Hella Jongerius, Vier Jahreszeiten, 2007, photo © Porzellan Manufaktur Nymphenburg
Aestheticizing the seemingly imperfect
by Uta Abendroth
Jan 24, 2013

“Isn’t it romantic? – Contemporary Design Balancing between Poetry and Provocation”, a special exhibition at the Museum für Angewandte Kunst in Cologne (MAKK) pays homage to the revival of the emotional in modern design. Curator Tugla Beyerle assembled a series of products and conceptual pieces by 40 international designers that do not necessarily exemplify historical tendencies in present-day design. Instead, the exhibits tend to address both the oppositions and congruities between industrial design and handcrafts, the perfect and the imperfect.

It would by no means be too bold to describe Andrea Branzi (he doesn’t have a single item on display in the Cologne exhibition and besides is a good one or two generations older than most of the designers represented) as the Godfather of this particular design approach. He unveiled his benches for the Animali Domestici series with backrests made of untreated branches way back in 1985 and then in 1996 he drew crowds to Milan’s Design Gallery Milano with pots and pans that featured lampshades shaped like chef’s hats which rose up out of the pans – to form rechargeable “wireless” lanterns. The items which Branzi, frequently referred to as the maverick of Italian design, presented back then in the Milanese gallery were (in their design) often light years ahead of the objects on display at the Salone del Mobile just a few kilometers away – and they still would be today.

But let’s come back from the “Navigli” of northern Italy to the Rhine: Tulga Beyerle, exhibition coordinator, design expert, author and director of Vienna Design Week, says that while reflecting upon design as she experiences it today she continually finds herself asking: “Isn’t it romantic?” And: “How do you wed these two things, when to the best of my belief design is the offspring of the Modern age and the expression of a belief in a modern society, starting with the industrialization and mass production that goes with it?”

To make things clear from the start: In order to see the exhibition in Cologne through completely unbiased eyes, you should (especially if you’re German) first remove your romantically rosy-tinted spectacles of naïve affectedness. Here we are not concerned with the oft-inflated term “Romanticism” in its traditional sense à la Caspar David Friedrich or Philipp Otto Runge, let alone Schlegel or Novalis. It is after all not the visual or artistic analogies that draw a line from Romanticism in the historico-cultural sense (ergo that of the late 18th century reaching far into the 19th) to the present day. To a greater extent, all of these notions are best bundled under one term: longing.

A world which has become so complex that most of us fail to understand it any longer, where the economy dominates the polity and people feel bound by constraints of the most varied kinds, is a world which gives rise to a desire for individualization, for freedom, perhaps even for an escape from reality. It is precisely these ideas that were running through the heads of the Romantics back then, it was about the utopia of a better world – and maybe this dream is as present today as it was back then. So the term is indeed transferable albeit to be seen in a new context.

The Cologne exhibition has been divided up into two sections. The first presents commercial products, the second more conceptual, indeed perhaps even essentially artistic items. The show thus visualizes the two present-day currents in design: here the things that you can buy in stores all over the world, and there objects and installations worthy of a place in an arty gallery. In the first section, the antagonism between industrial design (thus perfection) and the desire for naturalness becomes abundantly clear in the form of a jug, a cup and a bowl. That is, Max Lamb’s hand-carved, rough-looking, seemingly amorphous plaster models created for his “crockery” series, whereby although made of premium bone china each piece looks like one of a kind. Nothing about the porcelain pieces produced by “1882 Ltd.” indicates that together they form a series; in fact they look more like a child’s first attempt at imitating archetypal forms of jugs, cups and bowls using Plasticine. It seems the intricacies of this Staffordshire bone porcelain only become apparent on the second glance, and even more so (though this is of course not possible in the museum) when touched.

In the section in question, Tulga Beyerle has arranged a series of islands, which symbolize a garden, living, dining and bathroom. Patricia Urquiola’s “Re-Trouvé” tables and chairs sit enthroned in the “garden”, reminiscent of the 1950s, a time when anything and everything had a license to be round, colorful and optimistic. In the “bathroom” one finds among other things the “Vieques” tub designed by Urquiola herself and which is no more or less suited to bathing than the next bathtub. But its appearance, modeled on an old washing tub, is not only a nod to its basic function but to the emotions and nostalgia this evokes. We all know that the “good old times” weren’t always that good but we like to believe they were nonetheless. We long for less complexity, for simplicity, for things that speak for themselves.

But does this make an accessory like “L’Oiseau” by Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec, redolent of the carved Dalarna horses dating back to 17th-century Sweden, romantic? Just a moment ago, we were exalting it as a design highlight of the utmost stylistic reduction.

