A couple of months ago I had the pleasure of interviewing a couple of very inspiring designers and artists for the October issue of Metropolis magazine.
Margrethe Odgaard’s interest in pattern could hardly be called superficial. The Danish designer has not only been utilizing pattern as a decorative element but also recognizing it as a force that guides most of our everyday experiences. Sometimes her work seeks to illustrate patterns already existing in our lives. At other times it even dictates how we use objects, like her tablecloth for Georg Jensen Damask—which gives guidelines on how to set the table and fold napkins—or her Divan daybed, which subtly directs where to lie on its surface.
A graduate of the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts who also studied “I’m looking to create design that not only replies to human behavior but also interacts with it and creates some kind of difference.” at the Rhode Island School of Design, Odgaard praises the role of apprenticeship in design education. “It teaches you to identify a problem where it’s not about your own artistic expression,” she says. “It’s more about how you can find a solution to a problem with the skills you have.”
Odgaard believes designers are ready to develop their own voices once they have sufficiently honed their skills. For her, this meant fostering a dialogue with other creative voices, from furniture designer Christina Liljenberg Halstrøm to chef Jakob Mielcke. “In that dialogue you refine your work and there’s a greater chance that it becomes relevant,” Odgaard says. “For me, collaborations are another kind of communication that makes me sharper to what my own identity is as a designer.”
The long process of gestation helps explain the impressive quantity and quality of work Odgaard has produced since officially launching her independent studio in 2012. What instantly comes across in her designs is a keen understanding of color and pattern, which nevertheless remain tightly bound to function. Particularly striking is her ongoing Fold Unfold project, where, uninspired by the idea of designing a tablecloth with a floral pattern that is disrupted by folding creases, Odgaard created a design in which color seems to be bleeding through the folds, the pattern both highlighting and camouflaging the creases.
While her work to date has spanned textile, graphic, and product design, Odgaard is now moving on to designing within the larger scale of architecture. Her first project: outfitting and color-setting the Danish Architects’ Association’s new headquarters, which is slated to open in December. “The way we move and what we feel in a room are both very interesting to me,” Odgaard says. “For each room, I have notes from the association where they tell me what activities will be going on, and my goal is to use pattern and decoration to emphasize that energy.”
But no matter the medium of expression, Odgaard’s work remains firmly grounded in a social context, illustrated by her project Colour Cup—lightbulbs encased in elegant beadwork, mimicking the technique of African basket weaving. Created in collaboration with women from KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, the light bulbs were designed to give the group an opportunity to expand their market and export their products. Since then, the Colour Cup has been acquired by both Muji and the Conran Shop. “I’m trying to engage with society in a different way and to take social responsibility,” Odgaard says. “I’m looking to create design that not only replies to human behavior but also interacts with it and creates some kind of difference.”
The roots of most of Brynjar Sigurðarson’s art and design work can be traced to the traditions of Iceland, but the 29-year-old artist and designer developed his fascination with his native country only upon moving to Switzerland to study at ECAL (École cantonale d’art de Lausanne). “I experienced a whole new perspective on the culture I come from,” Sigurðarson says. “Before, I didn’t know anything else.” He credits the move with cultivating his interest in the anthropology and geology of the region. “If geology is about the production methods of nature, for designers there is much to learn from that,” he says. These interests account for much of his work, from his Glacier Project candles and Spectrum vases—resembling waves crashing on Icelandic shores—to his Study Boards, which are visual repositories that bring together drawings, photographs, and collected objects from Icelandic villages.
Sigurðarson’s own design process, much like nature’s, is often mysterious. “Most of my work follows a feeling. I try to shape what comes to me,” the designer says. “I don’t really see myself as a conductor, but rather the performer.” Not surprisingly, his practice spans many mediums and is almost impossible to pin down. The one constant of Sigurðarson’s work—which encompasses drawing, design, theater, and video (a short documentary detailing hermit Borgþór Sveinsson’s search for the legendary bull-fish was recently acquired by MAK, the Museum of Applied Arts, in Vienna)—is his preference for examining materials and narratives rather than producing discrete functional objects.
His exploration of Icelandic traditions began with a one-month stay in Vopnafjörður, a remote fishing village in northeast Iceland. Part field study, part art project, the experience left an indelible mark on Sigurðarson’s practice. The turning point was meeting a 75-year-old shark hunter and fisherman, whose workshop Sigurðarson spent a week in, learning how to use netting needles to make fishing nets. The designer translated this technique into his 2013 Silent Village collection for Galerie Kreo in Paris. The exhibition showcased a selection of 11 furniture pieces embellished with various found objects and decorative details, including brightly colored rope and nylon fishing wire, in a reference to the binding technique. “I think decoration tends to be highly underestimated,” Sigurðarson says. “The decorative parts speak a language, in this case the language of the fishing village.”
