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With ‘Trade Between,’ DO WORKS highlights the currency of ordinariness in design
‘Trade Between’ presented by DO WORKS - exhibition Image; (L-R): ‘Side table lamp’; ‘Balustrade Lamp’; ‘Garden Bench’; and ‘Basalt Shelf’
Image: Pier Carthew

With ‘Trade Between,’ DO WORKS highlights the currency of ordinariness in design

The exhibition showcased experiments of ‘assumably domestic’ furniture which ‘slip from the mundane to the metaphysical,' straddling aesthetics and assumptions of use.

by Jincy Iype
Published on : Aug 09, 2023

Is there an impact to ordinariness? Can staying generic be in itself, unique and compelling?

The normality of mundane experiences is a soundless backbone of our lives—a shared smile with a stranger, feeling crisp new pages of a book while it softly rains outside, the aroma of freshly brewed tea—the mundanity of these experiences is valuably underrated. Sometimes, I revere the idea of not adhering to the incessant ‘hustle culture’, the endless pursuit of the ‘extraordinary’, and embrace a refreshingly simple anti-thesis, dolce far niente, if you will. This sense of accepting ease can be a distinctive stance, amid the clamour for inimitability, an undying thirst for grand ambitions fuelled by unrealisable and extroverted systems—the quiet power of the ordinary. To that end, most of us in our daily lives, are surrounded by silent companions who may, or may not be pleasant-looking but do give us comfort, oddly altruistic in their functionality. Our spaces too, converse in a dialect of mundane, silent exchanges: imagine your bedroom sans your worn-out chair with piled-on clothes, or the thrifted table in a dim corner bearing the weight of unread books and coffee stains—Each at its own place, not pretending to be anything else, sharing an ecosystem of shared conviviality, and at complete ease with each other, their human companions, and most importantly, themselves.

Interested in the juxtapositioning of architecture and the visual arts and reinforcing these relationships to ‘produce outcomes to transgress the disciplinary limits of architecture, design, and arts,’ DO WORKS presented its debut project in the Nicholas Building in Australia, part of NGV’s Melbourne Design Week 2023, with Trade Between. The platform collaborates with architects and artists to develop furniture designs and allied objects, to explore new modes of design thinking and practice, and with this design exhibition, formed a dialogue between a group of emerging architects and designers, each conceiving furniture “which slips from the mundane to the metaphysical, as objects set between aesthetic form and assumptions of use,” their press release states.

“Drawing on the rich history and cultural significance of furniture, the show position(ed) these objects as a continued medium of exchange, as an expression of a human scale and a tool for architects and designers to test broader ideas,” they added.

Commenting on the core concept and the exhibition's moniker, DO WORKS explained, “Suzanne Delehanty’s 1977 essay Furniture of Another Order, for the exhibition Improbable Furniture of the same year, advocated for rethinking furniture as art. Here, artists such as Margaret Wharton, Marcel Duchamp, Edward Kienholz, and Yayoi Kusama incorporate furniture into their work, while others like Scott Burton make it the foundation of their practice. Delehanty writes, furniture ‘slip from the mundane to the metaphysical,’ to objects that have transformed from simple representations of the world we inhabit to a continuous source of experimentation through their process of production, scale and relationship to the human body.”

“Architects have also utilised furniture as inspiration to extend architectural ideas, study human behaviour and challenge assumptions. Examples include Charles and Ray Eames, Marcel Breuerr, Mies van der Rohe, Lilly Reich, Eileen Gray, Gerrit Rietveld’s De Stijl, Le Corbusier, Pierre Jeanneret, and Charlotte Perriand. These designers grappled with everything from issues of form, production, lifestyle, an economy of means, and even hygiene. Taking cues from this 1977 exhibition, Trade Between served as a medium for cross-disciplinary design—between furniture and art, architecture and art, and, more generally, between designers and interested public at the design festival’s program,” they continue.

'Peculiar' yet simple objects conceived by designer and architecture graduate Angus Grant, multidisciplinary designers Annie Paxton and Shalini Rautela, as well as Dalton Stewart, who works in the overlap of visual art, architecture, and design (all based in Melbourne), did nothing out of the ordinary in a ‘strangely generic’ exhibition space. Their exhibited designs “... attempt(ed) to congregate, act natural, give each other room, and know their place, but kind of just want to stand out too. Respectfully,” according to Colby Vexler, an academic and theorist.

