For the latest Designers in Residence programme at London’s Design Museum, an all-female line-up explores the theme of ‘dwelling’
Until 26 March
Design Museum, London
Words by Debika Ray
Social housing, migration, sleep and the internet of things are among the topics explored at this year’s Designers in Residence exhibition at London’s Design Museum. Responding to the title Dwelling, the four participants — for the first time an all-female line-up — researched their chosen subjects in a seven-month residency during 2018, in the Design Museum’s dedicated studio, before presenting the results in an exhibition. Blueprint spoke to them about their work.
The Internet of Ears
On the opening night of the Designers in Residence exhibition, British prime minister Theresa May took to the stage to deliver a speech about Brexit. Well, really it was an actor dressed as May and the speech was a script generated by multidisciplinary design collective Legrand Jäger, using an algorithm — the designers fed the artificial intelligence system, called a ‘recurrent neural network’, official information about Britain’s departure from the European Union from multiple sources, to ‘teach’ it about the situation, and it then used this knowledge to generate written responses to certain topics or for specific speakers. Berlin-based Guillemette Legrand and Eva Jäger, who lives in London, met while studying at Design Academy in Eindhoven, and founded their studio in 2016 based on a shared interest in the intersection between technology, ethics and design. ‘We think our role is to create a new narrative around the impact of technology on our social and political system,’ Legrand says.
Legrand Jäger during the opening night performance of the Designers in Residence exhibition. Image Credit: Suzanne Zhang
During the residency, the duo explored the social and ethical implications of filling our homes with voice-controlled smart devices that use ‘sniffing’ technology to continually listen, analyse and learn — what are we giving away in privacy and control in exchange for this convenience and connectedness? ‘We were looking at how these four walls we think of as a house are becoming more and more permeable, and how that’s linked to bigger power structures,’ Legrand says. In the exhibition space is a carpet with a pattern developed based on these data collection systems.
Meanwhile, the performance considered a future in which public policy is created by artificial intelligence, in light of the increasingly targeted modes of analysis and influence that are shaping the democratic process. The speech combines the opinions of politicians, policymakers, diplomats and citizens, in a concept that Legrand Jäger aspires to develop into a medium for script-writing, to develop nuanced and complex characters.
Ella Bulley’s research began as a personal investigation into the physical artefacts that give tangible form to the memories of people who migrate far from home. ‘I grew up going back and forth [between London] and Ghana,’ she says. ‘Once, after spending a few weeks there, I was looking for a souvenir, and I started thinking about aesthetics and traditions merging in objects and how such an object would mean one thing for someone moving back to Ghana but a completely different thing for someone from Ghana coming to the UK or Europe.’ She started to investigate the material surroundings of two groups of people: Ghanaian expats in the UK and repats, people who return to Ghana after living abroad, and used her encounters to develop a series of designs that have both emotional and practical resonance, with an experimental approach to materials that drew on her studies in Textile Futures at Central St Martins. Her project is a reminder that your home is not just a container for daily life, but a personalised environment that connects to your memories and distant relationships.
Bulley’s work includes tiles that feature reinterpreted, stylised versions of traditional Ghanaian motifs and colours. Image Credit: Felix Speller
Among the works are tiles that feature reinterpreted, stylised versions of traditional Ghanaian motifs and colours, in bolder tones for repats and more muted ones for expats. It’s a design, she says, that she has already had demand for and is keen to develop further. She also created a series of scents that evoke culturally specific memories of familiar food and cosmetics, as well as a trunk that also functions as a decorative piece of interior design — a proposal for how people who travel frequently could more easily transport their possessions as oversized luggage. ‘I’d love to collaborate with a furniture company to develop a service for people to transport their furniture,’ she says. ‘It’s a new market for these companies, and one that they probably had not even been aware of.’
Growing Common Land
Scattered around the Design Museum and spilling out beyond its walls is a trail of plants installed by Hester Buck. Her project is a celebration of common green spaces — specifically those on social housing estates in Britain — and stemmed from her experiences of working on community garden projects and as part of a collective that uses events and design interventions to create conversations about civic engagement. ‘These spaces are neither public nor private, and that’s why they are interesting,’ she says, having observed the intimate relationships of shared gardens with people’s homes, their accessibility and the negotiation required to preserve them.
Buck’s installation at the Designers in residence exhibition. Image Credit: Suzanne Zhang
Buck’s aim was also to highlight a different way of thinking about the value of housing. ‘How we assess how well architecture works is very financial at the moment — for example, one of the definitions of a failed estate is if its house prices are significantly lower than its context. I wanted to foreground other values that are more social.’ The plants in the museum will be looked after by volunteers (including visitors) via a watering rota, a reminder that continuous work and collaboration is needed to maintain community assets. ‘Gardening and plants necessarily need ongoing care and that’s very different from the traditional role of an architect, who might deliver a project and then leave. I think that’s a really interesting role for a designer to have — that ongoing relationship with a community.’
Weary visitors can rest a while at Helga Schmid’s installation, inviting you to lie in a circular bed at the centre of a room, while sound and light guide you through your circadian cycle. The installation builds on Schmid’s PhD — titled Uchronia — in which she argued that our relationship with time is a remnant of a bygone era. ‘I was looking at our contemporary time crisis — why most of us never have enough time and [complain of] stress and burnout,’ she says. ‘My argument is that how we structure time is almost based on an agricultural system — we still have the saying “the early bird catches the worm”.’ She argues that contemporary working patterns mean we can now move away from the traditional nine-to-five model, and think instead about what works best for us — how much sleep you need or when you concentrate best.
For her installation, Schmid created a circular bed with sound and light guiding visitors through their circadian cycle. Image Credit: Francisco Ibáñez Hantke
The residency gave Schmid the opportunity to turn this idea into a spatial experience: she divided the day into seven different phases — including sleeping, concentrating and being physically active — then researched the colours and light intensities that facilitate these. The limited space meant she had to combine all seven phases into one room, but her ambition is to translate the installation to a larger space and she also has her eye on the once-revolving restaurant at the top of London’s BT Tower as a venue for a circadian experience. Ultimately what she’s proposing is not a prescriptive idea of how we all should live, but a suggestion for a more personal way of structuring time around the rhythm of our own bodies. As she says: ‘I would like everyone to develop their own uchronian idea.’ If the conventional binary division of the home into sleeping and waking spaces no longer applies, could we be looking at a fundamental transformation of how we design our domestic interiors?