Shape shifters

‘Rough Sea’ (2012), a 3m brass screen by Taher Chemirik at Galerie BSL at DesignMiami/, December 5-9

What’s new and interesting in the field of design? It’s a question that comes up particularly in the hot autumn season of the Milan Salone, the London Design Festival and – in a few weeks – the mighty DesignMiami/.

Prowling those glitzy aisles looking for something genuinely, strikingly unfamiliar can be a dispiriting business, and originality can be hard to find: like the yeti, there are many reports of its footprint in the snow, but rarely a genuine sighting. Rapid obsolescence is as central to our thinking as it is to our manufacturing industries; ideas now come with a sell-by date and we chuck them out like last year’s running shoes.

Writers are worrying away at the question of what is really new, and most seem to agree that the internet, once hailed as the ultimate ideas bank, has become a sort of curse on originality: if “everything that has ever been made, drawn, filmed, painted, written, sung, danced to and watched is here ... what’s next?”

This is Francesca Gavin, hot on the trail of the new in Dazed & Confused. She declares that “postmodernism feels like a rerun of a 1980s sitcom”, and quotes others lamenting the failure of today’s creators to “put their elders out of business”. Scanning the horizon for signs of new life, Gavin lights on Svetlana Boym’s concept of “off-modern”, a left-field take on knitting the creativity of the past into the vision of today.

In this approach to “history that strikes back like a boomerang”, they are both right on trend. And a boomerang is the right image: something thrown out that seems to defy the laws of movement by coming right back at you. Smoothly into your hands, ideally, but possibly to whack you on the back of the head.

One of the year’s wider themes in the arts is all about such circularities, and about the juxtapositions they can create: placing the contemporary against masterworks of the past, designers, artists, musicians and others are using this bouncing-off effect in the urge to create something new.

But does it work? Opinion is divided. Some see this as a sign that today’s makers are growing up and taking their place in the long scheme of things; others take the view that today’s visual innovators want to stand alongside the art of the past to validate themselves because, as far as ideas go, they are running on empty.

It hardly needs saying, though, that the new can be bad as well as good. A couple of years ago the art critic Jonathan Jones took issue with the notion of “good taste” in the contemporary, declaring that “nothing [is] more stultifying than an array of consumer choices paraded as a philosophy of life”. Ouch. But then, it was 2010 and Jones was defending his own regrettable lapse in taste – namely, a genuine interest in the work of Damien Hirst. (So pre-crash.)

Back to that circular thing, and the importance not just of tradition but of nostalgia. The most unlikely things come back into style. Some years ago a successful art dealer’s advice to young collectors was to look for the objects that your great-grandparents loved, buy them (they’ll be cheap) and you won’t have long to wait.

Now it’s a more recent circle, and the formula for nostalgia may be anything that’s just beyond the reach of adult memory: Wallpaper’s Russia special reports on a new design gallery in Moscow showing 1960s Soviet-bloc furniture from show-flats, while Dasha Zukhova’s new Garage in Gorky Park incorporates a long-abandoned 1970s restaurant.

Before the new building – by Rem Koolhaus’s OMA – is ready, Zhukova is using a temporary structure by Shigeru Ban, with 6m walls made of paper. Yes, paper. And here we see what’s truly innovative in design: not so much the way things look but what they’re made of. Technology is changing everything, including materials, while 3D printing rattles our notions of what “making” actually entails. Technology rules our eyes.

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