Museum of La Garrotxa: exhibiting is participating

Museum of La Garrotxa: exhibiting is participating

There are some museums that break their butts designing strategies to get people to become involved. And then there are museums, the one in La Garrotxa, who take the bull by the horns and just go for it.

This is basically the case in the exhibition Jo l’exposo! – I exhibit! The cultural manager Marta Aumatell visited the neighbours of the Olot Hospice building , where the museum is, and invited them to take part in a completely original project. She chose people of all walk of life with different ages, education, sex, origin and social standing. From a seven year old pupil to a waiter of …(the ages of the adults do not appear, who knows why), to a nurse, a shop assistant, a council worker, and so on up to sixteen individuals.

View of the exhibition Jo l’exposo!

These are people who have barely visited a museum if at all, and who have agreed to go to the archive and examine the six thousands works that it contains – and to choose just one. The criteria? Complete freedom. Most opted for works about which they had been “told” things, and which they had been drawn to without the need for intermediaries. Maybe the jawbone of a whale, or a sculpture by Miquel Blay, or a Samurai warrior outfit. It didn’t matter.

These sixteen pieces have been exhibited with three labels: the museum info, who chose it and why, and a number.

The pieces chosen by the neighbours can be seen on the left of the Open Hall (Sala Oberta). And on the right there are another eighty pieces chosen by the museum experts and curators, accompanied only by a number. There is a notebook available to the public which contains the technical information about the works. The overall effect of this is that of a warehouse, a box room or a cabinet of curiosities. There are sculptures, dioramas, clay models, standards, carriages, smoking papers, oil paintings, posters, saints (obviously), clothing, furniture, and redundant machines.

And at the back of the hall there is a large white circle where the visitors can stick a sticker with the number of their favourite work, after having admired the anarchic display. Populism? No…more likely emotional involvement.

The work with the most votes will be exhibited in the permanent collection space. But that is by the by. What the Museum of La Garrotxa has managed to do is to draw people to the museum to discover the works of art and objects and to connect with them without previous opinions.

The great mistake of art viewers (because the viewers also have their errors) is often to state things like “I don’t understand it , so I can’t have an opinion”. But when they go out for lunch if they do not like what they are eating they complain. Do they understand that…an omelette or a salad?

 

Bakari Diawara, who works in the Ca l’Helena fruit shop chose a whale’s jawbone. The whole animal must have been around 10 metres long. For him it was “like an elephant’s tusk, and if you look from a distance it is like a fish. I see the eye and the mouth”. How did this jawbone end up in Olot? Sometimes they are exhibited in churches as the “ribs of the devil”.

Marcel Castey chose a bloody drawing by Josep Berga i Boada, Allegory of the First World War (1914). The work affected him immediately, but what decided him was when he was told that this artist “was not comfortable in Olot and lived his life outside, much like me”.

Mercè Aulina, a shop assistant in the El Race de la Illum herbalist shop, chose a Japanese sword suit of armour in the  Do-Maru style (18th and 19th centuries). They made her think about what the person who wore then might be like. What they might be concerned about, what their traditions were and how they understood life.

Carlos Tenas was attracted to a wheat threshing machine from the 19th century. Since he was a child he enjoyed taking machines apart to see how they worked. On the other hand Domènec Moli, a printer, went for a chair and a work in wood from the mid-19th century which the workers of the time used to learn how to make saints. The best of them left the profession and turned to painting. There was a moment in Olot when there were 124 painters and most of them had come from the saints’ workshops, more than from the School of Fine Arts”.

Santi Olivares, a council officer, chose quite a popular piece: the Head of the Giant of Olot (1888-1889), made in plaster by the sculptor Miquel Blay. This is a figure which is well known by everyone in Olot and is probably the most versatile figure in popular work which, beyond the way in which it is made, can exist both in the museum and in the streets.

The exhibition Jo l’exposo! Can be seen at the Museum of La Garrotxa in Olot until 6 January 2020.

Museum of Lleida: reclaiming the Baroque

Museum of Lleida: reclaiming the Baroque

The 44 pieces which were forcibly removed from the Museum of Lleida to the Sigena Monastery in Aragon in December 2017 was a major piece of news covered widely by the media. It obliged the museum, among other things, to reconsider and remodel some of the exhibition halls, such as the Renaissance and Baroque.

