Design revolution or social revolution? Reflections from Saint-Etienne

Tuesday, December 9, 2008 10:45

Originally posted by Cluster. Written by Marcia Caines

City Eco Lab by JohnThackara | Allan Chochinov speaking at the ‘bonfire’ of City Eco Lab by JohnThackara | © Cluster

A review by Marcia Caines (Cluster). Edited by Mark Vanderbeeken (Experientia)

Saint Etienne celebrates this year the 10th anniversary of its International Design Biennial in the context of economical instability and systemic global challenges. Design is on the cutting edge of social and cultural change and cities, regions and stakeholders take their positions, but designers hesitate before pushing the boundaries of their industry serving discipline.

Saint-Etienne: design capital of the Rhône-Alpes Region

On arriving in Saint-Etienne, the city doesn’t immediately strike you as a place of design. Post-industrial scars are visible almost everywhere, despite the TGV connection, a clean and efficient tram system, tidy town squares and significant cultural sites such as the Museum of Art and Industry, the Citè du Design (ex-arms factory), the Museum of Modern Art and the architectural heritage of Le Corbusier in Firminy.

It is evident that what qualifies Saint-Etienne as ‘design city’ is its endured and successful industrial history. The manufacture of arms commenced in 1535, the first French railway (from Saint Etienne to Andrézieux) was opened in October 1828, and in 1899 60,000 people were employed in the textile industry. From coal to arms, cutlery to textiles, the industrial influence on this town has left a legacy of technical know-how, innovation and creativity. Over the years industrial design combined with weighty investments in the educational sector of the city and the region have preserved a genuine belief in the potential of design and ensured its presence in the everyday life of the city’s inhabitants.

The commitment of key city players like Michel Thiollière, former mayor, who launched the city’s major urban renewal project that changed the face of the city and created the Biennial, and the town planner Jean-Pierre Charbonneau, whose insight and experience was crucial to the re-qualification work and internationalisation of Saint-Etienne, has been fundamental in attributing the title of ‘design city’ to Saint Etienne.

Politicians heading for design thinking

Press Conference, from left: Elsa Francès, Maurice Vincent, Jean-Jack Queyranne, Françoise Gourbeyre | © Cluster

The Biennial kicked off with a press conference with local authorities — Vincent Maurice, mayor of Saint-Etienne since May 2008, Jean-Jack Queyranne, President of the Rhône-Alpes Regional Council, Elsa Francès, director of the Cité du Design and general curator of the Biennial, and Françoise Gourbeyre, deputy mayor in charge of culture — delivering a very clear message: the city wants to apply design and ‘design thinking’ to local industries, schools, cultural initiatives and higher education, and create a ‘design state of mind’ capable of developing new models for economic development and sustainable growth.

Having already applied this model successfully to the physical transformation of Saint Etienne, the local powers are confident that they can also use design and creativity effectively to create broader economic development models and achieve a wider economic rebound, They decided to concentrate their efforts on ecology, innovation, training and internationalisation.

The Biennial as it is conceived this year offered a unique opportunity for this ambitious and optimistic Saint-Etienne team to study the work of designers from all over the world who are dealing with new innovation and consumer models, and to meet with international players and designers to raise questions, exchange ideas, and compare notes on the role of design in future society.

The three main questions that structured the Biennial’s curatorial work were:
• How can design help to develop our lifestyles?
• How to make design work with research and innovation?
• How can design now become a tool for economic development?

Using design to make sustainable change from the local and community level up

City Eco Lab by JohnThackara | © Cluster

The scenography of the City Eco Lab event by internationally renowned design thinker John Thackara undoubtedly stole the show of this 10th edition of the Biennial.

The impact of the enormous mounds of earth, little mud houses, water flows, ponds of fish and vegetable patches in the middle of the Fabrique 5000 – 5000 of ex-arms factory – was imposing and immediately thought provoking.

City Eco Lab featured a large market of small-scale projects from the UK, Canada, India, Cuba and Saint-Etienne. Their focus was on tackling problems — such as food and water shortage, energy consumption and C02 emissions — on the local and community levels, with projects using natural resources found in food chains, cultivation methods, and zero C02 emission transport systems.

In focusing on local and community projects, City Eco Lab defied the design trend of inventing new or greener products for a saturated consumer goods market, and proposed instead innovative sustainable programmes to improve our quality of life.

In practice, grassroots projects in Saint-Etienne worked with designers to improve and optimise their existing projects and provide a platform for dialogue with the public.

It is a ‘design begins at home’ approach that uses social capital and environmental issues to create a new model of economic and social development. This new approach is based on the premise that the responsible use of energy flows and matter, and conservation of biodiversity should actually be paid for at full price, and was outlined for the first time in the Stern Review of Climate Change Economics and taken a step further in The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) report that was written for the European Commission.

