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Standouts at the Biennale International Design St. Etienne 2013

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Writer Shonquis Moreno was at France’s Biennale International Design St. Etienne 2013 for three days this month (on view through March 31). Here’s a look at what she saw.

Day One
France’s Biennale International Design St. Etienne 2013 explores the theme of empathy and will run from 14 to 31 March, headquartered in both the classical buildings of the Ecole National Supérieure d’Art et de Design and the highly graphical, uber-geometric, solar-powered Centre International du Design facility created by LIN Architects in 2009. Not everything on show was brand new, but most exhibitions were well-edited, creating a convocation of heartfelt, thoughtful and thought-provoking displays that make this small fair much bigger than the sum of its parts.

A radiator that recalls a Memphis movement sculpture was included in the Elium Studio-curated exhibit Traits d’Union: Objets d’Empathie. An invisible laminate turns a ½-inch thick pane of glass into Matières à Chaud (Hot Matters), an avant-garde heater by Paris-based 5.5 Designers. Quantum glass, which sandwiches a thin metal coating, emits infrared rays that feel like sunlight, but which can be controlled via thermostat or digital remote.

Part ornament, part lighting and part DIY phenomenon, the L-Ink poster-lamp by French designer Jean-Sébastien Lagrange and Chevalver was part of the Demain C’est Aujourdhui area curated by Claire Payrolle. Users print, cut, glue and fold to author their own light: L-Ink’s thick paper is coated with a conductive LED ink in a circuit board pattern and can be turned on and off by folding or unfolding.

Designer Sebastien Bergne curates the refreshingly unpretentious, if not cutting-edge, Design With Heart exhibition, including poetic and easy-to-love pieces: ribbon-like marble benches by Ron Gilad, two chairs Frankensteined from Thonet models by Martino Gamper and a black table lamp, Curiosity Object, by Studio Gabillet and Villard for the Cat Berro Gallery, which is crowned with a smoke-grey glass globe that can contain and display beloved objects.

The Singularité exhibition, curated by Francois Brument and David-Olivier Lartigaud, considers the notion of “singularity” espoused by futurologist Ray Kurzweil who predicted that by 2030 computers will begin to lead humanity into a downward technological spiral out of its control. Scenography by Noemi Bonnet-Saint-Georges and Eric Bourbon consists of artifacts on show under glass domes and a wide strip of silver mylar that belts several walls. Through the mylar some displays can be viewed vaguely (but always sufficiently) with passersby reflected over them as if in funhouse mirrors.

Several examples of strong scenography stand out at the fair, two of them by Noemi Bonnet-Saint-Georges and Eric Bourbon. The scheme for the Artifact exhibition consists of asymmetrical boxes in a staggered arrangement that serve as frames for each product. “Artifact” refers to an object made by man as opposed to Nature; the show means to emphasize the interventions made by designers. Visitors are invited to intervene, as well, by adding or taking away objects on the shelves of De l’Importance de participer: Mur en Attente d’Objets (On the Importance of Participating: Wall Waiting for Objects) by Apres Vous.

In Singularité, Murmur Study, a visually overwhelming ticker tape cascade of Tweets collected by Christopher Baker over three years, asks what we will do with the glut of information we generate: what should be thrown away and what is worth keeping?

In the Singularité exhibition, Marianne Cauvard and Rafael Pluvinage attempt to redefine the musical instrument by creating a kit of molds, colored gelatin and electronics that allow users to concoct Noisy Jelly that emits interesting noise, if not quite music, when wobbled.

Inside an armature that Paco Rabanne might have appreciated, the St. Etienne Museum of Modern Art has mounted an exhibition through May 26 about the mutual influence that midcentury designer (and Le Corbusier collaborator) Charlotte Perriand and Japan had on each other around her two trips to the country in the mid-1950s and ‘60s. Curated by Martine Dancer, Jacques Barsac and Charlotte’s daughter, Pernette, the show’s vignettes were composed on sand or black stone grounds and well-contextualized with photographs (some by Perriand, herself) and handwritten letters and sketches. At the end, a Perriand quote is relevant today: “Daily life distances us from the essential and our consumer culture does not bring us any closer. Working in order to consume is an infernal cycle that makes the machine go round, a sort of economic slavery in which the sublime beauty of life is not taken into account. The subject is man, in the abundance of his still latent faculties, which are only waiting to blossom.”

EmpathiCITY: Making Our City Together, curated by Josyane Franc and Laetitia Wolff, represents recent efforts to activate the Creative Cities Network, an 11-member UNESCO alliance. The exhibition presents one project per city: from Kobe ,the Ability Bib, a way for survivors to quickly communicate their skills in the aftermath of a crisis; from a women’s prison in Buenos Aires, the Petbol, a football made from upcycled PET bottles; and, pictured here, the One-Meter House, part of a hostel renovation project in St. Etienne by residents of the Habitat Jeunes Clairevivre Young Workers’ Hostel in accordance with Enzo Mari’s 1974 Autoprogettazione DIY construction philosophy.

Day Two
For an exhibition entitled In the Mood for Ikea that celebrates hacks of the Swedish megabrand’s products, French designer and publisher Francois Mangeol of Edition Sous Etiquette sewed together bathmats to create a fishscale rug.

A pink foosball table using Barbie Dolls as football players is part of C’est Pas Mon Genre!, exploring the relationship of women and design (the title is a play on the phrase’s two meanings: “Are you kidding?” and “That isn’t my gender”). The show is curated and its floor-level display designed by Rodolphe Dogniaux, Marc Monjou and postgraduate students from the Ecole National Superieur des Arts et du Design.

St. Etienne designers present small works in the show Les Editeurs Stephanois in the Musee de la Mine, a former coal mine turned museum. These silk and paper lamps are by Julie Laborde of Atelier du Coin.

In the Musee de la Mine, visitors may also see the suiting-up room where miners’ clothes were stored in metal baskets suspended from the ceiling and pulled to the floor by a chain, a clever but slightly creepy design of its own. (Journalists have taken to calling it the salle des pendus, the room of the hanged men).

The site of a satellite show about humor in design, the Saint-Pierre church in Firminy just outside St. Etienne was designed by Le Corbusier but only fully completed in 2006, 41 years after the architect’s death.

The vociferous display of Benjamin Girard’s Vous Voulez Rire? by 5.5 Designers borrows its forms and color scheme from the building that hosts it: Corbusier’s concrete Saint-Pierre Church. Exploring the power of humor in design, Girard asks if, perhaps, “less is mort?”

Day Three
At the city’s former Ecole des Beaux Arts, two satellite shows explore the design process. In Public & Design by collective EEZO, local designer Yoann Keignart presents Les Combles, presenting a refinement of the multitasking domestic step ladder.

In the VISIBLE exhibition doors away in the old arts school, curator Morgane Pluchon includes glassware by Estelle Sauvage alongside work by Big-Game, Benjamin Graindorge and other young designers with names that are or will be recognizable. The objects are accompanied by maquettes that give some insight into the creative processes that produced them.

The approach to the city’s former Ecole des Beaux Arts along the Rue Henri Gonnard is, itself, a gallery of artists and designers with no names: lace curtains with vignettes of mountains and peacocks; a grate at the foot of a house has been turned into a zebra; and a panoply of wheat-paste neighbors.



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Kelly Wearstler




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