The concept of disobedience and the country of Greece have been linked for centuries; from the cautionary tale of Icarus who, despite his father’s warnings, flew too close to the sun, to Pandora’s box, to Prometheus who disobeyed the Gods to obey his moral obligation to humanity – the country’s mythology is loaded with rebellion. Whilst this may be at the roots of Nassia Inglessis (of Studio INI)’s pavilion at this year’s London Design Biennale, it isn’t the destructive nature of the word that inspires her, but rather the way that it can be harnessed for debate, for creativity, and for progress.
Make no mistake, there’s a sense of defiance and a desire to disrupt in her approach, but she isn’t here to preach reckless abandon. “It should always be disobedience with a notion that you’re proposing something different,” she tells us at her studio, deep within the labyrinth of London’s Somerset House, “there are sides to disobedience that are constructive. As children you disobey your parents to learn, for designers – it’s all about disobeying the norm, and scientists make discoveries by disobeying their predecessors. It can be harnessed in a constructive form.”
Raised in Athens, Nassia founded her experiential design studio, Studio INI, in 2014. Their focus is ‘augmented materiality’ or, in Nassia’s words, to “bring the material world closer to human interaction and human intention”. Rather than what we know as AR – augmented reality – or VR – virtual reality – which place layers of digital information on top of a static state, “it’s more about how we can actually make material move and flex and respond and carry information.” In an era of technological advances, instantaneity and an app for everything, Nassia’s approach is revelatory. Despite the digital realm being instantly adaptable, the world that we actually live in got left behind; our physical surroundings are still just bricks and mortar. “I sometimes find the future of living in a headset a bit dystopian”, she explains, “and I guess where I come from is questioning – could we use all that new capability and bring it into the physical realm which is still very static.”
Take a wall, for instance, you can sit on it, hang ten green bottles off of it, even — if you’re the current POTUS — use it for racist malevolence. As Nassia says, “it’s really the archetype of architecture and also represents the boundary of our design and built environment with our natural environment” and, yet, you can’t do much more than build it up or tear it down, both of which would take a lot longer than it takes to change your Facebook profile picture. Nor can you ask Alexa to do the hard work.
The Greek pavilion is a 17-metre wall designed by Nassia and her team in an attempt to challenge (a euphemism, if ever there was one, for disobedience) that notion. A wall that stretches, flexes and responds to human intervention, allowing visitors “to suddenly disobey the role of a spectator in architecture” and “those rules of how you interact with structure or with matter.” The structure, in turn, becomes an “emotional amplifier,” for their physical and emotional behaviour.
“What drew me to the theme [of the London Design Biennale], ‘Emotional States’, is that it’s very human-centric.” Nassia tells us, “Disobedience is not an emotion but it’s definitely an emotional journey. It starts either from an aspect of curiosity or frustration, and then that excitement and adrenaline when you’re breaking the rules.” The adrenaline in question is only heightened by an element of surprise, even as you step into the structure fully aware of its purpose and capacity, the sensation of a steel barrier – which life up until this point has led you to believe is motionless – peeling away from you is disconcerting, at first, but ultimately freeing, and creating space where space shouldn’t exist – even more so. Nassia was keen to convey a “sense of connectivity with your space, you feel you can change it, so it becomes a very constructive experience, it becomes creative” and, above all, the empowering and invigorating feeling that you’re doing something against the grain.
“Through the whole process of the project, I think creative disobedience helped it happen, and become realised” Nassia tells us, before going on to explain that the structure was built between her two studios – half in London, half in Athens. “It really needed that combination of immense experience and creative thinking from the community here [Somerset House] but also the maverick attitude that you have in Athens where it’s still very much an underground creative scene, where you come up with a crazy idea and they say ‘I don’t think it’s going to work but I’ll try!’” The line wasn’t drawn at an adventurous attitude either, with the so-called mavericks of Athens even disobeying what specific machines were meant to be used for in order to create the first iteration (from scrap metal) in a single day. “I think it brings to show how creative disobedience is relevant to Greece today, which is really in a time of recreating itself and reinventing itself in many ways, and questioning, having that sense of empowerment, and being able to question how things are and the status quo, can be really fruitful for progress.”
The only apparent downside being that, with the idea of harnessing disobedience for creativity, the scope for failure is far greater. Indeed, Icarus’ sodden wings floating atop the Mediterranean are a fine example of where it might all go wrong. “It’s about what you define as failure,” says Nassia, “and what you see as learning. Obviously disobeying something always entails, to some extent, going into the unknown” and, having just stepped into the pavilion for the first time, unable to predict the feelings it will provoke, it’s easy to understand exactly what she means, but the results outweigh the risks more often than not. “You’re bound to make mistakes, it has to be trial and error, but it’s outside the context of what has been tried or what has been allowed before, and that’s progress.”
The duality of disobedience, and of English / Greek attitudes, is mirrored in Nassia’s upbringing as well; daughter of an artist mother and an engineer father, her approach is a combination of the two, having studied at the Royal College of Art, as well as gaining a First in Engineering Science from Oxford University, with time spent at MIT Media Lab to boot. So, whilst the structure uses digital fabrication and capabilities, it is very much grounded in the material world, and the response you have to it is a physical one, feeling it from your head to toes via the pit of your stomach – a direct dialogue between design and body, emotions and space.
Likewise, whilst it is made from materials chosen for their practicality and durability (namely steel and the plastic used for household chopping boards), it is undeniably beautiful – both static and as it ripples around the human form. That being said, Nassia never takes her engineer hat off; she checked and screwed every single bolt of the 17-metre structure herself, arguing that, “because my work is so material driven, I can’t design unless I feel it – that’s why you see so much material in here [her studio] and all these iterations because unless I touch it, shape it, feel it, it wouldn’t be true to what I preach.”
Nassia is a woman of her word. Her exhibitions at the V&A in 2017 and at Milan Design Week in the same year, titled In Need For Transformation and Glass II respectively, both saw her working, hands on, with 3D printed glass (the latter at an architectural scale, the first of its kind). Having trained in traditional glass-blowing, the concept of digital intervention broke all the rules Nassia had previously learnt, “I thought, ‘how can you bring in digital capability, without taking away all the material knowledge that these craftsmen have, and the ability to respond to the material, the human intervention?’” So, eager not to sacrifice her tactile approach, Nassia combined the use of a digital pneumatic system, which would control the air getting in and going into the glass pipe, with sensors on her hands, allowing her to be literally hands on. “My hands would not just control the form, they would control the air passes, and because I could create suction as well, I could create the glass breathing.” The result is stunning formations made by the glass touching itself and re-expanding in Nassia’s hands; a perfect convergence of science and art.
“Science, at the end of the day, is a means for humans to understand the world and how it works but also to create afresh and to use that knowledge to create new possibilities” proffers Nassia towards the end of our meeting, and how different, really, is the aim of design? Nassia and Studio INI’s merging of disciplines, mediums, materials and technologies, is constantly breaking new ground; bringing rigorous research, advanced technologies and an academic approach into a context that is engaging and relevant, all with human needs at the forefront. And at the heart of it all? Disobedience. Rules are made to be broken, after all.