17 October 2015

JUST WHAT IS IT THAT MAKES FUTURE HOMES SO DIFFERENT, SO APPEALING?

Livin Studio, Fungi Mutarium. Photo: Paris Tsitsos. All rights reserved.

Think of it as evolution, not by natural selection, but evolution by design an opportunity to speculate about the future of our race on our planet and beyond, to combine insight with a lot of mystery, and to move away from the age of the machine to the age of symbiosis between our bodies, the microorganisms that we inhabit, our products and even our buildings.

– Neri Oxman, “Design at the Intersection of Technology and Biology” (TED Talks speech in March 2015)

It is otherworldly and it is here. “A lot of people say to me that I made a mistake, future cannot be plural, but right now we have plural futures until we are there,” says the Dutch design curator Lisanne Fransen. Domestic Futures is hosted by Nationalmuseum in the revitalised institution’s great however temporary space at Kulturhuset in Stockholm. This is her first show. It is a show made by a brilliant young mind.

When The Man Who Fell to Earth was ready for the movie theatres in 1976, Nic Roeg figured that he (as the British director told The Guardian) “wanted to have a sign in front of the cinema saying: ‘All those who enter here, please come with an open mind. Don’t expect it to come together in the way in which you are familiar. It’s a different animal and it breaks new ground.’”

Fransen tells me that one of the things she noticed as a student was that design curating barely exists in reality, and that “a lot of design exhibitions just take on the same display format as art exhibitions. I wanted to be different than the others. I wanted to find my own signature and decided that the scenography almost has to simulate an environment that people recognise to communicate the objects.”

Poetic and scientific, credible and extraordinary, Domestic Futures is a concurrence of plausible futures, and the themes (“Back to Nature”, Bio-Tech Living” and “Space Colonisation”) revolve around the emotional base of our lives, the home. The curating is so considerate that Fransen turns these new marvels into modest proposals – the alchemy of synthetic biology, additive manufacturing, materials engineering, computational design and so on – and the aftereffect, that they reappear before us as even bigger marvels, is a glorious piece of tactics. There is a strong desire here to return to a more human dimension through the immaterial values of speculative design (and glam cosmology) in order to increase the sharpness of the world we live in.

“Speculative design contests ‘official reality’; it is a form of dissent expressed through alternative design proposals. It aims to be inspirational, infectious, and catalytic, zooming out and stepping back to address values and ethics. It strives to overcome the invisible wall separating dreams and imagination from everyday life,” explain Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby in one if Fransen’s favourite books, Speculative Everything: Design, Fiction, and Social Dreaming. “Design speculations can give form to the multiverse of worlds our world could be. Whereas it is accepted that the present is caused by the past it is also possible to think of it being shaped by the future, by our hopes and dreams of tomorrow.”

The objects in Domestic Futures are oddly beautiful. Their bigger purposes signal a new kind of affluence on a future planet where imagination actually has a value (our global home). “Some say that this is a future that goes back in time. That is not how I see it,” Fransen emphasises. “It is about thinking about the choices you make.”

She calls the works in the show “conversation pieces”. “All the pieces, they just start conversations and that is what I always wanted. And some people say to me that the future does not look that bright, which I completely agree with if we continue our lives as it is. So I also want to ask for change, or ever for people to consider it. And then they start thinking further.”

Lisanne Fransen mentions the name of the Sardinian-born design curator Paola Antonelli several times during the interview, every time with the greatest admiration. According to the famous MoMA curator, “Designers do need to be mavericks.” Fransen stretched that statement and looked for a maverick exhibition designer when she was planning how to house the thirty projects in the show:

“For me it was either Paola Antonelli or Harm Rensik. I wrote to him to ask him to be my adviser because he is also Dutch and I really admire the way he communicates. He creates sceneries that embrace you and you can step into his works. He is very good with materials. From being my adviser he became the architect of the exhibition. And he has done a brilliant job in materialising my ideas of having three pavilions. It was very hand-in-hand, creating it together.”

