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A walk through the Saint-Etienne International Design Biennial 2013

I am back from the 8th edition of the Biennale Internationale Design that is currently taking place in the French Eastern city of Saint-Etienne. At the centre of its programming, the Biennial and La Cité du Design explore the major issues of society, revealing through design the innovations which will influence our life tomorrow. The Biennial is founded on the principle of calls for applications, and a confrontation of the points of view of invited curators and exhibitors: it cultivates a non-permanence – and sometimes even a certain impertinence – by offering for each new edition different places to visit, and different curator’s standpoints to discover. So let’s start with some introductory words by Elsa Francès, director of the Biennial, followed by images of everything caught my eye during these two rich and hectic days in freeeeezing Saint-Etienne ! The Biennial will be on show until March 31st, so if you have a chance, make sure to visit. If not, I hope you enjoy this virtual tour. See you, Flo Above – Saint-Pierre de Firminy Church designed in 1953 by Le Corbusier.

Empathy, or experiencing the other.

The choice of the theme of “empathy” results from an intuition, and a collective reflection. Many philosophers and sociologists consider there is an urgent need to re-think a society based on increased respect for the human community. Perhaps, at a time where we are lacking forms of utopia, where society seeks 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. Is it a skill ? An attitude ? Is it a pertinent form of knowledge ? How to reconcile empathy with creation ? Should we forget ourselves to respond to the needs of others ? What then is the role of creation? 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.

Empathy proposes an alternative vision and shape of the world, thanks to this capacity to comprehend and to understand the feelings and emotions of others.

This notion is relatively absent from views and teaching of design, whereas it constitutes a central theme of the work and thinking of the discipline. And empathy possesses an extraordinary investigating force. The Biennial cannot avoid questioning the place and the role of the designer in this process. Empathy is a dialogue between a creator and a user. 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 ? How can he create an empathy with the visitor to the Biennial to allow him to inhabit his personal universe ? What is the relation between the designer and the brand he works for ?

To speak of empathy is also to speak of aesthetics.

Whatever the standpoint, aesthetics is what incites an intimate comprehension of the other, be he the visitor of the exhibition, or he who creates it. We will see how digital design is entering our daily environment, with the aim of creating closer relations between people, and to what extent it is desirable to build empathic links with machines. Certain exhibitions will look at our new rapport with the artifact, resembling more and more the relations we hold with living things. Design is one of the vehicles for comprehending the choices and debates facing society. Are there ways of viewing our world other than the hyper-technical solutions we are proposed ?

Perhaps – and this is the hypothesis that I advance – we have a more ready access to the complexity of beings and things by empathy, than by a more rational approach.

In this empathic capacity there resides something immediate which offers a rapidity of comprehension, and singular responses to complex issues. The danger would be to make a recipe or a method from it, with the risk of assuming control over others. The capacity of empathy is a form of knowledge which creates profound links with creation.

The designer feels and perceives; his work is not just cerebral; all of his senses are mobilized.

It is one of the treasures of design: to produce singular forms of knowledge which speak differently, and say different things about the world. Text written by Elsa Francès – Director of the Biennale Internationale Design Saint-Etienne.   Ok, go! Let’s take a tour of some of the exhibitions I had the pleasure of viewing.

Murmur Study, a live Twitter visualization and archive by Christopher Baker.

Murmur Study is an installation that examines the rise of micro-messaging technologies such as Twitter and Facebook’s status update. One might describe these messages as a kind of digital small talk. But unlike water-cooler conversations, these fleeting thoughts are accumulated, archived and digitally-indexed by corporations. While the future of these archives remains to be seen, the sheer volume of publicly accessible personal — often emotional — expression should give us pause.

This installation consists of 30 thermal printers that continuously monitor Twitter for new messages containing variations on common emotional utterances. Messages containing hundreds of variations on words such as argh, meh, grrrr, oooo, ewww, and hmph, are printed as an endless waterfall of text accumulating in tangled piles below. The printed thermal receipt paper is then reused in future projects and exhibitions or recycled. The Murmur Study printers are controlled by Arduinos that receive data from Processing software.

