‘Broken Nature’, curated by Paola Antonelli wins Wallpaper* Design Award
One post explained why nylon stockings were redesigned in the 1930s to make them likelier to ladder. Another described how, 50 years later, Microsoft ensured that its Windows 2.0 software needed to be updated every 18 months. Then there was the story of how, in 1924, the world’s biggest light bulb manufacturer boosted its profits by forming a cartel whose first collective decision was to reduce the life expectancy of incandescent bulbs so they would have to be replaced more often. These are just a few of the Instagram posts on the design history of planned obsolescence made by the Italian designers Andrea Trimarchi and Simone Farresin of Formafantasma as a prelude to their participation in the XXII Triennale di Milano’s ‘Broken Nature: Design Takes on Human Survival’, an epic exhibition to open in March, which has just won Best Future Vision in the Wallpaper* Design Awards.
Alexandra Fruhstorfer’s ‘Transitory Yarn’ enables a garment to be transformed multiple times over the course of its lifetime. Illustrator: Elena Xausa
Aiming to explore what design can do to alleviate the devastating damage caused by the human race to the environment and society since the Industrial Revolution, ‘Broken Nature’ is curated by Italy-born Paola Antonelli, the senior curator of the Department of Architecture and Design at New York’s MoMA. It promises to be one of the most compelling and talked about design events of the year.
‘The premise is simple,’ says Antonelli. ‘It’s that the human race will become extinct, but that it is still possible for us to design a better ending. It’s about designers doing what they do best, which is to make the most of the resources at our disposal. Yes, we’ve put ourselves in danger by obliterating many of those resources, but “Broken Nature” will show how restorative design projects are helping to repair the damage.’
One of Kelly Jazvac’s studies of Plastiglomerate, a new type of stone comprising molten plastic debris and beach sediment. Illustrator: Elena Xausa
Antonelli, 55, has curated a succession of landmark exhibitions since joining MoMA in 1994. The rigour and verve with which she has nurtured a new public understanding of the practice and possibilities of design has established her as the most influential design curator of our time. In the 2008 show, ‘Design and the Elastic Mind’, Antonelli pioneered the now widely accepted concept of design as an increasingly eclectic and expansive medium, while 2011’s ‘Talk To Me’ charted our changing relationship to objects in the digital age. Her most recent MoMA exhibition, 2017’s ‘Items: Is Fashion Modern?’, explored the cultural and political significance of generic forms of clothing, from biker jackets and black berets, to saris and bum bags.
When Antonelli was invited to curate the Triennale, she immediately identified ‘Broken Nature’ not only as the theme for her show but also for the 27 independent installations, presented by different countries in the gigantic Triennale building in Milan’s Parco Sempione. The Victoria & Albert Museum will be responsible for the UK’s contribution, and the Museum of Decorative Arts in Prague and Iranian Design Foundation for the Czech Republic’s and Iran’s respectively. ‘Paola is prophet, preacher, activist and visionary, and when she asked us to contribute it was an effortless “yes”,’ says Neri Oxman, the Israeli-born architect, founding director of the Mediated Matter research group at MIT Media Lab in the US, and a recent Wallpaper* guest editor (W*235). ‘It’s our responsibility and obligation to design our way out of the Holocene extinction.’
‘Broken Nature’ will set the scene for the Triennale by analysing the gravity of the problems we face. It will open with a selection of Nasa’s Images of Change, a series of giant, high-resolution photographs of different parts of the world before and after man-made and natural disasters and other transformative phenomena. One traces the aggressive urbanisation of Shanghai and another the equally dramatic disappearance of Arctic ice. ‘They’re incredible images that will show the scale of the damage we’ve caused to nature and to one another,’ Antonelli explains.The exhibition will then present possible design solutions, including some 120 restorative design and architecture projects from the last 30 years, as well as a number of special commissions. Among the latter will be a research project by Oxman and Mediated Matter into possible design applications of melanin, the pigment that determines the colour of human skin. Another will be Formafantasma’s research into planned obsolescence, which is the latest phase of Ore Streams, an ongoing design research project into the vast, often illicit global trade in electronic and digital waste.
It is still possible for us to design a better ending for the human race
Antonelli has identified three criteria for the exhibits: ‘One is that we’d like people to leave with a sense of what they can do to make things better. Formafantasma’s work on waste is a great example because it’s about the digital devices we know so well,’ she says, adding that she also wants the show to convey the complexity of contemporary life, and alert us to the consequences of climate change. The Austrian designer Alexandra Fruhstorfer will address those themes in Transitory Yarn, a new knitting material she has designed to enable knitted clothes to be repeatedly unravelled and reused in new forms, rather than thrown away. Finally, Antonelli hopes the exhibition will encourage people to think longer term. ‘We’re so wired not to think beyond two or three generations,’ she says. ‘We’ll have a beautiful art piece by Kelly Jazvac, who has studied Plastiglomerates, which are fossils of the future. Seeing them makes you realise that plastics are here to stay. Every exhibit should have that ingredient or at least one of the other two. If not, I’ll have failed.’
Mediated Matter is working on an interactive bio-interface for melanin production in both body and building scales. Illustrator: Elena Xausa
This doesn’t seem likely given her track record and the enthusiasm of Oxman, Formafantasma and the other designers that Antonelli has roped into the show. ‘“Broken Nature” is exactly what design needs at this moment,’ notes Formafantasma’s Trimarchi. ‘It should be an eye opener for anyone who still thinks design is about making new things, rather than also being a potential tool for social and ecological restoration.’ §
As originally featured in the February 2019 issue of Wallpaper* (W*239)