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OPTICS and ILLUSION: two perspectives on design

Two contrasting installations spearhead court the public and media at the London Design Festival

There seems to be a growing consensus in the design world that ‘the new’ is getting old. Despite the current fervour surrounding advances in one-off fabrication, there is an emerging effort to redirect our attentions to what we’ve already got. Our contemporary imaginations are not to be subdued, but instead to be tempered by a renewed engagement with the creations of the past.

It’s in this spirit that London Design Festival has launched the Endless Stair and God Is In The Details installations. Embodying the refreshing tone of this year’s programme, both ‘landmark projects’ are based on the idea of offering new perspectives on existing virtues. While each has its own distinct successes and shortcomings, it’s invigorating to observe this goal approached from two opposing scales. 

Stairs

Designed by dRMM’s Alex de Rijke, the Endless Stair ‘sculpture’ is composed of 15 interlocking wooden staircases culminating in a projecting platform, offering new views across the Thames. While the zigzagging structure does largely live up to de Rijke’s claim to offer an intriguing ‘game of perception and circulation’, its initial impact is very much dependant upon your viewing angle. Yet, standing as it does on the lawn outside Tate Modern – enclosed by the building, trees and a long bench – it’s not actually clear if there’s supposed to be an established line of approach.

The plan and site orientation do little to resolve this uncertainty. While renders dramatically present the construction from the west in a three-quarter view, a walk around to its south-eastern elevation suddenly reveals the sculpture to be almost symmetrical in plan. The consequences of this spatial organisation are complex – although the forced perspective on the main axial staircase produces a compelling effect from this position, from other angles it can be difficult to ignore one on-looker’s comparison to an “over-wrought Imperial staircase”.

Endless Staircase, dRMM Architects.

Susan Smart Photography

Site Plan (click to enlarge)

Much has been made in the popular press of the inspiration apparently drawn from M. C. Escher’s paradoxical prints. The overlaid wooden boards used to form the stairs’ external banisters work well to recreate the artist’s effect. In spite of its name, however, the structure only offers visitors one opportunity to loop around in their path. The viewing platform may boast a new view of the Thames Embankment, but the sense of termination it introduces thoroughly undermines the Escherian visual reference. When coupled with the fact that nothing brings out the British instinct for queuing like a set of stairs, visitors are frustratingly unable to roam.

Still, the design’s fundamental issues relate back to the uneasy relationship with its surroundings. Many seem to have forgotten the Endless Stair was originally supposed to be constructed outside St Paul’s – quite why it made the journey across the Millennium Bridge remains a mystery. Upon questioning, the festival’s attendants cited everything from planning issues to a timetabling clash. All this suggests that many of design parameters may have been regrettably beyond de Rijke’s control, and leaves one wondering how his creation would have looked against Wren’s great cathedral.

Endless Stair, dRMM Architects.

Endless Stair Elevation, dRMM Architects.

Notwithstanding these organisational concerns, the design signifies an innovative demonstration of the technical potential of its principle material – tulipwood cross-laminated timber – thus serving well the promotional ambitions its sponsor the American Hardwood Export Council. It also develops dRMM’s already established exploration of engineered wood, the material de Rijke predicts will become “the new concrete” of the 21st century.

Meanwhile, over at the Victoria & Albert Museum, the God Is In The Details scheme also works to mediate our understanding of past and future. The project invited 14 designers to select an object from the museum’s collections, based on the theme of detail. The ambition is to call attention to typically underappreciated aspects of the artefacts. Each of the chosen designs is now temporarily accompanied by a Swarovski lens to offer a carefully curated view of its artistry.

God is in the details

Photographer Credit : Ed Reeve

God is in the Details

Photographer Credit : Ed Reeve

As an overall concept, the project is very strong. Encouraging us to appreciate the full scope of designers’ attentions, this is perhaps the work that most directly addresses the festival’s theme – ‘Design is Everywhere’. Moreover, it’s satisfying to see the V&A being used as more than a venue for these temporary festivities. By calling upon its vast permanent collection, the dispersed installation serves to draw visitors up from the ground floor to the building’s hidden corners.

While one can only applaud the broad promotion of the museum’s lesser-known acquisitions, the designers’ individual choices are of course a more subjective matter. Ilse Crawford’s selection of a late-17th century Chinese teapot, for example, seems to cloud the exercise slightly. It’s a stunning work of craftsmanship and, as Crawford’s explanation points out, its pure geometries could as easily be ‘from the 1930s or even designed today’. Yet, it seems a curious choice given the theme of detail. Although its glazed surface does carry a subtle inscription, its beauty predominantly lies in the simplicity of the total form – surely a quality easier to regard without the intervention of a lens? Then again, given the allure of its pale porcelain lustre, the teapot’s choice also resonates with an authentically Miesian attention to the subtleties of its materiality.

A far more convincing arrangement is delivered by Tom Dixon, with his selection of the Albert Memorial model from the British Galleries. While the majority of designers opted to provide visitors with either a hand-held or mounted magnifying glass, Dixon playfully utilises a set of binoculars. He encourages you to seek out “the tiny figure of Albert – sitting on his throne in the fabulous jewellery case that Victoria created in his memory”.

God is in the Details

Photographer Credit : Ed Reeve

The set-up’s success derives from the binoculars’ high magnification and narrow field of view, which serve to dramatically isolate the gilded figure in his monumental enclosure. More significant than this clever technical arrangement though is the impression that Dixon truly brought his own design contribution to the staging. As an overall project, God Is In The Details would have been enhanced by more of this kind of engagement. Although it professes to call attention to V&A’s collections, there’s often a sense that what’s really on show are the designers making the decisions.

To return to the festival’s claims of design universality, one gratifying aspect of both projects is the feeling of community they engender amongst visitors. Given the tight squeeze on de Rijke’s stairs, it’s impossible not to end up chatting to others in the queue. Similarly, while pursuing the ‘journey of detail’ around the V&A, you find yourself developing a sense of camaraderie with other museum roamers, identifiable by their clutched maps. It’s a fitting outcome for two projects intended to spearhead British design’s return to the masses.

James

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