However, the upside of this remodelling has given us, the public, the chance to get to know a period — the Baroque – much better than we had before. We have works from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries from the museum’s interesting collection, especially works of sculpture and unique ceramic pieces.

 General view of the Baroque Hall in the Museum of Lleida.

Work carried out in the mid twentieth century by people such as Cèsar Martinell, Josep M. Madurell and Santiago Alcolea, among others, was critical for dusting off a period which until then had been labelled as decadent here, and one in which only the name of Viladomat shone through. Some decades later, the work continued by art historians such as Triadó and Joan Bosch and later a group of patient investigators who were gradually able to find out that the scene during those centuries was not the secondary one it may have seemed at first sight, following the tragic situation of the country following the defeat in in War of the Spanish Succession.

 Pau Borràs, Model for the New Cathedral in Lleida, 1762.

Actually, and at the risk of oversimplifying, we can say that in some disciplines such as sculpture, fine metals, wood carvings, Catalonia really had its own voice which differentiated it from other national artistic nuclei. Sculptors such as Agustí Pujol II, Joan Grau, Francesc Santacruz, Andreu Sala, the Roig brothers, Morató, Costa, Sunyer and the Abadal printers, among others, are not as unknown by specialists today thanks to the patient task of seeking out their work in the archives, libraries and collections of photographs from before the 1936 War.  These artists greatly surpassed the stagnant atmosphere of the guilds with highly merited artistic production and managed to demonstrate that the Baroque was rooted in the heart of the Catalan genius,  to become an individual style of its own (albeit not exempt from outside influences).

 Joan Grau, Martyrdom of Saint John the Baptist, 1677-1678.

With this spirit of recovery and reclamation, once the pessimistic view had been quashed, we can look at the works from that century with pride and renewed knowledge. Walking through the baroque Hall of the Museum of Lleida you see a small but select sample of some of the best works to have come out of eastern Catalonia. Joan Grau, probably in collaboration with his son Francesc, was the producer of two small but magnificent reliefs of the life of St. John for the grand altarpiece in the old church of Sant Joan de Lleida (1677-78). The two panels that formed the predella of the altarpiece and were taken apart when the church was demolished in 1868, found their way into the collections of the municipal museum at the end of the nineteenth century, after a series of difficulties. One of them shows the Martyrdom of Saint John. You can see the Baptist kneeling between his executioners just before he was beheaded, while before him stands the sensual Salomé, accompanied by a servant, dressed in fine fabrics and holding the platter on which, seconds later, she would carry the head of the saint like a battle trophy.

 Joan Grau, The Birth of Saint John the Baptist, 1677-1678.

The Birth of Saint John the Baptist is a more homely scene, doubtlessly indebted to the iconography of the Virgin. The Graus did not forget to include curious details such as the curtains, a table with earthenware or simply several drapes of the clothing with branch-like patterns and strong colours.

 Francesc Santacruz II, The Assumption, 1679-1680.

The Assumption by Francesc Santacruz II (1679-1680) comes from the main altarpiece of Torres de Segre parish church, is an outstanding example of the quality of work in the freestanding, carved central figure. In the words of historian Juan Bosch, it is “the best of all the works in wood by the artist that have been preserved”. On a human scale and designed to be look at frontally, probably inside a recess or shrine, the piece is hollow at the back and shows a triumphant image of the Virgin. She is dressed in a branched tunic with a cherubim’s head that acts as a clasp for a cloak decorated with plant motifs. The girl’s face is rosy cheeked and she has long, dark, wavy hair, which also exudes a certain sensuality. Two winged cherubim accompany her and also reveal the mastery of the sculptor in capturing the movement of their legs.

 Virgin Girl, 18th century.

Virgin Girl is another treasure. It is a polychrome carving of unknown origin dating back to the eighteenth century. It shows the taste for introducing some of the sacred figures into daily life. Instead of the typical Immaculate Conception image or the Virgin Mary in a pink cloak holding the baby, here we see a girl dressed just like those of her time in the 1700s, with a friendly smiling face, and it is only the quarter moon and the devil – sin – at her feet that give us a clue as to her iconographical status.

