The Saint-Étienne Design Biennale Diaries


A critical report of the International Design Biennale of Saint-Étienne held from March 14th to 31st 2013
Previously published in Abitare in ENGLISH and ITALIAN
by Gonzalo Herrero Delicado & María José Marcos
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General introduction 
Saint-Étienne is the first French city appointed as UNESCO City of Design joining other international capital cities like Beijing, Montreal, Seoul, Berlin or Buenos Aires. With an exceptional history related to industrial modernity, Saint-Étienne is now a hub for designers and creators, a city with a population of about 180.000 inhabitants and under permanent transformation, driven by a dynamic which links arts and industry. Thanks to concrete initiatives such as the creation of the Cité du design and the International Design Biennial, Saint-Étienne has adopted design as an agent for urban transformation and a leverage for economic development. Relying on the creativity of its territory and the engagement of both the public and industrial sector, the city is reinventing itself, leading its numerous small and medium-sized enterprises to innovation, and improving the quality of its citizens’ urban living environment through design. The research developed by the Cité du design on new ways of life establishes the city as the laboratory of French (and even international) design and an innovative, sustainable and supportive city.
 ‘Nano-ordinaire’ is the curatorial proposal by acclaimed designer Matali Crasset showing a dull collection of 
ideas to take advantage of our daily actions to collect energy.

The Biennale Internationale Design Saint-Étienne was created in 1998 by former Saint-Étienne’s Fine Arts School and has become a key event in the field of design in France and moreover Europe, both for professionals and the general public alike. The International Design Biennale of Saint-Étienne that opened up its doors last week is held in more than 30 venues around the whole Saint-Etienne district and territory. It features more than fifty exhibitions, conferences and events that every two years attract the international attention to this little town. “Empathy, the experience of the other”, is the principal theme of this 2013 edition of the Saint-Etienne International Design Biennial. Through exhibitions and events, it addresses the various stakes of an empathic society and its capacity to build our future environment, the aspirations it contains, but also the excesses that this notion can potentially hold. The aim will be to understand how design question and answer this approach.
 ‘La Manufacture’ is the Association Greenhouse’ workshop that opens its doors to invite 
designers and artists during the biennale.

According to Elsa Francès, director of International Design Biennale of Saint-Étienne, this 8th edition “places prospective at the centre of its programming, exploring the major issues of society, and revealing through design the innovations which will influence our life tomorrow”. For that reason a wide part of the curatorial statements and projects included in the exhibitions are in a prototype phase that throws an optimistic and naive but sometimes even implausible attitude to what contemporary design purposes are going. However this curatorial approach could also have a second reading as mostly part of the projects that can be seen in Saint-Étienne, abuse and take advantage of futuristic achievements of science that only sometime could become possible, leaving aside actual possibilities of industry for being thought and produced and put into practice to real life. On the other hand the Saint-Étienne biennale visitor can enjoy with more traditional designs, commonly related to furniture and ornamental projects, which could already take part of our daily domestic and urban lives. So this event creates a dichotomy in the visitor experience between future possibilities of design, waiting attentive for a democratic use of prospect sci-fi discoveries that may be will never become real, and in the opposite side a too well-known shapes that although could seem frequently boring, they are also sometimes exciting and optimistic to what present-day design strategies are walking to.
 ‘The Extra ORdinary Objects’ series by promising young designer Jeniffer Rabatel. Mostly produced by 
ÉSÉ – Éditions Sous Étiquette and included in the exhibitions ‘C’est pas mon genre!’ and 
‘Les Éditeurs stéphanois’ in the Musée de la mine.

Apart from all these topics and coffee time discussions, the approach of the head curator of this biennale has some other parallel and irrefutable points of view and good intentions, which enlarge the debate of current design strategies and trends to an ethical perspective. The choice of the theme ‘Empathy, or experiencing the other’ has been a wise and intelligent decision that has been talked about and unanimously acclaimed in the circles of international journalists, designers and architects that visited the biennale last week. Many thinkers consider there is an urgent need to re-think a society based on increased and consistent respect for the human community and because of that to reconsider the conditions and parameters that designers are at this time working with. While visiting the numerous exhibitions and analyzing the projects that take part in them, anyone notice that this conceptual purpose could seem a utopia, because there is a huge distance from the real designs mostly already present in our society, and the high-tech projects for a possible future that for instance have a strong presence in the numerous students proposals shown there. Very different perspectives that converse and manage an utopian reality with a common denominator, the empathy with the users whose interaction both in the production and use, is completely necessary to shape an identity based purely on principles of reality, at a moment when each of us has just to make do, could not empathy be the bearer of hope for a society which is more sensitive and more attentive.
 The Phyto Lamp by Dan Yeffet & Lucie Koldova included in the exhibition ‘Glass is tomorrow’ 
© Photo Anne Croquet

