Mirrors: Surface tension 08.10.15

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A mirror’s function has always been to provide an accurate likeness. So why are recent designs more interested in playing with the viewer’s sense of identity?

The belief that you can trust your reflection has had a surprisingly short tenure. Though mirror as we are familiar with it – a glass pane with silvered backing – was developed in the 12th century, the manufacturing processes required to mass-produce uniform sheets of glass (the prerequisite for creating optically accurate mirror) were only codified around the turn of the 20th; before this, ownership of a cheap, clear looking glass couldn’t be taken for granted. Thus, until the late 1800s, it wasn’t generally possible to view your likeness, or assess its authenticity, from one moment and one mirror to the next.

The concept of the mirror image at that time should therefore have meant something entirely different – not an inviolable (if reversed) representation of what was placed before the glass, but rather an untrustworthy facsimile, made all the more suspicious for seeming to be almost exact, and thus all the more liable to deceive. At least that instability would have been mitigated by the fact that photographic technology was still in its infancy – there weren’t too many variations of your doppelganger to contend with; a likeness, even if a little skew, largely remained in the presence of the person to whom it related. We now have little reason to doubt the acuity of the mirror on a material basis.

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Oskar Zieta’s Tafla mirrors use an indeterminate process of inflating steel at high pressure

And yet, it would seem, the mirror’s ability to convey what it sees before it is more troubled than it perhaps has ever been. This certainly seems to be the position of the design profession, for whom the creation of looking glasses, or “vanity mirrors”, is a recent preoccupation. However, rather than using this apparently uncomplicated object as an opportunity for mere formal experimentation, designers have been confronting what they perceive as their generation’s crisis of identity.

The anxiety of our age is, of course, one that centres on self-representation. Digital technology (the proverbial “black mirror”) has presented unlimited opportunities to manage both how we view ourselves and how others view us. The impetus to create (or curate) your idealised double via the network is now all-pervasive, this high-resolution avatar taking precedent over its fleshy counterpart. What use for the analogue reflection once the face has, effectively, gone post-production? For many designers, the response has been to begin distorting, warping and obfuscating the mirror’s surface in a paradoxical attempt to better reflect contemporary existence.

Danish studio Chudy and Grase has created Viewpoint, a circular mirror that slides across the surface of a lightbox, with an aim to give the user back “control” over their image. The surface of this illuminated panel has been treated so that light leaks through on a gradient from blinding white to resolute black. The mirror itself has a level of translucence, meaning that, as the user slides it towards the brighter end, their image is obliterated. It’s a mechanism heavy with apprehension about the conflict between viewer and reflection. Indeed, the impetus for Viewpoint was the discovery that people with depression are considered by the medical profession to perceive reality with greater lucidity than those considered mentally “healthy” – Viewpoint plays with the notion that a certain level of blindness to our immediate condition is now considered a normal state.

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Soft Baroque’s Lenticularis produces vapour to obscure the mirror’s surface

Movement is also key to the operation of Lenticularis by British studio Soft Baroque, a standard oval mirror that emits a water particle cloud in order to obscure its surface; in this case, however, loss of control is the designer’s aim. As viewers approach, necessarily peering close to see through the haze, they disturb the surrounding air and thus the vapour, causing further visual dissonance.

The mirror forces the viewer into repeated, and ultimately futile, attempts at de-misting. Sasa Stucin, founder of the studio alongside Nicholas Gardner, describes the cloud as “disabling” the mirror’s standard operation, transforming it into “a pseudo-functional screen, a zen portal that reinforces the dream-like sense of a new private reality”. It is important to note that the vapour, formed by an atomiser, is intended to carry a scent, thus matching the attenuation of our most relied-upon sense, vision, which we associate with notions of truth (seeing is believing, after all), with that of smell, generally regarded as the most imprecise and diffuse of our sensory inputs. As cognitive science indicates, however, smell is the sense that is most powerfully linked to memory – thus Lenticularis overlays a fleeting form of recognition with one that can potentially evoke a more deeply felt connection.



