|DESIGN: THE NEW BEAUTY|
Mark Rappolt meets with Marcel Wanders, the
product designer who straddles the worlds of commerce and art
Anyone reading the art press over the last few years will have grown accustomed to the constant hum of critics complaining that commerce is turning our museums into shopping malls, our galleries into art factories and our artists into brands. So, perhaps the real issue today is what a little bit of culture can do to commerce.
It is certainly something that interests Natalie O’, ‘the forward thinking and prolific abstract artist’ who has been advertising her wares in various Sunday supplements in the UK. Despite her prolific output, the advertisement emphatically states that you cannot buy an original Natalie O’ canvas. Instead she can supply you with the next best thing, a ‘giclée and hexachrome framed reproduction’ from the Natalie O’ Fine Art Collection. But if that doesn’t tickle your fancy, how about some ‘original designer art’ on the timepieces of 542 individually made watches? Alternatively, you can obtain confectionery from the Natalie O’ Designer Art Chocolate Collection and, for the first time ever, self-adhesive reproduction art for all makes of car. With Natalie, it’s art for all tastes on a sliding price scale. Thanks to her ability to ‘develop and merge her two passions: art and designer goods’ via a fabulous range of products, she’s able to bring culture to everyone.
It’s easy to laugh at Natalie. Something
about her doesn’t quite seem real. Her promotional photograph has her
dressed in a latex catsuit seemingly enhanced with one of her own designs.
She sports two of her art watches (one on her wrist and one between her
breasts), and has weird 1980s hair and make-up. Generally speaking she seems
to be playing up to a popular notion of the artist as some sort of lunatic
social freak. I think she lets herself down on that point with the plain and
bored-sounding recorded voice that greets callers to her hotline. And her
art is appalling. Yet while Natalie may be an extreme case, she is certainly
not alone when it comes to mixing art and designer goods. Rachel Whiteread
makes daybeds for SCP; Dutch artist Joep van Lieshout has updated Shaker
furniture for Moooi; Takashi Murakami designs patterns for Louis Vuitton
handbags. And perhaps most prolific of all, Yoshitomo Nara is busily
transforming his Manga-inspired paintings, drawings and sculptures into an
ever-growing army of ashtrays, bookends and clocks. One of the latter is
advertised as ‘featuring 84 unique drawings’ that flip over, one at a time,
to mark the passing of every hour and minute. Suddenly it’s no longer about
museums as shopping malls, but private art collections in timepieces.
Having risen to prominence during the early nineties through his association with the seminal Dutch collective Droog Design, Wanders is currently art director of Moooi, a company that produces many of his designs alongside those of a carefully selected handful of others. Among the latter are a number of big names such as Joep van Lieshout, Ross Lovegrove and Jasper Morrison, as well as some younger talent.
Moooi aims at exploring precisely the zone between individuality and mass production that Natalie O’s art objects seek to exploit. In fact the company even shares the gimmick of Natalie’s trademark surname. The name Moooi derives from the Dutch word for beautiful but, as Wanders has been happy to tell everyone who will listen, with an extra ‘o’ for extra beautiful. ‘I’m a great salesman,’ says Wanders, and it’s a great way of making sure your name is always associated with beauty. In Natalie’s case, unfortunately, the likelihood is that her extra ‘O’ will always be interpreted as an extra nothing.
Jurgen Bey’s now ubiquitous Light Shade Shade, a product originally conceived for Droog in 1999 and now in the Moooi collection, provides an iconic example of what the company is all about. It consists of a cylinder of semi-transparent mirror film wrapped around an old lamp, the effect of which is rather like watching an artwork displayed in a glass museum case. Customers can choose either to buy the shade with a lamp included or to use the shade to encase a lamp of their own. When the light is off you see a shimmering modern lampshade; when the light is on the older light inside takes centre stage. Not only is this a remarkable coexistence of old and new, it also allows for almost limitless permutations of individual lamps (perhaps with sentimental value) within a standard design.
