In Disegno #17 , writer Matthew Ward and photographer Fabian Frinzel go behind the scenes as the latest exhibition by renowned designer Hella Jongerius comes together in Munich.
As you descend the staircase of the Paternoster Hall in Pinakothek der Moderne in Munich, you’re confronted with a mortuary of design classics: Ettore Sottsass’s Superbox cupboard, Jacques-Émile Ruhlmann’s Tibattant desk, Gillis Lundgren’s Billy bookcase. The canon has been laid to rest, lying prostrate, waiting to be buried forever.
Beyond the New by the designer Hella Jongerius and theorist Louise Schouwenberg at Pinakothek der Moderne’s Die Neue Sammlung design museum presents a series of objects, automaton and textiles that asks us to question the future of design. Looking past the myopic, short-term cycles of contemporary capitalism, the exhibition invites visitors to see the complex social and cultural meanings of the discipline. It aims to open up a space for reflection on design beyond its function. By contextualising the histories and meanings of past creations, it questions the Proustian condition whereby our lives are constituted through the accumulation of memories, and where objects oscillate between a childlike demand for attention and a quiet retreat into the background.
Born out of frustration and anger at the continual, and often false, production of novelty within the product and furniture industries, Hella and Louise are trying to find life for design after Milan. First presented in the form of a manifesto at the Salone del Mobile in 2015, and elaborated upon the following year in a Serpentine Galleries show at La Rinascente, Beyond the New’s reappearance as an exhibition translates a textual project into the material realm. Executed in the language that Hella is most comfortable with – that of materials, colours and form – the Munich objects are playful, beautifully detailed and carefully crafted. But do they move beyond the new, or are they material witnesses to what the theorist Bifo Berardi has termed the “slow cancellation of the future”?
Contemporary furniture and product design is in a state of gradual decline. In an industry that survives on the production of the new, there is a crisis of confidence: novelty doesn’t seem so novel anymore, the “shock of the new” hasn’t happened for decades, and the fanfare given to product launches falls on deaf ears as an over-saturated, over-stimulated generation turns the other way. So where is the new site for cultural invention? How can a discipline with the skills to both visualise and materialise alternatives make the time and space required to imagine a world beyond the frenzied overproduction of the current market-driven reality? Has the world of things lost out to the digital realm as the tool of choice for those interested in social transformation? Have our ideological expectations been eroded in the face of overwhelming complexity and global collapse?
During my conversation with Louise, Hella and Angelika Nollert, the director of Die Neue Sammlung, a surprising idea emerged: true disciplinary innovation can’t happen through industry anymore. The opportunity to expand design culture sits with institutions at the forefront of knowledge production and preservation: universities and museums. As an educator, I find this an attractive opinion. All too often universities are lambasted for being slow-moving, outdated, pretentious and irrelevant. Museums, too, are criticised for their lack of representation and their limited modes of participation.
It’s no longer possible to gain “academic consensus” on the direction, focus and meaning of design in today’s diverse and fast-moving technological culture. Asking for trust and faith in institutions that have historically failed to speak for the marginalised and the dispossessed is a difficult proposition. However, at a time of great financial precariousness, universities and museums offer a different set of critical, cultural and temporal values. Beyond the New highlights some of the deep questions found within the material domain. If time and care are not given to thinking beyond our current paradigm, it’s not just design that will pay the price; it may very well accelerate the slow cancellation of all of our futures.
Read the full conversation in Disegno #17, available here.