Geometrically simple and simply constructed, the ‘Adjustable Candlestick’ coffee table design by Grant submits to an 'uncertainty of use, a hyper-functionality which renders it as an outcast.’ According to the creators, it is awkwardly perched and adjustable, its candle set to question the lack of specificity in which we often place around ourselves, as well as the places we create. The ‘Side Table Lamp’ by Grant and Stewart is an opaque light shade on legs, and a side table lit from below. Its light source is ensconced by a zinc-plated sheet and suspended on legs above the ground. In its form, no front or back is implied, nor is any room. Meanwhile, Grant’s ‘Broom Handle’ is rather solid, lathed, and well-balanced, calling to mind Joseph Kosuth’s ‘One and Three Brooms’ (1965)—”the broom as a prototypical domestic object is extended past use, past ergonomics, towards absurdity,” DO WORKS share.

A collaboration between Rautela and Stewart, the ‘Balustrade Lamp’ is at once familiar and entirely new, its design inspired by a variety of architectural elements, including a balustrade, a column, and a downlight. “The timber balustrades are recontextualised, reformed through the process in which they were initially created— through lath and wood-turning. These elements are reconfigured: balustrades become a column, a downlight becomes an uplight,” they continue. As the creator's relay, ‘Form IV’ by Paxton is a performer, a play on the ‘performance’ of containment; how we reveal or conceal the possessions of our private lives. A delicate mesh wraps the cabinet, performing as a curtain, a threshold, or a mediator, permitting entry when drawn. Sand-cast recycled aluminium meets polished sheet aluminium, which suspends a stainless steel mesh.

The formal restraint and abstract qualities of the assemblage of Stewart’s ‘Basalt Shelf’ is a counterpoint to the rich geological history and complex cultural significance of olivine basalt in Melbournes pre-colonial natural landscape and the colonial built environment. “The basalt is reclaimed from urban demolition and by repurposing this stone in reference to a domestic object, specifically holding aloft mass-produced metal planes, the work subverts the historical understanding of these materials,” they add. The ‘Timber Venner Lounge Chair’ by Rautela is a chair inspired by the plasticity of the timber veneer against the unyielding force of the vacuum bag. “A continuation of a lineage of Scandinavian furniture constructed from timber and leather, the departure point being the exploration of timber veneer and its material-like qualities,” says DO WORKS. Lastly, the ‘Garden bench’ Stewart and Rautela employ Basalt (bluestone) pitcher, slab and rock. “The process of making this work reflects on the complex histories and cultural significance of these materials used in Melbourne’s built environment. Although manipulation between the raw material and the final object is minimal, a distinction is made between each surface, inviting a dialogue between refined and unrefined,” they elaborate.

The essay reveals the design exhibition as it would to its physical viewer—Three lamp designs were placed around an expansive, open room, set deep in its interiors or placed closer to its corners, as they typically would in other settings. One of them even pre-empted its location with its triangular profile, aware of its polite positioning. The others meanwhile, seemed a bit puzzled, a bit out of place. A balustrade-looking element stood idle in the room, contrary to its conventional placement as an opening or ceiling support. “Regardless of their placement, they function just fine. A couple of floor lamps, on the floor, in a room. Strange in form, but acceptable in behaviour—that is, if we judge them on their use, as we should, or do, in a post-post-modern, functionalist kind of way,” Vexler reckons.

Between the two lighting designs, a content, garden-like bench sat loosely, facing a low coffee table with its own candle holder, perhaps adrift in thoughts, at a distance. A seemingly unstable lounge chair rested adjacent as an odd companion, much like strangers on a train, with its back turned to the room and coexisting with its quiet inhabitants, just sitting. A mesh-veiled cabinet and a ‘mass-heavy-but-function-easy’ shelf stood discreetly close to the others, again, simply existing. “With clear sides, they know their place, but without fronts and backs, they are somewhat orientation-less. They can go anywhere, beside or around,” he adds.

The planning and placement of these pieces in the space follow a familiar, mediocre logic, something we have seen or accepted as normal for years, as witnessed myriad times in a quaint furniture showroom, a meekly curated living room, or a designer’s ad-hoc studio apartment. “They don’t want to just showcase themselves but declare an attitude, lifestyle or more simply a type of living arrangement,” Vexler supposes.

