Agnieszka Sural talks to Magdalena Kochanowska, the curator of the Beauty and Pragmatism exhibition organised by the Adam Mickiewicz Institute as part of the 21st Triennial of Design in Milan.
Agnieszka Sural: Your first design exhibition, Dealing with Consumption, took place as part of the 2004 biennale in Saint-Étienne. What has changed since then?
Magdalena Kochanowska: Back then, I had just graduated from university, and I was helping out the curators of the exhibition – Czesława Frejlich, Józef Mrozek, Jerzy Porębski, and Michał Stefanowski – as a secretary. The exhibition comprised major students’ works which dealt with the problem of consumption – there was a dress made of straw, bowls made of paper, electronic wall switches for the blind, and a sleeping-bag-jacket for the homeless. The majority of these designs were merely students’ projects, not actually implemented products. In spite of that, the exhibition enjoyed significant interest – it won the Grand Prix. Since then, Poland has become a frequent guest of the biennale. I think that that event was a major breakthrough, an opening which allowed us to show our works internationally.
Twelve years ago, the goal of the exhibition was different – we were meant to show that Polish design exists, and to present what it’s like. But the Triennial exhibition which I realised in 2016 doesn’t address the particular issue of Polish design, but rather the issue of design in general, and it is also our voice in defining its function today. Through the exhibition, we join in the global discussion of this issue.
What does the Polish voice say as part of this international debate?
Our exhibition takes up two themes which are fundamental for design: form and function. Design touches upon the entire palette of contemporary problems, but it does have two constant traits, that of beauty and that of utility. Thanks to them, designers can ‘smuggle’ new behaviours and values into everyday culture. Good design is always attentive to those two aspects.
I had the impression that contemporary discourse on design lacks the direct wording of this principle, namely that form and function still have meaning. Even though today, design is not longer just about products, because human behaviour, mobile applications, and services have all become subjects of design. But we are still physical beings. Our surroundings have a given form, even if it is virtual, and we always use concrete functions. Beauty and pragmatism do not lose their relevance. Nobody uses solutions which are not aesthetic and which are not functional.
It may seem a bit naive, but in the context of some designers’ ambitions, which seem to soar out of proportion as they want to design everything, this way of thinking turns out to be honest and true. We put it forward directly, that before designers take up something sublime and ambitious, they should concentrate on really basic issues. Otherwise, they lose contact with reality, and this is what is most important for design.
By giving the exhibition the title Beauty & Pragmatism, did you want to indicate contemporary canons of beauty in design?
No, that wasn’t the subject of the exhibition. I was interested in provoking the viewer to declare which aspect of design he considers to be most important. That’s why viewers have to make the choice themselves and decide, what is more important in contemporary design – form or function? The exhibition can be accessed from two entrances, one which is called ‘Beauty’, and another called ‘Pragmatism’.
Each of the displayed items takes the viewer along a delineated path, from things grounded in form to the ones that concentrate on function – or the other way around. No matter the choice of entry, Polish design presents itself as both beautiful and useful – even if the balance between these two concepts varies, and it is not always obvious. The selection of items on display, as well as the proposed gradation, are subjective choices, and thus thought-provoking, because not everyone will understand relations between form and function in a similar way.
You have to think and decide which direction you will go, what is more important for you. When choosing design, do you think about form, or function? It’s not an obvious thing, because usually we want both. The moment of choosing is meant to take the viewer out of his or her comfort zone. Let him decide, and see what happens next.
The viewer is directed towards this choice both through the architecture of the display and its visual identity, as well as a video animation created by a visual artist.
I managed to engage wonderful artists, people who didn’t merely produce a concept I authored. I told them that I had a risky idea for an exhibition about things that are obvious. And when you speak about obvious things, you have to do it well. I had absolute trust in each and every one of them, I knew that they would understand the intention. The result is a fantastic exhibition, and I secretly hope it will inscribe itself in the history of Polish display design.
In 1960, the Polish pavilion at the Triennial in Milan was designed by Oskar Hansen. His projects were a point of reference for our display. The architects Małgorzata Kuciewicz and Simone de Iacobis from the Centrala group created a ‘spacious bas-relief’. The design of the exhibition is based on the so-called active background. Each item has a visual world of its own. The exhibition functions as a whole, it’s a beautiful, complete form. But it also works in relation to each separate item. While seeing the exhibition and going through it, from one item to the next, one gets the impression that each stop on the way is an autonomous phrase, and that the whole becomes a story. What’s important is that the exhibition presents a selection of the newest designs. The majority of them were made or began being produced over the last two years.
