Reaching a critical mass

Should a piece of furniture stretch us emotionally and intellectually? Some designers think so, says Nicole Swengley.

October 26 2010
Nicole Swengley

Does the world need another chair? Probably not. And yet designers and manufacturers continue to create thousands. You only have to visit Milan’s Salone Internazionale del Mobile to see how many come to market each year, and it’s the same story with other products for our homes. Now, however, in a phenomenon tagged “Critical Design”, a number of designers are rethinking rigid assumptions about furniture and inviting us to engage in a debate about the roles products play in our lives.

Of course, it’s not the first time rebellion has broken out in the design arena. Design has always acted as a social, cultural and commercial barometer, and as an indicator of society’s values and political ideologies, it has undeniable form. Anti-design and anti-consumerism movements were widespread in the 1960s and 1970s at a time of mass strikes and student riots in Europe. What’s new now is an underlying critique of the industry itself within contemporary experimental design.

“Critical Design challenges us to rethink object types, services and the way we use things,” explains Gareth Williams, senior tutor in Design Products at London’s Royal College of Art. “Product design, in particular, has tended to give us what we want. It focuses on the status quo and doesn’t challenge assumptions about the way we live. A lot of what passes for good design is often lazy – ‘polite modernism’, if you like – and novelty is often passed off as something special when it’s just a fresh take on something ordinary. Critical Design shows that things can be different if we wish.”

It’s a view shared by influential New York gallerist Murray Moss. “The term ‘Critical Design’ applies to objects that, as evidence of new methodologies or proposals for ‘new’ values, are so articulate as to effect real changes in our thinking and our behaviour,” he says.

As interactive designers and educators, the London-based duo Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby are key exponents of Critical Design. Indeed, the term was first used by Dunne – professor and head of the Design Interactions department at the Royal College of Art – in his books, Hertzian Tales (1999) and Design Noir (2001). Others include some of their RCA graduates – James Auger, Elio Caccavale and Noam Toran.

“One of its roles is to question the limited range of emotional and psychological experiences offered through designed products,” says Dunne. “If you decouple design from the mass market, what do you get? A change of attitude and approach. So the purpose of Critical Design is to make us think and to raise awareness, expose assumptions, provoke action, spark debate and entertain. It’s not really a ‘movement’ that can be neatly defined. It’s more about values and attitude – a way of looking at design and reimagining its possibilities beyond the narrow definition presented through the media and in shops.

“We’re interested in being constructive,” he adds. “We don’t just want to comment but to offer a proposal – even if it is unfeasible – through a mix of irony, humour and aesthetics. We like the playfulness of hypothetical solutions, but we’re also trying to create a space for discussion and debate.”

So why is this happening now? “We are saturated with pat, tired ‘solutions’ to living ‘comfortably’ or ‘stylishly’ and are open to designers who use objects as a conduit for a richer self-expression,” says Moss. “Current priorities no longer put ‘function’ first in functional objects, although that doesn’t necessarily mean that a chair can’t be comfortable or the correct height while simultaneously embodying a rich, poetic narrative.”

“Many key ideas involved in forming mainstream design stem from the early 20th century,” says Dunne. “Society has moved on but design has not.” Critical Design is a way, he believes, for design to remain relevant to the complex political, technological, economic and social changes we are experiencing. “Rather than speeding up the entry of technology into everyday life, we need to reflect on its impact and ask if we even need it,” he says. So when Dunne & Raby developed a project exploring our future interaction with robots, they conceived their characters as moody and needy with their own personalities and quirks. This raises the possibility that future devices might be designed less for specific tasks and more for jobs based on behaviour and qualities that change over time. (The robots featured in the Museum of Modern Art’s Action! Design Over Time show in New York earlier this year.)

While designs such as this may seem too conceptual for many homeowners, collectors of contemporary limited editions are snapping them up. Many of the pieces shown by London gallerist Rabih Hage as part of French designer Matali Crasset’s “Another Logic of...” series sold during a 2008 exhibition. It included a new take on lighting – the limited-edition Lampe Lunaire (£23,000), a two-part lamp whose exterior photovoltaic panels are powered by the moon’s energy, which is then transmitted to an interior element.

Crasset enjoys creating new typologies and Hage believes her “what if?” approach is emblematic of Critical Design. “She questions the existence of codes that control our everyday lives and tries to explore alternatives,” he says. “She looks at the relationship we have with the things that surround us and how they affect our behaviour.”

Spanish designer, Martí Guixé, is on a similar quest. “I would like to see design as a cultural value, where objects not only deliver stylised solutions to banal problems, but create new perceptions of reality – social, political and cultural,” he says. Meanwhile, his frequent choice of cheap or disposable materials acts as a critique of consumerism itself. The Do Frame (€8.50, from Droog Design) comprises adhesive tape decorated with a golden frame pattern that allows homeowners to create an instant art gallery. The Crisis Mirror (€1,200) entertainingly recalls the figure in Edvard Munch’s painting The Scream. And even Guixé’s recent mass-market products for Alessi reflect his out-of-the-box thinking. Conventional hour-markers are replaced by phrases in the 24-hour Sentence Maker clock (£76 from Alessi), while the Seed Safe (£16 from Alessi) promotes the idea that seeds are, in some respects, more valuable than money and therefore essential in every home.

