Exploring the past & present of photography at the V&A Photography Centre, London
by Zohra Khan, Samta NadeemMay 26, 2023
•make your fridays matter with a well-read weekend
by Samta NadeemPublished on : Mar 20, 2023
Istituto Marangoni London is evidently trying to expand the design discourse and make it accessible to a wider audience comprising students and professionals in London. While the institute's spring talk series is ongoing, I reflect upon a particular session from the last fall. The Istituto Marangoni London supported the Global Design Forum's November Design Series at the Victoria & Albert Museum that had a series of keynote talks and workshops. I recall the session 'Material Narratives' and my particular interest in how seemingly wide topics were deliberated upon by diverse practitioners in significant depth, introducing new perspectives. Speakers included Faye Toogood from Studio Toogood, Caroline Till from Franklin Till, Martino Gamper, Director, Gamper, and it was chaired by Johanna Agerman Ross from V&A, who is also the founder and director of design journal Disegno.
Valérie Berdah Levy, Director of the Istituto Marangoni London, said in a comment to STIR, “Istituto Marangoni promotes excellence in design globally, due to the industry relevance of its curriculum and methods of delivery which are at the forefront of design future in sustainability and technology. Quality assurance and parity across each school within the curriculum ensures that the local identity is evident in the student outcomes, considering design influences through research, local materiality, availability and socio-political influences, which are explored through flexible learning modes. Each Istituto Marangoni school boasts a wide range of academic and design industry experts, to deliver projects to a truly international cohort of students, encouraging discussion and debate in multi-cultural environments, with the scope to bring innovative design solutions for positive change.”
Here we revisit the conversation with panellists with excerpts from their responses to three key questions.
Samta Nadeem: Design, material science, and the social sphere are all linked together, in a relationship that has an impact (often adverse) on our natural world. How do you manoeuvre this interconnectedness in your own practice?
Johanna Agerman Ross: The way that I work on these complicated and interconnected issues as a curator is by highlighting the lesser-known stories of an object by researching a narrative that is connected to either the material specifically or an object's intended or unintended use. For example, in the new permanent gallery Design 1900-Now at the V&A, we decided to focus on the connection of design to broader society and how the two reflect one another. Through Make Good: Rethinking Material Futures, an annual display that I curate at the V&A, we start by looking at the material to communicate around issues of the climate emergency. In both cases, we find that audiences engage and are curious and often add their own experiences and stories into the mix.
Caroline Till: Most of our work with large corporations is centred around the dissemination and activation of research and innovation to support the shift toward a more sustainable future. We find many of the companies we work with operate in a very siloed way, often divided into complex divisions and with complex managerial structures, and are often very restricted in time and budget.
We often try to encourage our clients to think about materials as the building blocks of design—if we think more deeply about where our raw materials have been sourced from, the process of transformation they go through, and importantly where they will go at end of life, the impact can be huge.
At the same time we need to ask who has been involved in each stage of the material journey, right from farming or extraction through to production and beyond, and what have been the social implications. Because of the deeply complex and interconnected nature of the sustainable agenda, often, either the social or the environmental aspect becomes the focus. We are always trying to work with our clients in a way that gently introduces fully holistic thinking, deeply connecting what something is made of, with how it is made and by whom.
Faye Toogood: All the materials I use are high quality and timeless, I hope. They are reparable and can, and should be, passed down through the generations—dare I say just like we used to buy and make furniture. I instil a very similar approach in my fashion label.
Samta: If 'sustainability' has become a label and is sometimes even frowned upon in critical design discourses, what according to you is the way toward a more ecological and environmentally sensitive practice?
Caroline: There has been much criticism of the concept of 'sustainability' in its very definition, to maintain the status quo. It is very clear that human impact on the planet is now so detrimental that we have gone way beyond sustaining and indeed need to now act to heal the damage we have done. Effectively we should be shifting to act in service to the planet and to nature. The term regenerative design has emerged as a development from sustainability, looking to go beyond sustaining to our back better and to nurture. The sustainability academic and ecologist Glenn Albrecht developed the concept of the 'symbiocene'—a future in which humans and the planet can thrive together in a mutually symbiotic relationship. If we think of it as a spectrum—sustainability as maintaining what we have, circularity to have zero impact keeping materials in completely closed loops, then regenerative design as nurturing and rejuvenating damaged systems.
