Making design actionable with Beatrice Leanza at Milan Design Week 2022

As one of the three compelling curators for the Talks programme at Salone 2022, Beatrice Leanza speaks to STIR about contemporary design as a crucible of societal empowerment.

by Jincy IypePublished on : Jun 10, 2022

In this ever-evolving world where design, technology, art, performance, education and communication merge to form diverse vessels of expression and societal reforms, what, or who decides the extent of this mutation? Should the design industry at large be more mindful, of being strictly, environmentally cautious, to bring about real ecological transitions that help heal the planet? Where lies the power and awareness?

We now understand only too well – progress, inevitably, has to be sustainable. We have to pull together and renew our serious and generous ecological efforts. Design, lateral thinking, creativity, taking a critical approach, openness training and knowledge exchange – all characteristics inherent in those involved with the world of design – are the main drivers for accelerating the evolution of a more equitable society and a more sustainable world. – Salone del Mobile.Milano
(L-R) Marjan van Aubel, Anab Jain and Beatrice Leanza (host) at the Talks programme, Salone 2022 | Beatrice Leanza at Milan Design Week 2022 | STIRworld
(L-R) Marjan van Aubel, Anab Jain and Beatrice Leanza (host) at the Talks programme, Salone 2022 Image: Diego Ravier

These shared considerations feed into the Talks programme at the 60th edition of Salone del Mobile.Milano that is underway. Beatrice Leanza, one of the three powerful female curators of this year's panel of stirring conversations will be addressing these pressing issues, of facing the uncertainty of the times we live in and reflecting upon concrete actions for a better tomorrow, with design as a catalyst for improvement. Her guest speakers include Australian-born film director and architect, Liam Young, Dutch solar designer Marjan van Aubel, and Anab Jain, critical designer and co-founder of the Superflux studio, who will discuss at length the subject of Radical Nature - the design and science of worldbuilding. The organised talk will touch upon the speculative design and experiential storytelling practices as crucial tools for decision-making processes and strategic long-term planning, in business, and in the political field, geared to the survival of the planet.

Beatrice Leanza is the art director of Visual Natures, The Politics and Culture of Environmentalism in the 20th and 21st Centuries at MAAT (2022) Image: Courtesy of beabiyue

As a cultural strategist, curator, writer and critic with a background in Asian studies who was based in Beijing for 17 years, Leanza talks about actionable design, agency, and the potential of the intersection of design and technology as the crucible of societal empowerment with STIR.

The Community - Across Chinese Cities exhibition led by Beatrice Leanza (2018) | Beatrice Leanza at Milan Design Week 2022 | STIRworld
The Community - Across Chinese Cities exhibition led by Beatrice Leanza (2018) Image: David Galli

Jincy Iype: You have helmed international institutions and initiatives, such as being executive director of MAAT (Museum of Art, Architecture and Technology) in Lisbon, creative director of Beijing Design Week, co-founder of The Global School as well as the founding member of BAO Atelier. How has your journey in design influenced your Talks curation at Salone 2022?

Beatrice Leanza: It was generous of Salone del Mobile to think of bringing together three determined women with diverse backgrounds navigating what contemporary design is globally, for their Talks programme this year. My work as a curator, and a director of institutions ranging from museums or large-scale events, has always been of confronting design with its public-facing character. I have always tried to engage design practitioners, to unearth their ideas of what design really means, and its potential in the context of modern society, with all its layered complexities and emotions.

My work as a curator and director has always been of confronting design with its public-facing character. – Beatrice Leanza

It has always been about empowering, or making design actionable in a way, and therefore, allowing it to behave as a form of cultural agency, that operates across different registers, both from a practice-driven or theoretical lens, that helps us gouge and prepare for the future. For this conversation at Milan Design Week 2022, I aim to discuss the idea of design as a quintessential tool for storytelling and how it is ultimately a social vocation and a collaborative practice. The guest speakers are representatives of how design can be thought of as a practical instrument, activated to open up spaces for encountering important conversations that are eroding away within the context of our modern societies and our extremely myopic, self-centred lifestyles.

Beeline by SO-IL at the MAAT museum in Lisbon, Portugal curated by Beatrice Leanza as director | Beatrice Leanza at Milan Design Week 2022 | STIRworld
Beeline by SO-IL at the MAAT museum in Lisbon, Portugal curated by Beatrice Leanza as director Image: © Iwan Baan

The topic of climate change is demonstrative of how we as a community, have come to imagine, govern, and organise ourselves as a growing construct within this planetary expanse. The idea here is to try and comprehend how this sense of mounting emergency, around environmental reparation, can become a counterweight to the way we approach this as an opportunity, to reflect deeper and project our hopes and ambitions as a civilisation, to construct positive futures and heal the environment.

The invited speakers will discuss how as a society of educated individuals, we can stretch and improve upon these temporal parameters, with design as a tool, radical and powerful in nature. It will also attune listeners to the idea that design, besides being used as an instrument to able solutionism, together with the intended application of technologies and sustainable practices, can also be a stage for expression and storytelling.

