“Collecting is a psychological condition: that of a person who seeks something that has been lost, and can never be truly found again.” This is how Rolf Fehlbaum, the owner of Vitra, explained his passion for the collection and cataloguing of objects to Alice Rawsthorn, guest curator of the Milano Design Film Festival 2019. In his case, the subject is chairs: at the Vitra Design Museum he has 20,000 of them, narrated in the film “Chair Times.”
People afflicted with the “psychological condition” mentioned by Fehlbaum are numerous, and the web has made collecting – especially of the ‘minor’ variety, focusing on objects ‘without value’ – a very widespread phenomenon, also because it is sustained by precious tools: a dedicated search engine (Barnebys), a magazine (Collectors Weekly), many online auctions, and the erudite blog “Collezione da Tiffany” (made in Italy).
Part of this universe is inhabited by designers and architects, categories always subject to the temptation to collect. Historical examples include Le Corbusier and the Eameses (who filmed their collections of objects, such as spinning tops). In Italy we had Achille Castiglioni. The master designer, his daughter Giovanna explains, “collected anonymous objects for his personal pleasure, to surround himself with things that spoke to him. Then he used them as examples during his classes at the Polytechnic, or as sources of inspiration: he observed them, gaining stimuli that could then lead elsewhere. From a pencil to flatware for Alessi, from a milking stool to a seat for Zanotta, from a tumbler to a lamp for Flos…”
Other modes of collecting have also developed. “I have typological fixations,” says Odo Fioravanti, who has collected objects since his college days, and owns about 2000 of them (“a very rough estimate”). “For example, I like kitchen timers and folding chairs. Or the products of a particular company (Braun, Tupperware). Or certain lines of products (objects in wood by Sottsass for Twergi).”
It is precisely this theme of typological reasoning that is coming back to the fore in the last few years, with exhibitions, books and studies. Through display and narration, the collection of a designer becomes a way to supply new perspectives on design and to attract a wider audience. The type-based exhibition, in fact (if well organized, displayed and captioned) sends clear messages about things, permitting an approach that would otherwise be unthinkable for non-professionals, and telling stories that express bonds of affection that enable us to truly appreciate objects. And, therefore, the project (conscious or not, anonymous or signed) behind the objects.
The first instance of this approach was the Venice Architecture Biennale curated by Rem Koolhaas (2014), which proposed an analysis that “looks under a microscope at the fundamentals of our buildings, used by any architect, anywhere, anytime: the floor, the wall, the ceiling, the roof, the door, the window, the façade, the balcony, the corridor, the fireplace, the toilet, the stair, the escalator, the elevator, the ramp.” A ‘catalogue of knowledge’ from which a critique also emerged regarding the ‘lightness’ of much contemporary architecture as opposed to more ‘solid’ historical examples.
Since then a series of small but significant exhibitions have been made around collections of objects without airs, but of great anthropological value. ‘Exercises’ that have narrated, between the lines, the intense focus of designer not only on things but also and above all on the people who use them. In this direction, in 2015 Giulio Iacchetti showed us the evolution of military food rations, and in 2017 that of clothespins (both at the Triennale), while in 2019 he examined the coffeepots of the great masters. The latter, at the Lavazza flagship store in Milan until 3 November, offered an interpretation of the history of the ‘moka,’ identifying 1979 as the watershed year in which the most popular object in Italy was transformed from a simple piece of household gear into a terrain for design exploration.
Collections Typologie, a French design studio and publishing house, also moves along these lines, creating books of objects narrated in historical terms. The first one, in 2017, was on bocce balls. The others, in 2019, are on wine bottles and corks, giving rise to two exhibitions presented at the FuoriSalone in April, at the London Design Festival in September (in the shop of Jasper Morrison) and the Vitra Design Museum, until 31 May 2020. The studio is presently working with a focus on wooden crates.
“We analyze the objects we use every day, which are part of our culture, things that are very familiar, so they are not granted the right critical distance,” says Raphaël Daufresne (co-founder with Guillaume Bloget, Thélonious Goupil and Guillaume Jandin of Collections Typologie). “We try to understand why they have a certain form, and why they are so widespread in everyday life. For all the objects we have studied, we have discovered a very long history and a complex anthropological background. Because to evolve, to be refined and to reach a state of perfection and efficiency, the form of an object needs time.”
The evolution and interpretation of an object is also the subject of “U-Joints,” curated by Andrea Caputo and Anniina Koivu (shown again a few months ago at ECAL after the presentation at the FuoriSalone 2018), which studied the theme of the joint through experiments, prototypes and creations of 50 designers. “I believe exhibitions should tell a story, revealing an unknown or forgotten detail, or should simply help us to look at design from another perspective,” Koivu says. “To reorganized design objects under new umbrellas, a typology, a focus on joints, a taxonomy, a specific moment in time: these are ways to remind ourselves that there is much more to be designed, with respect to the form and functioning of an object.”
In a historical moment in which the biggest risk for the profession is the spread of decorativism at the expense of typological innovation, this is a strong and significant message, towards a concrete return to making ‘design culture.’ And to potentially widen the coverage, beyond the milieu of professionals and fans, thanks to clear, immediate tools of communication.