Now splitting his time between Lausanne and Berlin, where he recently founded a studio with Veronika Seldmair, Sigurðarson continues working on what he dubs “exercises”—process-heavy pieces that oscillate between anthropology and design. “In my work I try to bring up a picture of the ambiguous environment and speak of my experience,” he says. “Things such as atmosphere and personal experiences tend to get overly complicated when put into words, so maybe it is not so far off to translate them in the shape of objects.”
“Simple” is not a dirty word for Sylvain Willenz. “There’s no point in designing something purely for the sake of being wild,” he says. “A designer doesn’t need to prove something through the object. What is essential is that the user finds it functional and friendly.” His belief that a simple form can still challenge a material is clearly visible in many of his projects, from the clean lines of his injection-molded plastic buckets to the sensuous beveled curves of marble and wood in the Alaka collection, developed in 2015 for the French manufacturer Retegui. This flexible approach and pared-down aesthetic has helped the Brussels-born Royal College of Art graduate amass a body of work that runs the gamut from furniture and lighting to textile design.
This prospect of variety is what appeals to Willenz and his small team as they work on projects varying from external hard drives to printed textile ranges. “I think for everyone in the studio it’s nice to be able to work on products that have different types of energy,” he says. “One day we’ll be working on something that will involve a lot of engineering, working with 0.01 millimeters, and then jump back to a textile where we’re talking about centimeters.” His rug collections for companies such as Ligne Roset and Menu fall into the second category, where Willenz abandons technical specificity for a painterly quality that lies somewhere between op art and colorfield painting. “I think the first rug we did was probably the hardest project to start,” he admits. “But then once we got started we just couldn’t stop—we had all these ideas. For me personally it was the perfect medium to express my interest in drawing and graphics.”
Connecting all of this diverse work is an immediately appealing aesthetic that projects softness and warmth. “I’m not about aggressive corners and angles,” Willenz says. “I like the idea that objects give you a reassuring feeling, that they have a sense of friendliness.” But he is also careful not to let familiarity veer into the realm of the formulaic. This can easily be seen in his 2015 Moor Club Seater, designed for the Belgian manufacturer Durlet. The concept evokes the long tradition of plump armchair design and imbues it with a cartoonish quality drawn from the Belgian heritage of illustration, all the while playfully subverting both influences. “You have this feeling that you’ve seen it, but you actually haven’t,” Willenz says. “It’s almost like déjà vu.” It’s this quality of design that seems at once old and new, present from some of his earliest works (he singles out the Torch lamp as a good example), that has carved out room for Willenz, deservedly setting him apart in the saturated field of design fairs and exhibitions.
Sean Baker believes a key aspect of design strategy is being aware of the discipline’s potential pitfalls. “One of the biggest worries I have with the spread of design thinking is the idea of a packaged set of tools that can just be copied and pasted into any situation,” he says.
For Baker, design is more about careful navigation between disciplines, being cognizant of constraints and comfortable with complexity. “Human beings are not prone to being at ease with ambiguity or taking risks,” Baker says, “especially when you tackle really complex issues like disaster management or response.” His background, which spans biological sciences, anthropology, and sculpture, plus a graduate degree in transdisciplinary design from Parsons the New School for Design, has more than set Baker up for this task. “I think one of the main things that designers in my position can bring to the table is questioning people’s preconceived notions of the problem, or the framing of the problem.”
This line of thinking has informed all of his undertakings, from the Newburgh Project, which helped local entrepreneurs envision businesses that could thrive in the still-struggling postindustrial city of Newburgh, New York, to Fuse: Next Generation, which guided a group of experts in developing extracurricular science and math programs.
Perhaps even more nuanced was Project Fogg, which brought together a highly diverse team of experts—from the federal government to members of grassroots organizations—in an effort to provide a platform that would address the lack of information that follows in the first 10 hours after a major natural disaster. Led by Baker, the stakeholders turned a theoretical project around community resilience into a material toolkit, producing a weather balloon outfitted with a camera and transmitter. These kits are set to increase the capabilities of disaster management by making response times and resource allocation faster and more accurate, bridging the gap between a community’s needs and institutional response.
It is this sensitivity to different perspectives and experiences, both expert and community-led, that has aided Baker in his transition from design consulting in New York to his current position as lead designer for the U.S. Office of Personnel Management’s Innovation Lab in Washington, D.C. There, he has taken on the revamp of USA Jobs, the federal hiring platform used by more than two million people, with the goal of adapting the search engine from a job seeker’s perspective. He is also helping the lab with the development of a design curriculum that could be applied across federal agencies. Once again, the project is not so much about providing a rigid framework for design thinking. “A lot of it is about changing the ethos of federal agencies,” Baker says. “It’s about getting them to see value in their personal expertise but understanding that syncing that expertise up with other disciplines is very enabling. And design strategy is this wonderful discipline that actually provides people with the tools that they need to navigate the complexity of that process.”
Full article: Metropolis