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This post discusses the exhibition Glorious Estate which deals with ideas around the built-environment, found objects, alternative ways of living, and the legacy of utopian architecture. First published by Allotrope Editions 2012.

A. C. StephensC. Wright

At Bruno Glint Gallery the visitor becomes an anthropologist. Entering the cobbled mews and climbing a rusty staircase, we come across a space transformed. Fetishes of some post-apocalyptic society cover the walls, a mysterious structure of unknown ritual-use stands in our midst. This is ‘Glorious Estate’, the gallery’s latest exhibition, in which artists Anna Chrystal Stephens, Keef Winter, and Carla Wright explore late-modernity through its physical detritus.

Keef Winter’s sculpture of plywood, pine, industrial insulation and black plastic film is a combination of precision and roughness. The piece is composed of three hinged panels, one of which features triangular facets forming an irregular, upturned pyramid. In contrast, the other panels of the sculpture are made up of dented industrial foam and ply. The resultant form, roughly L-shaped, is inscribed with stains and roughly painted here and there. It is at once a refined exploration of three-dimensions and a piece of chaotic maverick DIY.

Like Winter, Anna Chrystal Stephens adopts an expressive somewhat anarchistic approach to construction, and her wall-mounted assemblages are built from a variety of found materials. In ‘Survivalism’ patterned textiles are stretched over frames to form screens, the apparently haphazard combination of materials evoking the structures of refugee camps or new-age settlements. Attached to this, a pole supports a totem of tangled wire adorned with bright, synthetic-string. A length of silk draped over the totem partially obscures it, perhaps an act of deference to its mystic power. Stephens’ two other pieces also feature silk digitally-printed with images of twigs and plastic stacking boxes. There is a sense of subversion in the combination of a material associated with luxury and objects that are normally considered too mundane to be worthy of notice.

In Carla Wright’s works a certain clarity of form, geometry and use of materials (including safety glass and oak) combine in an unmistakeable reference to modernism. It is a particularly English type of mid-20th Century sentiment that brings to mind Eric Lyons’ ‘Span Housing’, Denys Lasdun, and Ercol furniture. The translation of these icons of utility into pure aesthetic objects could be read as an implicit critique of their practical value, although there is something simultaneously celebratory in the elegant lines of Wright’s sculptures notably in ‘Concerns of the living interacting with the dead stuff of buildings’.

Discarded materials are transformed into objects of veneration in an exhibition which at its core, is an exploration of ideology. The notion of planned modernity is evoked in references to the stark edifices of modernist architecture, while the utopianism of the commune is explored in the work of Anna Chrystal Stephens. But despite this optimism (or perhaps in reaction to it) the spectres of industrial decline haunt the show, a malevolent dystopian spirit amongst the fragile beauty of the art objects. In the dialectic of modernity versus anti-modernity, and industrially produced versus handmade, the exhibition explores the shifting ground of design practice in the 20th and 21st centuries. More than the art object in contemporary discourse, it is the contested nature of the design object and of industrial production which forms the basis of this show. In that sense, it is a ‘To the Finland Station’ (Wilson 1940) of visual culture, exploring the trajectory of progressive applied art, but pointing out the limitations, romanticism and ultimate naivety of the doctrines that prevailed.

Jay McCauley Bowstead, Allotrope 2012.

Link to publication

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This post originated in an exercise to define words with particular currency in art and design. A strong engagement with material and process is a recurrent theme in contemporary practice, perhaps in reaction to more conceptual approaches which previously dominated. I could have tackled Materiality in a number of ways, but chose to focus on the changing conceptions of  the material in a design context, with an emphasis on the impact of modernity. 

Materiality is a term I first came across in conversation with architects. Its meaning seemed to be a close relationship between the physical fabric of a space or structure and its ambience and form. In their usage, materiality was a shorthand to describe the rapport between textural, light absorbing, and chromatic qualities of a material, and its structural or protective functions. This expression of the word struck me as rich in a variety of ways: as a useful and meaningful concept in design; but also as an implicit ideal which situated architecture as a discipline in which the aesthetic, experiential, and functional are brought seamlessly together

 

Denys Lasdun, National Theatre 1976, Concrete Shuttering cast in situ asserts a strong sense of materiality.

Peter Zumthor, Luzi House 2002, A structure of solid wood enlivens the geometry of this custom built house.

