Bratislava Design Week 2014: Introduction

September 28th, 2014

Since 2013, and in what one could almost term a “Danube Design Festival”, in addition to Vienna Design Week late September has also seen the nearby Slovakian capital Bratislava host an annual design week.

We know, we know, design weeks are the new marathon or the new film festival, every city needs one as part of their location marketing, “LOOK!!! WE’RE CREATIVE!!!” scream metropoli from Australia to Scandinavia, from Asia to America.

We know.

However we also belong to a very select group who believe that in our modern world large design festivals such as Milan are no longer sustainable, far less justifiable, and that the future lies in a regional network of professionally organised, well timed design festivals which provide a platform for local talent, and which use that talent to help advance both design and society. Let the visitors travel and leave the design at home. Honestly, it makes more sense.

And no not just for us. Although yes, there are an awful lot of excellent cafés in Bratislava.

Much as Bratislava boasts a compact and neatly arranged old town so is/ was Bratislava Design Week 2014 a relatively compact affair, essentially focussed on the central exhibition city centre and a three day conference which featured contributions from a genuinely fascinating roster of designers, including Benjamin Hubert, Curro Claret, llot llov anfd Okolo. We don’t know what they said, we weren’t there, but having spoken to all of them in the past we assume it was well worth the visit.

In addition Bratislava Design Week features a few satellite shows, largely fashion based. And of course fashion isn’t design. But Bratislava Design Week is young. They’ll learn.

And they’ll also learn to increase the amount of information in a language other than Slovakian and ensure that exhibitors follow suit.
Nothing against the Slovakian language, but as a Finnish contact once told us when we announced we were thinking about taking up their language “Why? There are only 4 million Finnish speakers and they all live in Finland. Learn Italian”

Similarly a design festival that hopes to attract an international public must also speak an international language, English would be the obvious. German the geographically most logical.

Which all shouldn’t be taken as undue criticism. The festival is young, one notices in many respects that the organisers are still learning, but the potential is there and we certainly hope they can grow, develop and evolve.

And in terms of language barriers, one must also remember that even the much more established Dutch Design Week still presents exhibitions in 100% Dutch.

We’ll post more in the coming weeks about some of the projects that particularly caught our attention, but for now a few impressions from Bratislava Design Week 2014.

Vienna Design Week 2014: Passionswege – BCXSY @ J. & L. Lobmeyr

September 28th, 2014

At the risk of starting a tradition we can’t maintain, and so ultimately leading us to disappoint a lot of readers, again, it is becoming tradition that our first post from Vienna Design Week concerns a Passionswege project.

Largely because Passionswege is one of the principle reasons we come to Vienna, and so it seems fitting to begin our time in Vienna with the Passionswege programme. But also considering Passionswege is the seed from which Vienna Design Week grew, it just seems respectful.

Passionswege 2014 sees six design studios paired with six established, traditional, Viennese producers and will result, we hope, in six enjoyable projects.

Having viewed Amsterdam based BCXSY’s project with crystal manufacturer J. & L. Lobmeyr we know there will beat least one enjoyable project.

As Vienna Design Week co-founder and former co-organiser Tulga Beyerle told us earlier this year  J. & L. Lobmeyr were one of the first companies to agree to participate in the Passionswege programme and have been an ever present feature since 2006, and their positive attitude towards the platform generally inspires those designers assigned to them to produce interesting work.

Starting point for Boaz Cohen and Sayaka Yamamoto aka BCXSY was J & L Lobmeyr’s tradition and for all the passion and attention to detail the company puts into their products – even though they are, largely, intended for everyday use.

Combing these two threads BCXSY developed a set of glasses which thanks to their generous curves and opposing geometries can nestle together in unity. Inspired by the Biedermeier “friendship glasses” that J & L Lobmeyr created in the mid 19th-century the tumblers remind us that not only is drinking alone no fun, being with someone who compliments, extends and completes you is a lot more satisfying. It’s an easy analogy but one that is always worth repeating and which BCXSY handle very pleasingly.

Less pleasing is the name of the product: J & L Tumblers, as in J(oy) & L(ove) Tumblers, but let’s assume that in keeping with the finest tradition of Arab art that is a deliberate imperfection.

In a nice change this year J & L Lobmeyr’s Passionswege project isn’t being presented in the compay’s city centre store but rather in their workshop facility a little outside the centre. Although the background idea is that the workshop stands in Vienna’s Landstrasse district, which is the focus district of Vienna Design Week 2014; the great advantage is that it allows visitors the chance to have a quick peak behind the scenes at Lobmeyr and experience the brass repair workshop, grinding and engraving first hand. And to talk to the staff. As such not only did BCXSY get the chance to explore and experience the history and tradition of  J. & L. Lobmeyr, but they are giving everyone the chance.

Although not a project that is necessarily going to set the world on fire, it is a perfect example of the background thinking behind the Passionswege programme: helping a traditional company find new perspectives, explore new ideas and, possibly, a new product while at the same time allowing a young design studio both a platform and, ideally, the chance to work with new materials and/or new processes and in a situation that posses new challenges.

Vienna Design Week 2014 Passionswege BCXSY J & L Lobmeyr

Vienna Design Week 2014: Passionswege – BCXSY @ J. & L. Lobmeyr

Vienna Design Week 2014 Passionswege BCXSY J & L Lobmeyr

Vienna Design Week 2014 Passionswege BCXSY J & L Lobmeyr - separated!!

Vienna Design Week 2014 Passionswege BCXSY  J & L Lobmeyr

Vienna Design Week 2014: Passionswege – BCXSY @ J. & L. Lobmeyr - grinding!

Vienna Design Week 2014 Passionswege BCXSY  J & L Lobmeyr

The backyard at the J & L Lobmeyr workshop, so much more peaceful than their shop in Kärntner Straße.

Alvar Aalto – Second Nature at the Vitra Design Museum

September 27th, 2014

Everyone knows Finnish architect and designer Alvar Aalto. Everyone knows his flowing, free-formed buildings and his moulded plywood furniture. What is there new to learn? What is the point in another Alvar Aalto exhibition.

What indeed…………………………..

