‘Bro­ken na­ture’, cu­rated by Paola An­tonelli

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one post ex­plained why ny­lon stock­ings were re­designed in the 1930s to make them like­lier to lad­der. An­other de­scribed how, 50 years later, Mi­crosoft en­sured that its win­dows 2.0 soft­ware needed to be up­dated ev­ery 18 months. then there was the story of how, in 1924, the world’s biggest light bulb man­u­fac­turer boosted its prof­its by form­ing a car­tel whose first col­lec­tive de­ci­sion was to re­duce the life ex­pectancy of in­can­des­cent bulbs so they would have to be re­placed more of­ten. these are just a few of the In­sta­gram posts on the de­sign his­tory of planned ob­so­les­cence made by the Ital­ian de­sign­ers An­drea tri­marchi and si­mone Far­resin of For­mafan­tasma as a pre­lude to their par­tic­i­pa­tion in the XXII tri­en­nale di Mi­lano’s ‘Bro­ken na­ture: De­sign takes on hu­man sur­vival’, an epic ex­hi­bi­tion to open in March.

Aim­ing to ex­plore what de­sign can do to al­le­vi­ate the dev­as­tat­ing dam­age caused by the hu­man race to the en­vi­ron­ment and so­ci­ety since the In­dus­trial revo­lu­tion, ‘Bro­ken na­ture’ is cu­rated by Italy-born Paola An­tonelli, the se­nior cu­ra­tor of the De­part­ment of Ar­chi­tec­ture and De­sign at new York’s MOMA. It prom­ises to be one

of the most com­pelling and talked about de­sign events of the year.

’The premise is sim­ple,’ says An­tonelli. ‘It’s that the hu­man race will be­come ex­tinct, but that it is still pos­si­ble for us to de­sign a bet­ter end­ing. It’s about de­sign­ers do­ing what they do best, which is to make the most of the re­sources at our dis­posal. Yes, we’ve put our­selves in dan­ger by oblit­er­at­ing many of those re­sources, but “Bro­ken Na­ture” will show how restora­tive de­sign pro­jects are help­ing to re­pair the dam­age.’

An­tonelli, 55, has cu­rated a suc­ces­sion of land­mark ex­hi­bi­tions since join­ing MOMA in 1994. The rigour and verve with which she has nur­tured a new pub­lic un­der­stand­ing of the prac­tice and pos­si­bil­i­ties of de­sign has es­tab­lished her as the most in­flu­en­tial de­sign cu­ra­tor of our time. In the 2008 show, ‘De­sign and the Elas­tic Mind’, An­tonelli pi­o­neered the now widely ac­cepted con­cept of de­sign as an in­creas­ingly eclec­tic and ex­pan­sive medium, while 2011’s ‘Talk To Me’ charted our chang­ing re­la­tion­ship to ob­jects in the dig­i­tal age. Her most re­cent MOMA ex­hi­bi­tion, 2017’s ‘Items: Is Fash­ion Mod­ern?’, ex­plored the cul­tural and po­lit­i­cal sig­nif­i­cance of generic forms of cloth­ing, from biker jack­ets and black berets, to saris and bum bags.

When An­tonelli was in­vited to cu­rate the Tri­en­nale, she im­me­di­ately iden­ti­fied ‘Bro­ken Na­ture’ not only as the theme for her show but also for the 27 in­de­pen­dent in­stal­la­tions, pre­sented by dif­fer­ent coun­tries in the gi­gan­tic Tri­en­nale build­ing in Mi­lan’s Parco Sem­pi­one. The Vic­to­ria & Al­bert Mu­seum will be re­spon­si­ble for the UK’S con­tri­bu­tion, and the Mu­seum of Dec­o­ra­tive Arts in Prague and Ira­nian De­sign Foun­da­tion for the Czech Repub­lic’s and Iran’s re­spec­tively. ‘Paola is prophet, preacher, ac­tivist and vi­sion­ary, and when she asked us to con­trib­ute it was an ef­fort­less “yes”,’ says Neri Ox­man, the Is­raeli-born ar­chi­tect, found­ing di­rec­tor of the Me­di­ated Mat­ter re­search group at MIT Me­dia Lab in the US, and a re­cent Wall­pa­per* guest ed­i­tor (W*235). ‘It’s our re­spon­si­bil­ity and obli­ga­tion to de­sign our way out of the Holocene ex­tinc­tion.’

