Design is all around us. It never stops.
11 installations from some of the most thought-provoking designers and architects working today.
This article titled “Fear and Love review – Grindr and a Brexit living room light up Design Museum launch show” was written by Oliver Wainwright, for The Guardian on Thursday 17th November 2016 16.31 UTC
“How do you open a new Design Museum?” asks Justin McGuirk, the journalist-turned-curator given that very challenge, being responsible for the inaugural show in the London institution’s new Kensington home. It’s a tough question at a time when “design” no longer means the world of desirable objects that fill the pages of Sunday supplements, but has expanded to encompass everything from digital networks to artificial organs, extending its slippery tentacles into every field imaginable – and inventing new ones that don’t yet exist.
When the Design Museum first opened in a former banana warehouse in Shad Thames in 1989, the world was a simpler place. The institution was the brainchild of Terence Conran, then proprietor of Habitat, who had made a career out of elevating design from an activity to a commodity. The museum was a sort of extension of his commercial empire, intended to educate the public about “good design”, about nice things that you, as a refined consumer, might one day aspire to own.
Since then, Eames chairs have spread from the lofty heights of the museum plinth to the aisles of Aldi. You can now buy all the design classics in John Lewis, where the stories of the designers are also on display. So the museum has to try a bit harder.
“Design is a more complicated thing today,” says McGuirk who, as former editor of Icon magazine, has brought a critic’s eye to his opening show, Fear and Love: Reactions to a Complex World. “Design’s message is inherently positive, but everything has a side-effect. We’ve chosen designers whose work explores the anxieties around issues like technological change, automation, privacy and the environment.”
He has cast his net far and wide, corralling 11 international practitioners from the worlds of fashion and architecture, graphics and technology, to provide a snapshot of the zeitgeist, tackling everything from the “sexualised transnational urbanism” of dating apps to the cultural identity of staple food crops. Before you write into Pseuds Corner, bear with me.
When you walk into the ground floor exhibition hall – which has been alluringly designed by Sam Jacob and OK-RM, with long silvery curtains separating the installations, giving the feeling of wandering around a futuristic hospital ward – the first thing to catch your attention is the convulsing robot. Standing in the centre of the space inside a protective acrylic cage, this robotic arm (of the kind that usually welds things together on car production lines) lurches and twitches as if possessed. As you approach the enclosure, it lunges out to meet your face, cocking its cyclopian head to size you up.
Playing on the fear that robots will steal our jobs – five million of them in the next five years, according to the World Economic Forum – Pittsburgh-based designer Madeline Gannon has reprogrammed this 1,200kg lump of steel to make it seem curious about the world around it. “I wanted to show that robots could be a companion species,” she says. “We might overcome our anxiety by establishing a bond with the machines.” Its behaviour is eerily lifelike. Just as you think you’ve struck up a bond, it gets bored and moves on to someone else.
The limits of human empathy are challenged in a different way by Dutch graphic designers Metahaven, across the room. In a characteristically gnomic video installation, they splice bloody footage of the Japanese whaling industry with animations showing the latest in artificial intelligence, displayed on monitors in front of a backdrop of protest banners for marine wildlife conservation group Sea Shepherd. “Their point is that humankind has an empathy deficit,” says McGuirk. “Why are we investing so much energy in AI, while we are also killing this intelligent species that we still don’t fully understand?” It is design as advocacy, from the provocative Dutch group that brought us Can Jokes Bring Down Governments?, charting internet memes as a form political protest, and a range of T-shirts and scarves for WikiLeaks.
On a table nearby, the iniquity of throwaway fashion culture is confronted in kaleidoscopic glory by Christien Meindertsma, along with a possible solution to the mass landfill/incineration problem. She has worked with a new generation of machines that can sort fibres by colour and material to transform 1,000 discarded woollen jumpers into little heaps of thread, displayed on a big table like the coloured mounds of a spice market. In a mocking rebuke to the fashion industry, she has lined the walls of her space with swatches snipped from jumpers, comparing the purported material (“100% merino wool!”) with the machine’s analysis (40% acrylic). Trading Standards would do well to pay a visit.
Elsewhere, there are things that feel familiar from recent biennales – a Mongolian yurt, a bamboo pavilion by a radical Latin American architecture practice – and at times the whole thing seems a bit self-consciously “now”, with Neri Oxman’s 3D-printed death-masks and clunky wearable tech accessories by Hussein Chalayan that project the wearer’s emotions.
At the other end of the spectrum, the closest thing to a conventional design showroom comes from architectural provocateurs OMA (architects of the luxury flats outside), who have constructed a model room set in a corner of the exhibition. Ah, this is the old Design Museum you knew and loved, complete with a Dieter Rams wall clock and an Achille Castiglioni floor lamp.
But, of course, there is a bigger narrative at play. Each item in this charmingly retro living room comes from a different one of the 28 member states of the European Union, from a Romanian enamel coffee pot to an Ikea Billy bookcase, all arranged in front of a vertical blind of OMA’s EU barcode flag – from which the British segment has come unhooked and lies forlornly crumpled on the floor. Just to rub it in, the UK contribution to this home decor Eurovision contest is not a Jasper Morrison chair or Barber & Osgerby table, but chintzy wallpaper from Osborne & Little, George Osborne’s family business.
In this eclectic ramble, which sometimes feels like walking through an issue of Wired magazine (the media partner, it turns out), one of the most eye-opening spaces to linger is provided by Spanish architect Andrés Jaque with Intimate Strangers, a film installation about the gay dating app Grindr. Charting the phenomenal growth of the platform – which now counts 10 million users in 192 countries – it reveals how the app is used by police in authoritarian regimes, from Saudi Arabia to Egypt, to track down and arrest gay people, as well as how it has been mobilised as vital tool by LGBT refugees seeking safe passage to Europe. “If there is an urbanity that is still available for the huge part of humanity suffering displacement,” the voiceover concludes, on an optimistic note, “it is probably the one growing among friendly strangers.”
If it’s all too much, you can still comfort yourself with the museum’s more conventional permanent collection upstairs, where the iconic Underground roundel rubs shoulders with Louboutin high heels, their stories told from the perspectives of designer, maker and user. But with Fear and Love, McGuirk has set out a powerful stall for the institution to act as a forum for exploring a world of critical, provocative and unsettling ideas.
• Fear & Love: Reactions to a Complex World is at the Design Museum, London, from 24 November to 23 April. Box office: 020-3862 5937.
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