The Super-Refined or Hip-Hop, Hybrids and Other Petits Fours
von Thomas Wagner | Apr 14, 2009

How to produce something new if everything has already existed, if the unity of styles and isms has been lost and diversity reigns supreme? Bright minds combine and shift shapes and mix them, draw on history and other cultures, arrange the wildest marriages, with shapes and patterns intermingling. We live in an age of networking and hybrids - and there is no end to the global linkage of everything with everyone in sight. And how could design which knows the dynamism of processes so well, not take centerfield? Today, wild and schizoid thought is unleashed not just in the Worldwide Web, but also in the apartment. Thus, fragments of different ages and cultures collide in lounges, offices and homes and bond in peaceful aesthetic coexistence.

At Milan's Salone del Mobile we will soon be able to gaze in amazement at the sweet fruit of such a remix culture - or the less euphoric may simply observe its impact. The grand process of amalgamation and admixture has long since started and nothing at present seems able to resist it.

Styles and ages mix, shapes and traditions fuse, patterns are taken up and hybrids born. Be it Edward van Vliet, who presents his "Juju" armchair like a decorated petit four. Or Patricia Urquiola who in her Bohemian series mixes English Classicism with Oriental cushions and tassled blankets. Or Doshi Levien who find a new form for the Indian daybed or in the case of "Principessa" uses countless thin layers to create the bed for the Princess on the pea, blending British formal stringency with opulent Indian patterns. Or Stefan Diez who breathes new life into the Thonet tradition and with his "Chassis" chair for Wilkhahn presses sheet metal using carmaking technology. Or Jaime Hayon who creates a mix of Rococo and Minimalism. Or Hella Jongerius who places rabbits or hippos in porcelain bowls and for "Bovist" ornaments the seating cushion with almost Oriental embroidery. In all instances, the mixture creates the effect.

Just as hip-hop DJ has two LPs turning on the decks at once, selects individual sequences, and then changes the speed, or plays them forward or backward, so today designers are juggling with several techniques and cultural layers at once, tearing the one from its usual context and inserting it somewhere else. Relying on design history, or on elements of foreign cultures, or forgotten crafts traditions, or industrial techniques used in other sectors - the result is always the product of sampling, mixing, hybridization. And the remix is precisely not a matter of quotation. As the successful product of intellectual mobility it plays with different shapes and functions, and the more playful the approach, the more decisively is function swapped for performance, objects dressed like sushi on a board or petits fours at the confectioner's - and the "titbits" often consciously take the stage like so many amusing small but crazy choice items.

The designers are ever more uninhibited in their chopping and changing, their mixing and scratching. Wherever the pattern, shape or process may come from, it is now permanently on the move, circulating between times, cultures, and contexts. Thus, hybrid thought, opting for diversity and combinations of the unconnected, continually generates hybrids. And the modernist ecstasies of the new and the postmodern quotation are followed by remixes as the attempt to order the ecstasy of diversity.

At present, everything is termed "hybrid" that is indebted to a mixture and dissolution of traditions, bonding different realities, discourses and technologies, using techniques such as remix, sampling and collage and replaces a uniform semantics with unlimited flexibility and mobility. "We need not," writes cultural scholar Elisabeth Bronfen, "try and pretend that what counts today is whether we consider cultural hybridity desirable or not, as all that counts is how we handle it."

Innovation has therefore become a question of arranging. Success is a matter of skilful combination. What has been practiced in Pop music for years (specifically in Hip-Hop, Techno, Sampling and even Rap) and has become a firm part of Pop culture, is now spreading in design. The result is a combination that generates not only greater dynamism and zest but also shows just how quickly and thoroughly popular culture is now sucking up the high culture of craftsmanship. While the one or other old crafts technique is salvaged in mass production, and in this way a degree of individualization maintained, this in no way changes the fact that in the process a colonization of cultural resources occurs such as took place a century ago with the integration of so-called "primitive" sources into Western art. Albeit with the difference that today it has not the least to do with some yearning or other for the primordial and the innocent, and all to do with cultural recycling of sources that have hitherto gone unused or stood on the sidings of history. It is hardly surprising that in the midst of cutting-edge design we find a kind of cultural alienation, as the pressure to permanently produce something surprising and new is especially great precisely here.

Nevertheless, the remix process has also garnered positive effects. What is decisive in the this act of appropriation or utilization is that it does not simply suck up elements of some popular culture at random, make use of them and insert them into a new context: Change of context and appropriation usually occur from the perspective of refinement. As with the deliberate pruning of trees, as regards the most successful examples and from the perspective of the market for which they are produced, we can speak of gentrification of traditions. Where the enterprise fails the result is ugly hybrids, i.e., mongrels. The alien, and politically it is all too often felt to be threatening, appears here suddenly in the guise of a stimulus. At least for a while.

If essentially nothing is new, then only combinations can surprise. But we should not take this to mean that some modules or other are simply pushed back and forth. Instead, the remix turns the quality of the individual elements and the way in which they are combined creates a boost, transforming the domestic and the foreign, the old and the familiar, and at the same time acquainting the users with the plurality of a future world culture. The focus is primarily not on the ingredients that are mixed, and also not on their origin. Such bonds are obsolete. All that counts is the way in which the heterogeneous elements are combined in surprising ways.

In this art of translation or transformation through melding, not only the new endures after the end of the new. And a mannerist game also ensues, in which there is nothing simple or plain, but any amount of over-sugary sweeties, glazed with patterns and filled with refined context. Let us call it the game of mixtures, because it lies at the other end of the scale from the "super-normal" - so for the time being we could call it the "super-refined".

Cabinet by Antoine et Manuel for BD Barcelona Design
Cabinet by Antoine et Manuel for BD Barcelona Design
Hella Jongerius for Porzellan-Manufaktur Nymphenburg
Principessa by Doshi Levien for Moroso
AQHayonCollection by Jaime Hayon for ArtQuitect
404 by Stefan Diez for Thonet
404 by Stefan Diez for Thonet
Juju by Edward van Vliet
plastic chair in wood by Maarten Baas
Hella Jongerius for Porzellan-Manufaktur Nymphenburg
Bohemian von Patricia Urquiola für Moroso
Light Shade Shade by Jurgen Bey for Moooi
Paper Chandelier by Studio Job for Moooi
Paper Chandelier by Studio Job for Moooi
Bovist by Hella Jongerius for Vitra