‘“Bro­ken Na­ture” will set the scene for the Tri­en­nale by analysing the grav­ity of the prob­lems we face. It will open with a se­lec­tion of Nasa’s Im­ages of Change, a se­ries of giant, high-res­o­lu­tion pho­tographs of dif­fer­ent parts of the world be­fore and af­ter man-made and nat­u­ral dis­as­ters and other trans­for­ma­tive phe­nom­ena. One traces the ag­gres­sive ur­ban­i­sa­tion of Shang­hai and an­other the equally dra­matic dis­ap­pear­ance of Arc­tic ice. ‘They’re in­cred­i­ble im­ages that will show the scale of the dam­age we’ve caused to na­ture and to one an­other,’ An­tonelli ex­plains.

The ex­hi­bi­tion will then present pos­si­ble de­sign so­lu­tions, in­clud­ing some 120 restora­tive de­sign and ar­chi­tec­ture pro­jects from the last 30 years, as well as a num­ber of spe­cial com­mis­sions. Among the lat­ter will be a re­search pro­ject by Ox­man and Me­di­ated Mat­ter into pos­si­ble de­sign ap­pli­ca­tions of melanin, the pig­ment that de­ter­mines the colour of hu­man skin. An­other will be For­mafan­tasma’s re­search into planned ob­so­les­cence, which is the lat­est phase of Ore Streams, an on­go­ing de­sign re­search pro­ject into the vast, of­ten il­licit global trade in elec­tronic and dig­i­tal waste.

An­tonelli has iden­ti­fied three cri­te­ria for the ex­hibits: ‘One is that we’d like peo­ple to leave with a sense of what they can do to make things bet­ter. For­mafan­tasma’s work on waste is a great ex­am­ple be­cause it’s about the dig­i­tal de­vices we know so well,’ she says, adding that she also wants the show to con­vey the com­plex­ity of con­tem­po­rary life, and alert us to the con­se­quences of cli­mate change. The Aus­trian de­signer Alexan­dra Fruh­stor­fer will ad­dress those themes in Tran­si­tory Yarn, a new knit­ting ma­te­rial she has de­signed to en­able knit­ted clothes to be re­peat­edly un­rav­elled and reused in new forms, rather than thrown away. Fi­nally, An­tonelli hopes the ex­hi­bi­tion will en­cour­age peo­ple to think longer term. ‘We’re so wired not to think be­yond two or three gen­er­a­tions,’ she says. ‘We’ll have a beau­ti­ful art piece by Kelly Jaz­vac, who has stud­ied Plastiglom­er­ates, which are fos­sils of the fu­ture. See­ing them makes you re­alise that plas­tics are here to stay. Ev­ery ex­hibit should have that in­gre­di­ent or at least one of the other two. If not, I’ll have failed.’

This doesn’t seem likely given her track record and the en­thu­si­asm of Ox­man, For­mafan­tasma and the other de­sign­ers that An­tonelli has roped into the show. ‘“Bro­ken Na­ture” is ex­actly what de­sign needs at this mo­ment,’ notes For­mafan­tasma’s Tri­marchi. ‘It should be an eye opener for any­one who still thinks de­sign is about mak­ing new things, rather than also be­ing a po­ten­tial tool for so­cial and eco­log­i­cal restora­tion.’ ‘Bro­ken Na­ture: De­sign Takes on Hu­man Sur­vival’, 1 March – 1 Septem­ber, Tri­en­nale di Mi­lano, bro­ken­na­ture.org; tri­en­nale.org. Paola An­tonelli is on the jury for our Judges’ Awards, see page 131

‘It is still pos­si­ble for us to de­sign a bet­ter end­ing for the hu­man race’

Alexan­dra Fruh­stor­fer’s ‘tran­si­tory Yarn’ en­ables a gar­ment to be trans­formed mul­ti­ple times over the course of its life­time

One of Kelly Jaz­vac’s stud­ies of Plastiglom­er­ate, a new type of stone com­pris­ing molten plas­tic de­bris and beach sed­i­ment Me­di­ated Mat­ter is work­ing on an in­ter­ac­tive bio-in­ter­face for melanin pro­duc­tion in both body and build­ing scales

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