words Kieran Long
Manufacturers don’t count – “curators and designers hold all the power in these pages”.
Phaidon’s &Fork is the sequel to Spoon, the 2002 book that first brought the tried and tested formula from the architecture book 10X10 to product design. Ten “curators” are invited to choose ten designers whom they feel have emerged to prominence in the last five years.
The curators are eminent figures from the design world. There’s an OBE, a Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et Lettres, the editors of iD, Casa Brutus and Domus, a professor and four curators of different kinds. Tom Dixon is the only person on the list who is actually a recognised designer, which signals one of the major cultural shifts that this book (and its predecessor) documents: the rise of the curatorial class in design.
This is a book as much about the taste of the authors as it is about the designers collected, and it is very significant to me that no producer was chosen to contribute. Spoon at least had Giulio Cappellini to put a hand up for the manufacturers. Now we see that it is connoisseurship, not sales, that defines a designer’s importance.
Each curator writes citations for their selected designers, and the tastes of the curators go to type. The journalists, as you might expect, make their nominations seemingly based on novelty. They praise a designer’s willingness to make “new relationships with products” (Sang-kyu Kim on California-based Bosung Kim) or a willingness to “question what’s taken for granted” and especially “blur boundaries” between disciplines.
The designers and curators are less interested in novelty, it seems, with Dixon’s selections glaringly traditional in comparison to some others. His choices (among them the London nouveau-modernism of Alexander Taylor, Russell Pinch and Doshi Levien) are praised for their “restraint” and avoidance of “showy” bells and whistles. He also seems at pains to say how crowded the design scene is, praising some for being the best of an extensive bunch of like-minded individuals. Swedish designer Johannes Norlander is put in a lineage with Jasper Morrison and Konstantin Grcic, as Dixon reinforces the hegemony of engineering-inspired men in the design scene.
At a quick count and from memory, there are 33 practices or individuals in this book whose work has been shown by icon magazine in the last four years, and five have appeared on the front cover (Maarten Baas, Front, Maxim Velcovsky, Jaime Hayon and Simon Heijdens). I’m sure I could have done a similar statistical analysis with any number of other design magazines, and this poses a question of &Fork. What constitutes a designer’s “emergence” on the scene? This straw poll analysis suggests that it is the amount of press gained rather than commercial success.
Didier Krzentowski, the head of the Kreo design gallery in Paris, begs to differ about what is important. To him, for a designer to have emerged involves them having an exhibition in a gallery. So, in his piece about Rotterdam-based Chris Kabel, we are told that his solo show at a gallery in Paris in 2006 was a “sign that he is being recognised as a promising independent designer”. Similarly, Inga Sempé and Wieki Somers are lauded for their success in showing their work in cultural institutions and Krzentowski adds that the acquisition of Julia Lohmann’s Cow Bench by the French National Art Collection “announces a bold designer”. Similar praise can be found by other curators. This would have seemed strange even to a Bauhaus designer, but imagine those industrial revolution designers knowing their work would one day be alongside high art in the cultural firmament.
This trend shows how the economics of the furniture industry have changed. Design is more competitive than ever before, and practitioners get paid less than ever. It therefore suits everyone for the discipline’s cultural cachet to be raised towards that of art. Also, a designer’s royalty for a typical creation for a major Italian furniture manufacturer will never compare to selling five one-offs through a gallery.
Books like &Fork also increase the feeling that the individual is important, and designers seem to believe that too. Manuel Bandeira, whose primary design achievement is to have created an underwear dryer in day-glo plastic in the shape of a pair of briefs, says: “I combine simplicity and practicality resulting in forms expressing my life experience.” I don’t think this kind of comment is aimed at potential manufacturers.
Adrian Forty, in his 1986 book Objects of Desire, argued that to consider design objects as the result of a creative process was mendacious, given that it was the manufacturer who decided what did and did not get produced, and the designer’s role was therefore not to control output but to provide a variety of options that were then engineered, produced and marketed independently.
&Fork is a document of how that situation has changed. It is now the designer, along with the curator, who will decide on the importance of a piece of design, and it will be increasingly rare that any of them will make it to production. Since no one gets paid for designing things anyway, designers might as well have their prototypes in the permanent collection of MoMA rather than languishing in a warehouse in Milan.
&Fork is published by Phaidon for £39.95, www.phaidon.com