Peter Maxwell


Images: Jan Lutyk; Soft Baroque Images; Studio Isabell Gatzen; Chudy & Grase; ECAL, Axel Crettenand and Sylvain

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What use for the analogue reflection once the face has, effectively, gone post-production?

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Chudy and Grase’s Viewpoint mirror allows the user to fade out their image

The Broken Mirror project by Guillaume Markwalder and Aurélia von Allmen also demands that you lean in, but this time the command is that you stay relatively still. For the majority of the time, the foil surface of the device remains slack across its circular body. This reflects poorly, catching amorphous passing forms only as patches of colour and shadow. At closer proximity, however, near enough to activate the discreet motion sensor, the skin is drawn tight, abruptly revealing the investigator. The mirror was developed as part of the Delirious Home exhibition at the Ecole cantonale d’art de Lausanne, which sought to reintroduce a degree of humanity into the design of household objects.

In the case Markwalder and von Allmen, the gesture is one of equivalence in place of rampant individualism, the device making everything that passes in front of it fungible until the last possible moment. In use terms, standard mirrors are always “on” – here, conversely, you can’t simply catch a glance and be drawn in, fascinated by your own image, but must require the impetus of a specific intention. However, the title of the piece leaves it ambiguous as to which of the two states is, in fact, broken.

There is something equally enigmatic about the name of Swiss designer Isabell Gatzen’s See Right Through Me mirror. Produced as part of her 2015 Debut collection, the product consists of a series of circular one-way mirrors in decreasing sizes, each held in an individual marble base. These are intended to be arranged together so that when the viewer looks at them, his or her face is portioned across several different planes, while some of the light passes through from front mirror to back, giving the image different levels of definition, intensity and focal distance.

This dissecting of the subject across several dimensions has an almost holographic effect, dislocating the viewer. Gatzen’s inspiration was the work of Dutch graphic artist MC Escher, especially his “impossible objects and optical illusions”. As the mirror’s invitation suggests, the notion of reflecting some fixed, holistic self-image is increasingly implausible; indeed, the designer describes her research for the piece as concentrating mainly on the symbolism of portraying a likeness, rather than the mechanics of design and manufacture.

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Isabell Gatzen’s mirror partitions the viewer’s reflection 

Polish designer Oskar Zieta’s FiDU collection is, conversely, entirely defined by technical process, almost to the exclusion of any interest in the end viewer. First introduced in 2008, FiDU, or Free Inner Pressure Deformation, takes laser-cut steel blanks, welds them together around the perimeter and pumps in high-pressure air to expand the object into three dimensions. Zieta describes this means of making as a “controlled loss of control”, mixing precision manufacturing at the initial stages with the unpredictable deformations of the final act of creation.

FiDU has been used to produce various furniture products, from chairs to tables (as well as the Icon Awards 2013 trophies) and now a range of mirrors called Tafla, in practical terms the least complex but conceptually the most dense use of this mode of production. While in the case of his stool the forming process merely creates a pleasing irregularity of appearance without affecting operation, for the Tafal mirror it is fundamental to the performance of the finished product. As the history of mirror manufacturing has been a slow evolution towards perfect clarity, this use of precision tooling to create a reflective surface whose level of verity is left to chance perhaps indicates a new antipathy towards the mirror’s established role.

There is a useful precedent by which to understand this interest in distortion, though it requires its own act of inversion. Anamorphic art, developed during the Renaissance as a counterpoint to linear perspective, created pictures that were indecipherable unless viewed from a certain position or, in some cases, reflected in a curved mirror that deskewed the abstracted image, revealing its true identity. These techniques were often used as a means to hide forbidden portraits, usually of those considered traitors, in plain sight. The current anxiety on the part of designers about creating objects that offer an honest reflection of the viewer appears to have led them towards creating their own species of deskewing devices. However, in this instance they work in reverse, the revelation being that the abstracted, indecipherable image is a closer approximation of our identities than the naively represented whole.

This article first appeared in Icon 147: Sins, in which we explored how the worlds of design and architecture enable our sinful ways or attempt an antidote. Read more here

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