The gallery showcased these ‘assumably domestic’ furniture designs, conspicuous in their simplicity and beauty. “What might be even more obvious—but easily overlooked—is that these peculiar-looking things only appear to do mostly ordinary things. They are in a large, generic room, not a shop or a dwelling. Without stuff to occupy or inhabit the things themselves, barely any utility or occupants proper, they become the primary occupants of the room themselves… Everyone else is just a guest or visitor,” he explains further.

These ‘things’ want to be things and remain so. They simply are what they are. These are objects and designs of manner, form, and function, purely belonging to the space they are placed in. Instead of going out of the way, screaming for attention through elaborate attires or superfluous functions, they are content in their ordinariness and intended purposes, manifested in materials that one would expect furniture designers to employ—reclaimed timber, plastic, stone, aluminium, and steel. “Maybe their datums are a bit off, their form a little absurd, and their proportions strange, but just typically, not functionally. They are still things to use, sit on, or put things on and in. Both the thing itself and their designer know they will probably abut a wall or sit somewhere in the corner or the middle of a room, just like furniture does already,” he points out, as a matter of fact.

According to Vexler and DO WORKS, these ‘ordinary’ product designs are ‘self-aware’ (or their creators were), “enough to acknowledge their typological familiarity. Anyone can see them for what they are a bench, a table, a cabinet, a shelf, a lounge chair, and some lamps. After all, these are just some peculiar-looking things appearing to do mostly ordinary things,” they reiterate.

So, is the undertone of the exhibition to embrace ordinariness, to give in to mundanity as a creative or lover of spaces and objects? Seemingly so. Pleasant-looking and conceived with purpose, the objects of Trade Between are not projected to be more than who they are and don’t overperform to accelerate what they want to be. “Nice things in nice rooms. What else could we want from them, separately and together? After all, most of us are still generationally stuck in a classically post-modern hangover. Think beauty, durability, and utility, or nice, practical, and clever. But, instead of being merely hinged on such values, how can objects, things and stuff, co-govern an alternate space arrangement logic?” Vexler searches.

The driving point is the verity that end-users of objects such as these don’t just use them, but co-exist with them, forming a mutual relationship between things, rooms, and their human inhabitants. Spaces are designed keeping in mind the provision they need to create for these objects, such as fittings, furniture, and fixtures, which take over corners, are mounted, or simply hung on walls or placed on the floor. Or as Vexler describes, “Things are as much the occupants of the room as the user themselves. They are like our housemates or neighbours, things to greet, courteously walk by, or even ignore.”

“An exhibition is often a room full of things coming together over a mutual theme or interest. But the room’s momentary purpose is to display the things, not to re-function itself. In a way, it is both the best and most problematic kind of place to re-consider object-space relations. Inevitably the things presented in this room have somehow found their way in. There is a logic here, even if subtle,” he discusses.

The creators also relay that for Trade Between, the product designers were provided only the space they were to exhibit in, along with a set of readings and precedents, which included no material limitations. The only loose brief was to stick to the act of furniture making, where pieces of contemporary designs would resemble objects of use and familiarity, leaving all explorations of scale and form uninhibited. “Then, within the group setting, these objects furnished an uncanny arrangement, to be explored and weaved through by the user. This arrangement was an important part of the curation of the show—asking what sort of spaces are engendered, implied, by the placement of a bench next to a table, or a broom against a wall. How far away can a lamp be from a chair before their relationship is lost?” share Grant and Stewart of DO WORKS.

“One of the themes of Melbourne Design Week for 2023 was currency, describing and exploring design as a medium of exchange. As ostensibly functional pieces of furniture, the works in Trade Between act(ed) as nodes for a novel domestic setting, one which acts to highlight the ordinariness of that which we surround ourselves with every day, and, importantly, the credence we place on function regarding design objects and objects generally,” they comment, on what set these ordinary products apart while responding to the theme of the design week that ran from May 18 – 28, 2023.

Directing this ordinariness into the design of daily objects, while outwardly commonplace, can bequeath beauty through functional simplicity. Trade Between reminds us that even in the pursuit of excellence, allure and value can be found in, and ascribed to the unremarkable, a strength between cracks of comfort, a symphony between spatial notes, cutting through the clutter of supposed extraordinariness, and just, cherishing what is.

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