2011 in Review: Hits and Misses

2011 in Review: Hits and Misses
Benjamin Hubert's Gabion table for De La Espada

Azure senior editor Elizabeth Pagliacolo takes a look at the best in design, technology and social innovation – including Talk to Me, the Occupy Movement and the design fairs. And two things we wish were otherwise.

The Hits

1 Benjamin Hubert for De La Espada

When we first wrote about this young Londoner in October 2010, he had already produced a variety of furnishings that displayed a supple aesthetic and that juxtaposed materials like concrete and rotational moulded plastic with oak and other wood species.

During the London Design Festival, Hubert presented a fully realized collection for De La Espada that elevated the brand and displayed the designer’s dexterity in creating serious furniture, like the strappy Coracle chair, as well as solid pieces with a sense of humour – like the architectural Gabion tables. The line can be seen in the pages of our Jan/Feb 2012 issue.

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2 Haptic Intelligentsia

For several years now, Materialize, Freedom of Creation and other rapid prototyping design companies have been conjuring trompe l’oeil fixtures and furniture that are so meticulously computer-generated they seem out of this world. But computer-aided manufacturing doesn’t have to be devoid of the human touch. The Haptic Intelligentsia, a 3D printer by Joong Han Lee of Studio Homonculus in Netherlands was launched in Einhoven earlier this year, and it adds a whole new tactile dimension. The user can move the extruding gun in a predetermined manner guided by a haptic interface and actually feel the virtual object being built up.

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3 Talk to Me

Predicting the future is everyone’s favourite pastime – especially when it comes to masterplans for cities and the global energy grid. As with her earlier exhibit, Design and the Elastic Mind, MoMA curator Paola Antonelli tapped into smaller innovations for her show Talk to Me – though ones that signal major shifts in how we will live in the future.

Talk to Me, which wrapped last month but continues to have a richly interactive web presence, archives the interfaces, social media bytes and personal communication devices of our QR-coded world. As Antonelli told Azure correspondent Josephine Minutillo in our July/August 2011 issue, “Furniture and cars are important, but it’s even more important for people to understand that design is the ATM interface they use, and in the way streets and bike lanes are laid out.” By pushing the design dialogue to a new level, Antonelli helps us more deeply appreciate how interacting with interfaces of any kind is a designed experience.

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4 Formafantasma

To know the future, you must look to the past. Working out of Eindhoven, Italian designers Andrea Trimarchi and Simone Farresin of Formafantasma explore materials – like compostable bowls made out of flour – that speak to a simpler time. Their Botanica vases, most recently exhibited at Libby Sellers’ new gallery in London in September, are borne of a collaboration with Italian plastic innovator Plart, and are made of natural polymers that existed before the discovery of oil. They also symbolize how we might make things in a future without oil – and that distinction is what makes the seemingly salt-of-the-earth Formafantasma a cutting-edge duo.

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5 One Millionth Tower

Besides transforming the documentary into an interactive experience that integrates illustration and graphic design, Katerina Cizek manages to weave a local story – that of worn-down Toronto high rises – into a narrative about these long-ignored edifices on a worldwide scale.

The ideas expressed in One Millionth Tower take their inspiration from the Tower Renewal project in Toronto, and include examples of ways in which residents – working with ERA’s Graeme Stewart – would like to make their homes happier, whether through planting vegetable gardens, connecting buildings separated by parking lots with inventive landscape designs, and adding pop-up structures for use as entertainment venues, hair salons, and prayer hubs. All are ingenious solutions to making residents’ concrete surroundings all of a sudden maleable.

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6 The Occupy Movement

Like the Arab Spring that inspired it, the Occupy Movement spread from city to city, capturing the world’s imagination with a brilliant slogan – “We are the 99%” – that lives on. Before being forced out of the parks, it reclaimed public property for public protest and transformed these parks into anarchic settlements with a sanitary department, lending library, kitchen and other communal functions.

Unlike the Arab Spring, which called for a specific action – the resignation of despotic rulers – it refused to be defined by a single message, and instead invented the human microphone to discuss a variety of frustrations with income inequality. From its beginning as a vague call in Adbusters magazine to Occupy Wall Street, the movement refused to be designed – and rejected its appropriation by celebrities and other hangers-on looking for street cred. The exception: a series of brilliant, and free-for-use posters by Shepard Fairey that speak directly to a once-powerful promise of hope.

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7 The (European) shows must go on

No amount of spiked eggnog will let you escape the news coming out of Europe this winter. But there’s always inspiration in seeing that the biggest design fairs – IMM and Orgatec in Cologne, Heimtextil in Frankfurt, Maison et Objet in Paris and, the biggest of them all, the Salone del Mobile in Milan – are planning big events in the new year. We’ll be rooting for these fairs to be as bustling as they have been through the past tough years, and prove that innovation holds the key to economic prosperity.

The Misses

1 Short-sighted pols

You can’t blame all of a city’s problems on its mayor. But Toronto’s Rob Ford has certainly put a dent in Toronto’s progress as a “world class city” (a designation that may have once made some gag, but that now seems a part of the city’s halcyon days under Ford’s arts-and-business-loving predecessor, David Miller). In his “stop-the-gravy-train” mindset, he has succeeded in dismantling a federally funded light-rail project, disbanding the board of the Toronto Community Housing Corporation (and calling for its privatization), and unraveling bike lanes, among others. Thanks to public and political dissent, he’s failed to do as he pleases in shuttering libraries and selling off the naming rights of city sites. Ford and his shortsighted, city-destroying ilk should take a look at Rahm Emanuel’s ambitious plans to revamp the Chicago river and Michael Bloomberg’s green initiatives.

2 Digging for oil at any cost

While Rem Koolhaas and OMA are coming up with lofty ideas for weaning the world off oil, reality is not so rosy. Besides the perennially contentious Keystone project, and other oil-drilling misadventures, we’ve moved on to hydraulic fracturing – which blasts pressurized fluid into rock to get at shale-gas. The result: ruined landscapes worthy of Ed Burtynsky, poisoned drinking water, and exploding faucets.

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