Empathy is a dialogue between a creator and a user that although have been forgotten in last years, it has always been a permanent design condition since functionalism is the basis of contemporary ethical design. This will be an appropriate decision made by Elsa Francès for this eighth edition of the biennale if we keep in mind current critical economical, social and even political situation all around international scope. This biennale shoots some pertinent points by questioning the place and the role of the designer in this process. How can the designer comprehend the needs of each and everyone of us, and respond to universal expectations? How can the designer become a mediator in complex systems such as our cities and furthermore to keep in mind aesthetics? Should designers forget themselves to respond to the needs of others? These interlocking questions can provoke passionate debate at a precise time when practices are being developed to find ways of placing the individual and his uses at the centre of innovation.
’L’âge du faire’ is the curatorial proposal by Particule 14 consisting of innovative urban furniture
But has this 8th edition of International Design Biennale of Saint-Étienne, and in addition its chief curator Elsa Francès and the other commissioned curators, reached their purpose to both demonstrate that design is currently working as a useful tool to help improving cities and its users daily lives as well as shedding light on problems within the society? Are these curatorial proposals really lending weight to empathy topic and at the same time to show where are design trends being addressed? We don’t have all the answers but we will try to solve these questions through a series of reports that we will publish along the following days in Abitare site, analyzing the most remarkable selection of exhibitions we visited in Saint-Étienne so keep tuned!
 ’Knot me’ (2012) is the bread packaging design by Seymourpowell for Bimbo for ‘Design with Heart’ exhibition.

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EmpathyCITY – Making our City Together exhibition 
“Empathy, or experiencing the other” is the theme chosen by commissioner Elsa Francès as the theme of the 8th Saint-Étienne International Design Biennial. It points to the exhibition’s role as a manifesto event exploring the importance of design in today’s society, in the belief that attracting non-specialist visitors can reconnect ordinary people to real design and help them to understand how design objects affect their daily lives. Recast on an urban scale and put into practice by UNESCO’s eleven Creative Cities of Design, the outcome is the EmpathyCITY project developed by Laetitia Wolff and Josyane Franc.

Design of the EmpathyCITY exhibit curated by Laetitia Wolff and Josyane Franc for 
the Saint-Étienne International Design Biennial.

Laetitia Wolff is CEO of designNYC, a non-profit-making organisation that seeks to improve the lives of New Yorkers. Josyane Franc heads the international relations office of Cité du Design and the École Supérieure d’Art et de Design, both based in Saint-Étienne. In setting out the blueprint for EmpathyCITY exhibition, the two curators decided on the one hand to present an overview of the empathy concept in towns and cities using based on the designs adopted by UNESCO’s Creative Cities of Design so as to gauge their success in terms of social impact and people involvement; and on the other, to assess individual urban projects developed by designers, architects and artists to appropriate public space with the proactive collaboration of city-dwellers. The roll-call of towns and cities chosen for the EmpathyCITY exhibition was based on the UNESCO list of Creative Cities of Design which includes, among others, Montreal, Seoul, Beijing, Nagoya, Graz, Buenos Aires and Saint-Étienne itself. However, the UNESCO list is controversial in some respects, primarily because UNESCO’s criteria for granting Creative City of Design status resulted in an enormous preponderance of Asian cities and scarcely any in North America. Another reason is that the selection of individual projects in the chosen cities has skewed overall assessment of the initiative. Some projects do genuinely use specific objects or strategies to activate communities, while others border on the naïve, or even the improbable, as regards the likelihood of changing their host societies and the applicability of the empathy concept itself.

Parallel Lab’s STAG project portrays Beijing as an EmpathyCITY: a recycled backpack converts into a seat, 
generating spontaneous events in any public space.

The curators says that the project selection process began with a proposal put forward by UNESCO’s eleven Creative Cities of Design, which invited to present an existing project whose implementation met the criteria of people involvement, or develop a totally new project specially for the exhibition. The eleven cites were also asked to choose five design objects integral to their urban scene that would be shown in parallel with the main exhibition. EmpathyCITY is an ode to an optimistic list of projects that provide simple answers to specific urban problems that are easy to implement by local people wherever possible. Designers, irrespective of their professional roles and skills, took second place as assistants or consultants. Looking in more detail at the individual projects, however, one has to admit that Wolff and Franc’s exhibition stands head and shoulders in Saint-Étienne for two reasons. The first is that it successfully transposes design to an urban and therefore social scale, drawing attention to the role people and communities in design. The second is that the exhibition hosts urban projects which enhance the varying roles not only of designers, architects, urban planners and graphic designers, but also of sociologists, anthropologists and economists. There can be no doubt that, in researching and selecting the projects implemented in individual towns, the contribution of the latter group proved crucial to the quality of the exhibits and therefore of the exhibition itself. Thanks to input from sociologists, anthropologists and economists, design unites politics, community and people under the banner of urban design, helping to mediate the interests of the three permanently dissenting groups. This is where empathy comes into its own as the leitmotiv of the Biennial, and the results speak for themselves given that EmpathyCITY far exceeds even the most optimistic.

