The Design Museum of London is launching a new exhibition in a few days. It’s called Design Cities, and it takes a unique approach to exhibiting a period of design: it focuses on the history of several moments and their associated cities. Far from just showing what group of designers happened to come from which place, the exhibit will “investiage the tangible link between design and the city and will celebrate the key achievements of this relationship.”
The exhibition will feature a full range of objects from textiles and fashion to industrial pieces, furniture and prints. It will include design classics such as chairs by Charles and Ray Eames, as well as work by a spectrum of designers that together will evoke an impression of their era. Key exhibits will include work by William Morris, Owen Jones, Christopher Dresser, Adolf Loos, Le Corbusier, Eileen Gray, Achille Castiglioni, Ettore Sottsass, Gio Ponti, Otto Wagner, Josef Hoffmann, Paul Smith, Ron Arad, Zaha Hadid and Ross Lovegrove.
I think it’s useful to look back to a period when cities did draw certain types of designers, when certain sets of studios worked together, or in a common environment, and created something entirely of the time and place–not only because some of those design results were both spectacular and particular, but also because that kind of metropolitan-based cohesion is something largely impossible these days.
The exhibition starts by going back to London in 1851, at the time of the Great Exhibition, the embodiment of high tech, and prefabrication that was both admired, and abhorred in its time. It ends with the London of today, a city that is once again a global centre for design of all kinds. Between the two, the exhibition focuses on six cities, Vienna, just before World War One, when the language of modernity first started to take shape, then Dessau, the small town in Germany that built the Bauhaus, the most famous school of design the world has ever seen. Paris in the 1930s was the city that became the capital of visual culture, where both Picasso and Le Corbusier made their homes.
Today’s inability to find this kind of cohesion isn’t a bad thing, it’s just the way it is. I’m not saying modern cities have lost all their character, far from it–just that the specific aesthetic coming from a city tends to shelter itself under the globalised design world, especially when approached from an online perspective. When I see a chair, a website, a product, anything–one of the last things I associate it with is a city or a specific place.
Sure, you might spot a cultural signpost embedded somewhere in the design (the kind of things that make you say “oh, that looks vaguely Japanese” without really being able to explain much past that), but the give and take of a network society makes it virtually impossible for me to see a product and say “oh yeah, Italian-made all the way.”
The exhibition continues into the post war years and Los Angeles, where Charles Eames built his supremely elegant studio and house was the epitome of the American century. In the 1960s, leadership in contemporary design moved to Milan. And in the 1980s Tokyo made its presence felt, moving beyond the moral certainty of European industrial design, toward a more playful approach. Finally, returning to present day London which is once again the world’s leading centre for design, the base for Ron Arad and Ross Lovegrove, Jasper Morrison and many other leading contemporary designers.
That’s why I’m intensely interested to see the last, ultra-contemporary part of this exhibition, which returns its focus to London: many of the leading contemporary designers are based there at the moment, but is there any kind of specific “London” style of the moment? I doubt it.
London is often recognized as the most cosmopolitan of the world’s cities, and it’s this interconectedness that draws the design world’s leading lights there–the city has more contemporary art installations, innovative designers, and advertising agencies than anywhere (I could write the same sentence about New York, too), but the heyday of “British” design as any kind of relevant force outside of the retro world is largely irrelevant. Thus the return to London as the final destination of the museum’s grand tour leaves me curious to see if today’s “London Style” has anything, really, to do with London at all.
The exhibition runs until January 14th, 2009.
64 designers, 109 works, 7 brand names, 12 products
• London; Christopher Dresser, Owen Jones, Willam Morris, Joseph Paxton (1851)
• Vienna; Joseph Hoffmann, Adolf Loos, Koloman Moser, Michael Thonet, Janke Urban, Otto Wagner (1908)
• Dessau; Marcel Breuer, Lena Mayer-Bregner, Wilhelm Wagenfeld (1928)
• Paris; Le Corbusier, Jeanneret Pierre, Charlotte Perriand, Eileen Gray, René Herbst, Robert Mallet-Stevens, Jean Prouvé, Citroen (1931)
• Los Angeles; Saul Bass, Harry Bertoia, Charles Eames, Ray Eames, Isamu Noguchi, Elliot Noyes, Eero Saarinen, Ford (1949)
• Milano; Corradino D’Ascanio, Mario Bellini, Achille Castiglioni, Pier Giacomo Castiglioni, Joe Colombo, Perry King, Paolo Lomazzi, Vico Magistretti, Angelo Mangiarotti, Bruno Munari, Marcello Nizzoli, Gionatan De Pas, Giovanni Pintori, Gio Ponti, Richard Sapper, Carla Scolari, Ettore Sottsass, Marco Zanuso, Donato d’Urbino (1957)
• Tokyo; Nigel Coates, Shiro Kuramata, Canon, Olympus, Sharp, Sony (1987)
• Londra; Ron Arad, Barber Osberby, Hussein Chalayan, David Chipperfield, Tom Dixon, Fernando Guiterrez, Zaha Hadid, Industrial Facility, Ross Lovegrove, Jasper Morrison, Ross Phillips, Peter Saville, Paul Barnes, Smith, Paul Smith, Mini (2008)