 Lleida Polychrome Ceramics.

A large glass showcase in the hall holds a selection of polychrome Lleida ceramics from the baroque period as well as piece from different places and origins acquired by the Catalan Government and by the regional council of Lleida in 2016 and 2017 respectively. For their quality, rarity and good condition, they form the best collection of this type ion the country. There are around twenty pieces in Lleida pottery (blue, but also some polychrome pieces in the form of apothecary jars, fruit bowls, plates, coasters and a barber’s bowl). One piece which particularly stands out is a polychrome Lleida pottery plate from around 1650-1675 which is 42 centimetres in diameter with a parrot as its central motif and a colourful border of floral plant decorations. These unusual themes and its large dimensions make the piece unique. The workshops in the east of the country produced very little and examples are difficult to find in the art market.

 Ceramics from Sant Bartomeu de Bellpuig, 17th and 18th centuries.

The showcase also contains around fifty works from the convent of Sant Bartomeu de Bellpuig, from the 17th and 18th centuries, following the surprising archaeological discovery in the 1960s of a silo in the church with more than a thousand plates in it (mostly from Lleida but also from workshops such Muel in Aragon and Alcora in Valencia). They were thrown there after being used for the last rites of the sick and dying, and since they contained holy oils, they were disposed on as a form of ex voto or offering. This practice is a remarkably unusual case and has enabled much broader study of the liturgical uses of these objects with anthropological and religious readings. In terms of the types of ceramics found, there are examples of Ditadas, with marking resembling finger paintings, pottery from Poblet, the Botifarra with animal and plant markings and the typical sausage-shape marking, the delicately detailed faixes and cintes, ceramics from Banyoles, the Cirereta series, again with animal and plant themes, and pieces from Aragón, etc.

New life for Fabra & Coats

New life for Fabra & Coats

Joana Hurtado, the new director will soon reveal the programme for 2020, but we can already see the resident projects in  Fabra & Coats – Art Factory and Contemporary Art Centre in Barcelona through The Open Factory, the programme organised for the Sant Andreu neighbourhood festival from 29 November to 8 December.

The Open Factory brings together all the activities organised by F&C for the neighbourhood festival which has its high point at the Open Door event on 30 November.

General view of the exhibition One Day I Stumbled Upon a Meteorite. Photo: Xavi Torrent.

During the Sant Andreu Festival you can visit the exhibition One Day I Stumbled Upon a Meteorite, which forms part of the Barcelona LOOP Festival, on the first floor every day except Monday. The exhibition shows work by eight artists who use the cosmic space as a filter to represent human desires, life on earth and knowledge. According to Carolina Ciuti, who curated the show, “we step back from scientific discourse to redirect it towards a more metaphorical context, where looking at the works reduces the distance between the immensity of the universe and our own daily microcosms…as if by walking distractedly through the streets we come face to face with a meteorite”.

Audiovisual reading of The Case for Letting the Stars Determine Who I Date.

And at 7pm on Friday 29 November, as part of the exhibition, the Espai Zero will offer the video lecture The Case for Letting the Stars Determine Who I Date, by researcher Núria Gómez Gabriel. This is a performance about changes in our emotional relationships following the breakthrough of technology and artificial intelligence.

The Open Factory will offer its main activity on Saturday 30 November between 11am and 11pm. From 11am to 2pm you can go to the second floor of the building for workshops by many of the resident artists, where you can talk to them directly. At 11.30am there will also be a 90-minute guided tour including a personalised reception by the artists in their workshops where they will talk about their working process.

Among the activities on Saturday 30, don’t miss The Exploding Fest: The present is not written down. This is a multidisciplinary meeting of more than fifty artists paying homage to Andy Warhol and his Exploding Plastic Inevitable. The festival includes different artistic form such as music, performance, movement, video and words.

On Wednesday 4 December on the ground floor there will be an evening of music organised jointly with the Harmonia Ateneu. At 8.30pm there will be a performance by the new formation of Roger Peláez and Vidal Soler La Cosa Pública and at 9.30pm Sant Andreu heavy metal band de Sant Andreu Istari Band will  play a concert.

During the weekend of the 7 and 8 December F&C will host the Reteena Audio-visual Festival for young people in Barcelona, with lectures on anime, make-up for fantasy productions, setting up, low cost photography and podcast creation.