Alvar Aalto Second Nature Vitra Design Museum

Alvar Aalto - Second Nature at the Vitra Design Museum. And perhaps a suggestion from Aalto for an extension to the museum.....

Born in Kuortane Finland on February 3rd 1898 Alvar Aalto began studying architecture at the Helsinki University of Technology in 1916, graduating in 1921 and established his own architectural practice in Jyväskyla in 1923. In 1927 Alvar Aalto moved to Turku where he became acquainted with the local furniture manufacturer Otto Korhonen, a friendship which would prove decisive in the development of Aalto’s career as a furniture designer. In 1932 Alvar Aalto first reached an international public with his Paimio Sanitorium project, before an exhibition of his furniture in London in 1933 both began the global success story of his moulded plywood furniture and also led to the establishing of the company Artek in 1935 to produce and distribute his furniture. There subsequently followed over 300 further architectural projects, both realised and unrealised, numerous furniture, lighting and glassware designs, in addition to awards, exhibitions, guest professorships et al. Alvar Aalto died in Helsinki on May 11th 1976.

That much we all know.

Alvar Aalto Second Nature at the Vitra Design Museum aims to go beyond such and introduce a new Alvar Aalto, to, in the words of exhibition curator Jochen Eisenbrand, “…challenge the established notion of Alvar Aalto as an architect deeply rooted in the Finnish landscape and whose architectural language flowed from there”

If you will, to show an Alvar Aalto beyond Form Follows Forest.

To this end the exhibition is split into four sections, organised in a very rough thematic-chronological structure.

The exhibition opens with a review of Alvar Aalto’s earliest architectural works including his municipal library building in Vyborg, the church in Muurame, or the Southwestern Agricultural Cooperative Building in Turku, and ending with his Paimio Sanitorium, the project which in the popular biography of Aalto alluded to above, officially marks Aalto’s move from more historical architectural genres to see him fully embracing European modernism and functionalism. A transformation that is often described in the literature as “sudden”. But how sudden was it, and what led to it?

“”Sudden” is of course a matter of definition”, begins Jochen Eisenbrand, “however looking back it is clear that the change happened over a relatively short period of time. For me the background can be found in his travels. In 1928, for example, Aalto undertook his first European tour, in 1929 he partook in the CIAM congress in Frankfurt where he met many leading modernist architects and these meetings and experiences influenced his architecture. At the same time there was also a rising modernist movement in Scandinavia, Aalto was, for example, friends with the organisers of the 1930 Stockholm exhibition, the first manifestation of modernism in Sweden, and closely followed the preparations for the event. Consequently there was a process of events over several years. And if, for example, you study his church projects from that period and compare the early sketches with the later sketches you see how over the years the design for each church gradually moves from Nordic classicism towards a more reduced, modernist, abstract form language”

A further influence on this process of transformation, and for all on the way Aalto developed over the coming decades, can be found in the second room which deals with, if you will, the real meat of the exhibition, Aalto’s relationships with contemporary art of the 1920s and 30s and how that influenced his work and his understanding of subjects such as space, light, volume and form. An understanding that in effect began with his exploration of “multi-sensory” architecture as documented in the first room and which later saw him refer to himself jokingly as an architectural “chef d’orchestre”, managing the various aspects that are required to make a building a coherent composition just as a conductor leads an orchestra. This aspect of Aalto and his development is presented both in context of artists with whom he was acquainted such as Alexander Calder or Jean Arp, but also through two architecture projects he completed during those decades, the Villa Mairea and Maison Louis Carré, both built for collectors of contemporary art and both buildings which contained gallery space for the collections.

Alvar Aalto Second Nature Vitra Design Museum

Alvar Aalto - Second Nature at the Vitra Design Museum

In a delightful contrast to the more challenging experimental exhibition concept of Konstantin Grcic – Panorama, Second Nature is a much more classic exhibition design, which means that in the third room Aalto’s furniture and glass design is largely presented on white blocks. A curatorial sin that can be easily forgiven when one sees what objects are on display. In addition to established Aalto classics such as the Stool 60,  Serving Trolley 900 or the Paimio Chair there are also fascinating lesser know pieces including the so-called Chair 26, a steel tubing and moulded plywood chair designed for Paimio or, and most impressive of all objects on display, the Paimio Swivel Stool, an object which aside from being a truly beguiling piece of work also bears an immediate and unignorable resemblance to Konstantin Grcic’s recent Rival chair for Artek. We’re not saying anything. Just comparing. It’s our job.

In addition to the questionable white blocks the curatorial decision to present Aalto’s furniture and lighting separate from his architecture also strikes us as curious. Aalto’s furniture almost always arose in context of an architectural commission, at least in his early years, and as such would it not have made more sense to present them together? “We did consider that subject for a long time” admits Jochen Eisenbrand, “but ultimately decided that in context of our exhibition it was more important to highlight the serial nature of the production, that they were also products that were planned for a mass public and to be produced serially, and so to juxtaposition this applied arts aspect of his career with the fine art influences which helped him develop as an architect and designer.”

Rounding of the exhibition the top floor of the Vitra Design Museum is given over to the final section, a look at Alvar Aalto’s later architectural projects, for all those that were realised, or at least planned for, overseas, including the Kulturzentrum Wolfsburg, the Baker House student flats at MIT Cambridge, Massachusetts and his 1957 design for a new art museum in Baghdad.

In addition to the exhibition the Vitra Design Museum currently also contains a very large, if metaphorical, elephant.

In September 2013 Vitra acquired Artek. In October 2014 the Vitra Design Museum present an Alvar Aalto exhibition. Good fortune? “As anyone can see the exhibition here took more than a year to organise” replies Vitra Design Museum Chief Curator Mateo Kries, smiling wryly, “the truth is we’ve been preparing it for the past three years and the fact that in that time Vitra acquired Artek is pure coincidence.”  In addition we must add that the exhibition passes the “Thonet Test” we developed in context of the recent exhibition Sitting – Lying – Swinging. Furniture from Thonet at the Grassi Museum for Applied Arts, Leipzig; namely, have the commercial interests taken any influence over the museal content? And Second Nature can in no way we be considered an advert for either Artek or iittala,the firm who produce Aalto’s glass designs. Both are mentioned, anything else would have been ridiculous, but the exhibition is clearly about Alvar Aalto. Not those who market his designs today.

