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As the second temporary exhibition presented at the Centre Pompidou x West Bund Museum Project from 12 November 2020 to 28 February 2021, “Design and the Wondrous” questions current adornment and how it relates to new digital logics for designing and producing design items. With a wealth of formal and technological experimentation, the exhibition is situated between a scientific “marvellous” bordering on the imaginary, and the exploration of morphologies for objects whose materials and innovative techniques open out to a future that is connected to nature and the living world.

The exhibition thus presents more than a hundred design objects, essentially from the Centre Pompidou collection. Characterised by a strong cultural dialogue between China and France, the exhibition brings together and for the first time also places Centre Pompidou works in resonance with those of contemporary Chinese designers, some of which were produced specifically for the exhibition.

The concept of adornment is situated at the intersection between art and craft and the digital technologies that are questioned by all these creators, between tradition and modernity. Ranging from the representation of natural forms to the recreation of biological growth processes using digital tools, Design and the Wondrous recounts a history of design, between the vegetal and the ornamental, which questions the metamorphic dimension of adornment, whose role is explored in terms of morphogenesis in which the object never ceases to be transformed through a dynamic of evolving forms. Traditional manufacturing techniques are currently being hybridized with digital tools that give rise to new aesthetic and industrial issues. The ornamental complexity of design objects is now made possible thanks to new simulation software and digitally controlled machines that enable the recreation of nature’s growth generating processes. Nature’s generative dimension has endowed adornment with a new structural role in all of these creations.

Nature’s generative dimension has endowed adornment with a new structural role in all of these creations.

At the heart of the exhibition, design objects interact with photographs of plants and other artefacts, evoking the “cabinets of curiosities” of the 16th and 17th centuries, in which natural, scientific and artistic objects interacted. This scenographic aside enables the deployment of a universe of unprecedented correspondences between different periods and different mediums.

NATURE AS ORNAMENT

After the apotheosis of vegetal ornament and the stylization of natural forms with the circumvolutions of Art Nouveau and Jugendstil at the end of the 19th century and the dawn of the 20th century, ornament was notoriously incriminated in Europe by Adolf Loos in 1908. The Modern architect and influential Austrian theorist advocated then smooth and clear surfaces in contrast to the lavish decorations, whereas new technology rendered old styles obsolete. Nonetheless, the German Werkbund (German Association of Craftsmen established in 1907) “offered the possibility of an afterlife for ornament in the modern milieu by resituating decorative artifacts within the domain of nature” (Spyros Papapetros). In his book The Conversion of Form in the Twentieth Century (1926), Ernst Kropp would go on to use natural specimens as examples for the design of contemporary ornament.

Nature itself became present in the field of design in the mid-1980s, with a “neo-primitivism” approach in pieces made of natural, untransformed materials. Some designers focused on nature’s power of metamorphosis inserting the design piece into a natural growth process. Here natural material is both an ornamental motif and a structure, from Chen Min bamboo Hangzhou Stool and Joseph Walsh’s olive ash Enignum XV Shelf that evolves between design, sculpture, crafts and industry, to the Fallen Tree Bench by Benjamin Graindorge. Designers and architects question the relationships between nature and processes of industrial production. In this context, Tree 5 (2010) by Andrea Branzi nurtures a dialogue between nature and culture, craftsmanship and industrial technologies. According to MAD Architects, the organic forms of the GU Chair (2018) are explicit references to skeletal structures.

FRACTALS

Thanks to the formal multiplicity it offers and its fascinating capacities for metamorphosis, nature remains an inexhaustible source likely to dynamize every vocabulary according to trends or necessities. Praised as a “treasury” for ornamental designs, fractals are all around us: seashells with intricate spiral patterns observed by German biologist Ernst Haeckel’s in his well-known Art Forms of Nature (1904), snowflakes, coastlines, Romanesco cauliflower. They all exhibit similar patterns at increasingly small scales. At the juncture between computer sciences and biology, Neri Oxman employs design principles inspired by these processes of the living through fractal prismatic structures to augment the relationship between built, natural, and biological environments. A protagonist of eco-design, David Trubridge assembles elements that form the ornamental structure of his kit-set objects. For Nendo, research on geometric forms and the void has given rise to ornamental motifs. For all these experimentations carried out between design and architecture, ornament is derived from patterns found in nature, whether visible or not to the naked eye.