The first of these pavilions is a sprightly white tent structured like a (forever) futuristic Bucky Dome. The “Back to Nature” pavilion is an alchemist’s lair of forward-thinking low-tech that resounds in Edmund Burke’s words of truth from his Reflections on the Revolution in France (published in 1790): “Society is a partnership, not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.”

In her TED Talks speech earlier this year, designer and architect (and so on) Neri Oxman saluted the fact that we live in a “very special time in history”: “Here’s to a new age of design, a new age of creation, that takes us from a nature-inspired design to a design-inspired nature, and that demands of us for the first time that we mother nature.”

The cork floor grows into a cork podium in the centre of the tent. When Fransen describes the exhibition metaphorically she says that she sees “a world of layers under it where mushrooms just pop up because they are fed by the same feelings or tendencies”.

The thaumaturgy of Thomas Thwaites’s The Toaster Project (2011) is materialised here as a line of collapsed items. Grandmaster Flash became a great DJ after his many adventures in dismantling a turntable in order to get a philosophical grip on its workings. Thwaites, on the other hand, went into his project inspired by a Douglas Adams quote: “Left to his own devices he couldn’t build a toaster. He could just about make a sandwich and that was it.” The designer’s effort to replicate a cheap toaster – as if he were the last or first individual on Earth – and to build each of its four hundred parts from raw materials, ended in a failed £1,187.54 toaster and a marvellous piece of art.

Many of the exhibitors have a history at the Design Academy Eindhoven or at the RCA in London. What also characterises these designers at the other side of design is that they lead itinerant lives, which is reflected in Jorge Penadés’s Nomadic Chair (2013) – a backpack chair of foldable wooden planks worthy of the grown-up Petit Prince in Depeche Mode’s “Enjoy the Silence” video – and in the duo Chmara Rosinke’s utility backpack Time for Oneself (2014), which is like a Walden (“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life”) in a box.

Ma’ayan Pesach’s Tribaling Mass Production (2013) is a collection of small and “useless” Brancusi columns about the witless endlessness of our consumer culture. And Willem van Doorn creates gratuitous light from household waste for his Dutch farm project Illumination by Digestion (2013). But the centrepiece in the “Back to Nature” section, as I see it, is Lauren Davies’s stunning The Alchemist’s Dressing Table (2013–15). Fransen (who naturally fell for the piece) explains that, “The dreamy part is that she suggests of the effect when we will make our own soaps and shampoos, but that implies again that you have time to do it, that you have the knowledge and the equipment. If we even manage to be five per cent less consumers, and take care of ourselves, that is a good step.”

Miss Fransen was born during a time when design was slightly becoming allowed to be about research and imagination – but the science that dominates her amazing kitchen pavilion that sits on the sexy silver floor is only five or ten years old at the most. “Bio-Tech Living” is the most different and appealing section in Domestic Futures.

As claimed by André Breton: “The man who cannot visualise a horse galloping on a tomato is an idiot.” It takes some acrobatics of the mind to appreciate the amount of thought and curious beauty in this kitchen lab. “People can just step into it, see beautiful things, they can take the folders, read about every project, think about it. Or if they really, really want to go deep they can go home and read about it on the website. I think people have different needs,” says Lisanne Fransen. There is indeed a lot of text on the website, but a lot of text in need of editing.

“We have to look for solutions to get more food in the future. And everybody knows they have to contribute to get these things. But on the other hand, if you are a hypocrite – which we all are – then it makes you sad. You get torn by the fact that this may be the best thing to do. But you also know what you leave behind for it,” she ponders. “For example, I tell about this fungi table that will digest the plastic so you can eat your own waste. Even if in the beginning it feels like a joke, you think and start to see the possibilities. So I get the effect that I aimed for, and I am pretty happy about that.”