Alvar Aalto Second Nature Vitra Design Museum furniture

Alvar Aalto furniture, as seen at Alvar Aalto - Second Nature, Vitra Design Museum

Featuring some 20 architectural models, 50 original sketches and 60 items of furniture/lighting in addition to letters, posters, magazines, photographs and associated material, Alvar Aalto Second Nature is not the most extensive exhibition you’ll ever see in terms of objects, but in terms of scope, information and depth it definitely is.

A very important component in this respect is played by Armin Linke’s photographs of Alvar Aalto’s constructions. Or better put the interplay between Armin Linke’s photographs of Alvar Aalto’s constructions and the objects on display.

Specially commissioned for the exhibition the works, much like those of Ola Kolehmainen, focus on the details of the buildings, the context and the nature of them rather than turning Aalto’s constructions into untouchable monuments. Consequently Armin Linke’s pictures genuinely help enhance the architecture of Alvar Aalto in a very simple, accessible way that helps open up the exhibition and greatly adds to the enjoyment.

Consequently with the photos, art works and references to art Alvar Aalto – Second Nature can clearly be viewed as much more than a “simple” design exhibition, something which may explain why the exhibition manages so competently to present such an interesting and engaging portrait of Alvar Aalto, or as Mateo Kries sees it, “I think a combination of an architecture and design exhibition with art elements would not have been possible, for example, ten years ago; however, reflections about and discussions on art, design and architecture are getting closer, and so that allows us now to examine someone such as Aalto in his full depth”. Does that mean an expansion of the Vitra Design Museum’s remit, especially when one considers Second Nature in context of the 2012 Pop Art Design exhibition? “No, no.”, answers Mateo Kries categorically, “We’re a design museum, take the fact that we are a design museum seriously, and because we take that seriously we have the responsibility to show, for example,  the influence of art, or discuss the role of the dialogue with urbanism and architecture. And I believe that makes it more interesting for our visitors when they can experience such and I hope that in the future we can continue to develop the way in which we present design and design exhibitions.”

Alvar Aalto Second Nature Vitra Design Museum

Alvar Aalto - Second Nature at the Vitra Design Museum

Everyone knows Finnish architect and designer Alvar Aalto?

Do you know the furniture he created for Muurame Church in 1928? Do you know his experimental designs for cinemas geared towards avant-garde films? Do you know his plans for the Turun Sanomat newspaper offices in Turku which envisaged the front page being beamed everyday onto the façade? Do you know the Paimio Swivel Stool?

Viewing Alvar Aalto Second Nature underscores just how little we know Alvar Aalto and by extrapolation how much of Aalto is obscured by the convenient and lazy way he is pigeon holed. Or lazily planted in an idealised northern Finnish birch thicket?

Second Nature provides a fresh impression of Alvar Aalto, a fresh impression which because it goes beyond the popular image and opens up new facets on the man and his work motivates and invigorates the viewer to dig even deeper. Which is a wonderful feeling to have in exhibition. Everything you previously knew is there but is added to, expanded and deepened by a lot you almost certainly didn’t know and have never seen. The one thing that is missing, as we feared would be the case, is the story of what happened when Alvar Aalto met George Nelson in Cambridge Massachusetts in 1948.

Everything else can and should be enjoyed at the Vitra Design Museum.

Alvar Aalto – Second Nature runs at the Vitra Design Museum, Charles-Eames-Strasse 2, 79576 Weil am Rhein, Germany until Sunday March 1st.

(smow) blog compact: Constructing Worlds – Photography and Architecture in the Modern Age at the Barbican Art Gallery, London

September 26th, 2014

As many of you will be aware, among the myriad of things that regularly get our goat, architecture photography is right up there.

Architecture photography and the way the modern digital media fawningly reproduce every heavily photoshopped image that lands in their inboxes.

The camera does lie.

But then it always has, and as we noted in our post from the exhibition New Architecture! Modern Architecture in Images and Books at the Bauhaus Archiv Berlin, even in the days of analogue photography architectural photography was largely about presenting a controlled, stereotypical impression of buildings.

Not all architecture photographers however work to the architects brief. Or at least not all the time.

For the exhibition Constructing Worlds – Photography and Architecture in the Modern Age the Barbican Art Gallery have curated 250 photos from the past 80 years which the organisers claim go beyond a simple documentation of the built environment and rather explore the context in which buildings find themselves.

Featuring works by photographers such as Berenice Abbott, Lucien Hervé, Julius Shulman and Iwan Baan Constructing Worlds may not provide a warts and all exploration of architecture’s social role and responsibility, but does promise to offer a view of architecture that goes beyond the sycophantic money shot tat we are all subjected to on a daily basis.

And that has to be welcomed.

Constructing Worlds – Photography and Architecture in the Modern Age runs at the Barbican Art Gallery, Silk St, London until Sunday January 11th

Nadav Kander Chongqing IV (Sunday Picnic)

Nadav Kander - Chongqing IV (Sunday Picnic), Chongqing Municipality, 2006 (Photo: © Nadav Kander, courtesy Flowers Gallery)

Egon Eiermann Chair 2014 awarded for restoration of Wohnhaus Matthies, Potsdam. An interview with architect Eberhard Lange.

September 24th, 2014

On Friday September 26th the Egon Eiermann Society will present the inaugural “Egon Eiermann Chair” Award at a ceremony in the Neue Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedächtniskirche in Berlin. Initiated to recognise those individuals or organisations who have made an especially valuable contribution to the maintenance and preservation of Egon Eiermann’s works the first Egon Eiermann Chair will be awarded to Barbara and Eckard Düwal for their restoration of the so-called Wohnhaus Matthies in Potsdam-Babelsberg. Built in 1937 Wohnhaus Matthies is one of Eiermann’s earliest constructions, presents the paired down cottage style that was so typical of much of his early work and has been a listed building since 1977. In 2002 the Architekturbüro Gerald Kühn-von Kaehne und Eberhard Lange were commissioned by Barbara and Eckard Düwal to undertake a restoration and renovation of the property that maintained its character, in essence the work for which the Egon Eiermann Chair is being presented. Ahead of the ceremony we spoke with architect Eberhard Lange about Wohnhaus Matthies, Egon Eiermann’s legacy and maintaining that legacy, but began by asking about his own relationship with Egon Eiermann.