 “First Village below the Sky” in Hyunjin Park, Seoul, is an array of small altars commemorating the town of 
Nangok-dong, which was devastated by an earthquake.

The curators says that the project selection process began with a proposal put forward by UNESCO’s eleven Creative Cities of Design, which invited to present an existing project whose implementation met the criteria of people involvement, or develop a totally new project specially for the exhibition. The eleven cites were also asked to choose five design objects integral to their urban scene that would be shown in parallel with the main exhibition. EmpathyCITY is an ode to an optimistic list of projects that provide simple answers to specific urban problems that are easy to implement by local people wherever possible. Designers, irrespective of their professional roles and skills, took second place as assistants or consultants.

EmpathyCITY – Making our City Together
Curators: Laetitia Wolff and Josyane Franc
Exhibit design: Adrien Rovero

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Do Androids Dream of Electric Pigs?
“Do Androids Dream of Electric Pigs? – or, Les androïdes rêvent-ils de cochons électriques?” – is Marie-Haude Caraës’s take on the empathy concept proposed by commissioner Elsa Francès as the theme of the Saint-Étienne International Design Biennial. Inspired by Philip K. Dick’s book Do Androids Dream of Electric Pigs? (1968), the main source of the 1980s film Blade Runner, Caraës allusively revisits Dick’s title by assigning her exhibition’s lead role to the one of the most eaten animals on the planet: the pig. Empathy is explored through the relationship between humans and animals, and how design projects can contribute to this relationship. Special importance – should that still be necessary – is given to humankind’s basic dependence on animals in today’s society.

 General view of the exhibition in Building H at the Cité du Design

Caraës curatorship looks well beyond relationships between designers and end-users. Unlike other exhibitions at the Biennial, which explore how the empathy concept is a crucial human parameter influencing the ultimate use of a project, Caraës dehumanises empathy and its application to the animal world. What conditions to animals live in? How can we help them? What role do they play in our ultra-technological world? What benefits do we reap from animals? These are just some of the questions she raises. Her exhibition treats empathy as a design strategy by taking as its themes two diametrically opposed typologies, two antithetical points of view from which to catalogue the projects she presents. The first includes projects in which empathy is a designer’s act of generosity towards the animal kingdom; the second sees empathy as a way of bringing humans closer to animals.

 Matthew Patrick Brown’s project, “Cowcows” (2010), helps cows rid themselves more 
easily of annoying flies that congregate on their ears.

The projects and prototypes chosen for the exhibition have been divided conceptually into four groups along two corridors leading to rooms resembling pig farms. Some might consider the design over-simplistic, but it’s certainly effective. Each of the four groups – “Pigs in the Park”, “From Inside, the Animal”, “The Adaptation of Species” and “The New Fauna” – occupies one of the two corridors’ four walls. Though hardly viable, the featured projects sourced from industrial design, architecture, chemistry and art as well as “straight” design, are undeniably valid as conceptual statements and offer a sometimes nauseating overview of the future that awaits us.

 James Auger and Jimmy Loizeau’s “Automated Dog Hackles” (2001) is a prototype prosthesis for dogs 
designed to help them defend themselves better in dangerous situations, an ability that has been 
bred out of them because of their proximity to the human race.

The exhibition is a vision statement of humans’ dependence on non-humans and the supposed priority – in reality culturally imposed – of the former over the latter. However, the worlds the projects describe are perhaps closer to the kind of post-apocalyptic scenario underlying Blade Runner than a reality that needs design able to generate dialogue between humans and animals. Moreover, in the exhibition such a possibility seems tied to an unspecified future and an array of technology that may never come into being. Yet more ready-designed utopias in Saint-Étienne.
Aurélie Eckenschwiller’s “Microdomus #2” (2011) is an architectural exploration of the possibility of 
combining the circadian needs of a cow in one building. The roof, separated from yet camouflaged 
with the countryside, provides a food source for the animal.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Pigs?
Curator: Marie-Haude Caraës
Exhibit design: Adrien Rovero

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Traits d’union
The most obvious thing anyone visiting a design exhibition expects to see is a catalogue of the latest industrial design objects, mostly intended for the home – things that incorporate new technology and point to what everyday may be like in the future. And yet, what might seem by definition a banal, superfluous and rather conventional approach can become a challenge when the outcome is the complete opposite, not just free of preconceptions but even a success in its own right. Such is the case with “Traits d’union”, an exhibition curated by eliumstudio.

