Strange that Kortrijk of all places, a small Belgian town some 150 kilometres west of Brussels, close to Lille, has what it takes to be a European design capital. But, once again this year, a tour of the six halls, which make up the curated Interieur Biennale, was enough to amaze. The province of West Flanders has succeeded in achieving what others have tried in vain. A funded programme featuring a number of exciting exhibitions and breathtaking shows staged by manufacturers, who have transformed their stands into full-blown trend platforms, presenting a treasure trove of diverse design approaches, which show off their glittering potential in an intensity almost impossible to find elsewhere. Big name furniture companies display their new products alongside small, Belgian door manufacturers. Between them, high-tech companies show off their innovations in the Dolby Surround area and textile labels and china manufacturers exhibit their treasures. What may initially seem slightly irritating is that Kortrijk does not define exhibitors as furniture, kitchen or lighting exhibitors, which has turned out to be an advantage. Spanning an area of 40,000 square metres, design is seen, with a great deal of self-evidence, as the overarching theme, design which isn't just at home in the living room and which has long been found beyond the bathroom. Rising visitor numbers and a growing list of exhibitors, who were unable to get a space in the exhibition halls and have to remain outside, justify the concept of the fair, which has been around for forty years.
Jaime Hayon - who else!
The thought "Jaime Hayon of all people!" may have crossed many people's mind. This year's honoured guest is not exactly an unknown quantity. In the last year or so, his amusing, sometimes frivolous, impractical objects have been omnipresent and were on show in an unfamiliar intensity at the special show at the fair. Comical green chicken rockers and small ceramic figures, bright green shoes and Baroque bathroom furniture turned up in abundance on stage, in a fantastic ensemble. "Design is a funny thing", Dieter van den Storm, coordinator for Interieur 2008, correctly summed up, with an eye to the design debate. After the lean years of minimalism, Hayon's work raises questions concerning the future of design - maximalism or functionalism, series production or exclusive works of art, Mediterranean digital Baroque or Nordic restraint. At the heart of this debate, which extends far beyond style issues and the social relevance of design, Hayon's body of work shows amazing potential, which doesn't even shy away from bad taste but celebrates it with relish. Surprisingly, at the end of the tour, one may be forced to acknowledge that design is its own fairytale world with the designer as the artist. This could be a reaction to the status quo. But Hayon's world of grotesque mythical creatures and Alice in Wonderland furnishings could at least be an approach, which doesn't dodge the critical questions about the future of design but acts them out with provocative pleasure. The Spaniard, a lovable enfant terrible, whose over-extravagant, attractive creativity makes him everybody's darling, has always gone in for the spectacular. In the context of the international design debate his gestures, which many see as a joke, have taken on a social relevance, reacting to difficult issues with a hint of the subversive.
Stefan Schöning and genuine innovation
It goes without saying that, as well as superstar Hayon, less flamboyant scene experts were celebrated. The Interieur jury named Stefan Schöning Designer of the Year 2008 - his minimalist bent wire coat stands for Desalto, traffic lights and clocks for public spaces appear to be in stark contrast to Hayon's work. A host of designs by students were on show at the 'Young Designers Fair', which documented a broad spectrum of the colourful joy of experimentation, in some cases showing unexpected punchlines and a sense of humour. Once again, many companies used Interieur not as a small secondary show but as a platform to present new products to an international audience: for example, with ‘My Chair', Walter Knoll launched a exceptionally reduced Lounge Chair, designed by Ben van Berkel, whose clean lines and economical use of material, have what it takes to transport the Barcelona Chair out of the hotel lobby. Belgian lighting manufacturer Dark showed off a ceiling light by Stefan Schöning, which looks like a birdcage, albeit embracing a light bulb rather than a bird. Many Belgian companies use Interieur as their house fair, surprising visitors with their clever presentations. Modular Lighting Instruments' stand at the fair stood out from all the rest. A conglomeration of garishly coloured wood huts, sprayed with graffiti and plastered with placards. Anyone wishing to see the avant-garde Belgian company's lighting had to push themselves through narrow passages into small rooms, where a variety of trendy everyday situations from the seventies were depicted. In the cult supermarket, with its vintage Harribo shelf and old-fashioned till, in the jeans shop or DJ room, where an excellent record collection were played on two turntables filling the entire stand with sound, Modular Lighting's cluster-like, circular wall lamps did not impose but blended into the scene as if they had always been there. A corner of the stand, with red lighting, provided the catering for the stand. The designers of the fair stand from Belgium's Rotorgroup erected the logo "Diabolo Nude Bar" over the counter. The Bar was a rendezvous for young, sports enthusiasts with a passion for experimentation and, refreshingly there are many of those in Kortrijk.