Galleria marble bench evoquing a curved leaf, part of the ‘Soft Marble‘ collection by Ron Gilad // Coffee table by design student Estelle Mary

L’âge du faire Exhibition – Curators and scenography: Particule 14 // Je me vois, Je te vois, Je me vois En toi metal screen by Normal Studio & Tôlerie Forezienne

Mur des Jubilations wall panels by Ich&KarConcrete LCDA // Yummyou table barbecue by Marc Bretillot & Éric Trochon – Tôlerie Forezienne // L’âge du faire Exhibition

Cache-cache floor lamp by Cédric Martineaud – Tôlerie Forezienne // Flaque mirror and bench by Marie Christine DornerTôlerie Forezienne // L’âge du faire Exhibition

Le Solitaire desk-chair by Pascal Michalon // Minéral vases by Ionna Vautrin The Artifact exhibition emphasises the diversity of designer interventions in the image and object domains. Faithful to the origins of the Saint-Etienne International Design Biennial, Artifact is an exhibition of the free expression of designers, presented in the form of a curiosity room in which the links between creations bring out common signs, forms, materials and colours – Curators : Cité du Design – Scenography : Eric Bourbon & Noémie Bonnet Saint Georges

Topique-Feuilles wind-operated leaf collector by Isabelle Daëron // Essaime beehive by Atelier Jeremy Marty & Helena Amalric Design // Artifact Exhibition

Noé Project 2010 ceiling mouldings by Andras Rigler // Martine chair by Agnès Martel // Artifact Exhibition

Lufa floor lamp by Fernando Laposse // DS n.6 chair by Patrick Pagnon & Claude Pelhaître, inspired by 18th century furniture // Artifact Exhibition

Pendant lights and coffee table by Andreas Hopf & Axel Nordin // Artifact Exhibition

Formica chair by Agnès Martel // Les Frères Plo by Gaspard Graulich // Artifact Exhibition

Afterimage_02 console and lamp by Bomi Park // Hasard ceramic & carpented objects by Roxane Andrès // Artifact Exhibition

La Cité du design and the Saint-Etienne Higher School of Art and Design share the same buildings – a former weapons manufacturing site // Oh hello Jo ! Fellow blogger and friend at Deco-Design

Inside La Cité du design, approching Matali Crasset’s exhibition.

Exhibition Nano-ordinaire based on the project of transforming man from an energy consumer to an energy generator – Curator and Scenography: Matali Crasset with Paul Louis Meunier (scientific advisor) // Oh hello Matali !

The Empathic house by Matali Crasset // Exhibition Nano-ordinaire

The Phyto Lamp by Dan Yeffet & Lucie Koldova & Intimacy glass sculpture by Alfredo Häberli // Second Souffle by Studio Brichetziegler The Glass is Tomorrow Exhibition is a European project, which aims at establishing a more fluid exchange of knowledge and competencies between glass and design professionals in the north, south, east and west of Europe. – Curator: Lise Coirier, Pro Materia

The Golden Vase by Rony Plesl // The Flower Vase by Alfredo Häberli //Glass is Tomorrow Exhibition

A Carafe With A Cloud by V8 designers // The Collar vases collection by Arik Levy //Glass is Tomorrow Exhibition

Colored-pencil table by Nendo // Colored-Pencil Table Exhibition – Curators and Scenography: Nendo

Colored-Pencil Table Exhibition // Given their carte blanche, the Japanese design studio Nendo offers a project verging on an installation of contemporary art, comprising some thirty tables arranged diagonally, in graduations of colour, across the exhibition surface. These pieces are made by a technique known as “udukuri“, which consists of hollowing out the cyprus wood tops of the tables to bring out the natural wood-grain. Then the relief of the tops is transferred by crayon onto the covering paper. This process creates an amazing juxtaposition between the colour of the crayons used and the enhanced wood grain. This, according to Nendo, is an example of furniture of the future, through the manipulation of surface texture.

Don’t ask… Yes, Jo and I participated to strange but cool design experiments ! // The Future is not a Noun It’s a Verb performance is orchestrated by young artist and filmaker Charlotte Jarvis who exhibits videos of experiments carried out with strangers in clown costumes and armed with custard pies.

The Future is not a Noun It’s a Verb performance : a number of strangers enter a waiting room. They are asked to put on clown masks and costumes. The strangers are shepherded into an empty room shrouded in plastic. The strangers are told they have exactly two minutes. The door is closed. The room contains only a box and a television relaying their own image. In the box they find all the necessary ingredients to make custard pies. A performative, expressive rendering of pre-determinism.

The Traits d’union objets d’empathie Exhibition induces a new interpretation of innovation design, balanced between goods and services, technology and humanity, industry and society, and leaves open a field of multiple questioning, including the central question of who shapes the other ? – Curator and Scenography: eliumstudio // Endless Flow dinning chair made of recycled plastic by Dirk Vander Kooij

Ebike electrical bicycle by Smart // Vases#44, a series of vases, the shape of which is generated by the sound of a voice by François Brument // Traits d’union objets d’empathie Exhibition

Plain Air wall air purifier by Parick Norguet // BeoPlay 09 wireless speaker by Oivind Alexander Slaato for Bang & Olufsen // Traits d’union objets d’empathie Exhibition

The Magic Cube ultra-portable and full-sized projection keyboard by Celluon // Traits d’union objets d’empathie Exhibition