Jakub Jezierski created a great visual identification, using two types of fonts which present two extremes. One evokes the idea of beauty, and the other one, the idea of pragmatism. It took us a long time to decide how we would depict the gradation of these traits in the selected objects in order to illustrate the growing input of beauty, for example, and the diminishing aspect of pragmatism – or the other way around. Finally, we decided to use this wandering period, who travels around like a bead in a rosary, going from pragmatism to beauty and showing us which part of the exhibition we find ourselves in. For example, Nikodem Szpunar’s chair is 30% beauty and 70% pragmatism. Of course, it’s a game, and it shouldn’t be taken literally.
Meanwhile, Tymek Borowski designed a special animation which visualises the ideas of beauty and pragmatism. It’s projected onto a huge screen and it opens up the exhibition. I asked him to create an animation that would incite our viewers to make their choice. We needed a strong visual impulse that would make people choose either one of the two proposed directions. Tymek’s animation doesn’t show any concrete item, be it functional or aesthetic. The screen is divided in half. On the one side, there are forms which please the eye, and which transform themselves dynamically, and on the other, there is a mysterious contraption which works with great intensity. The video is intriguing in itself. The animation depicts two themes which are difficult to explain. Tymek has incredible talent for depicting complex ideas in a synthetic way.
How did the viewers react?
In a funny way. People played around with this choice. This is what we were after – we wanted for our presentation to be fun, and not stiff. We didn’t want to address all the serious issues directly, of how designers are saving the world and the environment by implementing social innovations. We wanted to address the obvious and to raise it onto a pedestal. Good design is something that includes both a wise message and careful insertion into the social context. It should be responsible and follow the principles of balanced development. It’s also beautiful and useful.
How did you evoke the theme of this year’s edition of the Triennial?
The ‘Design After Design’ tagline touches upon a few issues. One of them is the new role taken on by designers, another is solving problems connected to growing urbanisation. Today’s cities are becoming huge concrete organisms wherein it’s actually hard to live. This means a whole range of challenges for designers, in the context of environment protection, the battle with smog and pollution, but also providing fresh food and water and managing waste. But from the Polish perspective, we don’t have such a problem on the scale as the multimillion agglomerations that have been developing over the past years in Asia and in Africa. That is why we address issues that are closer to us.
All of the 20 items presented as part of the exhibition refer to the themes evoked by this year’s edition of the Triennial. From social innovations, through problems of the local and the global, the endurance of products, to demographical and social issues such as compulsive consumption. The latter is commented upon in Karina Marusińska’s project, entitled Od dobrobytu do odbytu, przez odbyt w niebyt (ed. trans.: From Wellbeing to the Anus, from the Anus to Non-Being). It is a set of plates decorated with anal diagnostic photography. An invasive and unpleasant examination is juxtaposed with an object on which we eat. This project speaks about the way in which we consume – both literally, and metaphorically. It is not only about the consequences of over-eating, but also about the objects we buy only to soon ‘excrete’ them into the rubbish.
Each object is a separate event which is worth stopping by in order to understand that good design – and that’s what contemporary Polish design is – deals with significant issues. The exhibition shows that without beautiful form and well thought-out function any message included in the projects would vanish.
What’s important is that the concept and structure of this exhibition would work with any selection of items, even if they came from a different place and a different time. I wanted to create a concept which is universal. I think that this is one of the first, if not the very first international exhibition which does not present only design from Poland, but which also speaks about the situation of design as such and of those who engage in it. I chose the projects with great responsibility, I really wanted to select these specific ones. But I also admit that they are tools which serve the concept.
What other exhibitions at the Triennial drew your attention?
An excellent exhibition entitled Neo-Prehistory: 100 Verbs is presented in the main building. Using 100 verbs and objects, it depicts human activity over the past centuries, it shows the entire development of civilisation. It’s incredibly good, it’s a synthesis. It begins from a chiselled stone, and I won’t tell you how it ends, because it’s important to see it yourself. The 98th position is the verb ‘to rely on’, with a smartphone next to it. It’s a fantastic observation. Today we don’t rely on each other, we trust technology.
While putting up our display, I also saw the Iranian exposition next to ours in the Museo della Permanente. There wasn’t a single thing in there at the opening. Only exposition cubes, a 3D printer and the curator’s text which said that for the 164 days of the show, one object would be printed daily. If you don’t come the last day of the Triennial, you won’t see everything. I thought to myself, how brave, they showed an empty room and a process, calling it a contemporary laboratory. The most beautiful thing about this exhibition is the waiting and the lack. Design is also about those things that don’t yet exist.