Eberhard Lange: With my background in architecture and historic building preservation I am naturally interested in good architecture, and that not just baroque, renaissance or other historical architecture but also modern architecture, for all post-war modernism, and that is of course the period in which Eiermann achieved his fame, if one can phrase it that way. I was obviously familiar with Egon Eiermann, not least because as an architecture student in the DDR one heard about his legendary lectures in Karlsruhe where students would queue up to get in and so I was interested to learn more about his work and got to know a man who is an architect with heart and soul, an architect who doesn’t just think stylistically or in context of how a building fits into its location but who considers his buildings to the smallest detail, which I found fascinating. And as architect I have now worked on restoring two Egon Eiermann buildings, the first was the Wohnhaus Henckels in Kleinmachnow and then latterly Wohnhaus Matthies in Babelsberg.

(smow) blog:  As you touched upon there, in addition to having worked on Egon Eiermann buildings or works by the likes of Konrad Wachsmann or Erich Mendelsohn you have also worked on numerous older buildings, including works by Schinkel or many of the the Royal Palaces in Potsdam, does one approach lets say “older” historic buildings differently from the more “modern”?

Eberhard Lange: In the first instance one always has respect for the original architect and the work they created, and so in that sense one approaches all projects in the same way. But it is also similar in that the preservation of a construction always begins with an analyse, with research, what type of building is it, how is constructed, what is architecturally interesting and relevant, etc, etc. But at the same time one must focus on the nature of the commission, is it simply maintenance, restoring and repairing, so keeping the work as it is, or are there tasks which go further, a typical example would be insulation or it might be questions about room divisions and the like. And so the work varies more in context of the commission rather than the architect or era.

Wohnhaus Matthies Egon Eiermann Potsdam Babelsberg

Wohnhaus Matthies by Egon Eiermann (Photo courtesy of Architekturbüro Gerald Kühn-von Kaehne und Eberhard Lange, Potsdam)

(smow) blog: The winners of the first Egon Eiermann Chair are Barbara and Eckard Düwal for their efforts in maintaining and preserving the so-called Wohnhaus Matthies. In 1938 Hans Josef Zechlin wrote in the magazine Bauwelt, “The house stands there with a mature self-confidence, as if it has grown there, as if no one had designed it -  which is the greatest praise for a building”.1 What makes the Wohnhaus Matthies so interesting for you?

Eberhard Lange: The first thing to say is that Wohnhaus Matthies was realised with limited financial means. It was built for Heinz Matthies, a childhood friend of Egon Eiermann who had recently married and wanted to erect a marital home on part of his parent’s land. However, as a young artist Matthies didn’t have much money and as such the house is a very simple construction, a very clear simple construction, but the details are fantastic, make the house so interesting and three in particular stand out. The first is the way the windows are integrated into into the walls. To save on work and cost Eiermann negated the usual construction principles and instead used a simple steel L-bracket which supports the window frame and holds it in place, a simple solution and a wonderfully elegant detail. From a structural perspective however very problematic because condensation will inevitably gather behind the bracket, with all the problems that entails; however in the 1930s such things weren’t so well understood, and so seen in context it is just the most wonderful solution. Similarly fantastic, if equally problematic, is the so called Quetschfuge on the outer façade. In effect Eiermann made use of the excess mortar that bulges out when one brick is placed on top of another to create a feature. From a design principle a fantastic idea because it gives the structure the most delightful graphic detail, but structurally it’s a real problem because the rain runs down them and over the years they crumble and break. But a wonderful piece of design.

(smow) blog: So that means Egon Eiermann had to tell the bricklayers to let the mortar squeeze out from between the bricks, then form it and let it dry? They must have thought he’d lost his marbles….

Eberhard Lange: Yes, almost certainly. As with the third detail, the so-called  „wild“ slate cladding, a roofing process that at the time wasn’t really known in Northern Germany, it is something much more common in Southern Germany, Bavaria, Tirol, etc…. The local tradesmen here simply couldn’t deal with the concept and several gave up before Eiermann eventually found a man in Berlin who was up to the task and could thus create the wonderful roof which gives the house its unique aesthetic.

(smow) blog: Which, to be honest, makes a faithful, yet contemporary, restoration and preservation of such a work sound like a complex and costly business…….?

Eberhard Lange: Absolutely, and the fact that the Düwal’s decided to do such is something I personally admire and which is also one of the reasons for awarding them the inaugural Egon Eiermann Chair. Replacing and renewing the damaged Quetschfuge costs time and money, and one could save oneself the work, especially when one knows that it will have to be redone at some point in the future, or when one knows that the window construction is not ideal and could be changed, but decides to leaves it as it is. When, despite knowing what one does about a building, one says I respect such features, I appreciate such features, they are part of the character of my house and I want to keep them, then I think that deserves respect. And one must also remember Wohnhaus Matthies is a fairly small house, especially by modern standards, it is perfect for a couple, but small, and the Düwal’s respect it as it is and enjoy it for what it is and have no interest in making changes.

(smow) blog: Other people it seems cannot enjoy Eiermann buildings to the same degree. Amongst other problems Eiermann’s IBM Campus in Stuttgart is currently under threat, the future of the Neckermann distribution centre in Frankfurt is still unresolved, should, must, all Eiermann buildings be preserved? Is that important or…..?

Eberhard Lange: Egon Eiermann was active over many years and continually developed as an architect. Just taking the example of his private houses, when one considers the pre-war Wohnhaus Matthies and his own house in Baden Baden from 1962 they are completely different structures, completely different genres, one can’t even begin to compare them. Maintaining evidence of this development from the simpler buildings before the war over the larger post war buildings and the much more modern constructions is certainly important. In the opinion of the Egon Eiermann Society it is important to maintain all Egon Eiermann buildings, and that as far as possible in their original condition. When buildings are threatened, such as is the case in Stuttgart or Frankfurt our position is to find good arguments to keep them and use them. Building preservation is however no dogma, and, for example, the Venice Charter, the ground-stone of conservation, says that a building is most usefully retained when it is retained for the good of the community, and that is best achieved when buildings meet contemporary requirements. And so yes, one must occasionally consider what compromises one needs to or should make in terms of for example, insulation, or room size, in order to facilitate the sensible development of the building. Every change hurts, but one undertakes them when one is convinced that through them the building itself wont be lost and that it will become useful for the new generation.

