Do you have any idea how oak sounds? You don't? Swiss parquet makers "Bauwerk" demonstrated this inside a cube-shaped and - how else could it be - parquet-covered pavilion. Outside, people could even try out for themselves, as long as they kept a suitable distance from their surroundings. In order to do so, they were given something known as a "bullroarer", a small piece of long, thin oak that hangs on a twisted cord and can be swung around over the head just like a lasso - when it begins humming a song.
We were in Langenthal, Switzerland - where else? Last weekend, for the 13th time, Designers' Saturday became the informal meeting place for curious design aficionados. Whether it was under the time-honored beams of the Mühlehof in the downtown area or in the "Fabrikation", the warehouses, offices and basements of Création Baumann, Girsberger Sitzmöbel, Glas Trösch, Hector Egger Holzbau and Ruckstuhl - once again a select number of manufacturers from the furnishing sector, designers and universities presented their extravagant ideas and installations. Though, ultimately, products are the focus of attention in Langenthal as well, for one short weekend, even they are allowed to cast off their chains and are free to unfold their potential, one that creates space and atmosphere. Unlike the situation at the relevant trade fairs, here, design presents itself precisely as a business that is not difficult. Here, for one weekend, the economic aspect is allowed to take a backseat, individual items are permitted to take to the floor without worrying about their function; creativity is celebrated excessively and allows the spotlight to fall on design as a family-oriented showcase - without thresholds, but with that pampered feel to it. Amongst other things, so that people can hear how oak sounds and generally open up their eyes and their ears.
That pampered feel
Designers' Saturday, which this year, for the first time, kicked off with a preview for the trade on Friday afternoon, pampers its visitors like a national holiday; but it also makes them feel pampered, which is due to the type and standard of the presentations that this minor design biennial demands. In Langenthal, manufacturers and designers alike need to offer something special to be able to keep up with their at all times illustrious competitors. How did companies and designers actually fare in 2010, though?
There is a large gaping building site in downtown Langenthal; the sun was shining, the air was warm and the sky was blue. Ideal external conditions for this one-day excursion into the world of design. And so we set off. At Mühlehof soap bubbles danced in the twilight on filigree wire mounts over brightly-lit barrels; one floor higher, a golden cyclone made of pieces of a wallpaper by Zaha Hadid whirled like a tornado holding its breath. And in the little room where designer Jörg Boner spread out his creations, including his "Wogg 50" chair and a cute thermos flask, we found out, reading one of the sheets of A3 paper that had been put out, with which not only the designer but also André Vladimir Heiz had been involved, "What it takes!": the heart and the mind, rhyme and reason. Because, as it says, "the heart and mind have free access, rhyme and reason embody the viewpoint."
Despite our own viewpoint, we moved on, after all, there was a lot more to be seen. In a nearby old factory building it was snowing - one of the entries for the Swiss Design Prize - snow-white teabags, the classy Belux luminaires were shining, and in a session music was made with things that are essentially mute. Langenthal is, amongst other things, a charming design Disneyland and an extensive tour involving all kinds of sensations.
The Black Line
Now we had to decide between "White Line" or the "Black Line", as once again everything was perfectly organized and executed with Swiss precision - despite the throng, even on Friday. We chose the black trip, traveling by bus counterclockwise to Hector Egger Holzbau. There - we have already mentioned the humming parquet - a giant hall awaited us, in which kitschy deer plus autumn leaves and chairs cut up into thin pieces laid siege to the gallery. Down below in the hall at Denz', whose color collection, à la Le Corbusier, is now based on Yves Klein's palette of "YK 1" through "YK 7", we came across a veritable innovation: a mobile and flexible workstation by Matteo Thun and Antonio Rodriguez, known as "dmt", with a desk, storage space and a footstool which can, if necessary, serve as a plug-in desk.
On we traveled on our "Black Line" to Création Baumann, where, in the basement, we were greeted by a seemingly endless corridor made of fabric ribbons lit with colored light. Light in general is the magic material that it is particularly enticing to present. Lista Office's version featured a decorative, back-lit perforated patterns and had students make letter trays sway and radiators inflate; Foscarini strung together luminaires from its "Tress" range to create an extensive installation that repeatedly glowed a mysterious, red color and inside which visitors forgot both time and space. In the visitor-friendly labyrinth of the designers' fantasies there was an atmosphere to suit everyone. And it was only the bleak bathing cave by Duravit with its fire and a tent made of animal skins that took things too far in terms of presenting an archaic picture of bathing and really was too much of a good thing. We were much more excited by the stacks of reels of yarn and the weaving looms on which Création Baumann produces its marvelous works in textiles.