The notion that good design represents a synthesis of the material, formal, functional and aesthetic is shared by many design disciplines, and is hardly new. But despite this common understanding, examples of poorly conceived products abound: forks that appear to have metal handles until the foil separates from the plastic, “wooden” desks who’s inner chipboard reveals itself after the slightest knock, smart shoes that revert to papier-mâché at the a drop of rain. Of course, inexpensive materials can serve their function beautifully, as plastic stacking chairs, flip-flops, and canvas bags demonstrate, but there is something that strikes us as fundamentally dishonest about a design form that suggests one usage but completely fails to deliver. In this context the relationship between materiality as a design methodology, and the less edifying reality that confronts us in the “real world” is perhaps worth exploring.

The centrality of material to modernist design is already evident in the Arts and Crafts movement, with its insistence on truth to materials and sense of social mission. These ideas were further elaborated through the Deutscher Werkbund, Wiener Werkstätte and in the seminal modernist fulcrums of the Bauhaus and Vkhutemas. As the practice of design grew and separated itself from the realm of applied arts and traditional crafts, new theories and approaches that emphasised the importance of material and mechanical processes emerged as a response to technological, social and political change.

Bauhaus designer Marcel Breuer, his cantilevered chair of1927 combines traditional wicker elements with industrial materials (tubular steel) permitting new possibilities of lightness and form.

While designers in the 20th Century became increasingly engaged with industrial materials and processes, theorists have often had an ambivalent relationship with the materiality of the design object, lacking the methodological and analytical skills to “read” objects with the rigour that they would apply to a text. An absence of understanding of the processes by which design objects are conceived, refined and manufactured not only inhibits the ability to interpret these features, but tempts the writer to overlook them altogether. For example, in Roland BarthesThe Fashion System’ the author completely avoids engaging in the analysis of real garments and outfits, preferring to conduct his interpretation of the fashion system, through syntactical deconstruction of the descriptive text beneath fashion photographs. It is hard to imagine a more singularly useless way of interpreting fashion, or understanding how garments actually communicate their identity.

In response to the inadequacies of existing philosophical, sociological and art historical readings of design objects, a new discipline of design history sought to develop a model of object analysis which would account for materiality in design as well as the subjectivity of the consumer/user or designer. The first courses in design history (for which I can find evidence) were developed in the late 1960s and early 1970s at The Pratt Institute and Parsons School of Design in the USA and at Hornsey School of Art/Middlesex Polytechnic and the RCA in the UK. The teaching of design history as a valid intellectual and academic pursuit (with its own concerns and methodologies) was highly contested, threatening as it did the hegemony of established art history.

‘Muriel Pemberton, Head of Fashion at St Martin’s, invited me to teach fashion history for four days a term. I soon realized that she was fighting an ideological battle with the Art History Department to be allowed to employ a dress historian at all. All students were required to take a generalised art history programme and none were taught any specialist histories, except for the fashion students.Lou Taylor, Fashion textiles and dress history a personal perspective.

 Today, a renewed concern for materiality in contemporary design practice suggests a reflection of the anxieties that first lead Arts and Crafts practitioners to assert the primacy of truth to materials. New technologies employing digital imaging allow designers to create previously unimaginable products at a cottage industry scale. At the same time, designers are increasingly concerned with the degradation of the environment, and with their wider responsibilities to society. These concerns connect to discourses around an increasingly contested model of consumption prevalent in the “developed world” and the exploitative nature of contemporary outsourced mass-production. In this context designers are engaging with notions of sustainability, reuse, and small-scale domestic manufacture: new uses of materials including recycled materials, organic and inorganic waste enlist both high technology and hand-craft in response to social and environmental problems.

Julene Aguirre-Bielschowsky’s ‘Nido’ product uses shells and grape stalks (both the result of food industry waste) to create a low-cost, modular insulating system for low-income homes in north Mexico. The manufacturing method is linked to the education system, providing paid working opportunities which encourage young people to stay in school.

A hunger for authenticity and quality is reflected in resurgence of craft, as designers reassess the possibilities of combining traditional materials with innovative processes. New materials and modes of production offer an opportunity to reassess and reconfigure contemporary design, reconnecting it to the social and political contexts from which (in the practice of bad design) it has sometimes become deracinated. As new technological, theoretical and economic models for design are developed, materiality becomes an increasingly dominant theme in debates on the discipline.