The second pavilion is most of all about edited biology and existential examinations in the service of everything alive, not just mankind. Fungi Mutarium (2014) by Livin Studio, in association with University of Utrecht, is a cooler piece than Professor Balthazar’s Magic Machine: a table with a transparent cupola studded with pegs, and a hill of “mushrooms” on the inside in which a potion of agar, starch and sugar turns waste like plastic bags into a biodegradable mycelium jam which is also edible. The “mutarium” looks like Bowie’s music player in The Man Who Fell to Earth.

There is intelligent life on Earth. Johanna Schmeer’s extraterrestrial Easter egg is called Bioplastic Fantastic – Between Products and Organisms (2014) and synthesises bioplastic matter and bacteria to produce artificial human super food. Her pink and reddish pod is surrounded by the kitchenware series The Growing Lab – Mycelia (2014), which was made by Maurizio Montalti’s Officina Corpuscoli from lumps of compostable mycelium.

Mies van der Rohe called Bauhaus an idea more than a school. That idea belonged to the machine age. James King’s Dressing the Meat of Tomorrow (2006) is a visual feast (even for a vegetarian) with dishes of minimalistic faux food in resin, but it is interesting to see how some futures still cannot move away from the age of meat. King designed these new looks for cruelty-free lab meat from the most striking see-through shots of some handpicked animals that he shoved into an MRI scanner.

Veronica Ranner’s ongoing project Biophilia – Organ Crafting/Survival Tissue, which began in 2011, employs the unparalleled architecture of the silkworm to ready the human body to accept a donor organ, or to mother a prematurely born baby into life. Agi Haines’s curiosity for the viscera of life made her play with the idea of bioprinting, to create functional human tissues from other species’ cells which could perform some helpful duties in our bodies. “It seems that over millions of years, organisms have been nicely designed or befitted by the force of natural selection,” Haines states. “Perhaps now we are just taking control over our own evolution by extending our idea of the human body.” Her silicone Circumventive Organs (2013) lie on three surgical trays and embrace design, philosophy and art.

The algae-based Latro lamp (2010) by Thought Collider (Mike Thompson) is like a Tamagotchi that will actually give you something in return for taking good care of it. All it needs to shine is some water, sunlight, and you to blow a little kindness (carbon dioxide) into its cone every day. The purpose of the glass bubble Bees (2007–09) by Susana Soares is to identify a range of human health issues with the olfactory expertise of trained bees. Marcia Nolte’s three portraits of people whose appearances have been altered by digital technology – Corpus 2.0 and 2.1 (2008–11) – include a young man with an overgrown smartphone thumb. This is how Young Sick Bacchus looks like today (but the Caravaggio pose remains the same).

When Lisanne Fransen saw Ela Celary’s work Interview with Alice (2014) at Konstfack (the University College of Arts, Crafts and Design) in Stockholm, she had just watched the film Her (2013) with Joaquin Phoenix and Scarlett Johanssen as the operative system he falls in love with. Celary’s piece is mounted in the sink next to the hob, a computer screen where Judge is having a conversation with her chatbot Alice (who knows of Picasso but not of Gerhard Richter).

“I love the part when Judge, or the designer, is rude and insults Alice, and then Alice doesn’t really get that at the first point because it is so subtle. But overall it seems like a normal conversation. But then you start to realise that one is a person and one is a computer talking, then it becomes so twisted,” Fransen riffs. “And I think that is a very good starting point to raise questions about if we will have more robots in our lives and, then, how we will deal with the emotional sides of these conversations. I included the piece there to highlight the growth of artificial intelligence.”

“When I started at Konstfack somebody mentioned the power of the curator, and when I heard that I thought I had to be very careful,” Fransen replies when complimented on her aptitude for curating. “I think there is a very fine line because you basically take somebody’s work and give it your own interpretation and you communicate it. I want to be as close to the designers’ ideas as possible, so I talked to them a lot throughout the whole process and I got a lot of positive response from the designers that they appreciated the transparency and that I discussed my ideas with them as a kind of collaboration.”