(smow) blog: One must also add that Eiermann himself wasn’t shy when it came to demolishing buildings that didn’t fit his plans, the best example probably being Erich Mendelsohn’s Schocken Department store in Stuttgart. Should one not apply similar standards to his work…….?

Eberhard Lange: Not just Egon Eiermann many other successful, well known architects have demolished and continue to demolish older buildings in order to realise their own projects, it is a situation that will always occur, and from which Egon Eiermann is also affected, his Taschentuchweberei complex in Blumberg for example was recently demolished despite being listed and being one of Eiermann’s more interesting industrial buildings. In contrast, with the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedächtniskirche in Berlin Eiermann wanted to demolish the ruin of the original steeple, was forced by public pressure to keep it, to integrate it it into his concept. Something he did and eventually accepted. On one side one has the conservator who naturally want to save everything and on the other the social and economic interests who have their wishes, and ultimately one must find the best solution for that building at that time.

(smow) blog: And briefly to end, what do think young architects can learn from Egon Eiermann?

Eberhard Lange: On the one hand Eiermann’s personality, he was someone who could convince others and it is important that as an architect you can develop an idea and then convince others that it is correct. That was something Eiermann did very well. In addition as architect one learns from Eiermann to have the courage to try new things, go new ways, for example with materials, one learns to have the courage to develop new ideas and not always reflect backward.

1. Hans Josef Zechlin “Wohnhäuser von Egon Eiermann, Berlin” in Bauwelt Vol 29 Nr 36, 1938.

Wohnhaus Matthies Egon Eiermann Potsdam Babelsberg

Wohnhaus Matthies by Egon Eiermann (Photo courtesy of Architekturbüro Gerald Kühn-von Kaehne und Eberhard Lange, Potsdam)

(smow) blog autumn tour 2014: preview

September 22nd, 2014

We’ve spent a lot of 2014 travelling backwards on trains, racing towards the future with our eyes fixed firmly on the past.

We know its a metaphor.

We just hope it isn’t an omen.

Time will, as ever, tell.

And with this being late September, the next five weeks will see us travelling backwards through the European design landscape with an unhealthy, and fate taunting, regularity.

Our Autumn Tour 2014 begins at Vienna Design Week where, aside from the Passionswege projects, were particularly looking forward to the exhibition “Tomorrow Is…” in the MAK Forum,  the “Willing & Able ” workshop series in which “…senior citizens pass on their knowledge…” and curated by_vienna’s exhibition series “The Century of the Bed”. The latter probably because we’ll barely see our own Siebenschläfer until November. A bit disappointing is that the Wagner:Werk museum don’t appear to be involved in this year…..

Following Vienna our tour continues over BIO 50 in Ljubljana, Budapest Design Week, Designblok Prague and Łódź Design Festival before we kick it like the Pet Shop Boys and “Go West”.

This being an even numbered year mid-October sees the Biennale Interieur in Kortrijk, Belgium, and parallel the annual Dutch Design Week, an event we sadly missed last year and where apart from the cultural and aesthetic charms of Eindhoven we are very much looking forward to seeing CLEAN UP! the mess by Studio Joost and Kiki, the UNION11 collective showcase, the TAB STUDIOS collective showcase and catching up once again with Atelierdorp.

Following the fun and frivolity of Eindhoven our tour continues to the sober brutality of Orgatec Cologne, Europe’s largest office furniture trade fair. Nothing against office furniture, far from it, but office furniture trade fairs aren’t the sort of places youngsters dream about spending bright October days. Unless they’re really weird kids.

And then having had our fill of height adjustment systems, armrest technology, filing cabinets and ergonomic desks, Leipzig and Grassimesse 2014 await us. And the end of our 2014 Autumn Tour.

As ever photos, reports and videos as soon as we have them, both here in (smow) blog as well as on facebook, pinterest and tumblr.

smow blog autumn tour 2014

(smow) blog autumn tour 2014. Welcome to our October.

(smow) bookcase: A Taxonomy of Office Chairs by Jonathan Olivares

September 13th, 2014

As we recently noted, summer is slowly giving way to autumn and with it the realisation that long sunny days lounging in gardens or on poolsides will slowly give way to long sunless days in office chairs. Autumn 2014 also means for us Orgatec, Europe’s largest office furniture trade fair, and an invariable flood of “new” office chair “designs.”

Consequently, it should come as no surprise that we recently took our copy of Jonathan Olivares’ A Taxonomy of Office Chairs from the (smow) bookshelf.

Published in 2011 A Taxonomy of Office Chairs charts the development of office chair design since the 1840s and in doing so seeks, as the title suggests, to present a taxonomy of the genre. Opening with a light, highly enjoyable saunter through the history of office chair design A Taxonomy of Office Chairs then moves on to provide a chronological catalogue of the 130+ chairs featured before reaching the real heart of the book: the taxonomy. Or perhaps better put taxonomies, for unlike animals, plants or nematodes which represent the result of a continuous, unconscious evolution largely influenced by environmental and behavioural factors, an office chair is an artificial construction composed of numerous elements each consciously selected and each with its own taxonomy. And so Jonathan Olivares leads us through the taxonomy of headrests, backrests, armrests, lumbar supports etc etc etc.

A Taxonomy of Office Chairs Jonathan Olivares Phaidon Press

A Taxonomy of Office Chairs by Jonathan Olivares (Phaidon Press)

Sadly the thing with taxonomies, as any biologist can tell you, is that they are phenomenally complex. And equally phenomenally boring. Jonathan Olivares tacitly acknowledges both when he notes in the introduction that he chose to ignore nuts, bolts, textiles, control buttons and spring coils – thus not only making the same concessions, generalisations and leaps of good faith that all taxonomists make in order to keep some form of control over their expanding taxa, but also saving the readers from developing acute narcolepsy.