There was then a crush on the "Black Line" as far as the Glas Trösch stop. In between Moobel, Wood & Washi, the shelves by the Vifian furniture workshops and Zumtobel, Irion presented its "regal 2" shelving. Keramik Laufen stuck to fragments, using them to make decorative patterns on the floor. Creaplant, a specialist in "indoor greenery" then even produced a "Wonderwall", a 3-D item in jungle green. Admittedly, this little jungle for lounges or reception areas only formed the background for a video installation by artist Susi Jirkuff, who set up screens showing neat little animals in a jungle panorama. However, the transfer of art was not a success. Oh, just think how radical Nam June Paik's "TV Garden" was in its day. Should we have been wanting Tarzan, for example, to have returned to clear up in this artificial and overloaded green hell? As if in consolation there was tasty apple juice from an apple crate wave. Yes, sometimes the mixture is just a little too wild.
Probably the most beautiful installation was to be found in the Girsberger factory. There, Forbo Giubiasco, a flooring manufacturer with a long-standing tradition from Ticino, created an installation made of simple transport pallets that was as original as it was uncomplicated and that did without any kind of pomp. It consisted of marbled linoleum in graduated nuances of color cut into thin braids suspended from the ceiling and strips of a hand's breadth stuck into the spaces between the pallets. This created a rotunda full of simple elegance whose magic did not seem forced but seemed to develop from the materials themselves.
If anything, this time people seemed to be a little too caught up in magic and mystification. Girsberger, for example, back-lit a solitary worker in a darkened room and had him bend tubular steel frames for chairs, which then collected in a heap in the foreground and ended up as a spindle-shaped sculpture. However, the real manufacturing processes are much more fascinating than this consciously old-fashioned version, as we found out at every second turn. We were, after all, in a factory and design is about the fascination of serial industrial production, not the transfiguration of individual work.
Something else that just did not quite work was the installation by Atelier Oï at Ruckstuhl. What, in a white cube could have escalated precisely into a contrast made of technoid gold foil and gyrating, dancing "skirts" just seemed too improvised in the middle of a factory. Neither did we notice the promised olfactory effect.
We hurried on through the halls and warehouses. This time, Vitra beckoned from a rather simple artificial turf park, where their latest furniture was set out and Dietiker had chairs from the wonderful, unbelievably sturdily constructed "Ono" range by Matthias Weber reflected in a water basin. At the same time, the fact that self-irony and a contrapuntal approach can be a wonderful thing was demonstrated by de Sede, a company whose name stands for quality, durability and leather that is as soft as a glove, by extending Robert Haussmann's "RH-304" chair to form a recamier sofa with a little table, and adjustable headrests and lamps being added to the "dS-600" range of furniture. Ruckstuhl itself presented - right in the middle of its distributing warehouse, a building worth seeing in itself - its special 2010 range, consisting of a total of 12 rug designs produced as a limited edition. Deborah Moss's contribution was a circular "Night Sky" where crystal stones on a dark felt background twinkled like stars in the night sky, in "Dessus Dessus Dessous" Atelier Oï joined together ribbons of linen and felt to make an illusionist room pattern such as was to be found in the Renaissance, and Claudy Jongstra produced a yellow cloud hand-made from felt, reminiscent of the paintings of Informal Art. Everything really cleverly done but, it has to be said, not to everyone's taste.
All kinds of fantasies
And so, in Langenthal things always become fascinating when a product does indeed play a part, but is not the center of attention. However, instead of just telling production stories or using precise installations to gladden the eyes the ears and the mind, now, there is far too much orchestration too often, and a far too romantic note. Particularly in the case of especially ambitious installations, the product - a chair, shelving system, or flooring - has become an aesthetic trigger for all kinds of fantasies and the factory a playing field for conservative industrial romanticism.
As pleasant as it is in Langenthal to roam en famille from factory to factory and from set to set, nonetheless the 13th Designers' Saturday did reveal two problems: first, it suffers from over-popularity and too many visitors and is in danger of suffocating on its own success. Second, this time there really were not enough truly innovative and clear installations that consciously avoided trying to use the weapons of art to elevate design and, in the process, drowning in their attempts to illustrate or mystify.
Outside, beyond the windows of the Ruckstuhl factory, the stars had long since come out. The "Black Line" was still shuttling from a to b. When we stepped outside again we quickly spun our oak parquet over our heads. How does oak sound? Just like this. The next challenge, to show design in a completely different way for a change, is bound to happen. For certain in Langenthal, again.