The Triennial has been taking place since the 1920s. But this year’s edition is a huge comeback for the event, after more than ten years of absence.
The first international exhibitions were held in Milan at the Royal Palace of Monza in the 1920s, as part of the International Exhibition of Decorative Arts. In 1933, the shows were moved to the newly built Palazzo dell’Arte, and entitled International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts. After World War II, the Triennial played its part in creating a vision of new, post-war Italy. Courageous urban planning design were shown there, as well as architectural projects.
In the 1950s, the show focused on industrial design for the very first time. There were cars, typewriters, lamps, and new synthetic products of everyday use as well as designs of apartment interiors. Among those who exhibited were Achille Castiglioni, Marcello Nizzoli Alberto Rosselli, Franco Albini, Marco Zanuso, Gio Ponti, Charles Eames. The Triennial attracted the most significant names in the industry. Rooms of the Palazzo dell’Arte were also marked by the presence of Giorgio de Chirico, Le Corbusier, Frank Lloyd Wright, Picasso (in recent years, Frank Gehry and Renzo Piano), and Umberto Eco was one of its curators in 1964.
The Triennale evoked important, contemporary issues such as the transformations of landscape on a macro scale, mass-production design, and the role of creativity in a mass society. In the 60s, works by Archigram as well as Arata Isozaki were presented. In the late 70s, the Triennale also included audiovisual art and fashion. In the 80s, it took on themes related to the development of the metropolis, and in the 90s, it evoked relations between humans, technology, and the natural environment. The last edition realised in the 20th century was about the tensions between the local and the global.
Poland’s presence at the 21st edition of the Triennale di Milano is significant. It’s a place and an event which dignifies, and it also obliges. In the 20th century, Triennale exhibits were considered an imprint for architecture and design. And if the curators took up a certain theme, then it meant that it was a very pertinent one, indeed. It’s a great and important thing that our voice also resounds in such a place in the 21st century.
Viewers leave your exhibition thinking what, exactly?
I want for people to go out thinking that design is a discipline with important principals, and although it keeps on changing, with all the technological, social and cultural transformations, those principals are still important. Even if you are designing services, experiences or interactions – which are not material – at the end of the day, an element emerges which is experienced by a human being, and it has a certain function.
I would also like for people to go out convinced that Polish design has a lot to say about the world’s problems of today. Works by Agnieszka Bar, Karina Marusińska and Oskar Zięta are not only pretty and functional objects, they also include an idea which makes them important.
The third and most important thing, for me, personally, is to draw attention to the moment where organising exhibitions of Polish design is not just about promoting Polish creativity but it’s also presenting Poland as a partner in the discussion on what matters in design as such. I want to believe that we are entering another stage of building the image of Polish design.
Our designers are already present in the international society, they are perceived well and honoured with prizes. Ola Mirecka, who got her Bachelor’s degree at the Warsaw Department of Industrial Design, continued her studies at the Royal Collage of Art in London. For the past few years, she has been working for Lego, and she recently designed one of the Lego Friends sets. Piotr Stolarski, who is also a graduate of my school, now works for Yamaha, designing guitars. Tomek Rygalik began his career in the United States and in the UK. Today, he is one of the most appreciated designers. We are already at the stage where we don’t have to be proving anything.
But Polish design seems to be doing better abroad than in Poland.
We are well presented, fantastic exhibitions are being organised, and designers are winning more and more awards. Polish producers have also grown to believe that collaborating with designers can translate onto a significant increase in innovation of their products. They now deliberately collaborate with them, and try to dominate the market using design as an effective tool. They also submit new products for various competitions. This is how they make themselves known internationally. Such an awareness and deliberate action taken in this direction is a new thing, and something very significant. Of course, it isn’t some spontaneous development, but rather the result of intense work and strategic programmes for the support of Polish design which have been functioning for the past 10 years.
It’s important to make these good designs become part of our everyday reality. We don’t have the heritage of the Scandinavians or the Italians, whose homes – and not only those of the rich – have prided themselves in examples of great design for decades. We still are short of beautifying our everyday life. I believe that this is going to change in the next few years.
Magda Kochanowska (born 1977) is an associate professor at the Department of Industrial Design of the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw. She's authored of numerous publications in specialist as well as popular press. Aside from being a theoretician and a critic of design, she is also a curator. In 2014 she opened the Polish Job exhibition presented as part of Design Week in Milan. In 2012, she was the head curator of the presentation of Polish design at the II Biennale of Design in Istanbul. In 2016, she realised the exhibition of design from Poland as part of the 21st Triennial di Milano International Exhibition.
Warsaw, April, 2016
Translated by Paulina Schlosser, June, 2016