The current confinement due to the COVID-19 pandemic has radically reduced our mobility and isolates most of us in our homes. We are experiencing an intensified relationship to our objects, whether intimate, indifferent, or uncanny, says Paris-based designer Robert Stadler. He suggests that spending time at home should be an occasion to rediscover an active and creative way of inhabiting our domestic ecosystem. Interior and furniture design can play an important role in stimulating our curiosity and joy of experimentation. For real, not just for the moment of a post.Our homes have the potential to be fantastic playgrounds that provide a place not only to unwind, but also to experiment with our very personal ideas of how to live. I have been thinking about this idea for a while and have started to find ways of translating it into practice – from the design of a domestic hanging system which is currently being prototyped to curating a group exhibition also in progress. Here are some observations which drive me:
Interiors have become pinterested images of themselves, standardized compositions in predictable declinations. Within them, the same furniture is repeated again and again. Sometimes originals, sometimes knock-offs – it’s impossible to tell the difference on social media anyway. Whether luxurious or affordable, interiors are globally homogenized and many of them are actually not designed anymore but composed. The results are ready-to-post ambiances, each one targeting specific consumer communities. In such scenarios we, the inhabitants, are not considered as active beings capable of cultivating a dynamic relationship with our domestic environment. Just like the furniture, we are meant to blend in with curated settings that offer little or no space for diversity. We have become props in our own homes and thus experience these generic spaces with a comforting and yet uncanny feeling of indifference.
In the exhibition 'Typecasting', which I curated for Vitra in 2018, we presented furniture as characters, gathered together in small cliques. This setting aimed at highlighting how we have started to identify with different communities on social media by using objects to self-stage and to cultivate an image. ‘Typecasting‘ specifically looked at the role of furniture in defining our personal and social profiles.I also wonder why the trend of regularly renting out our homes or temporarily swapping them with strangers hasn’t produced more diversified interiors, as home-exchange platforms such as Airbnb were initially promoting. It seems that homeowners prefer to stay within a stylistic comfort zone in order to attract the widest audience possible. But maybe our audience should not be underestimated? Maybe they are eager to be surprised?That is what the title ‘Home-Active‘ is meant to propose: the design of a contemporary home where our relationship to things is unbiased, curious, and utterly creative.Looking back at history, a number of pioneering interiors reflect the singular, often theory-backed vision of a designer, an architect, or an artist. An early example from the beginning of the twentieth century is Adolf Loos’s ‘Raumplan’. Besides providing a number of precise indications of how an interior space should be organized, he stipulated that the interior should adapt to its user and not the other way around. He criticized rigid, architect-conceived interiors where users cannot change the furnishings according to their individual needs. Half a century later, Achille Castiglioni proposed a room installation motivated by similar concerns in the exhibition ‘Colori e forme della casa d’oggi‘ in the Villa Olmo in Como. The unusual combination of items gathered together in the same space – including a sink, a suspended TV and a beach chair – suggested an idea of freedom beyond any precise social destination. A few years later, Andrea Branzi and Archizoom Associati conceptualized ‘No-Stop City’ (1969–1972), an equally humanistic scenario. They described the city as a homogenous, neutral environment providing all necessary technological facilities, hence providing a fertile ground for the unfolding of the inhabitants’ creativity. In a more ironic take, Ettore Sottsass – who was very critical of the Bauhaus-inspired authoritarian design approach of his era – said about his own furniture pieces: ”You can place them almost anywhere. They don’t ‹go› with anything anyway.”
Apart from style, the furniture field offers various other ways to activate the user. One of them is to encourage people to participate in the design process by literally asking them to build their own furniture. The most emblematic example is probably Enzo Mari’s ‘Autoprogettazione’ project from 1974. Mari provided instructions, but left room for flexible solutions to finishing and precision, thus crucially distinguishing his work from the prescriptive DIY idea of IKEA.Other furniture designs do not immediately reveal their function – thus challenging the user to put the piece to its best use. In 1942 Peggy Guggenheim commissioned Friedrich Kiesler to conceive the interior of her new gallery, Art of This Century, for which he designed the ‘Correalistic Instrument‘ and the ‘Correalistic Rocker‘. Kiesler described Correalism as a holistic theory of man in space. Both objects, depending on their position, can be used in functions, ranging from a seat to an occasional table or a pedestal. Recently, Konstantin Grcic pursued Kiesler’s path with his Stool-Tool, encouraging the user to keep moving and to figure out ways of using this enigmatic design.
Identifying the thingness of objects that are not self-explanatory – and thus unfolding the power of their unrecognizability – was the central idea of the ‘Quiz’ exhibitions Alexis Vaillant and I co-curated in 2014 and 2016. We gathered more than one hundred objects from artists and designers which were all enthrallingly intriguing and resilient to typological categorization. Walking through the show, visitors were invited to question the notions of art and design, functional and dysfunctional.
The home, including its furniture design, has always been an experimental ground for artists, too, from Richard Hamilton’s 1956 collage ‘Just What Is It That Makes Today’s Homes So Different, So Appealing?‘, which probed how American consumer culture had invaded the home, to Claes Oldenburg’s Bedroom Ensemble from 1964, which celebrated artificial surfaces. More recently, Andrea Zittel has challenged our perception of domesticity through her ongoing project entitled Institute of Investigative Living. Indeed, the home is a perfect transdisciplinary field of investigation. In today’s design context, however, critical and yet realistic proposals are rare. Although designers and thinkers such as Jack Self or Shawn Maximo have proposed interesting positions, many scenarios remain theoretical.
So what has happened? Has the logic of likes, and the related commercial online platforms flattened all kinds of alternative scenarios? Whereas in the past, acclaimed designers conceived not only objects but also entire spaces, thus proposing an all-encompassing vision of an idea of how to live, this is rarely the case anymore. This may be due to the fact that most furniture designers of the past originally trained as architects. Today, many of the most respected designers appear to be focused on the object alone, thus handing the field of interior design over to the decorators, art advisors, or style editors.The current situation is perfect for designers to question our blindly accepted, ever-accelerating lifestyle and to shift the focus back to the humans and their capacity of embracing the unknown. I think of this as ‘Home-Active’: a state of mind where we, the inhabitants, creatively interact with our domestic space and furniture. By teaming up with the industry, designers can take things a step further and give such projects a chance to reach larger audiences.