A look at how design can promote narrative in the same way art does

The final chapter of Gareth Williams’ seminal book about the contemporary furniture industry, The Furniture Machine (2006), foretold the future. Pointing to the ‘lifestyle’ triumvirate – retail, fashion, media – Williams charted the appropriation of furniture as a carrier of meaning beyond mere function. That observation, in turn, kick-started his next project, which comes to fruition this month in Telling Tales. The exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum and its accompanying book investigate the recent phenomenon of design art, and the complex aims and motives of the designers producing these curious objects.

‘Cutting-edge contemporary design has conquered the taste market. It is very high-end and very expensive,’ says Williams. ‘I wanted to curate an exhibition of these museum-quality objects, but not simply display the expense and gloss without offering a critique.’

If these objects are conceived in a system that is closer to the fine art world than to industrial mass-production, with a designer’s personal project nurtured to fruition by an alliance of supportive gallerists and patient collectors, then it follows that the results will embody more complex concepts than ‘is this chair comfortable?’. ‘These designs allude to ideas beyond the object itself,’ suggests Williams. ‘I realised that story-telling and narrative connected these designers, because rather like art does, their objects evoke meaning, myths, fairy tales and history.’

Employing a methodology informed by literary criticism and material culture, Williams set out to ‘read’ the furniture displayed in Telling Tales, by charting the development of story and life in tandem, from the innocence and sanctuary of childhood and nature, to the worldliness of social display and its inevitable decadence, and the finality of anxiety and mortality. Williams’ thesis posits these design art objects as material embodiments of universal concepts and narrative moments.

But how have the designers reacted to this process? ‘I’ve given them hints of my thinking, and they’ve been open to the interpretation’, says Williams. ‘The designers are not consciously evoking these stories, but are providing us with glimpses into what we share. These designers feel confident enough to speak through their work and make statements.’

Williams’ project layers meaning on top of already completed designs, but how and why do designers create meaning and narrative in their own work? ‘We’re interested in objects that spark different stories in people’s imaginations, usually about what it would be used for, and we try to provide just enough clues to trigger a train of thought,’ explains Fiona Raby of Dunne & Raby.

She goes on to explain one of the projects, a coffin-sized safe-room, constructed from parquet-patterned oak. ‘The Hideaway objects deal with the emotional part of our lives, our irrational thoughts and anxieties, which are rarely acknowledged or materialised in any formal way. In many ways they are ridiculous – in their scale, their function and their attempts to become invisible through camouflage. They are themselves irrational, but they engage with idea of possibility.’

Isn’t that leaving too much of the meaning up to the individual, precisely because imagination is culturally specific? ‘That is the point. Ambiguity is very important, but it needs to be crafted; too much and people can’t make any sense of the design at all, too little and there’s no room for their imaginations to wander,’,suggests Raby. ‘We demand a lot from people who encounter our work – we think of narrative objects as generators of narrative rather than transmitters or representations. Imaginative interaction is essential.’

Fellow Royal College of Art tutor Julia Lohmann agrees with Raby’s insistence on ambiguity, but foregrounds accessibility. ‘Everything we communicate is understood subjectively. Consequently, it’s important that objects are accessible,’ she explains. ‘The best objects can be understood on a variety of levels and allow their users to understand them better the more they interact with them. If access points are considered during the design process, from functional to emotional and aesthetic, the user can reflect further. The objects shouldn’t shout their messages, but they work with what’s between your ears.’

Lohmann’s work explores the aesthetic potential of organic materials. ‘Every material has a very long story to tell,’ she says. ‘Sheep stomachs speak of pastures, grassland and slaughterhouses and about the successful breeding of an animal species over thousands of years; plastic speaks of ancient forests, sunk in the mud, of oil pipes and tankers, easy money and landfills. There are a vast array of stories.’

Formerly of Droog Design, Jurgen Bey creates both high-value limited editions and designs that are more affordable thanks to batch production. For him, narrative and ideas lead directly to change. ‘Design has its own language, and can guide people about how to use it. And when you can guide people, you can change society with design,’ explains Bey. He suggests that design can communicate in a similar way to how a fairy tale might address a complex issue under the veil ‘innocence’.

‘Society needs people to think differently, to be open, to appreciate otherness, since that is what fuels progress,’ says Bey. Once again, the slippery nature of language is something to be celebrated. ‘Things have their own language, and can be read by the culture they are made for. But misunderstanding is part of culture. We have been given different languages – thanks to the Tower of Babel. Imagine if we only had one language – we would understand everything, no questions asked. What would science be like if we had no riddles?,’ he says.

For designers and curators, objects that encourage contemplation and comment present endless narrative possibilities and ultimately create meaning. But, being open to reading that requires a little more effort than simply sitting comfortably.

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