At Le Festival du Design Paris, design as a path to change

The Power of Play

By Anna Carnick

My father-in-law John takes great pleasure in posing the question, “What time is it?” Time, in this scenario, is not so much about minutes and hours; rather, it’s about asking each of us to consider where we are in the greater course of our lifetimes. The query is generally reserved for major family gatherings—birthdays, holidays, and the like—and the rationale behind it is simple: Life is short. At various milestones, it’s important to look at the world around you and your place in it, and to evaluate whether you’re on the path you wish to be on.

My father-in-law’s gut-checking question ran through my head over and over again the last few days while in Paris for the annual Festival du Design festivities (aka D’Days). Set against the intense backdrop of one of the most globally resonant French elections of the last half century, enjoying Paris’s springtime beauty and a design festival of all things felt, truthfully, a bit surreal. But all over town, many of this year’s D’Days exhibitions revealed not just a palpable awareness of our current social and political climate, but also a definitive response. When asked “What time is it?,” the answer was, emphatically, “It’s time to play.”

This response was not a cavalier one; rather, the festival’s theme—literally, “Let’s Play!,”—read as a call to action, at once joyful and defiant. Exhibitors embraced experimentation, future thinking, and fresh approaches to many of the issues that ail us today. Inside the first arrondissement’s majestic Musée des Arts Decoratifs, all soaring ceilings atop centuries of historical Parisian collections, the D’Days exhibition tackled the theme with a series of diverse, complementary presentations, demarcated by colorful flags that punctuated the grand hall. As stated in the exhibition’s introduction: “To play is to exercise freedom—to voluntarily take yourself away from the ‘real,’ to put constraints into question and to imagine an evolving world.  The theme of this year—deliberately conceived with a sense of fun in this political time—underscores the capacity of design to reinvent our way of being in the world.” 

Rakù-Yaki Cabinet Bar by Emmanuelle Simon Images courtesy of the designer
Highlights included, among others, the poetic Harvest show by Dutch Invertuals, which—following a successful iteration in Milan last month—offered a glimpse at a not-too-distant future wherein the concept of global sustainability must be reframed as we shift from consumers to self-sufficient “harvesters.” Submersion, a collaboration between D’Days and Panerai, brought together objects at once futuristic and organic, reflecting our fascination with the sea and its role as an endless source of inspiration for today’s designers. Perfect examples: Nendo and Luca Nichetto’s paper and wood Kurage light for Foscarini (kurage being Japanese for jellyfish) and Charles Carmignac and Emma Nicolas’s ethereal In Vitro 2 installation, featuring turquoise tulle dreamily floating in the deep, black sea of a glass aquarium. Meanwhile, Poster for Tomorrow: I vote, therefore I am showcased the results of a series of week-long poster design workshops hosted in schools in 16 countries under Draw Me Democracy, a global project financed by the United Nations Democracy Fund (UNDEF) conceived to help young creatives “take an active role in democratic processes and human rights causes.”

Over at the Grand Palais, for Revelations, the International Fine Craft and Creation Biennial, amid fabulously luxuriant pieces perfectly suited to the opulent setting, a few projects in particular stood out for their fresh design approaches. The exquisitely chic works in the Péri’Fabrique installation, for example, were the result of a unique collaborative process between designers and craftsmen that inverted the usual design process. Instead of the more common practice of designers choosing the artisans necessary to implement their designs, artisans chose the designers they wished to work with, and no drawings preceded their first encounters. As D’Days’ Isabelle Rodrigues, the coordinator of the project, tells us: “This displacement reinforces the experimental nature and creates the ideal conditions for innovation.” 

Poster for the 17th edition of D’Days, the Parisian Design Festival Courtesy of D’Days
Additionally, the group effort from Paris’s École Camondo alumni was a breath of fresh air, spotlighting works by emerging, independent designers gathered together to show their wares. Two projects in particular offered a jolt of the unexpected: Emmanuelle Simon’s dramatic, floating Rakù-Yaki Cabinet Bar was a showstopper, with a curvaceous, Raku-tiled exterior surrounding a polished brass interior case. The Raku treatment—commonly seen in tabletop pottery—was incredibly elegant at this large scale. And Luke Gehrke Rodriguez’s handmade Nervure Teacups were a more subtle delight, using fine porcelain to explore forms inspired by rough machinery and tools.

Over at the Centre Pompidou, the Imprimer le monde (Printing the world) and Ross Lovegrove: Convergence shows, both part of a larger event known as Mutations/Creations, looked to science, art, and technology to explore what the objects of our collective future might look like. Projects like the 3D-printed, baroque-style virtuoso Grotto II, Digital Grotesque by Michael Hansmeyer and Benjamin Dillenburger and Drawn Pavilion from the University of Tokyo’s Advanced Design Studies Unit (the result of a newly developed 3D printing pen that makes it possible to hand-draw 3D structures in the air) at Imprimer le monde pointed to the possibilities inherent when design and digital technology collide.  And Lovegrove’s show—the museum's "first future-oriented retrospective"—featured sketches, prototypes, and finished products from the last few decades of the Welsh industrial designer's singular career. The pieces spotlit his ongoing devotion to the logic and beauty of the organic and the dynamism of cutting-edge materials and manufacturing techniques.

It was, cumulatively, a healthy injection of much-needed optimism and encouragement at a moment when many of us were on the edge of our seats, so to speak. This past week in Paris, the creative community did what it has historically done so well; it told us what time it is. And beyond holding up a mirror to reflect on where we are today, it offered us potential paths for the future—if we’re willing to remain open to the endless possibilities. 

  • Text by

    • Anna Carnick

      Anna Carnick

      Anna is Pamono’s Managing Editor. Her writing has appeared in several arts and culture publications, and she's edited over 20 books. Anna loves celebrating great artists, and seriously enjoys a good picnic.

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