When it arrived, the end of the world came on the installment plan. Islands of plastic, rising sea levels, melting glaciers, mushy permafrost, destabilized ecosystems, all the way to the leap from one species to another of a virus that has forced us to come to grips with a reality we have pushed into the background for too long. When after weeks of silence surrounded by firm restrictions (lockdown) but without a horizon of reference (an unnerving lack of clarity in any possible strategy), life has resumed. But what awaited us was not the ‘normality’ we left behind. We are in a different world, a narrower place of limited quotas, desynchronized and ‘distanced.’
All this is happening now, at the start of a new decade. As already happened on other occasions in the past, once again the opening of a new decade forces design culture to reset its foundations and venture into an unexpected (but not unforeseeable) future. In particular, the model of economic wellbeing we have cherished till now, based on aggressive exploitation of natural resources, is no longer sustainable – not for the planet, which in any case proceeds towards its cosmic and necessary outcome – but for us. The question is no longer ‘if’ we will pass to a less arrogant economic system in relation to the environment: whether we do it or not, the environment has already begun to react, in a drastic way, and if the decisive clash finally comes it is not hard to predict who will be defeated.
But this isn’t the point. It is not about the assertion of the values of the economy ‘against’ those of sustainability. Instead, it is about how to defuse this conflict, to undo the opposition between manmade and ecological. We have to all, directly, take a step back, to detoxify ourselves from a model of ‘wellbeing’ that in spite of the best intentions (when they exist) is presenting us with a costly bill to pay, which is no longer affordable. This is the epochal challenge for design. To work to dismantle this contradiction. To orchestrate the aesthetic and functional narrative of the contemporary world through a constellation of responses conceived for a planet at the boiling point, for seas that eat up lands, for viral contagions that can’t be stopped.
And if the gravity of the situation is proportional to the radical thrust of the solution, how deep will design’s self-critique have to be? How high will the obstacle be that we have to overcome in our hearts? From a philosophical standpoint, every ‘project’ is based on a preliminary ‘rejection’ of reality; every design intervention, that is, comes from the will to modify reality and to better suit it to an ideal image considered more positive, more desirable. But in the moment in which – due to the exceptional technological development of recent decades – the power of human intervention on the earth has boundlessly grown, this assumption is no longer valid. And when things get out of hand we are assailed by hubris, the blind pride that leads man to think he is omnipotent in the face of nature, leading to a violent reaction when things try to return to their proper order. This time, a bit of kintsugi will no longer suffice to mend ‘broken nature.’
It's time to say goodbye to the old world and to seriously set about constructing a different relationship between human and nonhuman. A relationship that is no longer based on the denial of the measure of the world. There is no more time left for nostalgia and recrimination (we are in any case all responsible). The new world has already begun, and from now on design will have to have quick reflexes (as in the case of the diving masks transformed into respirators) and support the mandate of a more aware way of caring for the everyday world. In particular, the necessity of a long coexistence with the virus will make the formal, chromatic, material, spatial and experiential redefinition of the domestic dimension even more important, beyond the development of new proxemics and social gestures. A dimension that will be increasingly ‘blended’ between the real and the digital, the pragmatism of solutions and the lyricism of the habitat, necessary austerity and equally necessary emotional experience (but with greater justice, tact and measure).
Furthermore, the new design horizon will have to narrate the resolution of the opposition between cultural freedom and natural inevitability, encouraging its homeopathic absorption in the sensibility of the user. Design will have to make users ‘sense’ that the product is not a final result but a phase of a circular process in which each phase leads to the next. The energy will have to flow, that is, between the forms of design, the way energy flows between the postures of Tai Chi, never blocked, always in circulation, constantly accepted and reproduced.
This idea of energy seen not as a reserve to be consumed but as a resource to be managed is precisely that of Zen, whose teaching moves through koans, short anecdotes containing a paradox that have the purpose of awakening awareness in the disciple. Of course a single design object cannot change the world; it can, however, like a koan, contain a full idea of a different world. As a material photogram of another vision of things, the object-koan gathers into itself darkness and light, gravity and liberty, inertia and openness.
The works of Ferréol Babin can be considered koan-objects, in this sense, moments of a personal pathway made of nimble synergies between sign and respect, acceleration and expectation, in which the abstract beauty of digital clouds closely coexists with the ancestral opacity of telluric forces. Stone and poetry, technological and humanistic respect for material, artisan wisdom and the possibilities of industry converge in the concrete clarity of Babin’s design, giving rise to calm, vibrant, eternal and transient objects. Messengers of the dawn/dusk of a new/ancient world.