Anab Jain, Co-Founder and Director, Superflux & Professor, Design Investigations, Angewandte, Vienna | Beatrice Leanza at Milan Design Week 2022 | STIRworld
Anab Jain, Co-Founder and Director, Superflux & Professor, Design Investigations, Angewandte, Vienna Image: ©Mark Cocksedge

Another key topic that we plan to delve into, is in fact, "what is the status" - of collaboration nowadays in the global design circuit, and what it actually means, and does. Many of the stories that they plan to share with the audience form evidence of their operations that are based on long-held investigative agendas of ecological reparation, as well as their collaborations with a stunning variety of passionate professionals. This will throw light on what we might think of design and architectural practices of speculative and critical design basing themselves on fictional theories but are in fact, truly rooted in pragmatic, hard science.

I envision the Talks to be anchored around the idea of using these individuals almost as case studies, for understanding creative and inclusive processes as well as principles of contemporary, sustainable and futuristic design, more so in the context of Salone, and to show the world that we are listening intently to what these young professionals have to say.

Liam Young, described by the BBC as ‘the man designing our futures’, has created visionary films and speculative worlds that are both extraordinary images of tomorrow and urgent examinations of the environmental questions facing us today| Beatrice Leanza at Milan Design Week 2022 | STIRworld
Liam Young, described by the BBC as ‘the man designing our futures’, has created visionary films and speculative worlds that are both extraordinary images of tomorrow and urgent examinations of the environmental questions facing us today Image: Courtesy of Salone del Mobile.Milano

Jincy: Under your curation, what unites these design professionals and why should we focus on them?

Beatrice: I like that none of them subscribes to a one-line description, of who they are and what they do. They confront and perceive design very specifically, within their boundary-defying practices. They might disagree with me, but there is also a formal, activistic optimism that has become part of all their involvements, even someone like Marjan, who is perhaps describable as a prototypical product and industrial designer.

Jincy: Yes, she calls herself a "solar designer" who "works with the sun".

Beatrice: Yes! But Marjan will also tell you how this description stays rooted in an attempt to expand her practice, how it manifests on a solo idea of channelling the energy of the sun and making her products run, and what this simple process is capable of growing into. A combined effort from the design community including manufacturers, writers, makers, companies, researchers, and scientists, embraces this growth and tenacity to keep experimenting. So, the idea that there exists a sort of close-knit community focused on the potential of solar design and its allied design movement, as Marjan defines it, goes well beyond the point of just working with or reflecting on how we can deploy renewable technologies, focusing on a certain design speciality rather than a general outlook.

Dutch ‘solar designer’ Marjan van Aubel is one of the three guest speakers for Leanza’s Talks programme, who designs for a positive future through combining the fields of sustainability, design and technology | Beatrice Leanza at Milan Design Week 2022 | STIRworld
Dutch ‘solar designer’ Marjan van Aubel is one of the three guest speakers for Leanza’s Talks programme, who designs for a positive future through combining the fields of sustainability, design and technologyy Image: Sander Plug

All three speakers come from diverse backgrounds which extends the scope of the Talks panel. In the conversation, we will traverse how their differing geographic positioning, their works and multifaceted practices, and their providence, affect the way they operate and create, within deeply transdisciplinary environments that they build around themselves.

It is also crucial to explain how I scouted some of the most captivating, interesting and inspiring contemporary practices that founded themselves on beliefs that design can be an element of correlation, between forms, research, knowledge, technical know-how and other allied sectors of creating; how it can empower them to become part of an inclusive narrative. These three have opened the way for various forms of collaborative research in which design, science and fiction merge to analyse the interconnection of themes ranging from automation to energy democracy, and imagining equitable and sustainable futures.

Liam is someone who has a background in architecture, but went beyond the idea of it as just a practice of building environments in a physical sense – these environments can break and be remade in so many ways. He is also a designer, director and a BAFTA nominated producer who operates in the spaces between design, fiction and futures.

Front cover of the book DRIFT, Choreographing the Future with Beatrice Leanza, Bjarke Ingels, and William Myers as contributors | Beatrice Leanza at Milan Design Week 2022 | STIRworld
Front cover of the book DRIFT, Choreographing the Future with Beatrice Leanza, Bjarke Ingels, and William Myers as contributors Image: Courtesy of Amazon

Another aspect that stays common to all three is that they understand this idea of future-making or, future "storytelling". It is not a practice of being driven by any form of techno-utopian-dystopianism, or techno-influenced creations that are black and white, but rather, a more investigative and explorative sense that seeks the myriad, untapped possibilities that lie in between. Similarly, Anab of Superflux, is a designer, filmmaker, futurist and educator who grew up in India, and certainly champions this specialist approach with her research-led, celebrated portfolio.