Sustainability is a theme frequently revisited by exponents of Critical Design. Take the limited-edition furniture series called Once (price on request) made entirely from recycled wooden chopsticks by Julie Mathias and Wolfgang Kaeppner of WOKmedia, a London-based design company with a production studio in Shanghai. Held together by friction and gravity, the intricate interlacing of these apparently haphazard structures supports the weight of users. The latest pieces were shown at The State of Things, the inaugural show at Design Museum Holon in Israel, while others are in the permanent collection of New York’s Museum of Art & Design.

It is estimated that wood from up to 25m trees is required to make the 45bn chopsticks produced annually in China. Yet they are used once and thrown away. “We feel that sustainability has become a slogan for environmentally friendly production without rethinking the need for new things when we should be using and appreciating old ones,” says Kaeppner. “Once is a still-life with a pinch in our collective lower back to encourage us to rethink our consumption habits.”

Another designer on this mission is Karen Ryan, who scavenges in her home town of Portsmouth for discarded materials from which to build her Custom-Made Chairs (from £3,500, at Rabih Hage; new commissions from Karen direct). Meanwhile, Ryan’s Second Hand Plates (from £400) are created by removing the decorative patterns from old plates and inserting conscience-pricking words. “I make a different sense out of what is a senseless waste,” she says. “My choice of creating designs that use discarded or unwanted objects and materials has never been born out of fashion. The decision was an ethical and personal one in a reaction to the ever-increasing consumer mountain of design and design waste, as well as necessity created by my lack of money and resources.”

The Crate furniture by Dutch designer Jurgen Bey who, with Rianne Makkink, runs Studio Makkink & Bey, explores similar territory by turning protective, wooden, transportation crates and their contents into furniture (from €11,750). Used together, they turn into a brand-new object. For example the Birdwatch Cabinet Girl, a child’s sleeping/exploratory space (€45,125), is formed from an old table and desk and their wooden transportation boxes. Meanwhile, London-based German designer, Julia Lohmann, adds to the debate by challenging the idea of a perfect product and questioning the impermanence of mass-manufactured objects through the Erosion furniture she makes with her husband, Gero Grundmann, from cast industrial soap (from £7,000 at Gallery Libby Sellers).

“A lot of my pieces look critically at materials and how we use them and also at our relationship with objects,” says Lohmann. “If objects end up in a landfill, then we’ve failed in that relationship.” Her Resilience tables (price on request at Moss), made from an unconventional mix of concrete and wool, her hand-sculpted Cow Benches covered in a single hide, now in MoMA’s permanent collection (price on request from Galerie Kreo), and Laminarium, a seaweed-veneered bench (£12,000 from Julia Lohmann), all invite us to consider materials in a new context and think about their sustainability.

According to Bey, everything we need already exists. It’s just a question of recognising how to translate it into something we’ll use. A case in point is his Vacuum Bag furniture (from €9,750). These chair-shaped refuse bags can be connected to a vacuum cleaner and, once they have been filled with dust, they provide comfortable seating.

Studio Makkink & Bey’s now-iconic Tree Trunk bench, in which a fallen log becomes a smart seat when fitted with cast-bronze chair backs, typifies his approach. Only the chair backs are for sale (£10,860 from Nest) to promote the use of locally felled trees and avoid transportation. Meanwhile, his Ear-chairs for Prooff (from €4,112) address the problem of privacy in large spaces. Sitters are enveloped by the chairs’ oversize wings, while small tables integrated into the armrests create, both visually and acoustically, a room within a room. It’s a clever response to our overloaded public environments.

“Critical Design is an area where I feel comfortable because I think it’s important to make your voice heard through design,” says Bey. “It’s not about being against things but about staying critical, particularly in the case of sustainable design. It’s about finding the right balance with progress.

“To change someone’s views you need to make them more curious,” he adds. “It is what I like about being a designer. You’re allowed to question things. It’s not an exact science and there’s a big area where you can move quite freely and come to your answers. If you rethink things, the answers are about what you can do and how you do it. You have your questions and ask ‘what if...?’ Then you follow where this takes you.”

Rotterdam-based Slovakian designer, Tomáš Gabzdil Libertiny, asked a giant “what if...?” with his limited-edition Honeycomb Vases (from Carpenters Workshop Gallery, €20,000, and Moss, price on request). He constructed a Ming vase-shaped scaffold and introduced a colony of bees to build a honeycomb around it. Nature thus created what would normally be regarded as a man-made product.

“I have been interested in contradicting the current consumer society, which has a liking for slick design, by choosing to work with a seemingly very vulnerable and ephemeral material – beeswax,” says Libertiny. The choice of a vase was symbolic – beeswax evolves from flowers – although Libertiny has since adapted the technique to other forms, such as a large sculptural object, The Unbearable Lightness (€76,375, from Carpenters Workshop Gallery), in which a figure in a suspended glass box is covered by a skin of natural honeycomb.

As such designs lack a specific function, some would question whether they are “real” products. “There’s an element of truth in this,” says Williams. “But by stepping out of the area of functionality, which underpins most product design, we can reflect on things through the language of design. ‘Blue sky’ thinking typifies Critical Design. It’s an experimental area where questions can be asked and ideas, which eventually feed back into products, originate. Designers are thinking through the problems by asking ‘what if...?’ and imagining a just-out-of-sight future.”