Paola Antonelli was twenty-four when she discovered how comfortable she was with objects. Fransen was younger than that when she found an article by Antonelli about biodesign “and I knew I had to follow this track and see how I could then contribute and lift up this design. I could talk for hours about this kind of speculative design and how good it is, what these designers do and how they make us think.” Trust me, she radiates when she speaks about these things.

“I was the curatorial assistant for a design exhibition at a biennial in Ljubljana in 2012, and there I found how I could combine research with a visual outcome. And it sort of hit me that I had to see if I could become a design curator, and not just some design curator but a great one. I moved to Stockholm to do the Curator Lab at Konstfack. It was a one-year post-graduate course, which was perfect because I had just finished my masters on biotech design – but that was just theory on paper,” she continues.

“I wanted to visualise it because the biggest struggle of these designers, who work conceptually and don’t necessarily make a chair that can be taken into production, is to disseminate their ideas because once they created the product it needs to get a life on its own. And we discussed how that would be a good next research, how to exhibit or communicate this kind of design. So that was the starting point of why I moved to Stockholm and started to look into that.”

Fransen arrived in the Swedish capital in the summer of 2013, a month before the beginning of school. “In Holland, Scandinavia has a very big reputation for design and I couldn’t find anything physical here. I felt the lack of it so I wanted to contribute. And then I found Formmuseets vänner, and they had a very nice objective that they wanted to realise a venue specially dedicated to design in Stockholm. I wrote to them and said that I loved their goal and asked if I could help. I was quite persistent thereof, mailing them and calling them.”

A meeting was arranged. “They focussed on the now of design. We talked about the function of a museum, and why a museum should show design, and then how you should show future design. And they basically presented me to the Nationalmuseum, and they said that I could develop the concept, and I am very grateful for what they did.”

Space is the place for the third pavilion in the show, so take your protein pills and put your helmet on. “I think in this world where everything gets more and more digital, the things that are still most close to us are the tangible. And that was also important in the communication with the exhibitors, the physical objects are only one part of their projects, but I told them I wanted only 3-D physical objects.” And then a little laugh from Fransen: “I always managed, except for Mars One.”

And what would better illustrate “Space Colonisation” than the veritable castles-in-the-air project Mars One? The Dutch (with their long and shady history of colonisation on Earth) are about to colonise Mars in the year of 2027. Not because it’s hard but because it’s inhuman. The Mars One organisation claims that two hundred thousand people signed up for the assignment – the true figure is 2,762 – and the one hundred candidates who have been singled out to die on the fourth planet from the Sun are the ones who have gathered most money and PR for the project (one cadet claims that she was born on another planet).

The wonderfully gifted Neri Oxman embodies the spirit of Domestic Futures. Her symbolic 3-D printed space suits Mushtari – Jupiter’s Wanderer and Otaared – Mercury’s Wanderer (both 2014) are designed for human needs: food, comfort, protection and art. (A far cry from the clumsy suit that NASA designed in 1961 for the first American in space. It was not envisioned that a hero like Alan Shepard would eventually need to pee – he was catapulted around the world surrounded by urine.)

The three small tents that make the “Space Colonisation” pavilion each have a slit opening and a droll escape sign on the inside. One of these tents hosts Alois Yang’s Hear the World Ending (2012), which is a sky projector installation that provides each of the hazardous space rocks monitored by NASA’s Near-Earth Object Program with a physical sound.

Studio Swine’s Meteorite Cabinet (2014) – which was made right after Philae’s landing on 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko on November 12 last year – is next to something that very much looks like Bowie’s TV chair in The Man Who Fell to Earth. SETI designer Nelly Ben Hayoun made The Soyuz Chair (2009) together with the French astronaut Jean-Pierre Haigneré who flew twice to Mir. Different Space Shuttle crews were shocked by the dowdiness of Mir when they were visiting the space station in the 1990s. Ben Hayoun’s space chair has the looks of old futurism with a big knob on the armrest panel.

