Profile Picture: Digital Design from Africa

mathare
A detail of the Mathare Slum as seen in the MapKibera initiative. Image © MapKibera

Avinash Rajagopal and I, as part of Superscript, contributed an analysis of contemporary digital design in Africa to the accompanying catalogue of Making Africa. The natural culmination of our role as Consultants for New Media and Technology, and members of the Advisory Board, the essay was a pleasure to write and research, and wouldn’t have been possible without the invaluable assistance of Dalia Ohtman, a Research Fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University and a Visiting Scholar at the MIT Center for Civic Media. An excerpt of the essay can be read after the jump.

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Making Africa: A Continent of Contemporary Design

Making Africa catalogue

Making Africa: A Continent of Contemporary Design, published by the Vitra Design Museum accompanying the exhibition of the same name. Photo by Double Standards

As part of Superscript, Avinash Rajagopal and I served as Consultants for New Media and Technology and members of the Advisory Board of the most recent exhibition at the Vitra Design Museum, Making Africa: A Continent of Contemporary Design. Curated by Amelie Klein and born out of three years of research, this ambitious exhibition seeks to change perceptions on what the continent is and can be, presenting Africa as a hub of experimentation generating new approaches and solutions of worldwide relevance — and as a driving force for a new discussion of the potential of design in the 21st century. The exhibition focuses on a new generation of entrepreneurs, thinkers and designers from and within Africa, who – as “digital natives” – address a global audience and provide the world with a new vantage point on their continent.

Avinash and I further contributed an essay to the catalogue and assisted the editing of the English edition of the Making Africa catalogue. It was a pleasure to work with Amelie and the Vitra Design Museum team in this fantastic project.

Tanto Mar


With Shumi Bose, Ethel Baraona Pohl and Tiago Mota Saraiva at the Tanto Mar roundtables. Photo by Tanto Mar.

Last December marked the public presentation and discussion of the Tanto Mar project, an excellent initiative of Lisbon-based architecture studio ateliermob. They propose to map and register the work of Portuguese architects outside of Portugal, reuniting their work in an exhibition in Lisbon’s CCB cultural centre. The project launched an open call to Portuguese architects abroad, and invited critics, curators and architects to discuss the submissions in two open roundtables. I was happy to take part in the international roundtable last 13 December, alongside Blueprint magazine’s Shumi Bose, dpr.barcelona’s Ethel Baraona Pohl, and ateliermob’s Tiago Mota Saraiva. The discussion was enlivened by the audience and a few agents provocateurs – Fredy Massad, Anna Buono and Cesar Najera Reyes – and a series of important trends and topics soon emerged. Alongside the results of the Portuguese roundtable that was held the previous days, these will inform and shape the curatorial process that will then materialize in an exhibition, which will open in Spring 2014. Thanks to ateliermob for the invitation and for having me! It was a pleasure to take part in the discussion and I look forward to see what the exhibition will bring.

The Milan Breakfasts 2013


The Milan Breakfasts, 2013. Photo by Ilco Kemmere

During the 2013 Salone del Mobile in Milan, I participated in one of Premsela/DAE’s Milan Breakfasts, discussing Linking Process alongside moderator Tracy Metz, DAE’s Miriam van der Lubbe, V&A’s Corinna Gardner and Vitra Design Museum’s Marc Zehntner. The breakfasts have become a staple of the Salone in the last years, and I was delighted to have the opportunity to discuss the display of designer’s processes in recent exhibitions and in the museum and gallery context. Discussion was accompanied by coffee and brioches (the Milanese term for croissant), and a podcast of the hour-long discussion can be heard on Soundcloud. Thank you to DAE/Premsela!

The Adhocracy Reader


The Adhocracy Reader, page detail. Photo by Ethel Baraona Pohl

During the summer of 2012 I was lucky enough to be involved in the preparation of Adhocracy, an exhibition curated by Joseph Grima with Elian Stefa, Ethel Baraona Pohl and Pelin Tan for the 1st Istanbul Design Biennial. My collaboration with the team materialized in the exhibition catalog, which I co-edited with Avinash Rajagopal and Tamar Shafrir. The Adhocracy Reader was designed by Folder (Marco Ferrari and Elisa Pasqual), and in its 400 pages we tried to push the concept of a standard catalog and create a reader, evoking a standard college reader — a compilation of pre-published material. A series of introductory essays frame the exhibition’s premises and the catalog’s intentions, followed by a carefully curated selection of material on the projects on display in the exhibition, alongside a series of pre-existing essays. The whole catalog can be consulted on Issuu, and a Flickr photoset by Ethel Baraona Pohl can be seen here.

Concrete Mushrooms


Concrete Mushrooms. Photo by dpr.barcelona

During June and July 2012, I copy-edited and helped Elian Stefa finish the book Concrete Mushrooms: Reusing Albania’s 750,000 Abandoned Bunkers, which was then published by dpr.barcelona in August 2012. The book, in Albanian and English, traces the history and fascinating “bunkerization” of Albania during the last years of Enver Hoxha’s dictatorship, and proposes a series of uses for these now discarded military structures. The project was originally started as a research project at the Politecnico di Milano. In August 2012, Concrete Mushrooms was also one of the initiators of Concrete in Common, an exhibition at  the Kunst Raum Riehen, in Basel, Switzerland — which I reviewed for Domusweb —, and was presented as one of the projects in the Albanian Pavilion at the 13th International Architecture Exhibition — Venice Biennale 2012.