Moooi’s rather curious slogan, ‘We are all individuals; we are all family’, provides a hint that all this is about people as much as objects. The Light Shade Shade clearly encourages the user to play a role within the design. So too does Moooi Weer, a paint that is changed annually in accordance with the trend analysis of colour forecaster Li Edelkoort. It was yellow for 2002 and is orange for 2003. It can be used to paint old furniture in order to ensure that your favourite pieces never go out of style. In its simple deployment of brush and paint Moooi Weer seems rather old-fashioned, almost artistic in the current climate of machine-moulded plastics and computer-designed forms. You could almost see it as another version of art for all. But not, of course, as Natalie O’ knows it. And unlike Nara’s clock it’s not about being stuck with the same old drawings day after day, marking the passing of time. Design is about ‘products worth bonding with for a lifetime,’ says Wanders.
Random Light, a simple lightshade designed in 2002 by his young protégés the Monkey Boys, provides a rather different example of how that can be achieved. It is a ball of glass-fibre string moulded around a balloon and hardened with epoxy. While it is created from elements that you can find in the average hardware store, Moooi suggest that the strategic use of a well-lubed dimmer-switch can exaggerate the shade’s glowing, otherworldly qualities. Use your imagination, they say, and it might even pass as an alien lifeform attempting to communicate with Captain Kirk in the original Star Trek series. You could look at it as packaging an idea, a kind of conceptual art. ‘Nothing has meaning but the meaning you give it,’ according to another of Wanders’ slogans.
According to MoMA’s Paola Antonelli we should define Wanders as part of a ‘very contemporary group of designers whose elective mission is to endow objects with a communicative soul’. The first object I encountered in his studio made me think of Snow White’s evil stepmother. It was one of the largest magazine racks I have ever seen, and was overflowing with examples of international media praise for Wanders’ work. ‘Golden Boy’ was the headline slapped across his face on the cover of Metropolis magazine. The theme was echoed on the cover of French style mag intramuros, where Wanders’ staring face comes equipped with a golden strap-on clown’s nose. Called Oblique, the rack is an innocent part of the new Moooi collection, but in this context it seems to function more like a magic mirror, constantly telling Wanders that he designs the fairest products of them all. And if having a communicative soul is about causing the lyrics to Midnight Star’s Midas Touch to start running through my head – ‘I’ve got the Midas touch, yeah/ Everything I touch turns to gold, darling’ – then this is indeed a success. But with Wanders, nothing is ever as simple as it seems.
Take that golden clown’s nose, for example. In actual fact it is a ‘stylish necklace disguised as a comedy nose’ that he created for the avant-garde jewellery collection ‘Chi Ha Paura…?’ And despite the fact that the magazine rack seems to operate as a magic mirror of media hype, it is not long before Wanders is telling me that ‘designers suck’. So much for all the golden boy stuff.
They suck because of their general acceptance of the constraints imposed upon them by the logistics of the manufacturing industry. And it is these constraints that the Moooi collection seeks to break. In the face of a throwaway culture that consumes meaningless products, he wants his creations to have more quality and more qualities. ‘We can learn so much from fashion,’ says Wanders after looking at a photograph of some Versace dresses. ‘People get a lot of fun out of it.’ Moooi Weer is just a start.
To demonstrate what a successful product can achieve, Wanders tells a story about an encounter with a man who owned a leather factory in Pakistan. ‘He told me that he did not know much about design and that he was only here because he supplied Cappellini with leather. But he did have one design book and claimed to have seen a product in it that had changed the way his company worked. It had made him think about his materials in a different way. So he collected all the scraps of waste leather and found a second use for them.’ The product that the leather factory owner had seen in his book was Wanders’ Lace Table, made from excess pieces of Swiss lace. ‘I never told him it was my design. That would have ruined it,’ says Wanders. The Lace Table, designed in 1997, is still not in production, but he is happy for design to be about watching as much as wanting. And we all thought that it was the artists who were supposed to be saying that. But perhaps under Wanders’ guidance product design is set to become more like art than art itself.
Mark Rappolt is the Architecture Editor for contemporary