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Design of the Times

07. 02. 17   :   The Epistle

Architecture, design and fashion have always been influenced by the cultural, socio-economic and political landscape of their time, and modern-day trends are no different. It can be hard to define a zeitgeist in times of conflict and divide, but the prevailing spirit of today seems to centre around unrest and uncertainty for the future.

This complex, contradictory era is driving a more anarchic, irreverent style of design that can at times feel chaotic and unsettling. In a world in which predictions are turned on their head and the seemingly impossible becomes reality, the mood is to throw caution to the wind, take risks, break rules. This was very much in evidence at Design Miami 2016 in December, where there was a clear shift away from the ‘safe’ design of recent years, towards more experimental pieces.

Niek Pulles Spiky Chairs made from blue foam
Spiky Foam Chairs, Niek Pulles for Chamber Gallery at Design Miami 2016. Photo by Lauren Coleman

Dezeen describes this shift as a ‘response to tumultuous political times’, and designers and gallerists seem to agree. In this article, Juan Garcia Mosqueda of New York gallery Chamber is quoted as saying, ‘Times are crazy. No-one wants to play it safe any more. Because of the political climate, people just decided to go all in.’ Designer Misha Kahn had a similar message, succinctly put: ‘Apocalyptic times call for extreme furniture.’

Misha Kahn's mixed media Scrappy Cabinet, made from up cycled rubbish
A standout object at Design Miami was Misha Kahn’s The Scrappy One, on display at Friedman Benda gallery’s stand. It is made from woven grass and upcycled rubbish.
Photo by Adam Reich, courtesy of Friedman Benda and Misha Kahn

The growing awareness among artists and designers that their work has the power to influence how we see the world and even effect change is spawning a new generation of thought-provoking works. This responsibility is being taken seriously by those who use their work to initiate debate, comment on society or challenge the status quo.

The installations at the opening exhibition at the new Design Museum, Fear And Love: Reactions to a Complex World (until 23 April), do just that. The exhibition’s stated aim is ‘to capture the mood of the present’; according to Justin McGuirk, Chief Curator at the Design Museum, it ‘proposes that design is implicated in wider issues that reflect the state of the world’.

Fibre Market - an installation at the Design Museum
Fibre Market by Christien Meindertsma, one of the installations at the Design Museum’s Fear and Love exhibition, explores the potential of recycling textiles and critiques existing industrial practices. Photo by Luke Hayes

The 11 installations deal with a variety of modern-day issues including dating apps, sentient robots and the environment. There’s even a ‘Pan-European Living Room’, created by architecture practice OMA in response to the Brexit vote, which is furnished with pieces from each of the 28 EU member states.

Pan-European Living Room - an installation at the Design Museum
The Pan-European Living Room by OMA. Photo by Luke Hayes

Another designer who likes to push creative boundaries is Es Devlin. Best known for her work designing stage shows for some of the world’s biggest pop stars and for designing the closing ceremony of the London 2012 Olympics, her most recent installation was something of a departure.

Mirror Maze, Es Devlin; commissioned by Chanel and i-D
Mirror Maze, Es Devlin; commissioned by Chanel and i-D

Mirror Maze, which was commissioned by Chanel and i-D, was an immersive, sensory experience that used video projections, ambient noise, music and, in the final room, the scent of a bespoke Chanel perfume, to explore the concept of memory. As visitors passed through the maze they saw infinite versions of themselves in the mirrored panels around them. The overall effect was deliberately disorientating and slightly unsettling, intended to evoke a sense of falling through memory and time.

Es Devlin's Mirror Maze
The Mirror Maze, as above

Artist Barnaby Barford is known for his ability to hold a mirror up to society, often with uncomfortable results. His most recent exhibition at David Gill Gallery, ME WANT MORE, was no exception. It offered a commentary on today’s ‘me first’ culture, asking whether it is eroding our sense of collective humanity and raising questions about our values in an increasingly polarised political landscape.

Me Want More - art by Barnaby Barford
FAME (left) and MORE, Barnaby Barford at David Gill Gallery

It is to be expected that the current climate, with its unpredictability and volatility, will affect the way we think and act, and that this will filter through to the world of art and design. The good news, however, is that the industry is responding with great creativity and a strong sense that good design can have a positive impact on the world around us.