 eliumstudio’s drawing for the “Traits d’union” exhibition

eliumstudio is a Paris-based multidisciplinary group that specialises in industrial design. For “Traits d’union” its members put their usual role as creatives to one side, drawing instead on their vast knowledge of the subject to author a meticulously researched compendium of recent design. Naturally, in selecting the hundred or so projects featured in “Traits d’union” their starting-point was empathy seen from the viewpoint of design users, giving rise to four different types of empathy that link producers to users: technological, conceptual, sensory and environmental. eliumstudio’s exhibit design is also places it a cut above the Biennial’s other exhibitions. The objects are gathered in four longitudinal areas that illustrate – effectively and unobtrusively – the four types of empathy. The fact that “Traits d’union” is on show in the Platine de la Cité du Design, one of the Biennial’s largest exhibition areas, makes it noticeably more successful than its neighbouring exhibition “Demain c’est aujourd’hui #4”, which seems less focussed by comparison. eliumstudio’s chosen exhibits are absolutely consistent, though they range from the famous and familiar to sophisticated prototypes still under development. The juxtaposition of finished products by well-known international designers and prototypes by lesser-known ones works very well.

 Lapka, an iPhone device with sensors to measure moisture, radioactivity and nitrates in fruit and vegetables.

Instead of raising general questions about design’s impact on everyday life, “Traits d’union” offers clear answers using functionally successful objects. This means that the objects are not ones that the average consumer might buy, though they undoubtedly underpin an increasingly democratic, ever-expanding market sector. Unlike most of the other exhibitions we have reported on at Saint-Étienne, “Traits d’union” is neither utopian, nor abstract, nor – as is so often the case – prototype-oriented, insisting instead that the true aim of the entire design process should be to provide real answers to real problems. “Traits d’union”’s successful and consistent portfolio of designs is an inspired answer that does full justice to the strengths of industrial design.

Traits d’union – Objets d’empathie
Curatorship and exhibit design: eliumstudio

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The Dream Team
In our final report we look at “The Dream Team”, an exhibition of projects by students from European design schools that offer an optimistic take on the future of design. The exhibits are all decidedly conceptual, and though future-oriented like many others at Saint-Étienne, they win hands down in terms of originality. The fact that they are so theoretical sets them apart from conceptual design in the usual sense precisely because they are so functional. In addition, most of the other projects at Saint-Étienne are exhibited as installations bordering on works of art, making them embodiments of a utopia fuelled by technological wonders which seem implausible now but might be possible fifty years hence.

 ‘All that I am. From a speck of hair to Elvis Presleys mouse model’ a project by Koby Barhad included in 
‘The Dream Team’ exhibiton curated by Alexandra Midal

Curated by Alexandra Midal and Mathias Zeba, “The Dream Team” features projects by students of fashion at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts, Antwerp; interaction design at the Royal College of Art, London; graphic design at the Sandberg Institute, Amsterdam; the Space & Communication MA at HEAD, Geneva; and industrial design at ESAD, Saint-Étienne. Compared with some of the Biennial’s more pedestrian installations, the range of exhibits is impressive, with the outstandingly experimental and innovative projects by students at the Royal College of Art leading the field. The show raises many issues, questioning anew the role of designers, their social function, and the disciplinary boundaries of design in general – urgent issues in a constantly-changing society where all certainties quickly tend to disappear.

 General view of the exhibition. Each project is housed in its own black box

Alexandra Midal heads the Design MA in at the High School of Art and Design (HEAD), Geneva, and is the curator of Design Project Room. In “The Dream Team” her take on the current state of design is “light” without being superficial. One of the most interesting projects is “All that I am” by Koby Barhad (Royal College of Art) for which he bought one of Elvis Presley’s hats on eBay to obtain the singer’s DNA and inject into a laboratory mouse. His installation is a series of cages for the mice simulating Elvis’ life experiences from cradle to grave, including the tragedy of his mother’s death. The mouse (and its successor) is included in the installation to monitor everything it does and check if it is truly following in Elvis’s footsteps.

 “Expression Dispatcher” (2010) by Gerard Rallo Royal College of Art

Alexandra Midal’s aim was to reinterpret the concept of “design empathy” formulated by Richard Neutra after analysing Sigmund Freud’s furniture and how he used it to trigger free association in his patients, an idea which Neutra later turned into designs when he moved to Southern California. In reality, the exhibition itself is something of a hostage to its own good intentions in the sense that visitors are captivated by the conceptual effectiveness of the individual exhibits and have trouble in understanding what originally inspired them.

 “Android birthday” (2011) by Kevin Grennan (Royal College of Art) ponders the lack of 
feeling in anthropomorphic robots when placed in human situation

This outstandingly-curated major exhibition that far outstrips the some of the over-predictable – and over-predictably curated – shows we have occasionally seen at the Biennial.

See you again in two years!

The Dream Team
Curator: Alexandra Midal
Assistant: Mathias Zieba
Exhibit design: Adrien Rovero

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