These discussions help foster alliances across all these borders, keeping in mind the future of our planet as well as the design and architectural discipline’s evolution. This is also crucial within the context of Salone, an internationally known design fair that has historically celebrated its role as a reagent in acknowledging future-led, innovative and sustainable designs. One hopes that with outreach like theirs, this message can amplify and reach younger audiences, to help further these confrontations with design.

Some pages from DRIFT, Choreographing the Future | Beatrice Leanza at Milan Design Week 2022 | STIRworld
Some pages from DRIFT, Choreographing the Future Image: Courtesy of Amazon

Jincy: I also like how you defined "design as an instrument of storytelling”. Did you always carry this credo, especially when you began curating, directing and writing?

Beatrice: Truthfully, I did not begin wanting to end up in this role! The world of curatorial practice has many facets, and for me, throughout the last decade, came the realisation that your curatorial practice has to be about empowering others into making their voices heard and their stories championed. There is always this sense of correlation, and a certain level of emotional intelligence that is involved, because it is largely a conversation – one needs to be educated and mindful about the topics that truly deserve attention. Over the years, I have moved on from being the prototypical curator of exhibitions and shows, to actually working and attempting to design larger, research-led narratives and spaces, where a variety of cultural, social and ecological initiatives are supported.

Your curatorial practice must revolve around empowering others into making their voices heard and their stories championed. – Beatrice Leanza

I would like to believe that I have been an advocate of cultural institutions, both perennial events and actual physical buildings that perform as platforms of knowledge, leading to social empowerment, and upholding their public-facing role with integrity.

Exhibition in Beijing curated by Beatrice Leanza | Beatrice Leanza at Milan Design Week 2022 | STIRworld
Exhibition in Beijing curated by Beatrice Leanza Image: Courtesy of Beatrice Leanza

It is also imperative to think different, as curating too, is storytelling at its heart. It is about realising what the best tool to work with is, figuring out the best possible format to achieve a certain gravitas-ridden goal, and how it can contribute to a greater purpose, not just for the present but for generations to come. It is a realm open to so many possibilities. What's most enjoyable in the process is how I get to interact with others and learn from their learnings. Most of what I do is what I accomplish with others. This, much like the architectural and design industry, is not a solipsistic practice but collaborative. We often tend to overlook that.

Jincy: Please define the potential of the Talks programme in the context of the larger realm of sustainability underscoring Salone del Mobile.Milano this year?

Beatrice: We need to pay attention to the declining climate, and that I believe, resonates with the key theme of the fair this time. We are calibrating towards this exigency, debating how the global community can contribute to restoring the planet, by conceptualising, organising, and governing ourselves and the systems we exist in. These talks and endeavours galvanise discourse and activism by involvement, by rousing empathy. We must address this urgency, treat it as such, and bank on the whole emotional spectrum of reactions, from frustration to desperation, from hope to action.

Inside the Museum of Art, Architecture and Technology (MAAT) in Lisbon | Beatrice Leanza at Milan Design Week 2022 | STIRworld
Inside the Museum of Art, Architecture and Technology (MAAT) in Lisbon Image: © Iwan Baan
We live within these margins of unpredictability and uncertainty. Rather than viewing it as a liability, we must choose to perceive it as an empowering opportunity. How do we populate this margin? What do we do with this opportunity, to chance upon incalculable possibilities that open us up to furthering the potential of design? – Beatrice Leanza

Just recently, as part of my closing program at MAAT, we opened a project that we worked on for over three years titled Visual Natures: the politics and culture of environmentalism in the 20th and 21st century. The first thing we decided was to not attempt this as a set-up show - this is not an exhibition with objects, but a research-led effort attempting to trace how we have in contemporary history, looked at notions of ecology, environment and nature - and how these transforming notions have informed the way we behave as a global creative society.

Jincy: Onto a lighter topic - what does a day in the life of Beatrice Leanza look like?

Beatrice: Oh God! Super messy. I like to keep my days open to the unexpectedness of life. That's a perimeter I look forward to existing within, seeking it daily, within the highly programmed lives that we all live. I believe it is quite important to keep yourself open, and practise the art of lateral, positive and sometimes, random thinking. Keeps things interesting.

A glimpse of The Community - Across Chinese Cities in Beijing, curated by Beatrice Leanza | Beatrice Leanza at Milan Design Week 2022 | STIRworld
A glimpse of The Community - Across Chinese Cities in Beijing, curated by Beatrice Leanza Image: © Iwan Baan

STIR takes you on a Milanese sojourn! Experience Salone del Mobile and all the design districts - 5vie, Brera, Fuorisalone, Isola, Zona Tortona, and Durini - with us. STIR’s coverage of Milan Design Week 2022, Meanwhile in Milan showcases the best exhibits, moods, studios, events, and folks to look out for. We are also excited to announce our very own STIR press booth at Salone del Mobile - Hall 5/7 S.14, Fiera Milano RHO.

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