What do a Coke can and a tennis ball have in common? Design genius
In the Making, a new exhibition at Warehouse421, tells the story of how 25 objects are made with the aim of inspiring future designers
What is your stance on tennis balls? Have you ever considered why they have that curiously-shaped rubber seam or how they become covered in their optic yellow felt? Are they little more than sporting small change or are they a delight, worthy of further contemplation?
Speaking of small change, have you ever examined a two Euro coin and wondered how its cupro-nickel centre stays inside its nickel-brass outer ring, or inspected a new bank note and marvelled at the devious complexity of its printing?
How about the aluminium cans that hold your soda? Are they mere containers to be used and recycled or is the fact that they are seamless a small wonder?
If the answer to any of those questions is yes, then you are either an engineer, a designer, or somebody with enough innate curiosity to consider either profession as a career.
That’s certainly the hope of the Salama bint Hamdan Al Nahyan Foundation whose latest show, In The Making, is currently on display at Warehouse421 in Mina Zayed and makes no bones about the fact that its aim is to help inspire a new generation of UAE-based designers and makers.
If previous exhibitions at Warehouse421 have focused on developing local artistic talent and exploring Emirati culture and traditions, In The Making looks forward to the moment when everyday products might be designed and manufactured in the UAE.
“All of our exhibitions and programmes are open to the public, but with this show we are really trying to target schools and universities,” admits Warehouse421’s Faisal Al Hassan, who has developed the public programme aimed at school children from across Abu Dhabi and students from universities across the country.
In attempt to amaze visitors with the material world, In the Making takes the form of a game in which 25 products have been arrested at various stages in their manufacture, removed from the context of their making and displayed in a way that elevates them to the status of artefacts, each with its own unique material properties and sculptural beauty. The key is to guess what the objects are and the processes involved in their manufacture.
A travelling exhibition that opened at London’s Design Museum in 2014, In the Making is curated by the London-based industrial design duo Edward Barber and Jay Osgerby, career-long friends and collaborators who have been obsessed with making things for as long as they can remember.
“It goes back to our childhoods. Ed and I were born in different parts of the country but we both had very similar childhood experiences. Of being stuck in the countryside on rainy days with very little to do other than to venture outside and tinker in the shed with hammers and pots of paint,” Jay Osgerby remembers.
“That was the start of our appreciation of materials and of how things go together. Ed and I are incredibly lucky because we see things being made on a daily basis as part of our [design] process, but for many people now that is a lost experience. We now live in a state where the attainment or procurement of an object is little more than a click on a website.”
Friends and collaborators since the mid-1990s when they went into business together after graduating from the Royal College of Art, Barber and Osgerby got a lucky break when they designed a bent plywood coffee table as part of their first commission, the design of a bar in South Kensington.
Created in collaboration with a furniture maker who specialised in 20th century plywood furniture, the Loop table caused a sensation when it was launched in 1996 and within a year the legendary Milanese furniture manufacturer Cappellini had added the table and a wider Barber and Osgerby-designed collection to their catalogue.
The collaboration was merely the first of many prestige projects that have helped to define the duo’s career. Not only did they work on the design of Damien Hirst’s restaurant Pharmacy, which opened in London’s Notting Hill in 1998, but Barber and Osgerby have also worked with furniture giants Vitra, Knoll and B&B Italia and fashion houses such as Hermés, Louis Vuitton and Stella McCartney.
As well as their core industrial design studio, which employs a dozen designers in Shoreditch, Barber and Osgerby also have their own interior design and architecture firm, Universal Design Studio, which is also responsible for the design of In the Making.
The exhibition started life five years ago when Barber and Osgerby were approached by the Design Museum’s director, the writer and broadcaster Deyan Sudjic, who invited the pair to curate an exhibition that not only offered an insight into their creativity but into the design and manufacturing processes behind 25 familiar and not-so-familiar objects.
These include several Barber and Osgerby-designed products, including a commemorative £2 coin that was produced for the UK’s Royal Mint, part of the aluminium torch the pair designed for the 2012 London Olympics and the Tip Ton plastic chair, which was first manufactured by Vitra in 2011.
Designed with a forward tilt action, the Tip Ton was aimed specifically at schools and children whose natural inclination is to tip forward on the front legs of their chair.
Traditionally the bane of parents and teachers the world over, recent research shows that not only does sitting forward in this way straighten the pelvis and spine while improving circulation to the abdominal and back muscles, but that it also boosts the supply of oxygen to the rest of the body.
The only injection-moulded product in the exhibition, which includes products that have been machined, cut, bent, cast, stamped, moulded, punched and folded, tailored, rotated, pressed, printed and stretched, the Tip Ton’s manufacture has been arrested at a stage at which the seat of the chair is only partially formed.
The Warehouse421 iteration is the fourth and largest iteration of In the Making in the show’s history and is only the second time it has been exhibited outside the UK. To take the local context into account, the partially completed body of an oud has been included as the first object in the show, which is also one of the most visible objects that have been crafted and handmade.
“Each time we mount the exhibition we try to find something that’s relevant locally, but this is an object that’s relevant globally because it’s the grandfather or the great grandfather of the contemporary guitar,” Barber explains.
“We often talk about mass production being the antithesis of craft, but I think it’s fair to say that even industrial design that’s not always the case. Take the Coke can, which must be the most optimised design that has ever been produced,” the designer continues.
“Billions are made a year but there is so much craft-thinking and handwork that has gone into the maths and the engineering and tooling for an object that takes a single disc of aluminium and a press and produces an object without any seams.”
Listening to Barber talk, it’s difficult not to be entranced by his enthusiasm for objects, materials and manufacturing techniques – he is an eloquent exponent of design ideas and traditions that extend as far back as William Morris and the Arts & Crafts Movement – but whether the objects on show have the ability to captivate younger audiences more used to computer screens and interactive displays is yet to be seen.
As with many of Barber and Osgerby’s designs, In the Making is very modern but it also contains echos of ideas and experiences that are very British and profoundly nostalgic, and as Jay Barber admits, much of the exhibition was inspired by the kind of short films that used to be shown on British children’s television.
“There was a kid’s show that was on TV when Ed and I were 6 or 7 that took you into a factory and you had to try and guess what was happening and this exhibition is trying to do something similar.”
By not including short films about the making of each object, such as the ones that were included so lyrically in the recent Warehouse421 exhibition Lest We Forget – Emirati Adornment: Tangible & Intangible, In the Making may just have missed a trick.
Not only would such moments have completed the description of the various and often joyous manufacturing processes – Portuguese corks are still made from the bark of oak trees and it takes 9 years for the bark to be thick enough to be employed – but they would also have offered an extra layer of fascination.
But as Jay Barber explains the aim of the show was to focus on the materials and to also to revel in simpler delights.
“This isn’t a show that is trying to be incredibly clever or even a show that is trying to be particularly beautiful. What it is trying to do is to engage a new generation in the question of what makes a thing a thing.”
In the Making runs at Warehouse421 in Mina Zayed until February 11. For more details, visit www.warehouse421.ae
Updated: November 20, 2017 11:57 AM