Design Real at the Serpentine Gallery

This month, London’s Serpentine Gallery plays host to Design Real, an exhibition of mass produced objects that, as decided by the curator, KONSTANTIN GRCIC, are not only effectively fulfilling their purpose but “the purpose itself has to be good”. With eco-friendliness and social positivity both central concerns of the twenty-first century product designer, Design Real aims not only to involve the visitor with the aesthetics of the work on show but to have them question the worthwhile existence of the pieces in a practical, subtly life-changing sense.

Personally, I find that the current model for major design exhibitions fundamentally presents visitors with an oxymoron. Paintings are created to be visually appreciated; films, both visually and aurally enveloping. Products, on the other hand, are created to be used – held, creased, battered, stained, dropped, turned off and on – until they finally expire at the end of a purposeful life. Like many before it, Design Real ignores this aspect of the items on show, leaving answers to questions of how a product might feel or function suspended in the viewer’s mind’s eye.

A satisfyingly clean space, each object is labelled with a simple term stating what it is; Melissa’s platinum moulded plastic wedges, a collaborative effort with Zaha Hadid, become simply “shoes”. Any other information can be found by referring to the supplied guide or the hub of Amazon Kindles, pre-loaded with the exhibition catalog. A forward-thinking way of leaving the main areas free from visual clutter, the digital alternatives to hardcopies seem to fit well with the curatorial direction but, as I watched a group of older couples carefully examining the electronic device, I couldn’t help but wonder if the lack of ink on paper narrowed the exhibition’s full impact to only the iPod generation.

The obviously “designed” items mingle with components such as a car tail light that the average man on the street wouldn’t even consider for gallery recognition. Some become emphatically beautiful when abstracted through the decontextualisation caused by the abundance of white space with the ceramic hob and the aluminium container becoming minimal and provocative. Exhibiting Abiomed’s artificial heart as a lone placeholder reading “unavailable for loan” is a poignant if unintended moment that says more about the product, its function and its necessity than is uttered by the Aeron chair perched on a plinth diagonally opposite it. A splash of vibrant, artificial yellow drew my eye to the carefully juxtaposed recycling bin and paper pulp chair; an obvious statement about the once hidden value of waste that we are all now so aware of.

One of the most intriguing features of Design Real waits in camouflage in the core atrium, blending with the matt coating of the gallery walls bar its two prominent operating buttons. Without instruction, the mystery of the listening point passes many by but, when solved, it can shed new light upon the work in question. Upon pressing a red button, visitors are asked to discuss a particular exhibit by the curator, the green button allowing you to listen to a random selection of answers that have been gathered over the duration of the exhibition to date. An assortment of reminiscent anecdotes, discursive conversations and juvenile additions to existing products ranges from the insightful to the ludicrous and provides the injection of real-world pragmatism that these floating objects need.

Grumbles about a loss of the essence of the discipline aside, the Serpentine offers a carefully chosen selection of meticulously designed objects, striking a healthy balance between the commercially prominent and the taken-for-granted. Design Real has the potential to excite and challenge but only when paired with visitors’ determination to look beyond the surface of both the artifacts and the exhibition itself. A bold venture, the gallery’s commitment to design and Grcic’s step away from product design towards curatorship show promise and I look forward to working to discover hidden delights in their next shared exploit.

26 November 2009 – 7 February 2010

Serpentine Gallery
Kensington Gardens
London W2 3XA



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