The theme of the 2018 London Design Biennale, hosted by Somerset House in September of this year, is an undeniably provocative one. Indeed, Emotional States could mean many different things to many different people, let alone designers, artists and those blessed with naturally imaginative, curious minds. Speaking to It’s Nice That, senior curator at MoMA and member of the Biennale’s jury, Paola Antonelli, proffered that that was what made this year so exciting for her: “that’s the beautiful aspect of the theme – that it is very open. There’s a nice ambiguity to it which makes for a lot of possibility.” The theme has been chosen specifically to provoke a broad interpretation from the contributing countries across the world, and to inspire work that covers a wide spectrum of how design affects every aspect of life, be it day-to-day, individual human emotions – from sadness to anger to joy – to the mood of a community, and on an even larger scale: unrest at country-wide level.
It’s the scope for designers to challenge the current political, social and economic climates that have such a huge effect on both individual emotional states and nation-states, that interests us most here at It’s Nice That. “The news stories that we are facing are so blatantly important, urgent, and electrifying – for good and for bad – that I think everybody (unless they don’t have a pulse) is really heated up by them” agrees Paola, “and what artists and designers do well is that they channel that energy into proposals and ideas, or demonstrations.” In a time of closing borders, maniacally villainous presidents and Brexit, there are arguably more factors than ever influencing our emotional states, and even more of a need for designers, artists, curators – anyone and everyone, in fact – to channel those emotions into something positive.
Whilst it might seem like a lot of pressure to put on anyone, let alone someone outside of political office, Paola argues – both in our conversation with her and in her 2007 TED talk – that the capacity to incite change is well within designers’ remit, “designers are the biggest synthesisers in the world; what they do is make a synthesis of human needs, current conditions in economy, in materials, in sustainability issues and then what they do in the end, if they’re good, is much more than the sum of their parts.”
It’s this unwavering belief in the far-reaching powers of design, as something far bigger than an aesthetically pleasing piece of furniture or a somewhat useful object (although both are important in their own right, of course), that inspired Paola to create a new Research & Development department at MoMA back in 2011. In fact, it was something that had been on her mind since studying economics; “I was always struck by the fact that, whilst the financial sector is considered so important to the destinies of a society, intellectual labour is valued at zero. It’s always been such a concern to me because I believe that creativity is the most necessary enzyme for any kind of progress to happen. It’s so undervalued and demeaned continuously by politicians and entrepreneurs.” So, when the financial crisis hit in 2008, Paola describes herself as being “devastated, like everyone else, but at the same time I was galvanised”; she saw an opportunity to change the way people viewed art (and, more specifically, design) so that, one day, the reach and capability of creativity to promote change and progression might not be so quickly cast aside.
The department, seven years on, is arguably even more crucial today, and it’s flourishing, despite being just “one person and half of” Paola, because of her full-time role as senior curator at the museum. Of most relevance to Emotional States and the Biennale, is the department’s exploration of the responsibility of museums – and, by extension, artists – as public actors. Design is a universal language, which everyone can speak, and everyone can understand, and, so it follows, designers have the capacity to act as social innovators and agitators well within their grasp, should they choose to reach out.
A prime example, says Paola, is Gilbert Baker’s rainbow flag: “an amazing example of how an object can crystallize the unrest, the protest, the hope, the despair and the need to change things; an object that came from a community, not only of activists, but also of people that needed to make their voices heard.” A timely reference as this month and last (June and July), cities across the world celebrate Pride; the streets are filled with Baker’s flag, flying high, celebrating progress achieved and reminding those in need of reminding of all that still needs to change. It’s a visually appealing design that also looks to tackle issues facing us today – an approach Australia’s offering by Flynn Talbot also took. The work, which features 150 strands of multicoloured fibre optic light, has been created in celebration of the country’s recent legalisation of same-sex marriage. Visitors will be able to touch and move through the light strands, to stand within and beneath them whilst the colours surround and wash over them – a powerful reminder of love’s ability to overcome any adversity.
However, “emotional states doesn’t simply mean Trump and Kim Jong-un and Putin, and the screaming and shouting or the silence,” Paola is quick to add, “it’s not only about that. It’s also about all the very deep concerns that architects and designers and urban planners can help politicians and citizens understand and express.” Latvia’s contribution, for instance, is a meditation on architecture and technology’s interaction with nature and was inspired by the importance of socially responsible and environmentally-friendly design. Austria’s entry has a similar focus, their pavilion After Abundance transports visitors to an altered reality, a landscape struggling with the stark realities of climate change and the emotional tensions that come with it.
Matter to Matter, the Latvian pavilion for the London Design Biennale 2018
L’Architettura degli Alberi, the Italian pavilion for the London Design Biennale 2018
Whilst the theme for 2016’s Biennale’s was Utopia by Design or, the search for a better future, this year could be understood as a natural progression: now we’ve envisioned the type of future we want, how do we get there? Which priorities need to shift? What revolutions need to happen? “Design is at the forefront of change-making,” confirms Dr Christopher Turner, director of the Biennale, and in a political climate so treacherously tumultuous, bringing together nations in a celebration of creativity, encouraging them to honestly reflect on their emotions, and inspiring positive change through imagination and invention, is more important than ever.