Without a futuristic gadget in sight POST FOSSIL, a new exhibition directed by Li Edelkoort conveys a strong message about the future of design which sees designers returning to their (primal) roots.
“How will the designers of tomorrow look to past in order to invent the future?”
Leather animal carcasses made into seaters and suspended as punching bags, an enormous mischievous white rabbit fashioned from recycled furniture elements, carved dinosaur remains, furniture composed from branches looking as if they’re about to walk away, an imposing throne sculpted from cow dung, primitive paper lamp shades, metal wire radiator beasts covered in animal hides, and in the background, the constant beating of a tribal drum coming from totem-like speakers made of an organic pulp material. Toto, we’re definitely not in Designer Kansas anymore.
These intriguing pieces form part of the exhibition ‘POST FOSSIL: excavating 21st century creation’, currently on show at Tokyo’s 21_21 DESIGN SIGHT. Hang on a minute, did you say 21st century? One would imagine Jetsons-like, gleaming innovations integrated with the latest up-to-the-minute technologies and robotic contraptions, not primal, modest objects made with raw, natural materials and ancient techniques with barely a shiny surface or straight line for that matter, in sight. “At the turn of the new century, things are changing dramatically. Society is ready to break away from last century for good,” says exhibition director Li Edelkoort. “In the aftermath of the worst financial crisis in decades, a period of glamorous and streamlined design for design’s sake comes to an end.” As opposed to what we thought would be the futuristic language of the 21st century, this exhibition shows the total opposite: “Instead, it is pre-historic.”
Edelkoort saw the turning point in the Design Academy graduation project of Maarten Baas. “The day I saw the burnt furniture of his ‘Smoke’ series, I realized we were stepping into a new period: we were literally burning the history of the 20th century.”
POST FOSSIL refers not only to design after fossil fuels run out but also to how a new generation of designers are returning to and exploring their elemental roots to take design into the future. “In this process, they formulate design around natural and sustainable materials, favouring timber, hide, pulp, fibre, earth and fire; like contemporary cavemen, they reinvent shelter, redesign tools and manmade machines, and conceptualize archaic rituals for a more modest, content and contained lifestyle,” Edelkoort explains in her exhibition statement.
About a year ago, Edelkoort was asked by the museum’s director, renowned Japanese clothing designer Issey Miyake to curate an exhibition in 21_21 DESIGN SIGHT. Miyake wanted something different, something other than technology, which was a common element in exhibitions held over museum’s three-year existence. “Issey’s keyword was ‘Break,’” Edelkoort says.
The exhibition indeed begins with a break: the ‘Do Hit’ chair by Marijn van der Poll. The action of having to smash the metal chair into shape (with a mallet) invites the visitor to break with the past to enter a new Post-Fossil period.
Living objects with soul
Following in the gallery - spread over two floors and several rooms - are 130 works from 71 designers, most of whom are Dutch. The raw concrete surrounds - an architectural masterpiece designed by Tadao Ando - provide a serene backdrop for the works which each have a soul of their own. In fact, soul is one of the major characteristics of the exhibition, where animated, naive forms and irregularities give personality to the designs. We see Els Woldhek’s ‘BASTARD’ chairs which are composed of random leather off-cuts, the bulbous forms of Pieke Bergmans’ ‘Design Virus’ that sears the surface on which it infects and the primitive vessels of Maaike Roozenburg’s ‘Vaetwerk’ proudly imprinted with the fingermarks of its makers. In considering about the story behind the product and the soul in an object, we think about forming deeper relationships with objects, perhaps addressing more meaningful ways for society to consume in the future.
Relationship between man, nature and animals
Alongside soul, nature has a huge presence in the works, logical considering the future will be about our reconnection with nature and our surroundings. A deepening relationship between man, nature and animals is key, one that respects the living world but is also critical of our treatment of it. German designer Georg Panther’s ‘Rocky’ punching bag brings to mind slaughtered animals hung up in an abbatoir while Julia Lohmann’s now iconic cow benches bind the leather material and carcass form to the beast from which it originated. Wieki Somers’ ‘High Tea Pot’ moulded from an animal skull turns an ordinary tableware element into a prehistoric curiosity. We see also structures that resemble primitive shelters of man including the boulder-like landscape of Jan Erik Visser’s ‘Aquadyne Sculpture’, to Harm Rensink’s bamboo-woven ‘Domain’ to the cocoon ‘Evolution chairs’ of Nacho Carbonell. For their owner, each provides a sanctuary. (What does that say about the future?) Delving deep into the body, Digna Kosse’s ‘Human Measures’ consists of twenty five porcelain vessels that each represents a volume of one of her body parts.