The fate we, and indeed Jonathan Olivares, have been saved from can be gleaned in the “Floor Contact” taxonomy and the question if it is relevant that the 1994 Aeron chair from Herman Miller was the first to have its foot glides attached to the chair base via an injection-moulded nylon plug rather than the previously ubiquitous metal plug ?

Yes, it is relevant. Boringly so. Because that means different production methods, different assembly procedures, different cost structures, different sustainability and environmental profiles, different repair options……

And while that all might seem irrelevant to the consumer. It’s not. For such ultimately affects the final price of the chair.

The question of office chair textiles is equally, if not more relevant. And don’t even get us started on levers for controlling height adjustment.

Headline Mario Claudio Bellini Vitra

Headline by Mario and Claudio Bellini for Vitra. When the user reclines the headrest position automatically adjusts to keep the eyes looking forward, and neck and shoulders supported. A small office chair revolution from 2005.

Rather than a “traditional” taxonomy for identification and classification purposes Jonathan Olivares presents a form of evolutionary taxonomy: just as jawless vertebrates gave way to fish who gave way to amphibians who gave way to mammals so did the bentwood looped armrests of the 1885 Thonet Revolving Rocking Armchair give way to the died-cast loop armrest of Charles and Ray Eames Aluminium Group which gave way to the injection moulded looped armrests of Charles Pollock’s eponymous 1965 chair for Knoll.

As we say, not much fun. And interesting in the same way that car repair manuals are interesting. Or topiary.

It’s a sort of antiquarian telephone directory for people with a weakness for office chairs.

As we say, it should come as no surprise that we recently took our copy of Jonathan Olivares’ A Taxonomy of Office Chairs from the (smow) bookshelf.

It would, we feel, have been better had Jonathan Olivares done the research and then discussed in his book the genuinely very interesting social, cultural and political factors which have influenced the evolution of office chair design over the decades, making occasional reference along the way to those limited number of developments which went on to become established industry standards; rather than so meticulously listing every change.

In the introductory chapter, for example, we learn of the influence of health and safety regulations on office swivel chair design, how advances in chair production technology has led to fewer manufacturers, that bosses have always had better chairs than their galley slaves and that the first recorded mention of castors on an office chair is attributed to a custom construction by Charles Darwin. Thus placing the man who, in many ways, inspired evolutionary taxonomy in an evolutionary taxonomy.

Had Jonathan Olivares headed the lessons from what came after Darwin he could, we fear, have had an altogether more entertaining, more accessible book that would have been guaranteed to attract a wider audience.

As it is A Taxonomy of Office Chairs remains a work for those who want to know who first made use of the five foot injection-moulded synthetic base.

It was Mario Bellini with his 1984 Persona office chair for Vitra.

For all genuinely interested by that fact, A Taxonomy of Office Chairs by Jonathan Olivares is published by Phaidon Press.

1875 Swivel Ofiice Chair by Gebrüder Thonet Vienna Grassi Leipzig

An 1875 Swivel Office Chair by Gebrüder Thonet, as seen at Sitting – Lying – Swinging. Furniture from Thonet at the Grassi Museum for Applied Arts, Leipzig

(smow) blog Design Calendar: September 11th 1949 – For Modern Living Opens at the Detroit Institute of Arts

September 11th, 2014

As has oft been noted in these pages, the years following the Second World War were years of quick, radical, fundamental social, cultural and economic change. Changes from which the then fledgling furniture design industry greatly benefited: and from which it continues to benefit with many of the popular mass market designs created back then becoming the design classics of today.

The design week having not yet been invented and those furniture trade fairs that existed being very much the preserve of the old guard and their hand-crafted solid wood objects, an important method of introducing the contemporary designs of the day to the buying public were exhibitions in museums. Often little more than sales and marketing events and regularly sponsored by local stores, the 1940s and 50s saw a plethora of such exhibitions including the 1947 “Good design is your business” at the Albright Art Gallery Buffalo, the Walker Art Centre’s 1948 “Well-Designed Articles from Minneapolis Stores” showcase and perhaps most famously the New York Museum of Modern Art’s “Useful Objects” series which ran from 1938 until New Year 1948/49 and which often featured in its title a conduit such as “under $5″ “under $10″ or in 1948 “under $100″

One of the more interesting, if largely forgotten of such events, was the exhibition For Modern Living which opened at the Detroit Institute of Arts on September 11th 1949.

Presented in cooperation with Detroit department store J L Hudson Company, For Modern Living presented some 3000 objects in an exhibition designed and curated by Alexander Girard. In addition to chairs, sewing machines, toys, lamps, crockery, cutlery and other necessities of contemporary life For Modern Living also presented a series of specially commissioned murals by Saul Steinberg which ran through the exhibition rooms and the pages of the exhibition catalogue. Very much akin to How to live in a Flat by W. Heath Robinson and K. R. G. Browne, Saul Steinberg’s drawings poked gentle fun at contemporary living standards – the catalogue cover, for example depicting a man sitting on a sleek, reduced modern chair his feet on a heavily upholstered gilded throne – but in doing so also underscored the permanency of the changes. This was the future. Accept it.

The central, and most interesting feature of For Modern Living however was a presentation of seven idealised rooms, one each designed by Alvar Aalto, Charles Eames, Florence Knoll, Bruno Mathsson, George Nelson and Jens Risom. Rooms which in the words of Everyday Art Quarterly demonstrated that “there is no stereotyped pattern, no surface formula for the choice and relationship of objects”, and that instead there is “room for individual preference, vagary or fantasy, restraint or austerity – with no sacrifice of good design”1

Or put another way: the origins of what was to become the much celebrated American mid-century modernism. And indeed modern exhibition design.

For although clearly intended as a commercial presentation, J L Hudson’s sponsorship wasn’t some random act of good will, For Modern Living and its ilk not only helped promote new design and bring the ideas of the day to a mass public but also, as D.S. Defenbacher notes in his editorial in Everyday Art Quarterly, helped revolutionise ideas about how museums present their collections, how museums can motivate and inspire visitors rather than simply presenting objects on pedestals and in glass cabinets. Industry’s money bringing show into the dusty world of American museums.

