Sit Up!: 100 Masterpieces from the Vitra Design Museum Collection Nature as Object: Craft and Design from Japan, Finland and Australia Art Gallery of Western Australia 2 July - 6 September 1998
Two exhibitions at the Art Gallery of Western Australia shed an interesting light on aspects of design that aspire to transcend the specific cultural origins of objects, and illuminate the dilemma of the designer interested in communicating the relationship of the body (politic) to its material surroundings. The Art Gallery of Western Australia has organised the Australian tour of the Vitra Design Museum's Sit Up! - an exhibition of chairs that it characterises as "furniture that shaped the Twentieth Century." This show of industrial design is complemented by Nature as Object, a show curated by the Gallery as part of the Third Australian International Crafts Triennial.
This show of largely symbolic objects illustrates contemporary Australian, Finnish and Japanese design that draws its inspiration directly from the natural world. Both shows tell us a lot about the designer and his/her sense of authority in a world in which the line between the functional and the symbolic is often blurred. Early modernist designers (represented amongst others in Sit Up!) argued for a standardised, universal design practice that was functional, without formal historical and cultural references, and appropriate for mechanical production. In a way, the contemporary designers of Nature as Object aspire to a similar kind of universalism, but one that is rooted in the conditions of the natural world.
The majority of the chairs exhibited were conceived in a cultural climate where hand crafts and notions of individuality were to be subsumed under the symbolic collectivism of mechanised production. The loss of aura that Walter Benjamin identified as inherent in mechanical reproduction was part of the program that was to liberate the object from the realm of the individual, and place it in the context of a radicalised collective society. Industrial materials, previously not associated with the aesthetic, were to be a further aid in this action. The vision of a world of communally used, shiny metal furniture glistening behind plate glass windows ultimately ended up not in that conceptualised radical communal space, but in contemporary capitalist corporate foyers. These spaces, the legacy of the modernist quest for a rational, neutral social space, are not experimental spaces, but socially closed spaces associated with power and prestige. The utopian Modernist program of furniture production for the masses has evolved into the chair as cult object.
What is fascinating about the exhibited chairs from that heroic period of Modernist design is that they are obviously objects that have been used; they are worn, dented, and their upholstery stained.
This seemingly banal observation is important, for what we are looking at is not the abstract aspiration for perfect form that conceived these objects, but the existence of objects within a material reality. They are suddenly objects of function again, rather than objects of symbolic significance. They are powerfully connected to lived experience, and taken away from secondhand cultural information. There is a world of difference in seeing photographs of massed ranks of Marcel Breuer's cantilevered B 64 chair prior to shipment from the factory and looking at one of the original production run with its scratched arm rests and patches of scabby chrome. There is a different aesthetic response to a single Thonet chair with a worn rattan seat, and the fascinating picture in the catalogue of thirty six pristine, but dismantled, Thonet chairs stacked inside a cubic metre packing space. Our conditioned, mediated response to these objects is one of newness, of immaculate conception. It is a liberating experience to see them marked with traces of human use, to realise these were, and are, social products - objects of consumption as well as objects made for production.
For those interested in the relationship of the object to the social sphere they become very eloquent pieces. Because of this the more recent additions to the collection, Morrison's supremely elegant Ply-Chair, Starck's "standing aid" W.W. Stool and Sottsass's Carlton stylishly dysfunctional shelves have an antiseptic quality to them, as if constructed for viewing rather than use.
It is one of the contradictions of the gallery environment that objects which call out for handling are chastely positioned out of touch so they do not manifest that supposedly disfiguring auratic patina of use.
Many of the works in Nature as Object attempt to build in that absent patina. They become like Ishimoto's Icy Stone and Paikkari's Bottles, symbolic representations of materials in transitional states, neither transformed and immaculately formed, nor fully liberated from their maker's formal intervention. They exist in an unresolved half life in which neither the designer's intent nor the materials' intrinsic qualities are fully articulated. Aesthetically ambiguous, ambivalent objects like these help move the labour-intensive handcrafting of Susan Wraight's netsuke away from the realm of illusionistic kitsch into a world of pleasure of the intense observation and recreation of natural form. Natural form is intrinsically a bewilderingly exciting visual experience. To try and create a symbolic analogue of nature in abstractly crafted objects demands a level of creative invention that seems lacking in some of these artefacts when they are compared to the vivacity of nature itself, and to the creative material invention of the furniture designers of Sit Up!
If design is about the manipulation of materials in a social space, then these two shows engagingly demonstrate our dialogue with our needs as functioning social creatures, and the richness of the physical world that surrounds us.