by Anushka SharmaSep 26, 2023
Madrid is not a city traditionally associated with design. Both the ceramic production enterprise and the furniture industry have been historically found in other Spanish centres, such as Valencia and Barcelona, while the capital by its very nature is considered a meeting place. However, this feature of the capital city matches the contemporary attitude shift that focuses on the story rather than the product itself, favouring the word rather than the object. This is perhaps why an event like the Madrid Design Festival (MDF) did not only garner local but also international interest. The sixth edition of the design fair, from February 7-April 9, 2023, is conceived as a large mainstream event, not just for insiders and furniture companies, but for all design enthusiasts.
Design is a party. Besides, following the nature of the host city, the Madrid Design Festival 2023, follows the path traced by Fuorisalone in Milan, the essence of which has become more popular and mass-oriented each year. This attitude opens up design as a true work of cultural democratisation. Prophetic, as often happens, is the text by Ettore Sottsass—“Of artists, in my opinion, only life counts more than ‘words.’ Everyone should always recount their lives and write immense diaries, indeed, everyone should only live, I mean know that they live.”
The party—the vital and gathering moment, par excellence—is the modality that defines the general attitude of the festival. One of its main sections, hosted by the ILE Cultural Centre, explicitly declares this by calling itself Fiesta Design. “The festival intends to strengthen its vocation as a facilitator of encounters between design and business in order to generate projects stimulating reflection, proposing solutions, and dialoguing with the public, in a cocktail that combines the exchange of knowledge and the desire for popularisation,” states the press release. The Madrid Design Festival proposes a playful approach to the discipline—almost bordering on anti-intellectual, at times. This attitude may turn some people's noses up, but in our opinion, it is an interesting take, especially, at a time in history when it has become increasingly necessary to ‘compromise’ pressing issues, for the attention of the general public.
Many of the exhibitions we visited were coherent in such principles, especially those produced directly by La Fabrica, the organising agency of the festival. At the Teatro Fernán Gómez, previously known as the Centro Cultural de la Villa, the exhibition Seville. Illuminated Shadow was undoubtedly amongst the most enjoyable. The design event curated by Macarena Navarro-Reverter, with a set design by Studio Noju, presented a survey of Sevillian crafts, exhibiting the mastery of its trades, along with new talents who are reinterpreting its roots and traditions through design. Here, the works of contemporary designers were contextualised within a broader spectrum of local craftsmanship, including bullfighting and equestrian arts, embroidery, carving, boating and goldsmithing. Traditional creations were reinterpreted with art installations, placed in niches that mark the route, dividing sections of the exhibition.
At the Matadero—a large cultural centre reclaimed from the historic structure of the municipal abattoirs—designer Alvaro Catalán de Ocón celebrated a decade of his PET Lamp project. The collection mixed the reuse of PET plastic bottles with selected traditional weaving techniques from across the world, creating unique handmade lampshades. The designer placed great emphasis on narrating the story behind the idea as well as sharing the relationship between the studio and the small communities involved.
In addition to displaying various versions of the project, he also showcased the faces and hands of the real protagonists of the project. Catalán de Ocón, also, opened his studio to the public, showing even the most hidden aspects, which are often considered secondary, but greatly contribute to the consistency of the project—from the type of packaging chosen to the quality of the workplace. Design is also this.
Circling back to the idea of the exhibition being a party, of sorts, the designer, like every year, extends the opening of his studio into the night, offering beers and jamon (a dry-cured ham produced in Spain)to visitors—an event that has become a cult of the MDF, over the years.
Not all partner initiatives are in line with this spirit, though, and in the overall context come across as a bit congealed, academic, and sometimes even overly grandiose—for instance, the exhibitions Intangible Features, proposed by the Asociación Española de Artesanía Contemporánea and Pablo Palazuelo: The Line as a Dream of Architecture, at the ICO museum. In the former, the works are presented in a solemn, almost dramatic context; located in dark rooms illuminated by beams of light, appearing untouchable, precious, and inaccessible. Effectively alienating the public without meaning to.
Though the works of Palazuelo (1915-2007) are undoubtedly of historical relevance, an endless series of drawings can hardly be of interest to anyone, except to an inner circle of architecture nerds. The exhibition, in that sense, lacks that fundamental step in bringing the works of the Spanish architect and painter to the present day, a fresh look that would connect it to contemporaneity.
These last observations serve to launch a challenge to the Madrid Design Festival—to transform (as Esterni and Fuorisalone did with Milan) the way design is conceived and is connected to the city as well as convince various partners (not only institutional but also commercial) of the goodness and foresight of their vision. Exploiting promotion for speculation and not vice versa.