptual strength and strong narrative.  Soojin Hyuns’  house-within-a-room offers an escape from even our own personal space.  “One day I desired to get away to somewhere very private and special,” she explains.  “But I couldn’t find that place.”  Realizing that a lot of our main activities are conducted at tables, Hyun created a wrap around table within a four walled mini house that sits within the four walls of a regular room.  she calls it "House on the Table".  “In it I find that special place I was looking for,” she says.

Introverted and with more raw emotional honestly than we’ve seen in a while, young European designers are minus the ego of previous generations. Or perhaps it is simply a reflection of the more tumultuous times that leave people truly certain about just one thing - their vulnerability.

“I think we have become more discreet,” says Renee Mennen.  “And maybe a little more sad,” adds Guus van Leeuwen.

Talent 2008 runs until 30 November at Designhuis Eindhoven.

Images: main top, "Body Merging" by Melody Deldjou Fard.  Small from top, "Domestic Animals" by Guus van Leeuwen (photography by Renee van der Hulst), "The World of The Mountains" by Camille Scherrer - made in collaboration of Julien Pilet of the CV-lab and with Fanny Riedo EFPL+ECAL lab, "Body Merging" by Melody Deldjou Fard, "Pretending To be Important, Expressing To be Significant" by Renee Mennen, "Enough Tears To Cry For Two" by Hanna Hedman and "House On The Table" by Soojin Hyuns.

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