Visitors in the exhibition On Day I Stumbled Upon a Meteorite, in front of Irene Grau’s work Constellation. Photo: Xavi Torrent.

The new director of Fabra & Coats – Art Factory and Contemporary Art Centre in Barcelona means that both section – the art centre and the art factory – can offer mutual feedback and include all sides of the creative process on a single platform (research, creativity, production, exhibition and distribution) as well as the different cultural agents involved (artists, curators, researchers, etc.).

For the moment we know that the annual programme will include a minimum of six exhibitions, two of which (one created by the artist and the other curated) are local. A cooperation network with national and foreign institutions will also be set up and a call for collaborations to internationalise each year at least one of the home-produced shows. Other new features will be calls for applications for residencies for foreign artists, who will be accommodated in the five flats set aside for that purpose for the entire Barcelona Art Factories network.

Internationalisation of the calls will allow F&C into the residency exchange circuits and promote the dissemination of Catalan art production abroad.

Facade of Fabra i Coats – Fàbrica de Creació i Centre d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona.

Since it has occupied the old textile factory – which was once the nerve centre of the Sant Andreu neighbourhood, Fabra & Coats – Art Factory and Contemporary Art Centre in Barcelona is set to spill outside the artistic framework with a new education programme which aims to involve the social fabric, promoting critical debate, exchange, experimentation and public participation. This move will help to consolidate the shared management model, between the team of directors, the municipal council and the resident artists which was established a couple of years ago with the Fabra Council.

Reus Museum: If you can’t draw it, then you don’t understand it

Reus Museum: If you can’t draw it, then you don’t understand it

The physicist Albert Einstein said, “if I can’t draw it, then I don’t understand it”. One of the fathers of modern architecture Le Corbusier, was unable to give his famous talks without a large roll of paper: I prefer drawing to talking”, he said, “drawing is quicker and there is less room for lies”.

I myself, when thinking about the structure of this article, made a few sketches. The letters, which have become words, that you are reading now are no more than drawing polished over the centuries. Because drawing is such a basic phenomenon, apparently so simple, it is the alpha and the omega of human abstract thought.

Hind. Engraved plate, 10.000 years old.

That is why the exhibition entitled Black on White, including a sample of the extraordinary collection of drawings at Reus Museum is much more than a simple chronological or thematic anthology.

Black on White has a design (even the word design has its origins in the Italian word for drawing disegno) and covers a series of topics seasoned with quotes by great creators on the phenomenon of drawing. But you can take this exhibit in hundreds of ways. Either as an excellent how of work by Reus artists, or the different aesthetic periods that the art of drawing has gone through over the last two hundred years, or from the multiple meanings of the verb “to draw”.

Ramon Casas, Eduard Toda i Güell, c. 1927.

The exhibition describes how the academies use the drawing of the human body as a basic learning tool (and here we have the life drawings of the artists from Reus from different periods, such as Fortuny, Modest Gené and Ramon Ferran), drawn portraits (and here I wouldn’t know whether to as the younger brother of the painted portrait or as a true and spontaneous way of capturing the essence of a gaze), drawings as a necessary part of designing sculptures (the case of Rufino Mesa’s commission by the Olimpiada Cultural organisation is paradigmatic), drawing of jewels, of temporary structures (such as those constructed for the visit to Reus by Queen Isabel II in 1844), sketchbooks for noting down ideas or findings, with a beautiful example from Fortuny, and drawing as a format for sketching elements that would at some stage form part of more complex works.

Marià Fortuny, Factory landscape with mountain in the background, 1854-1855.

The exhibition route ends with the latest evolution in drawing from the second half of the twentieth century, with works by Ramon Ferran and the minimalist Joaquim Chancho, among others.

Ramon Ferran, Volem llibertat, Volem justícia, 1976.

But the exhibition opens with a preamble which demands a close look: a doe carved onto a small piece of slate, from the rock shelter of Sant Gregori, Falset, which is over 10,000 years old. This delight made me think of the 3D film Cave of Forgotten Dreams, by Werner Herzog, which suggests that humanity had already coupled visual perception with drawing as far back as 35,000 years BCE. It seems so natural and so obvious to us, but it is not. Not at all.

