Thousands of exhibitions took place in Milan during Salone del Mobile as they do every year, presenting new launches and exciting concepts; but few are as analytical or highbrow as Hella Jongerius and Louise Schouwenberg’s window displays for La Rinascente.
For the third year of an ongoing collaboration for Milan Design Week, Serpentine Galleries and La Rinascente department store commissioned Hella Jongerius and theorist Louise Schouwenberg to create a special installation for the store’s eight front windows.
A Search Behind Appearances reflects on the state of affairs in design and prompts a consideration of the meanings that hide behind appearances.
The windows of La Rinascente present an interplay of small machines, fabrics and well-orchestrated shadows, which gaily mirror the world of design and suggest criteria for estimating and understanding a design’s cultural value.
Reflecting on the state of affairs in design and prompting a consideration of the meanings that hide behind a display, ‘A Search Behind Appearances’ by Hella Jongerius and Louise Schouwenberg proposed that we should move beyond commercial success, beyond style differences and beyond personal taste.
Resulting in a range of visual metaphors, ‘A Search Behind Appearances’ took over the famous La Rinascente department store’s eight Piazza Duomo facing windows during the Salone.
” For decades design has been reduced to the production of mere style differences, a deceitful play of illusions, and an accompanying marketing verbiage. With this showcase I don’t want to say this is good design, this is bad design, I wanted to address something in the making.
It was a search that took half a year and a lot of debate.
We came up with the idea of the shadow play, showing what is behind an object, the meaning behind an object and how to make it larger than it’s physical presence.” ……… Hella Jongerius
A Search Behind Appearances, created by Jongerius and Schouwenberg, is a follow-up to, and distillation of, Beyond the New ( 2015) , a manifesto for the future of design that became a taking point during last year’s design week.
There, the frequent collaborators outlined their vision for a design world free of hype, novelty and overabundance.
The shadow play A search behind appearances reflects on the state of affairs in design and prompts a consideration of the meanings that hide behind appearances.
The essence of a design is the way it engages with users. Seemingly invisibly, design draws on many levels of meaning to communicate with these users.
But for decades already design is reduced to the production of mere style differences, a deceitful play of illusions, and an accompanying marketing verbiage. Today, market value and the claim of novelty seem to overrule any other value we might attribute to a design.
The ever-shifting shadows, created by small-scale machines, are projected onto a range of intricate weavings.
The words ‘shadow’ and ‘fabric’ have various symbolic meanings.
A shadow is both an illusory afterimage and a real presence; a shadow mirrors, distorts, reveals. A fabric unites, creates cohesion. A fabric is intermediary, context, canvas; a fabric is signature, expression.
Apart from their servant roles as canvases for the shadow play, the weavings celebrate the hands-on research of traditional and new weaving techniques. As such they lend a vivid expression to the content and ambitions of the shadow play: detecting the manifold meanings that hide within a design.
” How can we come to solutions or give them a physical approach ? ” …….. Hella Jongerius ( as the starting point for this year’s project.)
” It’s not that I have solutions or answers. It’s about starting up a discourse: what can we design in a world of plenty ? And how can we do it responsibly ? ” ….. Hella Jongerius
A Search Behind Appearances was conceived as a visual meditation on the status quo and the future of design, rendered through a shadow play projected onto huge curtains, weaved by Jongerius and suspended from the windows.
Each window proposes a way to move past the commercially driven nature of contemporary design.
The first and last windows were dedicated to explaining the project while the six central displays housed fabrics with complex woven patterns onto which shadows – generated by small letters and scale models of designer items – dance around, gradually transforming into letters, words and back to their original forms.
Each window features an ingeniously animated and automated small-scale machines that assemble and disassemble iconic design objects — each evoking questions and offering alternate means for reading the true value of a design piece.
Each window scene combined fabrics with shadow play, projected via a range of custom machines.
The animated mechanism that produces the shadows is not hidden — instead, viewers are invited to read the fictional realities hidden behind the images, and make connections between them and the wider context of design.
First, some background information: how did this commission come about?
Serpentine asked Hella to present her work at La Rinascente. But she was not so much interested in showing her own designs, but wanted to present a follow-up of the manifesto the two of us had presented in Milan one year before. So here we are.
Could you tell me about the working process with Hella?
Apart from being very good friends, we speak endlessly about design and its potential. By now we need half sentences to understand each other. We benefit from each other’s insights, which derive from our distinct professional practices. Hella’s the maker, the one who thinks first of all through her work and let’s herself be surprised during the hands-on making process. I’m the thinker and the educator, but at the same time I’m familiar with the unpredictable creative process via my work within education.
Why did you choose this medium of shadows, fabric and machine?
We wanted to create a visual presentation that would celebrate the potential of design. Many ideas went hind and forth and many brainstorms eventually led to the choice to create a shadow play. A temporary performance, a volatile manifestation of shadows that would mirror in various ways the design world as we see it.