Outside the tents are two superb golden tinfoil rocks that breathe. “It is the only piece that is externalised, because one of my rules was that all the objects would be in the scenographies. But I reckoned having a space colonisation scenario would be the most difficult, to having people accept that they were not on Earth anymore,” Fransen explains. “And then we found these rocks of Grietje [Schepers], which don’t resemble anything we have in this world. So we used them to enhance the ‘Space Colonisation’ scenography. The beauty of her pieces is that she says that right now technology is something inhuman and cold, but if we would actually go to space we have to realise that technology is the only thing that would keep us alive. So we have to put our lives in the hands of technology, and having an emotional relation with it, and that is why she made these rocks breathe at a human pace. They look like big animals.”

A Nationalmuseum representative told some members of the press who had gathered around Sleeping Gold (2014) how much she would love to have a mini-version of this piece at home, in her bed. It’s lonely here on Earth.

And think of what George Orwell wrote in The Road to Wigan Pier (1937): “The world is a raft sailing through space with, potentially, plenty of provisions for everybody; the idea that we must all cooperate and see to it that everyone does his fair share of the work and gets his fair share of the provisions seems so blatantly obvious that one would say that no one could possibly fail to accept it unless he had some corrupt motive for clinging to the present system.”

The curator’s “very, very first idea” for Domestic Futures was to create a show with three living rooms: “I wanted to do a historical one, a current one and a future one, so that people in their minds could start at now and sort of time travel back and forth, and seeing the impact of design objects,” she says. “So the now became the container and the history became this wall.”

The container is Formmuseets vänner’s selection of five contemporary types of prizewinning design, and is really easy to miss outside the entrance. The wall is Nationalmuseum’s display inside the show with pieces like Ettore Sottsass and Perry King’s red Valentine typewriter (1969), and a green box with a silver dome that is Husqvarna’s microwave oven from that same year when two people walked on the Moon for the first time.

“Why I thought it was important to have a historical timeline? It gives you time perception, because when I say that in ten years people will live on Mars, I see that it is such a big statement that not even my brain does not really accept that thought, I cannot grasp it, it’s too big for my imagination. I have no clue how Mars looks like, I just know it’s a red planet.”

“What I thought was really important was to put in brackets, because when I see something and someone says it was invented ten years ago it gives me a sort of idea because ten years ago I was sixteen, fifty years ago my mum and dad were born, the first website went online in the year my brother was born, which is twenty-four years ago. So it gives me a feeling of how, in a short time, things can massively change. In the future scenarios, I work with all sorts of dates.”

Lisanne Fransen is a human being who can sit through a ninety-minute interview without even looking at her Apple devices on the big café table. “My favourite part in the historical timeline is the Iphone which is not even ten years old. So this little device can change a whole society – how we flirt with each other, how we find our ways, how we just externalise our short memory into this thing and then when the battery is flat, our lives become sort of impossible. So don’t misjudge the impact of products and how they change everything in your life.”

I ask her about her personal thoughts about the future.

“I am not very negative about it, but not very positive. There is a lot of work to do. I once heard this comment that we are the first generation that is not so optimistic about the future as the generation before us. And speaking for my own generation, I think we have a lot of questions,” she replies. And then she kind of radiates again: “This is also why I made Domestic Futures because it might help to talk about the future. And I realised just recently how much this exhibition has helped me as a person as well.”

Domestic Futures is otherworldly and it is here. This is a gorgeous moment for design on Spaceship Earth.

Lauren Davies, The Alchemist’s Dressing Table. Photo: Jess Bonham. All rights reserved.    

Domestic Futures at Kulturhuset in Stockholm through November 15, 2015.