Marià Fortuny, Moroccan warriors, and landscape, c. 1860.

The artist most broadly represented in the exhibition is Marià Fortuny. There are the famous life drawings, of course, but there is also a study for the famous painting Son of the Count, in a small but extraordinary notebook, and several sketches made during the Rif Campaign, where he was hosted by fellow Reus man, General Prim. His studies of the landscape, the Spanish soldiers and the local commanders are extraordinary.

Antoni Gaudí, Plants, s.d.

And sharing a space inside a vitrine are four drawing by Reus’ most famous son: Antoni Gaudí. A small sketch of his design for a vitrine for the Comella glove manufacturer and destined for the Universal Exhibition in Paris, a sketch of the Vicent Garcia centenary parade, handwritten notes accompanied by drawings of Jacquards, capitals and other architectural elements. But the most impressive are some of the notes he made about plants. Nature was Gaudí’s great teacher and you can see these same lines in many of his architectural works.

Modest Gené, Drawings of Guinea, s.d.

And at the risk of making a biased choice, I have to highlight the magnificent portrait of Eduard Toda (the Catalan Indiana Jones) by Ramon Cases, several studies of boats by the highly talented Hortensi Güell, who at the age of just twenty-one killed himself for love, works by Josep Tapiró, Baldomer Galofre, a drawing from Guinea by Modest Gené whose frenzy is reminiscent of the precubist Picasso, and cariacatures by Ramón Bonet (BON).

BON (Romà Bonet), Ramon Vidiella, 1914.

There are ten thousand years between the does scratched into the slate and two anonymous drawings for advertising for the La Nueva dry cleaning firm. But the concept remains exactly the same.

The exhibition Black on White. The Reus Museum Drawing Collection can be seen at Reus Museum until 30 May 2020.

Papanek, Design, Politics and Militant DIY

Papanek, Design, Politics and Militant DIY

Until 2 February the Design Museum of Barcelona is exhibiting the first monographic of designer and design theorist Victor Papanek. The exhibition has been coproduced by the Vitra Design Museum in Weil am Rhein (Germany) and the Victor J. Papanek Foundation, which is associated with the University of Applied Arts Vienna.

This is an important exhibition for different reasons. On the one hand it shows previously unexhibited material by Papanek. Following extensive research i the archives of the Papanek Foundation the two curators, Alison J. Clarke and Amelie Klein, have shed light on documents and projects that have never been exhibited before. On the other hand, it offers the public the chance to see a figure who, despite often being cited, is largely unknown. Finally, this exhibition offers a contemporary view of the concepts promoted by Papanek through the works of current artists, connecting his thinking with art.

Victor J. Papanek, Tetradekaidecahedral movable playground structure (1973-1975). © University of Applied Arts Vienna, Papanek Foundation.

Of Austrian origin, Papanek spent almost all of his career in the USA. When the Nazis annexed Austria he left Vienna and set out for New York in 1939. There he studied design and architecture. By 1946 he had opened his first business, focussing on the creation of modern furniture at accessible prices for the consumers of the post-war period. Throughout the 1960s many designers started to question their own professions, and the work of Papanek became increasingly political. Finally, in 1970 he published the book that is considered to be a pioneering work in the discourse on design: Design for the Real World: Human Ecology and Social Change – the most translated work in the history of design.

What seem to me to be the most important thing about this exhibition is the recovery of a design theoretician who suggested, possibly for the first time systematically, that there should be a role for design and designers in society. He couldn’t have chosen a better time to do it. According to Papanek, design had to fulfil four conditions and perhaps those four premises would never be as necessary as they are today.

Victor J. Papanek, We are all handicapped, detail of the poster number 1 of Big Character: Work Chart for Designers (1973, draft of1969).© University of Applied Arts Vienna, Papanek Foundation.

