Numbers are not all the same. In mathematics, there are different classes of numbers, each corresponding to a different technique of calculation. There are ‘whole’ numbers, ‘rational’ and ‘irrational’ numbers, all belonging to the great set of ‘real’ numbers. Then there are ‘complex’ numbers, so called because they are composed of a real number combined with an imaginary unit ‘i’, namely that particular unit that when raised to the second power produces the result -1 (which would be impossible with any other number, because all the real numbers, positive or negative, produce a positive number as a result when squared). The fascinating aspect of complex numbers is that although they “should not exist” (as Descartes said), they have turned out to be necessary in many practical applications, ranging from engineering to quantum mechanics. These numbers, that is, which Descartes defined as “imaginary,” though lacking in a direct material counterpart, play a fundamental role in calculations that describe the behavior of real physical systems.
Something similar happens with ‘imaginary objects,’ entities that are increasingly widespread in the contemporary visual panorama, purely virtual objects that exist only as 3D renderings, which nevertheless interact with the physical dimension of design. These ‘imaginary objects’ influence, shape and move material things to a greater extent, interacting with them in a concrete way. One of the clearest cases is that of the Argentine designer Andrés Reisinger, whose ten imaginary objects belonging to the Shipping collection were auctioned off for an overall sum of 450,000 dollars. While on the one hand visual production has always influenced the aesthetics of real products, on the other we are now faced with a completely new phenomenon, which consists in the generation of unreal objects that have an original value in themselves and not due to their eventual and not always necessary translation into material. While Reisinger’s operation may seem like an art ploy, other much more pragmatic initiatives are already happening in the world of production.
Just consider the virtual fair ExpoWanted, which offers design companies the chance to show their products to buyers and visitors 365 days a year, in the form of 3D renderings and augmented reality installations. As Patrick Abbattista, CEO of DesignWanted, the company that has created the project, explains, “ExpoWanted is what company’s need to display their products in a three-dimensional way, to let people ‘touch’ them even at a distance. In the world of design details are everything. Materials, techniques, finishes are an essential part of sales.” In an era when more and more purchasing decisions are based on online experience, some leading companies in the furnishings sector, such as Pedrali, Natuzzi and Herman Miller, have already signed onto the platform, which expects growth not just in the year of the pandemic, but above all in the years to come, in which the ‘return’ to a ‘new normal’ will involve an increasingly structural interface between real and virtual experience.
The fact that the virtual is here to stay can paradoxically be seen above all when we look at what is happening in the design of solid furniture, which takes its aesthetic mood from that of imaginary objects more than it did in the past. Just consider projects like the Stack sofa by Nendo for La Manufacture or the Costume by Stefan Diez for Magis, which interpret the body of the product in a visual materiality with a soft sensation, gentle to the optical touch, with an almost sugary appearance. Or the Ro chaise longue in birch by Norwegian designer Nils Stensrud, and even the True Square watch model by Formafantasma for Rado, absolutely ‘serious’ and efficient objects that contain something of the aesthetic of toys, reproducing on the level of product design what happens in the graphic design of smartphone icons, which grant access to high-performance features of the device through a visual grammar similar to that of toys.
We are in a completely new phase of design, which perhaps is no longer simply contemporary but ‘post-contemporary,’ totally beyond the historic adage of the modern project, according to which the form had to follow the function, and even beyond its postmodern antithesis, which stated that form had to play with the function, at best. Today the form wraps, cuddles, absorbs the function, as in the Flock Shapes wall pieces by textile designer Kristine Mandsberg. The body of furniture becomes softer to the gaze, homeopathic, attenuating the otherwise angular semantics of rooms, as in the Royce chair by Nikolai Kotlarczyk for the brand SP01, and the Paddle sound-absorbing panels by Studio 28 for Ronda Design. Even products with a technological core, like the Bloom lamp by Tim Rundle for Resident or the Beosound Balance wireless speaker by Benjamin Hubert for Bang & Olufsen, embody the concept in a gentle material presence, impalpable, that seems to absorb the gaze of the digital user, tired of shimmering brightness, in a condition of aesthetic warmth.