Objects are, by definition, inanimate. But gather together 250 examples of emblematic contemporary design - from Meret Oppenheim's Traccia bird leg table of 1939 to Philippe Starck's Gun lamp of 2005 - and clearly, they are going to have something to say.
This is among the conceits behind 'Design Oracles', an exhibition opening tomorrow in Paris. The show presents a selection of key pieces from the National Centre for Visual Arts (Centre National des arts plastiques, or CNAP) in the context of what they communicate about their role within the world at large.
To underscore the idea, the show begins with a cluster of recognisable items, all in black, accompanied by recorded voices that speak in different manners and accents at various intervals. 'My tactile screen has rewritten history…' says the first generation iPhone. 'I wish that everything could stay beautiful, exactly how it is,' muses an Hermès Kelly bag. 'I'm made from delicate carbon fibres that are at the same time very robust,' announces the Moooi Carbon chair from Marcel Wanders and Bertjan Pot. For some reason, the Treasure Chair from Maarten Baas has a deliberate stutter.
Their medium is Lidewij Edelkoort. As a widely sought after trend forecaster and chairwoman of the Design Academy in Eindhoven from 1999 to 2008, she is somewhat of an oracle.
During a press walkthrough and subsequent interview with Wallpaper*, the Paris-based design expert detailed how the Gaîté Lyrique, a progressive cultural centre geared to young people and run by the city of Paris, encouraged her to apply equal parts foresight and naïveté to pieces that have become symbols of our time.
For design devotees, the show, mainly staged along a runway-style platform, feels something like a trip down memory lane - except that the furniture, lighting, appliances, accessories, fashion, gadgets and vehicles (a Solex electric bike) have been reshuffled and regrouped into ten conceptual themes. With names like 'humble', 'inflated', 'archaic', 'mutant', 'curious' and 'nomadic', some groupings express physical characteristics; others suggest values or lifestyles.
'I never would have thought about this without being here, frankly,' she says of the setup, which includes helpful tear sheets annotating the objects in each category. And it's true - in any other setting, a similar exhibition might have been staged like an international design encyclopedia: G for Konstantin Grcic, J for Hella Jongerius, P for Gaetano Pesce.
Edelkoort, however, notes how the 'oracle' nature of these pieces often resonates independently from its creator. 'Once an object has left its designer, it becomes something else,' she begins. 'First of all, it becomes something in the eye of beholder. Whoever is consuming or collecting it will give it another layer of understanding and appreciation. But then if you look from year to year and decade to decade, your perception of the same piece is changing. And design icons are able to traverse long periods and almost take another role or reading every ten years.'
In editing down CNAP's initial array of 2,500 objects down to 250, Edelkoort notes that she never ran up against a noticeable oversight. 'The collection of CNAP is formidable; there aren't many holes,' she says of the public institution's archive. 'This is quite unique… And it's a system that doesn't exist anywhere else in the world - that the state has the energy and manpower and money reserved to be a collecting witness to our time.'
Of the show's raison d'être, Edelkoort says, 'I hope it will create optimism. It really makes you feel good about such creative spirit in our society - such beauty, such vision. But also, all the [themes] have an important message for the future, saying that we will consume less, live more together, live more nomadically.'
Does she believe the selection will remain as relevant a decade from now? 'I guess in ten years the reading would be different, but many of these things have a very long lifespan. It's a complete mistake to think that trends are short.'
Most tellingly, Edelkoort believes Design Oracles is not just a time capsule that becomes antediluvian in our digital future. 'Young generations will be able to have this living catalogue of culture.'