It should be for everyone. What he called Design for all appeared as a discipline in the USA after the Second World War, when a large part of the population (injured soldiers, amputees, and people with a variety of disabilities) was affected. However, Design for all has always been considered as design for minorities. Papanek rejects this hypothesis arguing that if we add together all these social groups, we are in fact talking about a majority. He also included groups for which it seems that design is not aimed, either for economic reasons, cultural origin, for living in a country of precarious economic means, because of age, etc.  In fact, his discourse rejects the idea of a standard, global user. He precisely situated functional, cultural, ethnic, economic diversity, etc. As the new standard. In addition to his own designs, the exhibition shows many of the works presented by students under his tuition. Including the social environment as a focus, these international student projects are aimed at “minorities”; in other words at people who are underrepresented and routinely excluded from the design process, such as children, women, people from third countries, elderly and disabled people.

Victor J. Papanek, Design for the Real World, 1st USA edition in hardcover, New York: Pantheon Books (1971). Jacket design by Helen Kirkpatrick, cover photograph by Georg Oddner/TIO © Pantheon Random House, courtesy of University of Applied Arts Vienna, Papanek Foundation.

It should be sustainable. The climate crisis which will bring with it a systemic and food crisis is not a dystopic fiction to form the idea for a catastrophic movie; it is a real and increasingly close possibility. It is virtually indisputable that the human impact on the environment has been the cause of this crisis. Before the 1972 Club of Rome said for the first time from the academic world that growth had a limit, Papanek had expressed the idea clearly in his Design for the Real World. Afterwards he produced the work Design for Human Scale and The Green Imperative: Natural Design for the Real World. At the same time, his view of sustainability included social justice. For him everything is connected: excessive consumption, environmental pollution and social injustice. This worldview, which in its complexity is more urgent today than ever, illustrated the profound influence that Papanek’s principle mentor, Richard Buckminster Fuller, had upon him. Like Fuller, Papanek also believed in the functionality of the intelligent principles of construction that we find in nature. However, unlike Fuller, Papanek did not believe in technology as the solution to the world’s problems, and he even published a work about this called How Things Don’t Work with James Hennessey in 1977. This exhibition presents historical and contemporary works which respond to those challenges, which are even more important today.

Victor J. Papanek & James Hennessey, Work Cube (1973). © James Hennessy and University of Applied Arts Vienna, Papanek Foundation.

It should be collaborative. Papanek was one of the first to denounce the “talent” of the creator as being the only driving force for projects. He proposed multidisciplinary teams where the designer is just another member alongside psychologists, engineers, sociologists, anthropologists, physicists, etc. And in fact, today design is a joint discipline, but unlike what Papanek proposed, the teams tend to include experts in sales and marketing to seduce the consumer. His proposal placed the user at the centre of the creative process, not just as the final consumer but as the starting point, and as the ultimate aim for the sense of the project. The preface to Design for the Real World begins like this: “There are professions more harmful than industrial design, but only a very few of them. Advertising design, in persuading people to buy things they don’t need, with money they don’t have, in order to impress others who don’t care, is probably the phoniest in existence today. Industrial design, by concocting the tawdry idiocies hawked by advertisers, comes a close second”. The reaction was considerable and cost him his place in the Industrial Designers Society of America. Nobody had ever spoken about collaborative design or co-design like this before. Theoreticians and designers like Ezio Manzinni have been working like this for years, and the schools have established this as the main working method.

Victor J. Papanek during filming of WNED-TV Channel 17’s series Design dimensions in Buffalo, New York (1961- 1963). © University of Applied Arts Vienna, Papanek Foundation.

It should be open. This is perhaps one of the most interesting aspects which show Papanek as being indebted to a particular moment, but at the same time how he transcended his conjecture to keep it current. At the end of the 1960s, in what we have come to know as the Do-it-yourself era, this was a declaration of intention. There had been different publications such as the Whole Earth Catalog, exploring the possibilities of self-management and self-sufficiency at all levels, against a consumer society with which they did not agree. Papanek took up the practical and artistic trend of promoting the conception, production, adaptation, improvement, repair or recycling at home, using the resources that were available and by means of cooperation, collaboration and self-teaching. It was therefore not a question of creating closed products but open systems, which the users could make and adapt to their own needs. In that sense, the two volumes of the book written jointly with James Hennessey How to Build and Where to Buy Lightweight Furniture That Folds, Collapses, Stacks, Knocks-Down, Inflates or Can be Thrown Away and Re-Cycled, are a brilliant example of an open design handbook. This was not a product catalogue but a recipe book for militant DIY. In the exhibition there are some examples of furniture suggested in the book alongside the original publications. Today, with our digital culture, the idea of open-code design has taken on another dimension. Open code is a revolutionary way of designing, developing and distributing anything. If the historical origin of this term is related to software development, it is currently applied to other areas of activity. So, we will hear about open hardware, biotechnology, open culture, direct democracy, all of which are heading towards the change to an open society model.

