Wednesday. 26/5/2021

The Monocle Minute
On Design


Natural selection

When it comes to residential design, Australian cities are a good place to look for first-class examples. Sustainably minded apartments in Melbourne, smart detached sun-beating suburban abodes in Queensland and sensitive refurbishments of mid-century gems on the shores of Sydney’s harbour all grace the glossy pages of Aussie architecture magazines every month.

But the land down under’s expansive countryside has also become a hotspot for good design. This rural resurgence is a surprising one because the bush is a notoriously tough environment to build in and the lifestyle it offers is very different to easy city living.

Yet many are increasingly selling expensive city apartments and shacking up amid the kangaroos and flora of what is known to Aussies as “God’s country”. And the architectural efforts within these sparsely populated regions are supreme; we would point to the work of Kerstin Thompson Architects and Baracco and Wright Architects as a good starting point. Largely focused on a sustainable and more self-efficient way of living, lawns are out in favour of wild native planting. Innovations and designs that harmonise with the landscape also mean that architectural interventions are subtle. We’ll be watching these developments with interest – and envy – in the coming months.


Speaking volumes

Mexico City’s La Increíble bookshop, founded by designers Alejandro Magallanes and Selva Hernández, has opened its doors in a new location in the La Condesa neighbourhood, in which visitors are encouraged to linger for a read.

The new space, designed by Mexican firm MS Estudio, features a grid of maple-wood bookshelves with inbuilt benches. A long table runs through the middle of the shop displaying a fine selection of stationery, design objects and prints. But the most eye-catching feature is the ceiling, made up of suspended wooden tiles and bulb pendant lights. “We chose neutral materials to balance temperatures: concrete, which is cold, and wood to make it cosy and warm,” says María Santibáñez from MS Estudio. “Functionality is the most important aspect when designing a bookshop. But you mustn’t lose sight of the romantic side of books.”


Healthy glow

Artemide’s iconic mid-century Italian lighting designs include Giancarlo Mattioli’s Nessino table lamp and Vico Magistretti’s Eclisse light. But this year it is showcasing an innovative new function at the Venice Architecture Biennale. Many of the brand’s most recognisable designs have now been fitted with its Integralis technology, in an update that transforms lamps into emitters of antibacterial light. This innovation sanitises the surfaces it illuminates by acting against pathogenic micro-organisms and is on display in locations around the biennale, which Artemide also sponsors.

Image: Andrea Pugiotto
Image: Andrea Pugiotto

Will interest in these lamps dissipate once the pandemic begins to abate? “We actually began developing this technology before coronavirus hit,” says Artemide’s president and CEO Carlotta de Bevilacqua. “We originally saw it as a means to create healthier spaces.” These practical applications, with their host of accompanying benefits, have seen Artemide gain a host of new contracts to install its Integralis lamps in hospitals. It’s also gained interest from companies looking to ensure a safer environment for workers returning to offices. “We’re hoping that it can help people to feel more comfortable in public spaces,” says De Bevilacqua.

Image: Andrea Pugiotto


Fair minded

Hashim Sarkis is the curator of the 2021 Venice Architecture Biennale. Over the course of his career, the Beirut-born architect has walked the line between the academic, as dean of the School of Architecture and Planning at MIT, and the practical, as founder of an award-winning design studio with offices in Beirut and Massachusetts. It’s a combination that’s left him perfectly positioned to lead the biennale, where big thinking is needed to tackle pressing global challenges. During the event he will work on a programme of activities and events to complement the exhibitions on show at the Arsenale and Giardini. All of it builds on the festival theme, a question that informs much of his work: “How will we live together?”

You chose the theme in 2018 – how did it capture the moment we were in then? In 2018 you could sense that the world was breaking apart politically. It was polarising globally – between rich and poor, between cities and hinterlands. There were a lot of political questions that needed answering. And we had waited too long for politicians to tell us how we could live together. So, I thought, why don’t we as architects propose alternatives? We have a closer relationship with people than politicians do. People live in architecture, moving from one building to another. And, in every building, they rehearse the possibilities of living together based on law, social customs, familial relationships and habits. It means we are much closer to answering the question of “How will we live together?” than other fields such as politics are.

Has that question become more significant now, in 2021? I have asked all those participating, “Would you change your mind?” and most of them said “no”. I have tried to understand why this is the case and I truly believe that the main reasons we asked the question back in 2018 are the same things that led us to the pandemic: climate change, the rural-urban divide, political polarisations, inequity, mass migrations and mass tourism. All of these issues that were front and centre back then are behind this pandemic. It has made the question as relevant today as it was back then.

What do you hope that people visiting Venice and the architecture biennale take away from the event? More than 50 per cent of visitors to the architecture biennale do not have a design education. And, more than 50 per cent – and they’re not the other half – are younger than 25 years old. What I would like them to find in Venice is the possibility of inserting themselves into ongoing dialogues among projects and between architects. I want people to also come out with a better understanding of the power of architectural imagining: that we can imagine at the scale of the whole world or at the scale of the human body. I want people to walk away with hope, knowing that there are answers and possibilities.

To hear more from Sarkis, listen to this week’s edition of ‘Monocle on Design’ on Monocle 24.


Bright idea

As design director of Herman Miller for more than 25 years, George Nelson’s work defined the look of the modern office – but this table lamp was never meant to stand in one. In the early 1950s, the American industrial designer was (slightly incongruously) commissioned by Holiday magazine to draw up and decorate a five-bedroom country house in Quogue, Long Island. Made to give off a soft, atmospheric glow, this light was one of the few bespoke pieces that wasn’t sourced from the more office-oriented catalogue of Herman Miller.

Composed of just a cylinder, a rod and a disk in chrome-plated aluminium, the lamp’s design is so ingeniously simple that you would almost expect it to be ubiquitous. Named Half-Nelson, it was put into production by 1977 by Koch & Lowy and again in 2011 by Los Angeles-based Modernica but is no longer manufactured – for now.


Outside chance

The growth of outdoor dining and hospitality during the past year is likely to have a lasting impact, as citizens discover a newfound appreciation for alfresco dining and socialising. In response to this trend, London design agency Layer and British furniture brand Allermuir have teamed up to design an outdoor collection that takes inspiration from the British countryside.

The Crop collection consists of armchairs, dining chairs and stools crafted from a steel-rod frame and slim, robot-welded wires for the seats and backrests, imitating the parallel lines of crops. “The collection is driven by the strong graphic elements of mono-width lines traced around the furniture features,” says Layer’s Benjamin Hubert. “We focused on capturing the spirit of the great outdoors and the language of the natural world to encourage alfresco dining, particularly in the current global climate.”


Me time

Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay “Self-Reliance” is 180 years old but people are still arguing about it. The work – perhaps Emerson’s best-known – is a paean to individualism which some see as the root of America’s increased tendency to ignore science and contest the existence of objective facts. Others consider “Self-Reliance” to be essential advice for creative people, with its insistence on originality and not bowing to prevailing wisdom. That’s how artist Jessica Helfand sees it, as she explains in a new, pocket-sized and very handsome book. It includes 12 essays by her responding to the original text and is published by Thames & Hudson in collaboration with creative website Design Observer.

Helfand calls Emerson’s essay, “a meditation on what it is… to have an imagination, and to use it”. She sees much in it that speaks to the current malaise. One observation of Emerson’s feels particularly relevant (and optimistic) in light of recent events: “Our minds travel when our bodies are forced to stay at home.”


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