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Collector and tastemaker André Balazs has been appointed curator of the Design At Large section at this year’s DesignMiami/Basel (June 16-21). Balazs brings to the curator position years of hotel and restaurant development and design experience, as well as a penchant for collecting. In fact, in 2002 he was awarded the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum Design Patron Award. Whitewaller speaks to Balazs about his vision for Design At Large, his admiration for legendary French architect and designer Jean Prouvé, and his plans for a mobile Basel bar.
WHITEWALLER: Are there specific design aesthetics or construction methodologies that define the installations for Design At Large this year?
ANDRÉ BALAZS: My selection reflects my questions about forms of shelter that state where production is today. I am very interested in modular housing, for example, Jean Prouvé’s Maison Tropicale, which is arguably his most unusual piece. I am very intrigued by it as a sustainable, affordable and quality produced shelter. So the theme of Design At Large, although this is nothing new, is prefabrication and modular building, as well as mobile and sustainable housing. Examples in the show range from Ikea’s Refugee housing to Shigeru Ban’s teahouse to a Volkswagen camper bus, which is the ultimate example of well-designed mobile living,
What is new, and what this exhibition positions, is that Jean Prouvé is the gold standard when it comes to producing affordable, high quality, dismountable and adaptable designs. We then go from Prouvé to pieces that have clearly left this impulse behind and are now verging on art, for example, some pieces are specifically designed to be collectible so you can’t tell the difference between an Alexander Calder and the idea of a pavilion that can be assembled at the foot of your pool that is manufactured in 24-carat gold. This pavilion piece has taken the spirit of the theme and elevated it into the fetishized realm of collectability and art. Is it sculpture or is it pure folly for well-heeled collectors? The irony of this of course is that Jean Prouvé would never have had these kinds of impulses in mind— working with intense integrity to building—but now his work has been elevated to the pinnacle of collectability.
WW: So how then do the contemporary works in Design At Large speak to the world of design today?
AB: All of the contemporary pieces are relatively amateur efforts in this area. I say this because the key approach I’m investigating is to take design and combine it with manufactured technology. I believe that if you don’t work with manufactured technology then all you are is a visual architect. Unless you are grappling with the field of production as Prouvé or as the design of the Volkswagen camper did, then you are dilettantish in that you are making something that looks produce-able but hasn’t dealt with the realities of being produce-able….and this is fake. Jean Prouvé’s “Filling Station” is one of the most beautiful pieces in the show and is now the golden standard of authenticity, and the Volkswagen camper is the ultimate example of a compact and mobile unit making vacations accessible and affordable to families. In contrast, two pieces in the show appear faux in that they illustrate a spirit but haven’t grappled with the reality of being in this category at all. And my point for including them is to illustrate exactly this.
WW: Did the monumentality of Herzog & De Meuron’s event hall, the venue for this exhibition, impact your curatorial decisions?
AB: While these pieces hopefully tell a story with a continuum, the installation in such a large hall of such relatively small pieces I think exaggerates their sculptural quality. In other words, installations that are supposed to be mass-produced are now being exhibited in this monumental hall as pieces of sculpture.
WW: How is your experience of curating Design At Large different from say designing and seeing a hotel to fruition?
AB: Over the last 25 years I’ve built residential condominiums and various hotels as ground-up constructions and refurbishments of buildings. What I’m interested in is the creation of environments and how people react to those environments, so I have always been interested in methods of prefabrication and how to build with high quality and non-generically. We have never been able to achieve extremely high quality when producing factory built environments. It would be fascinating to build a shelter in a highly controlled factory like you would construct a quality motor vehicle, and put it into use. Arguably this would be more sustainable, more useable.
For me, the Maison Tropicale is the precursor to these ideas, because it’s the one design in which Prouvé really started to work with sustainable issues such as airflow and climate control in a tropical climate.
WW: So ideas of sustainability are central to the exhibition?
AB: The word sustainability is much bandied about and what it means is a vague. On one hand sustainability is good business and on the other it is about having minimal impact on the environment. However, Shigeru Ban’s use of cardboard is a wonderful example of reuse of basic wood. Another is Prouvé’s efficient use of polarized tinted windows for temperature control, which is arguably sustainable in its use of energy. I like the idea of the re-mountable—you can set something up and then reuse it so you don’t waste time, money and materials in remaking. I also like the idea of being able to theoretically pack something up, which speaks to urgency—the idea that re-mountable shelters provide disaster relief housing instantaneously in order to sustain life.