Rejecting functionality can help designers tell better stories

Form and functionality have long been the focus of design, but a growing number of designers are shifting away from this, creating projects that prioritise history, culture and narrative in their products.

Credit: Eliza Collin & Julie Fox, Samak Bilab Bi Delo, Material Connections

“Objects don’t have to be just objects – if you weave a story into an object, its tangibility might make someone believe it,” says Abbie Adams, a designer and educator working with The Koppel Project, an organisation with two mixed use gallery and workspaces in London.

At this year’s London Design Festival, she has curated Material Connections, an exhibition that showcases designers from around the world who have departed from direct functionality, in favour of methods and products that “tell stories”.

The exhibition is part of a larger trend, which looks to question long-held beliefs about design and making. “I did a very conventional product design course at university,” Adams says, “and while it gave me some amazing skills, I was constantly disheartened by the continual need for something to function, do a job and be sold – I don’t see that being necessarily the primary thing that design can do.”

Credit: Cecily Ophelia, Material Connections

Adams has curated work by a group of designers who find value in crafting methods and materials themselves. Those involved come from all over the world and have practices that range from generations-old construction methods, to ultra-modern, science and engineering techniques.

Of course, form and function are vital ingredients for many designers and consumers, but there’s definitely space and demand for a different approach, and Adams is pragmatic in her outlook.

“Realistically, I could buy a glass from Habitat or somewhere similar, and it’ll function exactly as I need it. On the other hand, I could buy a glass from one of the only two traditional glass-blowers left in Herat (in western Afghanistan),” she says. “It’s not something that’s made in a factory, it’s an archive of the understanding of a practice, and if you don’t continue to purchase those artisan’s work, the craft dies out with them.”

Credit: Ishkar, Ghulam Sekhi, Material Connections

By intricately tying methods and materials to the products themselves, many creators and designers can enjoy a level of agency they wouldn’t usually be afforded. For example, the exhibition showcases, among other things, clothing made in collaboration with traditional Ugandan artisans, and works created by designers living in countries affected by war.

Rather than being imbued with a narrative in the way an art piece might be, these works inherently carry the story of their making – arguably in the way that any cottage industry or crafted product does.

“It’s so important for all artisans and creators to see their work being consumed and appreciated around the world,” Adams explains. “The idea that the work and practice itself exists is amazing to start with, but that it can be recognised by people who wouldn’t ever interact with them otherwise, is even better.

“A lot of the designers [in the exhibition] don’t want to be part of the problem [of mass production] but are aware that they are because of the line of work they’ve chosen. So instead, they’re using their practice to shine light on people, communities and stories that don’t get focused on as readily.”

Credit: Yinka Ilori

This is how designer Yinka Ilori operates too. His designs help him express the duality of his Nigerian-British heritage using traditional African fabrics and patterns. By using these materials and crafts, he’s able to give others an insight into his own experiences.

Ilori points out that through his practice, he can give objects a new narrative; what may have started out as a Scandinavian-made chair, gets a Nigerian makeover and then gets sold in Britain. “It gives people an insight into my mind, thought processes and experiences,” he says. “It allows people to take something away from it that they wouldn’t usually.”

For many designers, storytelling through design is naturally a collaborative endeavour. It makes for multifaceted products that are often able to bridge a cultural gap. “Design can be quite rusty, if we don’t freshen things up then new talent can’t break through,” says Ilori. “But everyone around the world has a different approach to design. The outcome will always be different if you’re collaborating with other designers.”

Credit: Yinka Ilori

But telling a story requires time and effort that mass-producing doesn’t. “If you’re going to design a chair that’s a one-off, there’s a lot of process and time dedicated to it, so it’s probably going to make it more expensive – but that’s not necessarily a bad thing,” adds Ilori, who believes today’s consumers often look for quality, longer-lasting pieces.

It’s worth noting however, the influence that storytelling has on designers who are geared towards the mass market. Back in May, Ikea launched its first African-inspired collection, in collaboration with 10 African designers. Ikea creative leader James Futcher said the collection was a “palette of socialising tools”, which encourage people to “share stories and spend time with one another”.

But Ilori’s practice isn’t geared towards mass production. “I like to explain the story of each of my pieces,” Ilori says. “It’s important for me to show people what goes into it.”

Credit: Yinka Ilori

“The kind of environment we live in, it’s so fast,” he says. “We need chairs, so we design chairs. They might not look nice, might not have a story, but they work. And they might end up in a skip later on.” By taking the focus away from the end product, designs can go beyond functionality.

Ilori points out that storytelling through design can illustrate big issues too. “Our work can speak to all the issues we face today, like knife crime or politics, if we want it to.

“But if we aren’t educating people on how important our work is as designers, no one is ever going to know,” he adds. Some of Ilori’s own pieces cover topics as various as social class, hope and sexuality. By addressing topics like this, using processes and materials that relate to these issues, Ilori wants people to remember the lessons of his work.

Whether this trend is being driven by consumers just wanting to find truly one-off pieces, or from a genuine desire to engage with the stories of materials and crafts, Abbie Adams doesn’t mind. “You’re tying people into the narratives you’re trying to tell,” she explains. “They either buy it because they’re interested in those narratives, or because they think what you’re designing is beautiful. Either way, the story gets out there.”

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