Something worth bearing in mind should you ever find yourself facing a tired, uninspired presentation of 1950s American product design.

1. An Exhibition for Modern Living, Everyday Art Quarterly, No. 13 Winter, 1949-1950, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis

George Nelson study and a living room An Exhibition for Modern Living Detroit Institute of Arts

George Nelson's study and a living room installation at the exhibition For Modern Living Detroit Institute of Arts (Photo: George Nelson Foundation)

(smow) blog Design Calendar: September 9th 1894 – Happy Birthday Poul Henningsen!

September 9th, 2014

For a man who is universally lauded as one of the most important Danish designers of the 20th century, there is an inexplicable scarcity of reliable, independent information on Poul Henningsen.

At least in languages other than Danish. Even the British Library in London, the self proclaimed keeper of the “world’s knowledge”, can only offer a couple of non-Danish language texts.

Library shelves around the globe however buckle under the weight of Danish language works by and about Poul Henningsen: for while outwith Denmark Henningsen is popularly known for a lamp named after an unpopular vegetable, in his native Denmark he has an altogether different status.

Poul Henningsen

Poul Henningsen (1894 - 1967)

Born in Ordrup near Copenhagen on September 9th 1894 Poul Henningsen initially began an apprenticeship as a stonemason before quitting to study architecture at first the Technical School Frederiksberg and subsequently Copenhagen Technical College. Leaving both without graduating.

Undeterred by his lack of formal qualifications Poul Henningsen established his own studio in 1919 and began his research into lighting design. The principle motivation for Henningsen was those newfangled electric light bulbs, their harsh, unfamiliar, luminescence and the need to create lamps which not only controlled the glare but did so in away that was aesthetic, economic and hygienic; for Poul Henningsen lighting design was not just a technical question but also a “cultural task.”1

Following a little over five years of scientific research on light distribution, heat transfer and refraction a prototype of the future PH Lamp with its characteristic three concentric shades won a Gold Medal at the 1925 Paris Exposition, in 1926 the first genre re-defining PH Lamps were produced as part of a commission for the new Forum Centre in Copenhagen, by 1929 Louis Poulsen were distributing the table, hanging and wall versions of the PH Lamp in four continents, in 1930 Mies van der Rohe used them in his Villa Tugendhat in Brno….. and in the intervening eight decades the PH Lamp has gone on to become one of the best known and most copied of all lighting designs.

In the course of his career Poul Henningsen developed some 100 light designs for Louis Poulsen, in addition to the original PH Lamp the most famous examples being without question the PH 5, PH Snowball, PH Charlottenborg and of course the PH Kogle – the Artichoke Lamp.

Poul Henningsen Artichoke Lamp Louis Poulsen

Artichoke Lamp by Poul Henningsen for Louis Poulsen. Popular lamp. Unpopular vegetable.

In addition to bringing him global fame the PH Lamp also brought Poul Henningsen the financial freedom to pursue his other great passion: the written word, be that as poet, journalist, songsmith, cultural critic or social commentator.

In 1921 Henningsen began writing for the Danish daily newspaper Politiken, including serving as the publication’s first architecture critic, before in 1926 he co-founded the magazine Kritisk Revy – Critical Review – which published articles on culture, architecture, art and design and which in addition to Henningsen himself included contributions from the likes of Uno Åhrén, Otto Linton or Otto Gelsted, in addition to a curious piece in 1928 on “Rational Cinema” construction by one Alvar Aalto.

Although Kritisk Revy only existed for two years it established Poul Henningsen as one of the principle cultural and social commentators of his generation, one who, in the words of Sven Rossel and Niels Ingwersen, “set out to expose snobbishness, prejudices, the galling desire “to fit in” and all that stood in the way of the human being’s sense of freedom and joy.”2 He was also a committed defender of equality be that in terms of social justice, political influence or gender parity, in which context he noted in 1963 that “it will not be sufficient to grant women access to all trades on equal terms with men. The fight for equality must take place on all fronts and there is still far to go, even though we here in Scandinavia may be further ahead than other places.”3

Thus it came to pass that one of Poul Henningsen’s finest moments came in the admittedly highly unlikely setting of the 1965 Eurovision Song Contest where Denmark were represented by Birgit Brüel and the song For din skyld.

Music: Jørgen Jersild. Text: Poul Henningsen.

There is something undeniably brilliant, as in deeply darkly elementally brilliant, in the way Birgit Brüel stands there, the very epitome of solid, stoic, almost heroic, Nordic beauty, her warm, feminine tones carefully forming every word with passion, longing, belief.
And while non-Danish speakers drift along, unwittingly, with an obviously heart felt ode to some great love – possibly a lost great love to judge by the change of mimic after the first minute – Danes find themselves confronted with a bitter sweet juxtaposition of visual and aural message, and an unmistakable piece of brutal social commentary;

For your sake I wear flowing skirts

For your sake I’m girlish, sensitive, coy

For your sake I have to be conquered every time for your dream is to tame me, weak and shy


Every time I give, you’d rather take

But my dream is to love in friendship

I’m tired of my femininity for it makes you so broad-shouldered


I’m not your prey, but peer

And that at the Eurovision Song Contest!

Absolute genius!

The text borrows heavily from a monologue in Alexandre Dumas’ 1865 play “L’Ami des femmes” on the unsavoury nature of marriage, a monologue which perfectly correlates with Poul Henningsen’s views on the state of gender equality in 1960s Scandinavia.

And so there is more than a little irony, an irony which we believe Poul Henningsen would have greatly approved of, in the fact that in 1974 ABBA won Eurovision with a song whose message sits diametrically to Henningsen’s, which passively supports the Victorian status quo, yet which helped establish ABBA as the accepted face of liberal emancipated 1970s Scandinavian society.

The history book on the shelf not always repeating itself. Or at least not word for word.

