What's about design

"Design happens in many small steps"

Wine bottle, vegetable box, pétanque ball: the Vitra Design Museum in Weil am Rhein is dedicated to non-authoring things. In an interview, curator Viviane Stappmanns explains the appeal of the everyday and the design without a designer

Darwin's theory of evolution already describes the emergence of species as a design without a designer. The French designer collective Collections Typologie is researching what such an authorless process could mean for product design. Some of their research results are now being presented in the Vitra Design Museum Gallery. Curator Viviane Stappmanns explains how the fruit and vegetable box got into the museum and what role art plays in it

Ms. Stappmanns, in the exhibition "Typology. A Study of Everyday Things" curated by you, you will see numerous versions of just a few basic objects. Why is?

The four designers with whom we are doing this exhibition have been dealing with questions of authorless design for a number of years. Always intensively with a single object - things that have developed over a long period of time and have been changed again and again locally, but are usually surprisingly consistent in their basic form. One could perhaps speak of a kind of open source design today. In 2016, Collections Typologie began to deal with boules and pétanque balls, followed by wine corks and wine bottles. We are now launching your research project on the fruit and vegetable crate.

For a long time they were made relatively impractical in basket style, but then underwent a sudden change ...

The design history of the fruit and vegetable crate is very difficult to research directly. Exactly dated objects are extremely rare. Even in other museums we hardly found anything: If you come across a historical box here, it is often not as an inventoried object - but as a vessel in which other things are kept. So the story is difficult to reconstruct. But on paintings from the Middle Ages we found numerous vessels of very different sizes - that interested us, so we took a closer look at them.

Where the historical display objects are missing, does art help you further?

Yes, actually, we found exciting examples there. The box itself is omnipresent, it is shown again and again - especially in the market scenes of Dutch and Italian painters, or on woodcuts from the late Middle Ages. There was often a subsistence economy, the surplus that was not needed could be sold on the market - presented and transported in self-made vessels made of natural materials that were grown nearby. Locally very different. And then, around the time of industrialization, when agriculture became possible on a much larger scale and the transport routes were lengthened, there was this change towards rectangular, standardized vessels. They will soon also appear in art.

Conversely, you write that, for example, wine bottles and corks have hardly changed over the centuries. Strictly speaking, the latter has long since become obsolete ...

Exactly: With the vegetable crate there is actually the biggest break in this product design - while with the wine bottle it is actually almost astonishing how little it has changed. You have to ask yourself: Was it perfect from the start? Or are we so conscious of tradition that we would still like to have the wine bottle just as we did 100, 200 years ago? Many questions remain unanswered in the exhibition, but it is very exciting to deal with them. The cork, for example, once drove the democratization of wine because it made the bottles transportable. A simple invention, actually it only consists of a piece of bark.

Unintentional design is basically as old as mankind; Darwin's theory of evolution could also be described as "design without a designer". Can the processes of unintentional design reproduced here be intentionally brought about and made usable for the design process?

The question is, of course, whether "unintentional" is even true here - the design is already done on purpose, but in many, small steps. And of course the result can only be viewed in retrospect, but there is also great knowledge in this retrospect. For the designer collective, in turn, this work is important in order to become better designers - to see how things can be refined so that they don't have to come from a single pen. This is something that is coming back into focus today: collective processes, collaborations, taking your time. Many have realized that a design may not have to be perfect from the start, but that there can be many versions. Designers are also concerned with this question: Do I always have to create something completely new, or can I fall back on what I already have? You can also design things in such a way that certain questions remain unanswered.

A design that is known from the start as a work in progress is understood?

Exactly, one that still leaves room for potential changes and adjustments.

Such an idea of ​​design naturally has its consequences, be it working in collectives or - as is popular in the tech industry - from "data-driven design", in which algorithms become more important than the creative acumen of the individual. Not all designers like the idea of ​​authorless design ...

Of course, I understand the concern and criticism of the authorless design idea. At the same time, I don't think designers will become superfluous. But on the contrary. As a thinking force in the design process, the designer is not turned off, but all the more necessary. Perhaps seeing yourself less as a designer than someone who can intervene in this process - this calls for creative and forward-looking thinking, especially in times when environmental issues are in the foreground. Because, as we all know, products that are not questioned can also produce very undesirable results. It's about decisions that have to be made responsibly. Designers who research and debate are more in demand than ever. It's not just about the shape that comes out in the end.