What makes the City Eco Lab such a strong initiative, is that it isn’t just a concept, but as was commented by some visitors, it is a real on-the-ground project, that is now adding a design dimension to the Le Grenelle Environnement project — a nationwide series of meetings between businesses, public organisations and citizens aimed at establishing action plans for key aspects of sustainable development: energy and climate, biodiversity, health, agriculture, transport, building and education.

With City Eco Lab Thackara succeeded in establishing a platform and a place to showcase creative and societal grassroots projects already underway presented in such a way that pioneering researchers, businesses, stakeholders and decision makers can easily adopt, improve and multiply them in order to create a real sustainable society.

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Reflecting on social and cultural change

The Flight Number Ten exhibition curated by Chloé Hyraud was an impressive selection that featured 2000 m2 of recent works by designers and design agencies. The exhibition, which was divided into three sections — 1998-2008: 10th Anniversary / Designer’s Europe / Designers and Continents — illustrated how designers reflect and interpret the development of societies, customs and habits, and revealed how cultural diversity and varying social contexts influence and characterise the work of designers.

The first sequence “1998-2008: 10th Anniversary” was in fact based on a conversation with four former Biennal curators — Vincent Lemarchands, Éric Jourdan, Céline Savoye and Claire Fayolle — on the designers who according to them have had the most significant impacts on the history of the Biennial.

Among the selected designers was the Italian Gabriele Pezzini, recognised as designer/thinker, who currently carries out prospective work for Hermès International, including a recent project for a helicopter, which was shown on video at the exhibition.


Cushionised Sofa by Christaine Högner, 2007 (Other People’s Belgium)© Cluster

The Belgian exhibition entitled Other People’s Belgium, part of the second section “Designer’s Europe” of Flight Number Ten (assistant curator: Giovanna Massoni) added a surprising perspective to the topic of Euoprean design by presenting creations ‘Made in Belgium’ but by foreign designers – immigrants, cultural nomads, temporary residents and glocals.


Accueil by Lise El Sayed, 2008 (Other People’s Belgium)© Cluster

The result was a fascinating demonstration of ‘multiculturalism’ represented by a country that lies at the heart of Europe.


Prism by Bo Young Jung and Emmanmuel Wolfs (Other People’s Belgium)© Cluster

One of the works exhibited there was Prism by the Korean and Belgian designers BoYoung Jung and Emmanuel Wolfs, founders of the design collective DrawMeASheep based in Brussels. They used a Korean expression “When the tiger gets married”, which describes the effect of the rainbow appearing between sunlight and raindrops, as inspiration for a wireless ceiling lamp that explores the poetic potential of LCD screens. Each element of this mesmerising light object is a small solar-powered LCD panel. In the presence of light, a brief electrical impulse is transmitted to the crystals, forcing them to twist and change their optical properties. Each section refracts light as it passes through, a responsive quality that offers viewers an ever-changing colour spectrum.

Among the numerous display of objects in the Designer’s Europe sequence of Flight Number Ten, Design Connection Brainport Eindhoven presented the “very much Dutch” Demakersvan with a beautiful Lace Fence by designer Joep Verhoeven. The designer manipulated a standard industrial fence with an intricate embroidery design of brambles growing up and along it, reconfirming that idea that Dutch design is “famous for its conceptual, almost art-like status”.


Photo: How to plant a fence by Demakersvan © Raoul Kramer

The Franco-Finnish Tandem

The Tandem exhibition curated by Catherine Beaugrand dealt with Geolocalisation, a multidisciplinary exhibition produced by the Cité du Design, which called upon new information and communication technologies.

Two French and two Finnish artists — Marc Veyrat and Raphaël Pigeat, and ‘Rajamailla’ ‘Borderlands’ by Minna Rainio and Mark Roberts — explored the concepts of real and virtual borders questioning the territorial changes currently altering our European landscape, through a DVD-installation that took the Finnish Russian border as its central theme. It used three screens, with the left screen showing scenes from Finland, the right screen scenes from Russia, and the central screen scenes from the actual border between the two countries.

The installation is slow and soft, showing mostly static shots of landscapes and villages close to the border while the dialogue unfolds: a mix of interviews and stories of Russian and Finish people living on either side of the border alternated with a dainty and imaginative 1950’s Finnish fairy tale that draws on the Cold War relations between East and West.

The mix of fact and fantasy created a really powerful atmosphere and left the spectator seriously questioning the reality/fiction that surrounds borders.

Imagining tomorrow’s world

Philips Probes’ program, Philips Design, Philips 2006- 2007 | © Cluster

Responding to the question ‘How to make design work with research and innovation?’ the exhibition Demain c’est aujourd’hui (curator: Claire Fayolle) was the most technological of all.