Birgit Brüel finished in seventh place with ten points. France Gall and the Serge Gainsborough song Poupée de cire, poupée de son – Wax Doll, Rag Doll – winning Eurovision 1965 for Luxembourg with 32 points. Poul Henningsen died on 31 January 1967 in Hillerød, Denmark.

Poul Henningsen we thank you for the PH 2/1, PH 3/2, PH 5, PH Louvre and of course we thank you for the Artichoke Lamp. We thank you for introducing Verner Panton to the black magic of lighting design and for your contribution to discussions on contemporary design. But above all we thank you for never getting lost in the mire of self-promotion that traps and trapped so many of your designer colleagues and for always being genuinely interested in society and trying to improve the world around you.

It’s a real shame only the Danes can read about you.

Happy Birthday Poul Henningsen!

1. Poul Henningsen, Rummets Belysning, Kritisk Revy, Number 2, 1927

2. Sven H Rossel and Niels Ingwersen “Between the World Wars” in A History of Danish Literature, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, 1992

3. Ove Brusendorff  and Poul Henningsen, A history of eroticism. Volume 6. In our time, Stuart, New York 1967

(Video with thanks to

Useful Exhibition by Sanghyeok Lee at the DMY Design Gallery Berlin

September 8th, 2014

Charlotte Perriand was famously of the opinion that in terms of furniture design wood was a “… vegetable substance, bound in its very nature to decay,….” and that the future belonged to metal. For all the bent steel tubing of European modernism.1

Poul Henningsen in contrast warned that the industrial production of steel tube furniture as promoted by Perriand, Le Corbusier, the Bauhaus clique and their ilk “maa ogsaa føre til, at de sekundære Former ved Stolen” - may also lead to secondary types of chairs – and that, all things considered, wood was preferable for the manufacturer of furniture.2

It’s fair to say that the merits and otherwise of such arguments dominated our thoughts as we viewed the exhibition “Useful Exhibition” by Berlin based, South Korean designer Sanghyeok Lee at the DMY Design Gallery Berlin, for although crafted from oak and maple the shelving, desk, table and chair on display not only could be crafted from metal, but are inspired by a construction principle that traditionally employs metal.

Useful Exhibition by Sanghyeok Lee at the DMY Design Gallery Berlin

Useful Exhibition by Sanghyeok Lee at the DMY Design Gallery Berlin

Following an initial course of of product design studies in his native Seoul Sanghyeok Lee transferred to the Design Academy Eindhoven in 2007, graduating from the course Man and Living in 2011. Whereupon he immediately moved to Berlin; not least because of the positive creative environment in the city and the opportunities he felt existed there.

Having first reached an international audience when he won second place at the 2012 D3 Design Talents Contest with his graduation project “Listen to your hands” – an interactive desk where closing one drawer too quickly causes another drawer to open and which thus forces the user to consider not only how they use furniture but their relationship to their furniture in general – Sanghyeok Lee continued this exploration of furniture as companions of the human state rather than simply passive objects with his 2013 project Useful Arbeitsloser (Jobless), a furniture collection which reflects both the contemporary desire for uncluttered, personal home environments and Sanghyeok Lee’s own feeling of enforced inactivity upon arriving in Berlin and, thanks to Visa, administrative and language issues, finding himself effectively unemployed. In 2014 Sanghyeok Lee developed the idea further into the Useful Living system which rather than simply reflecting as Useful Arbeitsloser had, sought and seeks to offer solutions, to make suggestions as to how one can and should lead and live ones life in contemporary metropoli.

Useful Furniture by Sanghyeok Lee at the DMY Design Gallery Berlin

Useful Exhibition by Sanghyeok Lee at the DMY Design Gallery Berlin

Structurally reminiscent of cladding-less USM Haller units, Egon Eiermann’s eponymous table frame, Rejon’s eponymous armchair and many of the early Bauhaus and De Stijl era furniture designs, the Useful Arbeitsloser and Useful Living systems were and are inspired by scaffolding and as with scaffolding the real heart of the system is not the obvious rods and panels but the otherwise innocuous connection joint: in the case of Sanghyeok Lee’s systems a beautifully refined brass screw which joins the wooden rods in combination with a very neatly executed half dado joint construction.

Unlike scaffolding however, and despite an aesthetic that suggests otherwise, the systems aren’t modular, rather come with their form predetermined. Deliberately so. “Another modular system would be boring” says Sanghyeok Lee, smiling broadly, before quickly adding, “but also the idea is to suggest new possibilities to the user, to challenge and inspire.”

Those who know us know our hang towards modular systems. And for those who don’t know us: little makes as much sense as a well thought through modular building or furniture system. The “Useful” projects however aren’t furniture systems in the classical sense, nor can they be considered in the functionalist tradition from which most modular furniture originates; rather they are concepts about modern living, positions on contemporary urban life, concepts and positions that can be used as furniture. The chair however isn’t designed for comfort. The desk isn’t designed to adapt to the worker. The shelves won’t fit in with your book and record collections. You have to adapt to them. Understand them and learn to live with them. And so while we continue to agree 100% with Rudolf Horn’s assertion that “consumers must be able to decide. No-one should tell them what they need and what to buy!” we also accept that part of the job of a designer is to challenge conventions, reflect modern society and pose questions. And sometimes that involves placing objects before us and telling us to make use of them as they are.

In addition we can easily overlook the lack of modularity because in his design Sanghyeok Lee avoids all unnecessary bulk and consequently has produced an elegant furniture collection that is unobtrusive, restrained yet has a comforting permanency. A situation delightfully underscored by the exhibition design concept which sees the individual items projected as shadows on the walls of the DMY Gallery: a concept that allows the objects to be understood for the skeletons they are.

Skeletons which much like the deck of cards fate deals us, we are required to use as the basis for creating something useful, personal, but for all meaningful.

And for what’s in worth……. after long consideration, in our opinion, that functions in this case much better in wood.

Useful Exhibition by Sanghyeok Lee can be viewed at the DMY Design Gallery, Blücherstrasse 23, 10961 Berlin until Friday October 17th

1. Charlotte Perriand, Wood or Metal? The Studio Vol 97 No. 433 1929

2. Poul Henningsen, “Tradition og Modernisme”, Kritisk Revy, Vol 3, 1927, Copenhagen