Natural Fringe

March 17, 2011

The installation work of designers Tokujin Yoshioka and Numen/for use explores the alluring grey area between art and design.

The parallel worlds of art and design have always shared an interesting middle ground. Slightly obscure in terms of purpose or functionality – the sort of things that designers are always concerned with – this grey area, where odd-ball experiments and some hefty philosophical concepts meet, is precisely where the art world is perhaps most engaged with that of design these days. In this post-modern age of peculiar spectacle, the installation as an art form has firmly taken its place as one of the most recognised art genres of the more exploratory realm. As a flexible medium that lends itself to all sorts of tests and discoveries, whether conceptual or physical, the genre allows a vast and open creative space to be reinterpreted by artist and designer alike, reminding us that they are, so often, one in the same. Open-ended for both practioners to examine the fringe of their creative processes, modern art installations have become the ultimate auxiliary of creative space – to let loose of all inhibitions. A natural grey zone where two disciplines meet, this area is where questions are asked, but answers are not so important. Rather than creating material objects, this work is about creating moments in time and visceral experiences.

Designer Tokujin Yoshioka seems to revel in this middle ground. Somewhat his unique trademark for well over a decade now, his installations stand as an exemplary case of this hybrid between designer and artist. His works have manifested into a beast of artistic appeal over the years, and yet he continues to ride this line between designer and artist. Recently, the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo, having good confidence and faith in his unique work, allowed him the space to realise his largest exhibit to date: an impressive show titled Sensing Nature. Given the opportunity, he went as far as to revisit and magnify an old concept that he first worked on more than 10 years ago (alongside Issey Miyake in 1997) called Snow – recreating a blizzard of snow in a confined but ample space. Though strongly inspired by the movements of light snow, the sound of wind and the unabated brilliance of natural light, Yoshioka admits, “what I would like to do is not so much reproduce nature, but to know how human senses function when experiencing nature.”

Whether designing a piece of furniture for Kartell or enveloping his viewers in a blizzard of clear plastic straws, his tendency to take inspiration from nature’s way seems to constantly overlap in all his creative endeavours. Showing an extended range in his vision and versatility, his installations have a studious element that reveals an interesting facet to his design process.

“The most beautiful things in this world, I believe, are those that are irreproducible – the accidentally born, and a disorder that cannot be understood by theory,” he says. “I believe that nature is the ultimate beauty in this world.”

In this case it’s a matter of embracing the wild logic of organic forms – and perhaps not the decoding of them. Riding a similar train of thought, the most recent and all-too-clever ‘webbing’ experiments of Viennese/Croatian design collective Numen / for use have also been exploring and appreciating the lessons to be learned from natural, organic forms. And much like Yoshioka, they have their massive art installations to thank for such intuitive exploration. In recent years, Numen / for use have garnered the attention of art mavens across the map, from Berlin to Melbourne, Buenos Aires and back to Europe again. However, their aim to enter the modern art world was never so deliberate. Curious of other possible outlets they could find as designers, a motive quite similar to that of Yoshioka, Numen / for use have been experimenting with installation work for years, but rather making a small business of it – in the area of theatre set design.

“Yeah, at first we tried to propose this idea to several theatre producers we had worked with, but we didn’t come across any real opportunity to develop this in theatre,” says Nikola Radeljkovic. “We finally said ‘ok, let’s try this on our own’ – bought a few hundred rolls of tape and some cardboard tubes – and we did the first run (based on a small scale model that we had been toying with in the studio).”

Sven Jonke, Christoph Katzler and Nikola Radeljkovic came together a little over 10 years ago as a collective of young designers in Vienna, having graduated in design and architecture in Zagreb, Croatia (Katzler in Austria). As any intuitive and like-minded collective, they bumped heads and merged their creative identities, creating a cohesive brand of furniture and product design. By 2001, their designs were gracing the production lines of Moroso, MDF Italia and Cappellini. However by 2009, after years of high-end design practice, they decided to go independent and produce work on their own, registered and labelled under the for use brand, and most recently a new range of wood furniture tagged Element.

Now the quality of their furniture design alone merits good attention, but their natural capacity to create beyond this sector of design reveals an important facet to their creative approach. In the same way that Yoshioka began to dabble with his installations in his early years, Numen began testing this middle ground with various art exhibitions, ultimately diving into theatre set design.

From a scale model of questionable possibilities to an abandoned warehouse attic where these ‘tape experiments’ first took shape and solidified, it always remained an experiment. Soon enough the old Vienna stock exchange building would become the prime location to test the real structural abilities of this adhesive tape. And indeed it proved worthy of the 200-hour effort. “When we got carte blanche from Vienna Design Week, we said, ‘ok, we have to keep using this concept and maybe allow some people inside — now that we know it works,’ so we made a much bigger installation and allowed 20 people to roam around. We even had a party in and around it when the show was over.”

Since then a chain of events has continued to unfold for Numen, and these massive web-like formations have become a primary focal point of the collective’s work, recently taking centre stage at DMY 2010 (Berlin’s International Design Festival). This year in particular, they’ve come to realise that they are learning something valuable from this artistic, more organic form of design.

“For example, the tape naturally reacts to our movements and position, and we might see this as replicating a real spider-netting process,” say Radeljkovic. “In the end you get this perfect form – which could have easily been produced with some highly sophisticated 3D software – but it’s actually organically accomplished. The idea is that this is a sort of natural technology, and our only goal is to understand it. To follow it and respect it can lead to many more things. We don’t want to go against it.”

Sensing Nature experiments and studies the laws of natural design in the same respect. Aiming to acknowledge not only the subjective beauty of these organic forms, but learning from their reactive and even interactive qualities is perhaps a lesson that is being revalued in contemporary design; a lesson proving that all ‘innovative form’ or structures in design are sourced from what we have already known in the principles of nature. Yoshioka and Numen are simply resurfacing the wisdom of our elements. It’s interesting how the artist has always found nature to be a major source of inspiration, and that designers are somehow rediscovering this intuitive nature to create art, as opposed to just another thing.


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