Lapse In Time 16.12.09

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JU87-G Stuka by Katharina Wahl

At Experimenta, one show promised a radical agenda. It got halfway, says Justin McGuirk

The best thing about Experimenta, the design biennial now taking place in Lisbon, is that it's in Lisbon. This elegant, faded city is a refreshingly slow and non-commercial context for the international design jet set to descend upon. The second best thing about Experimenta is the programme of independently curated exhibitions. What distinguishes it from every other design week around the world – where designers simply show off their latest stuff – is the aspiration to be thematic rather than just novelty-mongering. This year, one particular exhibition seemed to have a monopoly on buzz.

The show was called Lapse in Time ("time" was the theme of the biennial), and it was curated by Hans Maier-Aichen, the German design professor and founder of the now defunct manufacturer Authentics. His thesis? To position a generation of either craft-based or so-called conceptual designers as rebels operating against "the market" – against industrial production, consumerism, globalisation and any other system that he feels has been tainted by the financial crisis. Is this really a "radical paradigm shift", as Maier-Aichen proposes?

The scope was certainly expansive. You had interaction designers Auger-Loizeau and Susanna Soares rubbing shoulders with fashion radicals Bless, punk designer Jerszy Seymour and kineticists Studio Glithero, as well as more practised swingers of their grappling hooks into the art world, like Constantin and Laurene Leon Boym and local hero Fernando Brizio. Looking at it all together, you couldn't call it coherent. What did rise to the surface, however, was a prevailing attitude that it's hard not to be sympathetic towards: a sense of individualism, of "I'm just going to do what I do", of critique and here and there a fetishisation of process. The Boyms turned ordinary household furniture into faux-bronze sculptures (that is, they want us to value everyday objects). Seymour carved one of his diagrams into plasticene and let punters add to it with sharpened bone pens (I don't know if this is intentional but it's a nice satire of "service design"). Studio Glithero poured coloured concrete down a Tatlinesque slide (apparently to make table tops).

This show makes you realise how open-ended design production is becoming. Alright, many of these designers are reacting against conventional product design and thus the finality of the product. But when you remove that finality, and the many constraints that contribute to it, it seems that you lose rigour. Everybody loves experimentation, and if you poke around most design studios you'll find raw maquettes and process studies, but no one mistakes them for the real thing. The feeling this show gives you is that some of these designers are simply stopping halfway.

There's also something ironic about Maier-Aichen's anti-product rhetoric. By rights, product design ought to be a far sharper tool for critiquing material culture than furniture is. What says more about 2009, the iPhone or Jasper Morrison's new chairs for Magis? And yet it is furniture designers who are taught to "tell tales" – as you can see at the Victoria & Albert Museum's current show – while product designers get much of their expressive imagination drummed out of them. Still, that's an argument for another day. But what I kept wondering – given that Maier-Aichen watched his beloved company go under – was whether this attempt to cohere a non-conformist movement was some kind of revenge on the system.

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Target tables by Fernando Brizio



Justin McGuirk

quotes story

Everybody loves experimentation, and if you poke around most design studios you'll find find raw maquettes and process studies, but no one mistakes them for the real thing

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The Long Drop by Studio Glithero

Lapse in Time is at the Sociedade Nacional de Belas Artes, Lisbon, until 8 November

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