Optimism does not ordinarily (or outwardly) portray urgency, while pessimism might, in comparison. Think about it – “Everything will work out” vs. “This is terrible, and we are all going to die” – what spurs you into action? Albeit commanding, that action is usually short-lived. As a race, we are wired to be optimists, even in the most dreadful of circumstances, somehow finding hope and beauty in ugliness and despair. History has shown how time and again, we have fought against oppressors, and overcome plagues and wars, by working together towards a more inclusive and healthy future, however lengthy and tedious the process has been. How have the realms of design and architecture contributed to this?
How can design shape our future? What ideas, questions and strategies occur to designers as they develop future visions? How do we want to live tomorrow?
The Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe Hamburg (MK&G) in Hamburg, Germany, raises and ponders upon these pivotal questions, with their latest exhibition, Ask Me If I Believe in the Future. Renowned Milanese curator, consultant and author Maria Cristina Didero reached out to a group of international designers to think next, engage, and reformulate their expectations and visions for the future with their thought-provoking, innovative works – Greek design studio Objects of Common Interest, designer Erez Nevi Pana from Israel; Carolien Niebling from Switzerland; and Italy-based studio Zaven. The exhibition design was carried out by Jan Kloss and Matěj Činčera of Prague-based studio Okolo, who explore the same enquiries by looking into the past, translating a classical architectural element like the columns of the space into a contemporary, coherent language that mediates the exhibited pieces and their intent.
Ask Me If I Believe In The Future is a project about optimism that challenges international designers from different geographical and cultural backgrounds to respond to a single question: do you believe in the future?
– Maria Cristina Didero
“In these unparalleled times of the COVID-19 pandemic, and in light of the current conflict in Ukraine, we could not help but wonder about the fate of the next few generations. While the title of this exhibition might sound simple, we have probably all thought about it at least once in our lives without finding a precise answer. This exhibition contains a seed of hope, just like the word future itself; it is as much about the future as it is about us,” relays Didero, as she discusses with STIR her carte blanche brief to the exhibiting designers and studios. Their divergent approaches and solution-oriented works forming the design exhibition display an “astonishing coherence – a shared faith in the future”.
Jincy Iype: What renders Ask Me If I Believe In The Future a project and endeavour of optimism?
Maria Cristina Didero: We did not know so at the beginning! I mean, we wanted to frame this question to the designers to stimulate action, in response to the subject, their idea of the future and how design can become a flag bearer for change – when we posed the question to them months ago, we did not know that we would receive positive answers and solution oriented initiatives across the board. We were rightly pleased that somehow, these designers, unbeknownst to one another, and to us, selected a positive direction to think and base their designs on.
The future is fluctuant, no matter how much energy we spend trying to control it. The word ‘future’ could apply to a personal perspective or a more general one, in the prospects for humanity, our planet, and all living species. It would be ideal if we could intertwine our futures with the collective spirit of the planet, and transform our actions into a true intersection of intentions and deeds, creating a future in which human beings are considered as a single united force.
This project itself is a victory, as each of the four participating studios, all from different geographical and historical contexts, replied to our invitation positively. We did not offer any direction or influence them at all: while they started from very different approaches to design, the results are – surprisingly – incredibly consistent and can be read with a smile, another indication that human beings are capable and resourceful. And that without doubt, we do believe in the future.
Jincy: What was your brief to the exhibiting designers?
Maria: The brief was simple but uniquely introspective, intense yet common, and I left it open-ended and free to interpretations for the designers. What do you think about the future? All of us have asked ourselves, and the world, this question, at least once in our lifetime, with or without added context. Some have reached concrete answers, others may have not yet. I spoke to the designers at length, outlining a simple route for them, where they had to answer the said question through the medium of design, ala, a real, tangible object or project.
Jincy: Please provide us a glimpse into your curatorial approach for Ask Me If I Believe In the Future.
Maria: In the most unequivocal and profound way, the brief that I gave to the designers also outlined my curatorial approach to the exhibition, of figuring out a thematic that I considered interesting, thought-provoking, substantial and generate comprehensible, introspective discussions, similar to The Conversation Show I did in 2019, at the Holon Design Museum in Tel Aviv, Israel. The only part I was strict about was not to overly influence them – we left them carte blanche to interoperate the question with their design philosophies and resulting works.
For me, design has always been about people, bringing them together, weaving in their thoughts, stories, experiences, and ideas, urging reciprocity and healthy exchanges, and display our commonalities and differences. It is crucial to know what unites us in our differences, as that plants seeds of dissent, debate and freedom, fostering a sense of inclusion of mutual understanding, and most importantly, view and comprehend all that information with respect and an open mind.
Jincy: What led to you shortlisting these four works and their designers? What unites them?
Maria: Nothing much unites them aside from the fact that they are all creative professionals, designers who marry ideas and materials into coherent objects. What ended up uniting these diverse professionals, was, optimism. I basically chose them for their innate processes leading to peculiar projects, in their own professional capacities, and their utterly diverse kinds of attitudes toward design – this way, we could bring together four absolutely disparate projects under one roof, under one theme. I was undeniably, awfully curious about how this would work out.
Jincy: I would now like to pose the same question to you – how can design shape our future?
Maria: Design is an ultimate and complete answer in itself; design stems from ideas, and functions as a being once completed, garnering emotion and action with each use. Design is the engine able to shape and enlighten our lives, being beneficial, as a functional manifestation of our creativity. In this case we propose a question, as design is not so much about formulating answers, but further stimulating questions. That is its force. We do not have to constantly ask what the future of the design is, or could be, but how can we can design our future for the better, through design.