At first we imagined simple white fabrics, which would merely serve as blank slates for the projections. The idea of weaving sentences into the fabric was probably the first detailing, which fitted the notion that design and context interact, and that an awareness of the meanings of a context needs to be taken into account during the design process. When the first samples of fabrics were created on the looms of Jongeriuslab, gradually they started to merge with the textile experiments Hella already works on for years. It was a natural and logic process to let the textiles gain more presence. And this, in turn, evoked new ideas and new possibilities. We continued to change and adapt the concept. Gradually the fabrics have become autonomous, expressive representations of the content of the overall shadow play.
Could you tell me how the textiles have been matched with the texts?
Two windows display fabrics with woven words, and in other windows text is projected onto the fabrics. Every time the interplay of various aspects can be ‘read’. To give an example: the constantly inflating and deflating word NEW is projected on the woven quotes of many thinkers. With this interplay we want to evoke questions about the relationship of new designs, which are launched by the multitudes at every fair, and the history of cultural production and reflection. If being New is a design’s only asset, it will merely add to the world of plenty, to the obesity of design. To sensibly move ahead we need a vivid dialogue with the past, a vivid dialogue with the archives.
A Search Beyond Appearances feels like an extension, or a distillation, of Beyond the New. How do you feel the manifesto was received?
In the open we only heard praise and agreement with our plea for ideals in design. Through the grapevine we heard critiques, such as ‘this is old news’. We agree with that. We presented ideas that others presented before. We felt the urge of reminding people.
The design world suffers from amnesia. The logic of capitalism has ruined an awareness that all elements interplay. Each decision has manifold implications and consequences. If one deals only with one layer and forgets about all connections, as happened in these past decades, any design becomes flat.
Why have these six questions and statements been chosen, and how did you select them? Are these the essential points of the manifesto?
We deem these questions and statements important, yes. Some have a clear logic, such as: ‘why design for a world of plenty?’. Others are more open, such as: ‘judge a design by the questions it evokes!’ We don’t pretend these are final statements on design. It’s a tentative search for criteria that matter, in our view, this moment in time. With this presentation we hope others will join us and start to reflect which questions they would ask, which statements they would put forward. We consider this a never-ending project.
Why did you decide to make some aspects of the manifesto physical?
It’s a way to attract the viewers’ attention on various levels. Some people will only enjoy the constantly changing spectacle of letters turning into well-known designs, of a form slowly blowing up, of water flows moving hind and forth, the intricate little machines. Others will see the spectacle and also read all texts, to then find out they are part of the same interlocking story.
How do the performative, shadow-play aspects of A Search Beyond Appearances fit with the desire to halt the “deceitful play of illusions.”
Design can change how people live, act and think. That’s quite a responsibility! With this installation we like to shake up preconceptions of what design is and can be within a commercial setting such as the Salone. Can larger issues be raised within such a setting? Will visitors also see a researching and questioning attitude among designers? We don’t pretend we can halt all negative aspects of the design world. Most of all we show the potential of design, the sheer pleasure of design, the stratification, the details with all their hidden meanings. And we offer food for thought. We have welcomed this opportunity to present experimental ideas and experimental weavings. No final works. No final answers.
Is there a contrary element to presenting in La Rinascente, a temple of consumption?
One of our predecessors was Martin Gamper, who created a fantastic project at this location! We don’t advocate the message that one needs to retreat from the real world and live in a simple hut in the middle of nowhere, saved from the temptations of consumerism. We are part of this world, which to a large extent rules according to the logic of economics. This place is actually very interesting, at the crossroads of history (Duomo di Milano), culture (Serpentine Galleries), and commerce (La Rinascente), and this context represents precisely the natural context of design. We cannot rob design of its link with commerce, nor would we want to. But we can point to the larger importance of other values.
What do you ultimately aim to achieve with A Search Beyond Appearances?
An awareness of the great potential of design. And also debate, reflection on the notion ‘cultural value’. An open call to think of new criteria for estimating a design’s quality. In many ways design has so much more possibilities than for instance art, as designers deal with the daily lives of people. Whereas visitors of an art exhibition are prepared to be confronted with layers of meaning, it’s the power of design to surprise users in more subtle ways with similar narratives. Only few designers really take the full opportunity to work on all the levels design operates on.
Do you have a clear idea as to how one could start effecting change in design?
It’s already happening. You only need to search with great care. Within a commercial setting market value seems to count foremost, but that same setting can also be used to evoke other ideas. Just look around at all the side programmes scattered throughout the city’s centre, at Palazzo Clerici, the design academies’ presentations, to name just a few. Away from the commercial venues, one can detect innovative ideas and exciting new perspectives on the discipline. There’s always a lot of nonsense in Milan, but amidst that nonsense pearls can be found. Ever more designers start to reformulate ideals and start to aim higher then merely striving for commercial success.