It showed products and projects that use design as a tool for innovation in imagining tomorrow’s world and illustrated how designers respond to a rapidly changing society and incorporate research on evolving consumer needs. The exhibition was organised around three main themes: energy, digital communications and nano-technology, and presented projects from companies and research centres such as EDF (France), Strate Collège (France), The Royal College of Art (UK), Nokia, TTE (WHERE?), Electrolux and Philips.

One intriguing object among the many was a concept clock called Watt’Time by EDF R&D Design & François Brument, 2008 that allows people to monitor the rate of electricity consumption in their homes in real time. It is an aesthetically pleasing technological object that increases awareness of energy consumption at home that also informs people about the consumption of devices on standby and other smaller domestic appliances that often aren’t accounted for when calculating energy consumption.

Research and innovation took on an inclusive design angle in the TwoTone Phone project by Matt Harrison and Cian Plumbe of the Royal College of Art’s Helen Hamlyn Centre in partnership with BT. It allows people aged 60+ to connect to broadband without using a computer, by having them use a double-sided telephone with a white side that functions as a normal phone and a black side that operates with internet calls.

A critical approach was taken by Fiona Raby and Anthony Dunne whose bewildering Technical Dream Series / NO.1 Robot, 2007 featured new forms of robots that resemble objects of design with specific functions and behaviours, thereby questioning how we are accustomed to contemplate robots.

Design revolution or design reform?

The Biennial was a great opportunity to witness the range of efforts being undertaken by today’s designers to successfully find solutions to very complex problems.

The event’s wide attendance — from faithful connoisseurs, and an attentive and international design community, to families and city inhabitants — created an ideal platform for vibrant discussions between the public, designers and the design community, and for the exchange of ideas and opinions on how to incorporate social values and societal needs into everyday design — all this at a symbolic location with a convivial atmosphere.

In a society used to superlative advertising slogans, reality shows, ringtones, convenience food and low-cost flights, the challenge of addressing such complex problems through design is definitely going to be a long journey, but the event definitely provided a good start.

While the City Eco Lab vision of Thackara is still far off and definitely very different from the more conventional futurist vision of flying vehicles and sophisticated technological solutions that celebrate human ingenuity, it also underlined a grey area where thirty-something designers are now scratching their brows and wondering why they got the wrong end of the stick! New design schools adopting the ‘design approach’ are popping up everywhere. Yesterday’s qualified designers have become ‘old school’ overnight. Accusations fly such as “ironically, designers have generally left things is a worse mess than they found them”.

The reality is that there is a genuine fear of the future, and the growing talk of the decline of globalisation, increased unemployment, and the threats of overpopulation and debt accumulation means that topical social concerns have overtaken climate change on the problem scale for a large portion of the population.

The thirty-something designers are thinking about how to make a living and they are sceptical about the increased political interest in the design discipline, which they maintain is hacking a creative process that is rightfully theirs. They also argue that politicians don’t possess the technical knowledge required to lead the ‘design revolution’ that they are talking about and that design is becoming a pretext for large-scale political activity.

Maybe they have a point, or maybe they fear that design can’t live up to the expectations of the large-scale problem solving task that lies ahead of it.

The fear is that design will struggle to free its creative faculties from industry and therefore fail to perform in previously unexplored territories such as design as a social tool. If it’s true that designers are now the key inter¬mediaries between science, policy and the public, this is indeed a very new and quite a big responsibility.

We all agree that it is time for change in the design discipline, and designers commonly perceive change as opportunity. But the strong political attention on ‘design thinking’ has left a large part of designers — technicians of a learnt discipline based on aesthetics and functionality — feeling that this is a design reform rather than a revolution because as the focus on design is augmented, designers are obliged to reconsider design’s role in contemporary society.

There are still many designers who are observing things quietly from the sidelines, travelling faithfully to shows and fairs, and participating regularly with their creations. Convinced that people will always need tables and chairs they continue to pursue their dreams by creating useful and attractive solutions for evolving lifestyles.

It will be interesting to see if we will witness the birth of a new bottom-up growth in the design discipline that will mark out new horizons, or if designers will instead conform and just adapt to this the new way of thinking.

In any case what is certain is the urgent need to connect with our Planet Earth. The SOS for design remains the challenge to develop technologies that can manage the earth’s resources intelligently by exploring the potential of renewable energy sources such as geothermal, solar, wind and tidal, and clean and efficient transport systems. An economy based on mass production and maximising profit margins hasn’t survived the test of time, but can design re-invent our global economy?

The choc-a-block and intriguing 10th birthday of the Saint Etienne Biennial was, above all, an open call for designers, people and players to find a new incentive system based on human and environmental concerns with a shared commitment to design a more sustainable future.

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