It was Friederich Schlegel who recognized the “ewige Werden” (an eternal state of becoming) as a characteristic trait of Romanticism. Perhaps the present, where nothing is certain, constitutes a new state of becoming; from which you are able to look at design objects through new eyes: “Here we see so many familiar things in a new context,” says Tulga Beyerle, “such that some things are revalued or viewed in a new light.”

The “Baccarat Zoo” vases and bonbonnières by Jaime Hayon, for example. The bears, monkeys and ducks’ faces are almost clown-like, while creating an unusual contrast they are made of the highest quality crystal and porcelain. But the Spaniard can certainly do more than “loud humor”, as evidenced by his collection for the Japanese ceramic manufacturer Kutani Choemon, which takes a subtly ironic approach without poking fun at the reduced aesthetic for which the Japanese are so renowned. The exhibition also features tapestries by Hella Jongerius which she developed together with Indian artisans as part of Ikea’s UNICEF project. Although each piece is part of a limited edition series for a global corporation, the women who took part have certainly each left their mark as each tapestry displays the name of the woman who made it.

Now to the second part of the exhibition: The more independent installations and objects on show here unlock the romantic spirit invoked in contemporary design by dint of their intrinsically liberated nature. In place of Novalis’ Blue Flower, the symbol of the German Romantic movement, we have a blue carpet that is no less wistful than the famous bloom. Hermann August Weizenegger’s “Ocean” connotes both expanse and oceanic depth at the same time. The beholder can’t help but “romantically” drowning in the iridescent nuances of the silk, a scientific examination of the depths of the ocean so to speak. Depending on the location and incidence of light, the carpet could also be evocative of the puckered surface of the water – it plays with our perceptions.

Directly next to it is another carpet, which upon first glance looks more like a wall hanging or a laid-out coat smoothed out carefully. Formafantasma have adorned their “Migration” tapestry with a pattern of birds, binding the two selvages with wooden buttons. Despite being made using old techniques, this piece isn’t retro but rather bids an imaginative adieu to lifestyle design in its purest form. The objects presented by Pieke Bergman also get the imagination going: Her “Light Bulbs” seem to have morphed out of shape, as though the glass envelope has melted and cast itself on chair backrests and tabletops. There doesn’t seem to be an end in sight, such that the malleability of this otherwise so rigid material proves rather astonishing. Do we really have everything under control? A flash of panic: What happens if all the machines and objects we have control over take on a life of their own? Or how about a ladder, an object very much reduced to its right angles and indeed its reliability, that suddenly turns into some crooked contraption? Julien Carretero made his “In Situ” ladder using wood from the 16th century, which had originally been part of the Eindhoven city wall. Does it get the person climbing it where they want to go, can it hold their weight, is it safe?

When perusing the exhibits in the second part of Tulga Beyerle’s exhibition, one thing becomes abundantly clear: Nothing is perfect, nothing is fixed – and what’s more, being too perfect is one thing and one thing alone: boring. The search for a new age of innocence, for alternatives to our present-day lifestyle has begun and the designers are along for the ride. Of course, their role in this process is not that of the person we see staring out of the window in Romantic paintings, looking towards that which they long for and discerning the silhouette of a new product out there on the horizon. But with a bit of luck they will take the consumer by the hand and show them the beauty of imperfect design. Whether you would describe this as “romantic” or not all depends on your own definition of the term. The exhibition is definitely worth seeing either way.

Isn't it romantic? Contemporary design balancing between poetry and provocation
Museum für Angewandte Kunst, Cologne
until April 21, 2013
Tuesday through Sunday 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Doshi Levien, Chandlo, 2012, photo © BD Barcelona
Frédéric Dedelley, Memento Mori, 2010, photo © HELMRINDERKNECHT contemporary design, Berlin
Maurizio Galante, Canapé Cactus, Cerruti Baleri, 2011, photo © Ezio Manciucca
Studio Makkink & Bey, Birdwatch cabinet (for girl), 2006, photo © Studio Makkink & Bey
Maxim Velcovsky, Waterproof Onion, Qubus, 2004, photo © Marek Novotny
Julia Lohmann, Gero Grundmann, Tidal Ossuary, 2009-2010, photo © Courtesy Gallery Libby Sellers
Jaime Hayón, Sparkle Shady, 2007, photo © Swarovski Crystal Palace Collection
Max Lamb, Crockery, 2012, photo © 1882 Ltd.
Inga Sempé, Vapeur, 2009, photo © Moustache
Robert Stadler, Wild at home, 2011, Courtesy Galerie Triple V, photo © André Morin
Hella Jongerius, Vier Jahreszeiten, 2007, photo © Porzellan Manufaktur Nymphenburg