The main issue is how to practice this within our current infrastructure, which is largely based within capitalist ideals of extraction and expansion. To support this shift toward regenerative practices within our work we are increasingly concerned with supporting our clients and projects to remind ourselves we are living being operating within a living planet, and to effectively support an overarching connection to the natural world. This might be through learning from the systems of nature, or unlocking the wisdom of the materials of nature—for example in a practical sense connecting our clients to emerging natural dye innovation that aims to colour textiles and materials with detrimental impact. It also might be through slightly more 'spiritual' means such as breathwork at the start of a meeting, to remind ourselves that we are living being and not a machine, and to support a slowing down of pace—of both thinking and action.
Faye: This is a tough question, we battle with this constantly.
Often we opt to make less, for example, in order to not buy surplus fabric we reduce the amount of garments to fit into a roll. On furniture, we make only to order or produce small batches to avoid holding stock. As I don’t manufacture I can’t comment so much on that in detail but in my ideal world, I would try and reuse off-cuts in new ways and offer these as opportunities to designers.
For us sustainability is primarily longevity. I am never trend driven in my choices; I am a collector, influenced by art history, antiques, industrial methods, landscape—I believe this adds to the timeless quality of what we produce and reduces the 'throw away' or 'need to update' mentality that trends can induce.
Johanna: I am not sure if sustainability itself is frowned upon. After all, it’s a worthwhile pursuit to consider the long-term quality and use of services or products and their reduced impact on the environment. However, it seems that the term is often empty of real meaning, or we fail to recognise the intention and usefulness of the word. So connecting with the real meaning of what sustainable practice is and can be and using it as a guide can be worthwhile.
Samta: In the immediate sense, if the future could be understood as 'what comes next,' historically future has been progressively mechanised, and today our realities are acceleratingly digitised. Where does that lead your thoughts about our bodies being a material through which we experience the world? And if a consciousness towards our bodies as the material could lead to a healthier relationship humans have with all other material.
Faye: The physical objects, clothes and environments we create are all experienced by the body—both physically and emotionally. An awareness of how a body will experience the sensation of cashmere against the skin, the coolness of metal or the smooth surface of polished fibreglass are all an important part of the success of a design beyond the purely visual. Physical spaces and tactile objects are experiential in a way that digital worlds—as far as I know—can never be.
Caroline: Building on the previous answer, by simply reminding ourselves that we are living being within a living planet feels very important. When we curated Our Time on Earth exhibition with the Barbican last year, we opened the exhibition with an audio experience in a relatively blank space in which we invited visitors to stop and deeply breathe. Narrated by rapper Speech Debelle, the audio said Your breath comes from sea creatures and trees. Just one breath shared by all living things. With the ambition of cementing our deep interconnection, but moreover to remind visitors we are biological beings and part of the biosphere, we hoped to aid that shift from the 'Egosphere' where humans reign over nature to the 'Ecosphere' in which we assume a place within the biosphere.
Johanna: Nowadays it is easy to disembody our experiences of both work and leisure, especially as so much of what we do can be done via digitally connected devices. While there is real value to this in terms of accessibility and inclusivity, there is also a risk of us disconnecting from one another and our relationship with nature. Through Make Good: Rethinking Material Futures at the V&A we used this as a challenge when we set up the Field Notes Summer School at Sylva Foundation last year. Through an open call-out, we invited design practitioners to spend a week at Sylva Foundation in Oxfordshire working in the Wood School workshop and engaging with trees and timber through hands-on learning. It was clear that this experience had a very positive effect on all the participants and improved our knowledge of and understanding of trees and timber and made us more aware of our own role within a complex network of exchanges between our bodies and nature.
The conversations around future(s) in design are trending as they grow in frequency, expand the strands of critique, and introduce new or evolving terminology. Join the conversation on STIR in reading and unravelling the future(s) discourse as a temporal map of how yesterday becomes tomorrow.
Istituto Marangoni London is hosting a series of 'Design In Conversation With' during the months of April and May 2023, and are free for all to attend.
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