From a new civic awareness to the rediscovery of material and local cultures in a post-global dimension. Four design critics - Aric Chen, Beatrice Galilee, Mariana Pestana and Marco Sammicheli - on the transformation taking place in the sector.

Beatrice Galilee

“Society designs and builds its values; it designs and builds in its image. In order to make changes, we have to begin by addressing those values, and design is not necessarily disconnected from that process.” With this statement, Beatrice Galilee, curator, critic and cultural consultant based in New York, founder and director of the cultural platform The World Around, underlines the impact of design or its absence on everyday life. “The pandemic has made me think about the notion of a ‘We’: our bodies were all facing the same exact combination of contagious proteins, but those proteins were so much more dangerous to certain people based on their socioeconomic status, their race, their environmental living and working conditions and the political party that was ruling over them. But it also made me think about collaboration, the shared thinking and determination that have led to the development of the vaccine.” What are the signals of a paradigm shift in the design discipline? “Certainly, we have seen a renewed investment in understanding the materiality and traditions of a place. It is perhaps a foil to the many years of bombastic top-down attitudes in architecture, where a single iconic designer takes responsibility for place-making instead of finding architects listening to local communities, understanding traditions of building and responding to extremely attuned conditions. There is a new vernacular movement that brings together the impressive sensitivity to the site of architects like Joar Nango, Summaya Valley, Cave Bureau, Comunal and Ensamble, linking to indigenous cultures and communities, to the natural world, to achieve a much more ethical and empathic role for architects. In terms of a paradigm shift, I can also mention Liam Young's continued approaches to the use of imagination and fiction, radically rethinking space. I also think the work of Feral Atlas is absolutely fundamental, for their ability to draw vivid, creative and compelling connections between the entanglement of the forces of capital and the humanitarian, environmental and political crisis the planet is in right now.”

Marco Sammicheli

“The areas of usefulness of design have expanded, making the discipline fortunately more pervasive,” says Marco Sammicheli, curator of the Design, Fashion and Crafts section of the Milan Triennale. “The act of designing with criteria, civic conscience and expertise represents the noblest and most lasting form of design. When it is applied to everyday life its functions jibe with needs, hopes, in a temporal dimension that expands the present into the future. Design is an act that creates relations, brings people together, translates feelings, interprets materials, activates situations, reduces handicaps. This is why it has finally been emancipated from style. Political awareness is a typical way of acting in design, also in Italy. Years later, Autoprogettazione by Enzo Mari in 1974, where the copyrights for the furnishings have been yielded to an association that protects the rights of refugees, and Reliquaries by Paola Bay and Armando Bruno for the 22nd International Exposition of the Milan Triennale, promote the importance of creative practices to generate awareness, to fulfill needs and to raise urgent questions, such as those related to migration or climate change.” What kind of awareness or change has been triggered by the pandemic? “I hope it has led above all to greater awareness of our own actions. The prolonged suspension of many fundamental activities ought to teach us forms of behavior that convey necessary actions. The pandemic is teaching us that certain collective and personal sacrifices can open up unprecedented scenarios where the new is partially ancient, previous.” The present situation has also led us to rediscover the local dimension. “I am somewhat suspicious of many designers who look to crafts traditions with a predatory attitude. The great heritage of Italian crafts has to be respected. I believe in the power of the context, in the imagination it creates, the inventive frequency to which we have to tune in. I think it is reductive and dishonest to treat local cultures as available databases. This Italian asset has to be measured, respected and inserted in formative pathways that are useful to pass on methods. Once the method has been safeguarded, we can then imagine a new value chain.”

Mariana Pestana

“With the term ‘designs for more than one’ I want to argue for a kind of practice that takes into consideration not just its immediate user, but also the many complex entanglements inherent to design processes and production networks.” This is how Mariana Pestana – architect and independent curator, member of the interdisciplinary group The Decorators, focusing on cultural programs in the public sphere, and curator of the 5th Istanbul Design Biennial – introduces the systemic question of design and the inseparable theme of ecology as a basis for all choices. “Despite knowing that we are living in an ecological crisis, we have become immune to the data and statistics and numbers. We need to engage emotionally with the ecological crisis, and here I believe empathy is fundamental: bringing emotions, affects, care, kinship into the design equation. Because we need to reassess our design processes and aims so that they benefit not just the immediate context in which they operate but also the myriad of places, matter and species that are indirectly affected.” The pandemic has made us reassess the relationship with the local dimension. “But at the same time it revealed how this local is intimately connected to many other locals in a globalized manner. It has furthermore shown us that the effects of human ‘development,’ such as the erosion of wild territories, which has produced ecological imbalances. So from now on we must understand the local as a cosmic-local, where micro and macro are connected, adjacent realities.  I’m interested in how design can be a mediation tool between us and the world around us, how design is a tool to sense the world. In the 5th Biennial we showed a project by Calum Bowden that takes you on a journey to experience the contested origins of life deep inside the Earth. The story shifts between human, bacterial, geological and machinic perspectives to unravel scientific mysteries about extremophiles. With the site-specific installations of New Civic Rituals, we have searched for alternative viewpoints: from the world seen through the eyes of artificial intelligence to vegetable gardens from the viewpoint of micro-organisms. All these projects have involved deep research that involves designers, scientists and computer experts.”

Aric Chen

“We need a wholesale, fundamental rethinking of how we do pretty much everything,” says Aric Chen, curator of architecture and design based in Shanghai, and curatorial director of Design Miami. Design has to be both humble and bold: humble in that we need to acknowledge our limits and the necessity for collaboration, but also bold, enacting our abilities to imagine and speculate about possible futures in ways that question what we've long taken for granted, from our systems and ideologies to our worldviews. At a time when it seems everything is breaking down – capitalism, globalization, to say nothing of our ecosystems – design can help us see what we might create in its place. The pandemic, seeming to slow everything down, has actually sped things up. Living in China, you see this playing out in a growing emphasis on self-reliance in the economic and technological realms, also prompted, of course, by the trade war with the United States. It is also evident in the creative sphere, strengthening the audience (and market) for homegrown design talent. The fact that life here has been relatively ‘normal’ makes it like living in a parallel universe compared to other parts of the world. I think this is generating a ‘post-global’ condition.” So there is an accentuated interest in the local dimension? “The local and global will often act at the same time, but in ways that follow different logics. In design, global networks will continue to have an influence, but we'll see a much greater diversity of voices developing their own systems, criteria and discourses. There will no longer be a center (in the Euro-American sphere) and a periphery, but rather, in an ideal world, everyone will be at (their own) center and (someone else's) periphery at the same time.” Which projects reflect a paradigm shift in design? “The new website of Formafantasma with Studio Blanco has been redesigned to minimize energy consumption, because even the web has a ‘carbon footprint.’ It fits into the broader work of investigating and rethinking systems of production and consumption. Or the application of artificial intelligence to generate digital content, proposed by the Chinese technology company Tezign. Thanks to the creation of banner ads with AI, designers can now concentrate on more important things.”