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Design has shown a rebellious streak in recent months. At the opening of the Subversive Design exhibition at Brighton Museum and Art Gallery on England’s south coast late last year, curator Stella Beddoe defended the ability of applied and decorative arts to challenge convention and tackle serious social issues.
And this summer the Victoria and Albert Museum in London unveiled Disobedient Objects, an exhibition exploring how grassroots social and political movements can inspire ingenious design. Many of the pieces on display are objects of the street – banners, blockades and gas masks – but others are distinctly domestic. “We wanted to be really clear that street protest wasn’t everyone’s form of protest,” says Catherine Flood, one of the exhibition’s curators. “We are looking at objects which are made collectively as part of activist movements, and are in themselves tools for social change.”
The curators sought to show that domestic spaces are also hubs of collective political thought. “It’s about the transformation of the domestic sphere into a political space,” says co-curator Gavin Grindon. During Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship in Chile from 1973, traditionally feminine domestic spaces were turned into spaces of political protest. Groups of women assembled to sew arpilleras, appliqued textiles telling personal tales of conflict and economic hardship and illustrating the plights of missing persons through patchwork scenes. Often they used fabric taken from the clothes of loved ones who were lost.
“The women needed a safe space in which they could unify their cause,” says Roberta Bacic, a Chilean researcher who owns more than 150 arpilleras and curates travelling exhibitions. “In grouping together, the women had an internal space to reflect on their experiences and a support group in which to sew.” The women’s use of craft to create powerful documents of personal testimony evaded the authorities. Dismissed as folk art, the pieces were sold abroad. The appropriation of a domestic practice allowed the women to organise themselves in a political way, but it also painfully recalled a life lost. “Sewing signals the protection of everyday domestic life,” adds Bacic.
As a medium traditionally associated with folk art and female labour, textiles are often looked to as a subversive means for political comment. The London exhibition features work by textile artist Cat Mazza, who started “The Nike Blanket Petition” in 2003, and used her blog to promote her project in online craft communities in the US. “The idea was to ask hobbyists to consider their leisure handicraft or needlework in relation to the larger economic system that makes up most of what we consume,” says Mazza. She encouraged hobbyists to take part in her “micro revolt” and knit garments with corporate logos, helping to open a discussion about labour and consumption.
Like textiles, ceramics, too, have a rich political history. Disobedient Objects opens with a suffragette teacup and saucer, produced in 1909 by potters HM Williamson in Stoke-on-Trent. Emblazoned on the white porcelain is the emblem for the Women’s Social and Political Union, a bold political statement for women’s suffrage. The teacup not only demonstrates the suffragettes’ pioneering techniques in merchandising, but also the carefully managed introduction of political discussion into Edwardian drawing rooms.
“Craftivism” – instilling social change through craft – operates widely today. Paul Scott, whose porcelain plates were exhibited in Brighton, uses ceramics to comment on environmental issues. One of his plates illustrates the damage caused by the Three Gorges Dam in China, depicting a scene in which the traditional Chinese willow pattern is enveloped by waves and topped by a tourist boat. The exhibition also showcased the work of Tapio Wirkkala, the Finnish designer who created vases in the shape of crumpled paper bags, and Rebecca Joselyn, who makes objects out of precious metals in the shape of everyday discarded containers.
For self-proclaimed “renegade potter” Carrie Reichardt, pottery is the perfect vehicle for political comment. “The beauty of craft is that it can seduce its audience. People are drawn to the fine finish of the piece. There is an expectation that craft work is gentle, decorative and safe – but once an audience is engaged, it is the ideal place to explore radical and controversial ideas,” says London-based Reichardt.
She recalls the English artist Grayson Perry’s well-known assertion, “I can be outrageous because the vice squad is never going to raid a pottery exhibition.” Reichardt collects and defaces vintage commemorative porcelain, so that royal wedding souvenir plates are populated with monkeys’ heads and irreverent slogans. Her technique is a career-long development, a method of transferring images on to ceramic tiles in the kiln. The V&A commissioned Reichardt to mosaic the grand entrance to the museum to accompany the exhibition.
Furniture design has historically brushed with politics. At the turn of the 20th century, William Morris and fellow artists promoted traditional craftsmanship and applied folk styles of decoration to designs which rallied against industrialisation. In 1913, Roger Fry, Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant opened the Omega Workshops, a London design centre that produced colourful textiles, ceramics and furniture in an aesthetic revolt against Victorianism. The underlying philosophies of these movements can be seen in the work of designers today, such as Thomas Heatherwick, who produces furniture by squeezing heated metal through a shaped mould, and Brazilian brothers Fernando and Humberto Campana, who create furniture from everyday materials found on the street.
Such examples show that commercial design can also be a vehicle for social ideas. Rebellious sophistication can be seen across contemporary design, from the jewellery of Simone Brewster to lighting by Studio Job, as well as in ceramics by Kathleen Hills, David Shrigley and Reiko Kaneko.
Oliver Winchester, chief curator of the Design Museum in London, cites Italian furniture design of the 1960s and 1970s as a hotbed of political thought. “Italy was always thinking about the object itself in antithesis to the American focus on mass production,” he says. In the museum’s permanent collection is the “AEO chair”, designed in 1973 by Paolo Deganello, co-founder of the Archizoom group in Florence. Deganello was not interested in beauty, but in comfort, hailing a new era of functional aesthetic in furniture design. “Each constituent part was designed to be as comfortable as possible,” says Winchester. “The focus is on putting the parts together, transferring the power of construction to the user.” By using a network of small-scale suppliers who would produce the individual parts of the chair, Deganello connected craftsmanship to mass production.
What Deganello shared with his contemporary designers was a desire to see the consumer actively participate in his politics. Italian designer Enzo Mari was also a proponent of the blueprint, producing self-assembly kits for chairs and beds throughout the 1970s. He was opposed to mass production and believed home furniture could be a statement of an individual’s social beliefs. “[Mari] was interested in the art of constructing furniture as a way of educating people and encouraging them to appreciate the art of manufacturing design,” says Winchester.
Michael Marriott, a London-based furniture designer, dislikes the current hunger for “eye-catching work that often ignores ecological concerns. Design is now driven by image and a desire for the new as opposed to [the] better”. For Marriott, good design needs to withstand time and passing fashions; that something is robust is the most important facet of an object.
“Design is about structural logic, not about the designer’s ego,” he says. “Aesthetic qualities are inevitably applied, but when things are beautifully engineered and built to last a lifetime, that’s a mark of fineness.”
‘Disobedient Objects’ runs at the V&A, London, until February 1 2015
Slideshow photographs: Getty; Ian Thomas/V&A; Mike Russell; Cat Mazza; The Scottish Gallery, Private Collection; David Cripps; Martin Melaugh