Papanek talked about the importance of design and a political tool.

As a result of all of this, I would say we are now in the privileged position of being able to take on the force and the importance of Victor Papanek’s ideas. We can even intuit some shortfalls and reject some of the ideas of his work, which was the result of a specific time during the Cold War, when the politicisation of society was frowned upon and dangerous if you tended toward the left. The US government invested a lot of money in projects which either had to be for some humanitarian use, or military use, and Papanek, like the other designers, took part. In some of the images and documents you can see a dichotomy between financing and objectives, and this is even seen in some of the other academic programmes he was involved in. Victor Papanek gave classes at Ontario College of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, Purdue University, the California Institute of the Arts (where he was dean) and he was Head of the Department of Product Design in the School of Design at North Carolina State College.  He headed the design department in the Kansas City Art Institute from 1976 to 1981. In 1981, he became the J.L. Constant Professor of Architecture and Design at the University of Kansas. He also worked, taught, and consulted in Sweden, England, Yugoslavia, Switzerland, Finland and Australia.

However, Papanek never gave up teaching about the importance of design as a political tool. Proof of this is when he attached the powerful US car industry, and not just in his books but also on a television programme which he was directing and presenting, saying things like: “Back in the day if someone liked killing people, they would become a general, buy a coalmine or study nuclear physics, Today, industrial design has allowed production line killing. Designing criminally unsafe cars which kill or maim almost a million people worldwide every year, creating totally new types of indestructible trash which chaotically fills the landscape, selecting materials and manufacturing processes that pollute the air we breathe, designers have become a dangerous species. And they carefully teach the skills required for these activities to our youth.”

Victor J. Papanek, Samisen dining room chairs pictured with and unknown model (1960-1970).© University of Applied Arts Vienna, Papanek Foundation.

This militancy led to him giving his objects a pretty unattractive image of precariousness. You might say there was a certain satisfaction in the povera aesthetic. Some of the authors of the time criticised this extreme austerity. No less than Buckminster Fuller understood that the aesthetic could be a tool he included in his projects. Despite the fact that when he was starting out, he designed low cost furniture which were highly charged aesthetically, Papanek was inflexible and the few projects he carried out in the 1960s and 1970s became simple objects, suffering from a kind of nakedness which made them seem distant.

Perhaps the exhibition suffers from the same thing. Although it is well set up and varied, the content may leave you cold. The artistic installations splashed along the exhibition route add a welcome visuality and stop it becoming a simple archive exhibition. The exhibition is also complemented by some twenty contemporary works which carry Papanek’s ideas through to the twenty-first century at the hand of designers like Catherine Sarah Young, Arquitectura Forense, Jim Chuchu, Tomás Saraceno, Gabriel Ann Maher and the Brazilian group Flui Coletivo and Questtonó. It also covers complex topics such as global climate change, fluid gender identities, consumer behaviour and the economic reality of migrations, which reflect the continual resonance of the questions that Papanek was already asking in the 1960s.

Fingermajig, tactile children’s toy, by Victor J. Papanek’s ex student Jorma Vennola, Finland (1965- 1970).© University of Applied Arts Vienna, Papanek Foundation.

Barcelona will give its own view of Victor Papanek with a series of parallel activities to generate an updated re-reading of his concepts. There is a cinema-forum, talks, workshops and round tables, generating knowledge which will be brought together in a special publication. You can see programme of events on the Design Museum website and take advantage of them to see the exhibition.

At the same time, the Design Museum has called on the design schools in Barcelona to give a re-reading of the permanent collection of the Museum in Papanek’s terms, to awaken the critical view of the students. Students will also make suggestions for innovation in children’s parks to coincide with the Barcelona Dóna Molt de Joc programme for the renewal of the parks being undertaken by Barcelona city council. The result of this double task for Barcelona’s design students can be seen on the fringe of this exhibition from January.