On Banana Fibers: Considering the Social Mandate for Design


Metro Cable in Caracas, Venezuela, featured in the MoMA exhibit “Small Scale, Big Change“. Image credit: Iwaan Ban.

I co-wrote this article with Avinash Rajagopal as part of the second issue of the “New City Reader — A Newspaper of Public Space,” October 22, 2010. This was a newspaper edited by Joseph Grima and Kazys Varnelis, as part of the New Museum’s “The Last Newspaper” exhibition, which ran from October 2010 till January 2011.

Elizabeth Scharpf reached into a tote bag, and with all the flair of a Vegas conjuror, pulled out strand after white candy floss strand of banana fibers. “This is the local material we chose to work with,” she announced. The rabbit Scharpf was pulling out of the hat was her miraculous sanitary pad innovation for Rwandan village women. The occasion—her acceptance speech for the Curry Stone Design Prize 2010, which she won for the “social venture SHE which launches businesses to address some of the world’s most pressing problems.”
As ever, the world seems extraordinarily pressed with problems. The ice caps are melting, ducks are covered with crude oil, children are starving somewhere in Africa, and we’re losing our jobs. If the multitude of conferences, awards and exhibitions in New York are anything to go by, architects and designers are all over it. The Cooper Hewitt’s Why Design Now? symposium—where Scharpf’s banana fibers were first greeted by appreciative titters—answered its titular question with the rather ambitious title “Solving Global Challenges.” A new show at MoMA, Small Scale, Big Change, is advocating social engagement in architecture, through eleven projects from around the world. And the Curry Stone Design Prize 2010 puts a $100,000 price tag to addressing “critical issues such as access to clean air, food and water, shelter, health care, energy, education, social justice and the promotion of peace.”

It’s clear to any designer listening—big problems are the only problems worth solving. The first of which, of course, was the inconvenient truth. But with its emphasis on reducing materials and cutting back on wasteful consumption, sustainability could only offer so much fuel for the design machine. Design has since moved from protecting the ozone layer to saving underprivileged people. At the Why Design Now? conference, the panel on green design was just a pit stop on the way to the biggest goal of them all—Design for Social Change.

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Legerdemain


The entrance of Fernando Brízio: Inhabited Designs, at EXD’11/LISBOA. Photo: Luís Rocha.

I recently contributed to the companion brochure of EXD’11/LISBOA’s retrospective exhibition of the work of the contemporary Portuguese industrial designer Fernando Brízio. Titled Legerdemain, my essay sought to understand Brízio’s posture and design production, placing him in context among other international designers of his generation. I originally wrote in Portuguese, and the text was translated to English by the lovely Rute Paredes. Thanks to Frederico Duarte for valuable insight!

Fernando Brízio belongs to that generation of Portuguese product designers who, upon finishing college in the mid 90s, found themselves in a difficult and paradoxically privileged position. This is a generation of pioneers. Pioneers because, for the first time, they are free from the outdated moulds of the profession, which until then had been mostly limited to consultancy work for the industry and market. And pioneers because when, in 1996, Brízio finished his course in the Faculty of Fine Arts of Universidade de Lisboa, Portugal was a country coming to terms with the reality of its first decade after joining the EU. The influx of European investment was taking a long time to bear fruit, industry and competitiveness were weakened by the open markets policy and design was still unable to find its place in industry. As such, the most recent generation of designers would have to carve out a place for themselves.

Fernando Brízio would therefore become a designer the way you were a designer in the 90s: by being an author.

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Learning from the bricoleur


Image: Zwelethu Mthethwa, Untitled (from the series Interiors) (detail), courtesy of the MAD blog.

Disegno is a new design magazine that seeks to bring back long form critical writing and reflection to the design field; it appears in the form of a website, a biannual print magazine, and a series of events. I wrote my first essay for the Disegno website on how contemporary designers seek to emulate the figure and spirit of the bricoleur. As one of the magazine website’s Lessons, I traced back the origin of this term and its current implications, as seen in examples as the Museum of Arts and Design’s recent exhibition “Are You a Hybrid?” curated by North-American designer Stephen Burks, which I also critique. An excerpt is below:

Fascinated by the craftsmanship behind these creations,Are You A Hybrid? is trapped within the boundaries of formalism. Burks’ simplistic presentation of a powerful creative force is representative of the limited Western perception of the figure of the bricoleur. It also implies that this creative impulse can be appropriated and emulated by Western designers, reducing it to a formal trend. But what escapes Burks and much of the Western design world is the true essence of the bricoleur, which cannot be copied or crystallised. Because this creative impulse lives in a state of permanent flux, the stillness of the museum pedestal will only extinguish it. Because this maker only exists in the periphery of society, bringing him to the centre will thwart him.

The Western design world’s selfish fascination with the bricoleur seeks to tame and incorporate this elusive spirit within the discipline’s moulds. But it should instead observe and learn from a creative process that, unlike design, is unskilled and indifferent to conventions and standards. This tenacious, resistant spirit, intrinsic to emerging design scenarios, is already helping the discipline grow and reshape in developing nations. It is now up to the West to catch up.

The complete piece can be seen over at Disegno, as well as some reading suggestions if you’re interested in the topic.