Every action we take as individuals is already a leap into the future. Our human instinct to design, organise, solve, is based on the idea that there is going to be a tomorrow for which we are designing now.
– Maria Cristina Didero
Teahouses for Domesticity by Objects of Common Interest
New York-based design duo from Greece, Eleni Petaloti and Leonidas Trampoukis form Objects of Common Interest, and shapeshift and function at the intersection of architecture, design, and art. They respond to the exhibition’s moniker with a reflection on how the human need for closeness and community is changing, conceived on the existential insight that the coronavirus pandemic brought into sharp focus. To render this new form of human interaction tangible, they transformed the exhibition space into a walk-in, interactive landscape featuring three walkable sculptures that resemble classical columns of biodegradable plastic (inflatable oversized PVC tubes). All works are sensory, conceived in analogy to Japanese teahouses where traditional tea ceremonies offer moments of deceleration and meditation.
Interacting and walking through three inflatable oversized PVC tubes, each viewer has a personal experience of space and time as well as presence and absence. Specific elements and materials play a special role here: recyclable silver film that seals off the interior from the outside world, iridescent holographic foil that changes colours depending on the viewing angle, and malleable memory foam in which every movement leaves visible traces. “With their participatory installation, Objects of Common Interest present an optimistic outlook on the future, putting at our disposal new forms and conceptual methods for sharing space with others. Architecture is a spatial experience that is by default related to domestic space and communal experiences. Installed as a cluster or as floating, oversized objects, the structural substance of the three Teahouses is immaterial – they are made of air – but at the same time the different properties of their materiality and tangibility come together to create an interactive sensory playscape. The teahouse is a reference to the ceremonial experience of space, and the significance of human presence, actions and interactions becomes its hearth, its present and its future,” relays Didero.
Homecoming by Erez Nevi Pana
Pana is an Israel-based designer and a vegan and animal rights activist, his practice focusing on investigating natural phenomena and environmental processes through material exploration. His installation envisions a futuristic panorama of humans, animals and nature, living in harmony on Earth. He was inspired by astronaut Neil Armstrong’s comment that the Earth looked tiny as a pea when viewed from the Moon – “It suddenly struck me that that tiny pea, pretty and blue, was the Earth. I put up my thumb and shut one eye, and my thumb blotted out the planet Earth. I didn’t feel like a giant. I felt very, very small.” Pana invites viewers to look at the Earth from above – his setting includes a basin of water as a metaphor for life on earth, a landing pad for imaginary spaceships, as well as a flag representing world unity.
“Pana answers the question posed by the exhibition thus – “I believe in our future and evolution, and I am eager to explore the option to expand life beyond Earth. A multi-planet species sounds exciting to me, but this doesn’t mean that we should ignore the problems we face here. I imagine our future on other planets, not as refugees, but as species that chose to cross boundaries and still have the ability to return home.” When access to space is democratised, interplanetary travel will allow individuals to choose their habitable zones. In Homecoming, Pana uses water, the driving force of nature; he looks to a potential future and directs a scene on a landing pad – all with the hope that expanding the map beyond Earth will unite our consciousness to keep our planet and its earthlings alive,” explains the curator.
Why Not? by Zaven
Founders of the Venice-based multidisciplinary design studio Zaven, Enrica Cavarzan and Marco Zavagno respond to the proposed question with another one – “Why not?” The product designers find faith in the future by relying on the principle of collaboration – a leitmotif of their working method. For their installation, made up of archetypal product designs that will remain essential in the future as well (a lamp to bring light into the darkness, vessels to hold food and drink, a cloak for warmth and protection, a chair to sit and rest on), they collaborated with local experts, including a young ceramicist who works with natural clay and a neighbourhood tailor. This inspiring transfer of knowledge allowed them to develop objects based primarily on traditional craftsmanship, taking ownership of creativity.
Didero elaborates – “Why not? is not an answer, but an array of new questions. It represents Zaven’s open mind to everything that is new, unknown, and different; it provides the opportunity to look at the world from another point of view. Why not change our habits and lead a coherent life with ourselves and with others? Why not build on coexistence, on respect for differences, without any kind of authority, basing our actions on the notion of the generative construction of questions and thoughts?.”
Future-Proof Plating by Carolien Niebling
Niebling calls herself a food futurist, posing crucial inquiries of how we will feed ourselves in the future, without destroying the planet in the process? Working in the fields of research, teaching and consulting, the Dutch designer working out of Switzerland specialises in alternatives to conventional foods which are one of the main causes of raging CO2 emissions. Her installation provides viewers with a fresh look at natural foods that are not part of our daily diet yet – macro photographs of algae and edible plants printed on textiles beguile the eye with their striking textures and shapes. Stylised arrangements of wild plants are imprinted on ceramic plates or cast in relief. Rather than adopting a moralising tone, the work lodges an aesthetic appeal for us to think about an alternative future for food and for our planet. “To eat better is to look differently at food, to be curious about the new rather than afraid of the unknown,” says Niebling.
“Humanity – just like other living creatures – has been focused on food resources since the beginning of time. Mass-produced food has been recently understood as one of the most significant causes of climate change, which is why, for a new, sustainable future, a major shift needs to take place. The designer expresses her approach towards the subject via a series of images on food, texture and natural habitats. A wall of ceramic dishes embossed with ingredients that have future potential is the star of this dramatic display. This project magnifies the beauty of edible (water) plants such as seaweed and wild leaves and reintroduces them back onto our plates. Taking food out of its original context allows us to look at it with new eyes and an open mind,” explains Didero.
Ask Me if I Believe in the Future is on display till October 23, 2022, at the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe Hamburg, Germany.