ARABESQUES

Criss-crossing various territories and mixing nature and industry, the arabesque is an ornamental motif inspired by nature. It is found as much in Islamic as in medieval art, in Rococo style as in the complex interlacing of Art Nouveau at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. These lines and curves inherited from vegetal tendrils or mathematical arabesques were, in the 1990s, the ornaments reproduced in the earliest experiments of panels cut by the computer assisted machines of Objectile (Bernard Cache and Patrick Beaucé).

In pieces exhibited here, interplays of curves and counter-curves make any centrality disappear (Ron Arad), can inflect in exuberant interlacing (Fernando and Humberto Campana) or develop in an infinite expansion movement inspired by the imprecise growth phenomena of nature (François Azambourg). Finally, the Chinese designer and artist Fanglu Lin stretches boundaries of ornamental experimentations through her practice of textiles with her She’s Stone installation that tangles motifs in a dense and organic structure.

THE ORNAMENT AND THE DIGITAL

Starting in the 2000s, the use of digital technologies by a new generation of designers and its state-of-the-art investigations in the cutting-edge technology has given a new dimension to ornament. The first designers working on objects printed in 3D, Patrick Jouin and François Brument, built on the possibilities offered by these new technologies. In 2004, Jouin used CAD (computer-assisted design) to print his Solid C2 Chair in SLA (Selective Laser Activation), layer by layer, without any assembly or molding. Inspired by long stems of grass leaning in all directions and all mixed up together, the Solid C2 Chair was the first piece of furniture made by 3D printing. 

A pioneer in the use of digital tools, the British designer Ross Lovegrove calls on the most cutting-edge technologies to design plenty of pieces whose ornamental forms take their inspiration from the growth processes of the living. In a search for harmony between man and digital advance, Zhang Zhoujie uses three-dimensional modelling and digital technologies to create a series of faceted metallic chair. The surprising character of objects created by machines (3D printers, etc.) and complex automated processes allows designers to free themselves from standards and norms, possibly to search for deformity – overlapping nature and its imperfections and variations from the norm.

DESIGN AND THE WONDROUS

In the 1990s, an iconoclastic approach and a conceptual design emerged in the wake of Droog Design and Marcel Wanders in the Netherlands, reversing in the design field “the ordinary course of things” in a “wondrous” way (to recall this ancient and medieval literary genre borrowing supernatural). This was pursued, not to slip into extravagance but to seek new proposals combining narrative and storytelling approaches. Thus, in line with the industrial modernity considering interior as an interiority protected from the outside world by decoration and furniture, Marcel Wanders revives the totalizing dimension of the decorative by creating his Virtual Interiors, a series of films which resonates like a disturbing triumph of the decorative and fantasy: in these fictional and imaginary places devoid of any human presence, the lushness of the motifs echoes the hyperbolic interplay of scales.

 The wondrous stems here from the abundance of ornament displayed in these interiors, conveying the « uncanniness » of the objects. Between ornamental exuberance and the wondrous, Michael Hansmeyer and Benjamin Dillenburger make references to the grottos of the Renaissance in Grotto II. In this piece, nature and artifice blend by means of rocks and grotesques to such an extent that the ornamentation has absorbed the geometric order of the architecture to blend with that of nature. In our deeply rationalized society, parametric design and experimentation in 3D printing offer an opportunity to liberate the language of design from the straightjacket of functionalism, to gain distance from the norm and from the already seen and done, and to integrate the irrational to conduct and/or develop hybridizations against nature, to explore how wondrous ornaments can emerge from the ordinary.

CABINET OF CURIOSITIES

In this “cabinet of curiosities”, design objects dialogue with photographs of plants and other artifacts, in the same way as in 16th-century European cabinets of curiosities, Mirabilia (objects of wonder) cohabited with Naturalia and Scientifica (natural and scientific objects). As the bizarre and freaks of nature, dealing with imperfection, are surprising by their deformities, a perfectly executed original creation in the field of craftsmanship and design produces technical wonders.

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