The Slovenian design biennial avoided the lure of celebrity, instead inviting designers from around the globe to team up and tackle real-world problems
Europe's oldest design biennial – Bio in Ljubljana, Slovenia – this year celebrates its 50th birthday with nary a big-name designer in site.
Well, Konstantin Grcic was there for the opening week, but only in his capacity as a judge of "best biennial collaboration" (clinched by a group exploring the theme "Nanotourism"). And, at a time when each Salone sparks a debate about whether Milan retains its status as "design capital of the world", the lack of big design stars is as refreshing as it is extraordinary.
In appointing Belgian curator Jan Boelen to oversee this year's event, Bio has moved into less-chartered territory, focusing on experimentation and collaboration. Subtitled "3, 2, 1... TEST", the biennial's aim is to "question and transform ideas about industrial production, public and private space, and pre-established systems and networks", said Boelen.
The works – displayed in the MAO (Museum of Architecture and Design), the Jakopič Gallery and the Museum of Modern Art – respond to the broader question of how design affects everyday life. The organisers put out an open call for cross-disciplinary participants to take up one of 11 themes: Affordable Living, Knowing Food, Public Water Public Space, Walking the City, Hidden Crafts, The Fashion System, Hacking Households, Nanotourism, Engine Blocks, Observing Space and Designing Life.
The selected groups were given budgets, mentors, each other's Skype details and six months to create a project together. Naturally, some efforts were more successful than others – no doubt because it's tricky to collaborate with someone on the other side of the world. Apparently, one of the teams only met for the first time when they were installing their project in Ljubljana.
Hacking Households presented prototypes for domestic fans
The Hacking Households group displayed a series of evolving prototypes for domestic fans of increasing complexity, while Engine Blocks – a collaboration between design studio Re-do, Ricardo Carneiro and Antoine Monnet – developed a modular engine block that can be used interchangeably on machines ranging from boats to concrete mixers.
This film, for the Engine Blocks project, envisages a future in which we are more engaged with machines and technology
Those tasked with Affordable Housing explored a variety of scenarios and design solutions. For Spatial Probes, for example, Dirk Osinga and Lukas Wegwerth took a speculative-narrative approach to vacant space in Ljubljana. Overall, though, this group's work exemplified a particular problem with short-term, long-distance collaboration: the group splintered off into many smaller groups, rather than creating one coherent work.
While the exhibition offers much to stimulate visitors, Boelen's particular stroke of genius is Designing Everyday Life, the biennial's companion text. Edited by design writer, Vera Sacchetti, the 534-page text reveals the glorious mess behind the exhibition's cleanliness. Drawings, prototypes and even posts from Facebook pages illuminate how these processes of research, experimentation and collaboration worked. It's a fascinating read.
As BIO 50's subtitle makes clear, this is a design biennial about trying things out. There are no finished objects waiting to be picked up by big brands. Rather, Boelen has challenged designers to create new strategies for dealing with everyday concerns. And, while these strategies may be firmly rooted in Ljubljana, these everyday concerns – housing, food, water, energy – stretch far beyond the borders of Slovenia.
Bio 50 ends on 7 December 2014