Modesty of Material
Natural materials play a major role, and in this we see an overriding characteristic of the Post Fossil pieces: modesty (and honesty) of material. It’s about using minimal materials and basic materials from the beginning of time and ‘make-do’ design often utilizing traditional craft techniques. Showing a strong connection to local materials, the colours from Atelier NL’s ‘Drawn from Clay’ earthenware are derived from variations in the Dutch polder soil from which the vessels were made. Swedish designer Karin Frankenstein borrowed ethnic building techniques using sand, clay and cow dung to create a monumental chair and shelf. Jo Meesters created his ‘PULP’ series of furniture from paper while Mats Theselius’ magical pulp-based totem speakers make the most of their excellent acoustic qualities. Ronel Jordaan’s pebble-shaped planters made from felt enable the casing to decompose over time.
Listening to materials not dominating them
In the Post-Fossil age, the material is boss. Natural materials often come with their own conditions and designers grasp this as the starting point in their designs. By splitting logs into quarters, UK designer Peter Marigold created a site-specific shelving installation whose angles respond to the random angles of the logs in the way they were split. Similarly, the branches used by Bo Reudler to compose his ‘Slow White’ series are chosen for their distinguishing curves and imperfections. Animal hide is stretched by malousebastiaan and Niels van Eijk to create unexpectedly sculptural pieces. And as Norwegian artist Tanja Saeter mentioned in her lecture, the fine particles of volcanic ash that had wreaked havoc in the European airspace actually transform into glass when heated, making it an ultra natural material. Saeter’s glass calligraphy and Anthon Beeke’s ‘Ejaculatum’ glass alphabet highlighted the natural softness of the material – almost like body fluid – which industry has tamed. Ceramic is used in a traditional way but through experimentation, gains playful new qualities. For his ‘Textile Made Fragile’ shelves, Djim Berger – a so-called alchemist of ceramic - pulled woollen thread through clay, where upon firing, they disintegrated to leave behind a delicate ceramic structure and his porcelain stool has a wonderfully aerated structure through being cast in polystyrene pearls. The solid, elemental qualities of metal make an appearance in the boulder benches of Arik Levy’s ‘RockFusion Medium’ and Studio Job’s asteroid-like ‘Rock’ sofa. Using an intangible element, the ‘Floating Light’ of Eric Klarenbeek utilises the heat from a single light bulb to inflate the giant hot air lamp.
New era of design
The exhibition touches upon the influence of science on design, a field that will no doubt gain more importance in the future. Leading this movement is Joris Laarman, who with his ‘Bone Chair’ first showed the design world the power of technology and science to work with design and importantly, the strength of nature.
Post Fossil highlights a new generation of designers who do things differently. To see all the pieces of this genre all together in one room conveys a strong message. Imaginably, an exhibition like this in Japan will raise more than few eyebrows in the local design community which has historically been bound by a strict set of design rules.
So what does POST FOSSIL mean for the design industry in general? According to Edelkoort, industry will recognise the importance of individuality in mass production and aim to balance industry with craft/handwork. We already see this happening for example with Maarten Baas’ ‘Standard Unique’ chairs for Established and Sons where individual, various hand-drawn components made by machine are hand-assembled. Opposing this will be a modernist revival where the two movements will play off each other. Edelkoort also identifies a new type of designer who is more down to earth, they live their work, are optimistic and unassuming, a welcome breath of fresh air in today’s celebrity designer circuit. The exhibition shows that there’s definitely something in the air; the future’s about modesty, slowing down, reconnecting with nature and hopefully saying goodbye to last century’s materialistic mentality for good.
Photography: Masaya Yoshimura
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