by Rahul KumarAug 26, 2020
By any measure, it’s been a tough year for design. In January, the cancellation of Design Shanghai was announced; a rolling snowball soon engulfed Berlin Design Week, Design Indaba, Melbourne Design Week and many more. Most devastating was the postponement, then cancellation, of design’s own Olympics – the Salone del Mobile in Milan – with a consequent €250 million blow to the city’s economy.
The damage to design ecosystems has been severe, but there are glimmers of light. China’s fairs are back up and running. Dubai Design Week and Design Miami also went ahead. And adaptation and experimentation are starting to bear fruit: London Design Festival, Helsinki Design Week and Istanbul Design Biennial successfully balanced the physical and the virtual in scaled-down fashion; the conceptual Dutch Design Week went all in, pushing its entire program online; the more commercial Maison&Objet decided to embrace the virtual showrooms of the art market. Others, including the Stockholm Furniture and Light Fair and the Kochi Muziris Biennale, have recently opted to cancel, gathering their strength for future iterations, while the Salone has just chosen to push next year’s edition to September – the entire design world will be hoping this pragmatic decision hits the spot.
Surprisingly, virtual seminars and studio tours have proved more than adequate substitutes for the real thing, often attracting larger and more engaged followings, even if screen exhaustion may eventually set in. Unfortunately, their audiences and appeal are largely professional, which is indicative of a larger problem when shifting online. Without the physical object – design’s most potent offer by far – vital engagement with the wider public is lost, as are the commercial benefits, networking opportunities and exchange of ideas that result from bringing people together for launches and exhibits. The pandemic may hasten a reckoning with the current superfluity of design fairs and biennials – and the wasteful international travel they engender – but the physical encounter will remain key to design’s future.
Closures have hit almost all major design museums, including London’s Victoria & Albert Museum; New York’s Museum of Modern Art; Singapore’s Red Dot Design Museum; Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum; Shenzhen’s Design Society, Beijing’s China Design Museum; and Design Museum Holon. As a result, redundancies, de-acquisitioning and the demise of the blockbuster show are on the agenda. In combination with the Black Lives Matter movement, this has led some curators to raise fundamental questions around the role of museums, leading to such responses as the V&A’s online “Pandemic Objects” exhibitions, as well as renewed if tentative engagements with decolonising collections.
Of course, the usual art world dramas still pop up, for instance the contentious resignation of Caroline Baumann from New York’s Cooper Hewitt, though their importance, always questionable, has been diminished by more pressing issues. In particular, smaller museums are currently facing an existential threat. In July, Zurich’s Museum of Digital Art was the first European institution to shut for good; others have followed across the globe. Similarly, design colleges and universities are struggling, resorting to remote learning and virtual degree shows, inevitably compromising the education – and sometimes the mental health – of their students. The announcement by the European Union in September of a “new Bauhaus” provided a more optimistic note – a welcome indication of faith in design’s role in achieving the systemic change required to reach a “new normal”, and of course a sensible investment in Europe’s lucrative education sector.
In the commercial sphere, factory closures, supply-chain disruption and faltering sales have led to reduced production, despite a range of impressive launches early in the year from old hands such as Konstantin Grcic, Barber & Osgerby and the Bouroullecs. Many manufacturers, particularly those in the luxury, office and hospitality spheres, have significantly pared back their activities. The growth of work-at-home is providing some financial respite for such firms, even if approaches to pricing, distribution and assembly all require radical rethinks. More idealistic observers have suggested that the pandemic may fundamentally alter consumption patterns as we rethink our relationship with nature – that suppliers focusing on quality, durability and timelessness may flourish – but, until economies recover, affordability will probably remain key.
Due in part to the reduction of workflow, but also to decency, many small design studios have turned their hands to the issues raised by the pandemic. Despite the difficulties of remote working and cloud-based tools, to say nothing of budgetary pressures, some innovative and interesting projects have resulted, tackling social distancing, face masks, hands-free appliances, handwashing and more, often leveraging the benefits of open-source and 3D-printing. A few studios – cunning or distasteful depending on your perspective – have trolled the design media with extravagant solutions for diners, clubbers, fashionistas and more, eliciting equally manufactured outrage from the commentariat. This is, after all, an industry that has perennially had it both ways on climate change, pollution and hedonistic excess.
In any case, the impact of such efforts has been limited. Much of the short-term focus in responding to the pandemic has been on the production and distribution of existing products, while hoped-for solutions, whether vaccines or software, rely not on the vision of lone design studios, but on the infrastructure and investment of governments, major charities and global companies. Pandemic “challenges” and “initiatives” have come and gone in the design media in a largely fruitless fashion, emphasising that such well-intentioned ventures lack relevance if they aren’t driven by those on the frontline, and integrated into wider healthcare and manufacturing efforts.
Perhaps this is one lesson to take away. Designers will be vital in addressing the challenges posed by the pandemic, possessing much-needed expertise in sectors such as signage and interface design, or urban and workplace planning, but finding answers to its problems – and those of other equally vital issues regrettably sidelined by events – will be a collaborative activity. Sustainability, climate change, globalisation, fast fashion, diversity and more have been “solved” by designers to little effect for years – perhaps the time has come to embrace the role of team member, rather than that of oracle.
Finally, and sadly, design has lost some of its great pioneers in the course of the year – in some cases to COVID-19 – including Cini Boeri, Jan des Bouvrie, Terence Conran, Luigi Feltrin, Milton Glaser, Enzo Mari, Yoshihiko Matsuo and Kenzo Takada, to name just a few. Moments of crisis can engender radical creativity, from the Bauhaus to Memphis; hopefully a new generation is ready and waiting.