Shroom urban lighting by Birgitta Ralson and Alexandre Bau // Traits d’union objets d’empathie Exhibition

Strvct 3D-printed shoes by Continuum Fashion // Airwave augmented reality skiing goggles by Oakley // Traits d’union objets d’empathie Exhibition

WikiCell edible food packing by François Azambourg and David Edwards // Le RE AeroShot energy inhaler by David Edwards // Traits d’union objets d’empathie Exhibition

Saint-Pierre de Firminy Church designed in 1953 by Le Corbusier

Saint-Pierre de Firminy Church designed in 1953 by Le Corbusier

Saint-Pierre de Firminy Church designed in 1953 by Le Corbusier

Saint-Pierre de Firminy Church designed in 1953 by Le Corbusier

Le Corbusier de Firminy Site // Sister lamp by Jose Manuel Ferrero

Souviens toi que tu vas mourir chair  by Pool // Le Corbusier de Firminy Site

Vous voulez rire ? Exhibition – Église le Corbusier – Curator: Benjamin Girard – Scenography: 5.5 designers

Vous voulez rire ? Exhibition – Église le Corbusier – Curator: Benjamin Girard – Scenography: 5.5 designers

L’autre jean Exhibition – Museum of Art and Industry // Marithé+François Girbaud are designers distinguished by their unconventional creations and their industrial research, such as the laser treatment applied to jeans since 2003. While jeans are representative of their trademark it is not the only product. Alchemists of materials, Marithé+François Girbaud metamorphose the properties of leather, of knitwear and new textiles. The exhibition puts on display a richly endowed universe of garments from the archives, technical drawings, and advertising films directed by Jean-Luc Godard.

Francois Girbaud himself giving us a tour of the exhibition // No water. No chemicals. Wattwash™ laser technique by Marithé François Girbaud – A 97,5% waterfree process allowing to engrave the surface of the fabric precisely to create a multiplicity of worn effects and patterns // L’autre jean Exhibition – Museum of Art and Industry

Jeanealogie // L’autre jean Exhibition – Museum of Art and Industry

The Musée de la Mine – Les Éditeurs stéphanois Exhibition

It’s snowing at the Musée de la Mine.. again. // Oh hello François Mangeol and Valérie Gonot !

Cute origami birds lamp and mobile by Nathalie CharmotL’atelier du Coin // Les Éditeurs stéphanois Exhibition – Musée de la Mine

Occidorient rug by François Mangeol and Animali Domesticki by Jean-Sébastien Poncet – ÉSÉ Édition sous Étiquette // Pendant light by L’Atelier du Coin // Les Éditeurs stéphanois Exhibition – Musée de la Mine

Béton de Papier pendant lights by Julie Laborde Nur – L’Atelier du Coin // Les Éditeurs stéphanois Exhibition – Musée de la Mine

Fred bar stools and bench, part of the Rhône-Alpes collection by Thomas Goux and Nicolas TouretteHub Design Editions // Les Éditeurs stéphanois Exhibition – Musée de la Mine

Charlotte Perriand et le Japon Exhibition – Musée d’art moderne de Saint-Étienne La Terrasse – Curator : Martine Dancer The exhibition Charlotte Perriand et le Japon, is devoted to the impact on the French designer of her discovery of the Japanese archipelago. Her mission in Japan, from 1940, along with the links that lasted up to 1993 with the Maison de Thé commission, have inspired highly original design propositions. The evocation of her first exhibition; Tradition-Selection-Creation precedes the reconstitution of Proposition pour une synthèse des arts , organized in Tokyo. Her post-war personal creations and her collaborations with Steph Simon are also presented.

Charlotte Perriand et le Japon Exhibition – Musée d’art moderne de Saint-Étienne La Terrasse // No pictures were (actually) allowed.

Charlotte Perriand et le Japon Exhibition – Musée d’art moderne de Saint-Étienne La Terrasse

This will conclude my LONG! walk through the Saint-Etienne International Design Biennial 2013. Thank you 14 Septembre Online for the invitation. Thank you Manon for your constant smile, kindess and patience (that 6.58am wake-up call at Paris Gare de Lyon was tough, can we move it to the afternoon next time?… <3 ). Thank you Jo for sharing with me most of the exhibitions, I owe you a custard pie in the face… AnthonyCamille, Vincent, HelenaFrançois, Valérie, FX, Benjamin and surely others I’m forgetting, great to see/meet you there, talk, laugh or hang out. Jean-Charles, too bad we didn’t manage to hook up… Thank you the Tenor Hotel for covering my bed with fake rose petals, it was priceless (I’d still like to get an explanation for this). And thank you C O F F E E  for making me survive this design marathon!

All photos © Florence Deau – Shot with love, an iPhone and Instagram.

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