Rooted Design for Routed Living. Can design make the artist rooted?
Rooted Design for Routed Living. Czy design może ukorzenić artystę?

Lidia Pańków

The curators of a two-year-long programme of Rooted Design for Routed Living. Alternative Strategies for Design realized at the Centre for Contemporary Art Ujazdowski Castle in Warsaw in 2008-2010 called it a “research-related design project”(1). Its aim was to create a series of objects that will work as furnishings of the studio spaces for residents of artist-in-residence laboratory at the Ujazdowski Castle and the Norwegian Nordic Artists' Centre Dalsåsen in Dale. The notion of “rooted design” points to the aim of penetrating local factors, opposing the tendency for mindless ornamentation, and finding friendly forms that locate and cleverly refer to the national traditions. The workshops were coordinated by two designers. Polish designers were represented by Tomek Rygalik, famous e.g. for his projects for Moroso, DuPont/Cioran, Iker and Noti, and his education work in Poland and abroad, a winner and finalist of numerous important competitions. The Norwegian leader was Oscar Narud, the founder of Okay Studio collective, who has cooperated with El Ultimo Gorito design studio and with an architect Nigel Coates. Young designers who took part in the programme were selected from a group of a few dozens of candidates on the basis of their work.

Photo: Nicolas Grospierre

Although in essence the idea was to design and produce material objects with defined function, to view this project from this perspective only is to skip other important levels. Physical and visual result – namely the exhibition of a series of furniture and equipment that include among other things a bookshelf with drawers, a table for “work and other activities”, a hanger and a loudspeaker - is an event organized for the viewers interested in design, who do not have to go into details of the idea behind the project, or to explore the methodology of production. However, the places where the project took place, as well as the curatorial control (limited and discreet, yet typical for art-related events), make it transcend the field of “industrial design” and place it in a different field. It is a “place” in-between, where the spheres of art, process, creative space and design intermingle. Two myths clearly clash here: one is the belief in the special significance of the artist’s studio, even if it is temporary (or perhaps the more so, because the residence is determined by a “schedule” which requires greater productivity), the other is the belief in the organizing potential of unanimated objects. These two beliefs spring from two different narrations: a romantic vision of the artist’s studio as a special place, and the modernist belief in the possibility of rational ordering of material world (that facilitates effective work) as well as mental world. These two are tied together by a postmodern cult of the designer, an intriguing and attractive agent, who is supposed to add colour to our everyday life by means of aesthetic sensations.

Photo: Nicolas Grospierre

Studio – Private Topography

The very idea of creating a series of everyday articles for artists is paradoxical in a way. When we think of space that facilitates and stimulates creative work, imagination brings images of space filled with the owner’s (or user’s) presence, full of junk, secret visual codes, such as sketches and scribbles, pierced through with paths along which the process of creation goes that are indiscernible for visitors. This kind of place is filled with a whole world of meanings, and each of the paths and links develops according to unclear rules. Rubbish, leftovers, imperfect, loathsome and ugly objects may become carriers of crucial ideas.

As far as residency is concerned this situation is radically modified. The artist finds themselves in an unfamiliar space, and the scope of possible interventions is very limited. The artist uses the space for a time specified by the programme, and the space is supposed to facilitate the production of work specified in the agreement. What is to be expected of such a space? Neutral and laboratory-like conditions is not enough. The coordinators of the project of Rooted Design for Routed Living are of the opinion that the favourable space should posses the qualities of a home. At least a “rented’ one.

In a book entitled Dom Sztuki. Siedziby artystów w nowoczesnej kulturze europejskiej (The House for Art. Artists’ Homes in Modern European Culture), Andrzej Pieńkos follows the story (or stories, for he gives up “writing a history”) of homes of European artists of the 18th and 19th centuries. These “artists” are of course great painters, sculptors, writers and playwrights including Goethe, Poe and Larson, but an “artist” is also a name for a social category. “The idea of ‘an artist’s home’ seems naturally to be a product of the humanist model of culture formulated in the 15th century in Italy. At the time a model of an artist began to be shaped, a model of a great master who is worthy of having his own home and can afford (materially and spiritually) to give it its own original character. At that time there was also recalled and defined the classical ideal of a place of creation which was identified most often with intellectual work”(2).

Instead of following the chronological order, the author looks for typologies and classifications, rules and links. His point of departure is the observation that in the period discussed the individuality of the artist was the most important feature that defined his status. Hence the whole array of models, postulates and styles, as well as the lack of rules or norms. According to Pieńkos, the best example (and the only “perfect” one that respects all the reconstructed rules) of a renaissance model of an artist’s residence is Rubens’s palace in Antwerp, “a residence of a painter-prince, painter-humanist, painter-lover of antiquity” packed with quotes from antiquity and references to Italian architecture. Built as a symbol of power and splendour it had a courtyard with antique sculptures, a garden with grand pavilion, and an impressive collection of art and craft: “marbles and statues which he brought and had sent from Rome, every sort of antiquity, medals, cameos, carved stones, gems and bronzes, [...] he also collected many books” (3). But it was the façade that was to indicate the splendour of the residence – it was decorated with the frieze with frescoes with scenes from mythology. The owner announced that he was a sophisticated and cultivated humanist.

Photo: Nicolas Grospierre

The residence of an artist of the romantic period loses this ostentatious, frontal and expansive character. Its aim is no longer to seduce and bewilder, or to manifest the status of the owner; it is supposed to isolate and grant seclusion, to house and smooth the anxieties of the soul. It is an asylum and self-creation, it is being invested with the uncanny and with surrealist motifs. The residence as a whole is more spiritual than material. Pieńkos distinguishes the following types of the artist’s residence: a romantic cave of creation (its radical form is a room of the lonely genius on his deathbed), a palace of an artist-prince often dressed in a historic costume – gothic or renaissance, a temple of artificiality, a cottage in the country, a home poem – a residence in the country or in the city designed by the owner with every detail obsessively submitted to the rules of the author’s vision. And finally, a total work of art – a complete design of a house and garden and a piece of wood driven by a desire to possess a territory and mark one’s place on the earth.

Pieńkos points to the fact that the most spectacular residences were made by collectors who used rare valuable carefully selected objects to create subjective and hermetic worlds. This tendency to manifest one’s taste, to show off with one’s finds and exotic souvenirs, found its final development in the contemporary pursuit of the extraordinary practiced by representatives of subcultures, as well as by well off bourgeoisie.

(De)mystification and Rationalization

The atmosphere in which the researcher starts to work on the artists’ residences is something more than professional enthusiasm. The research is accompanied by a sense of disturbing the intimacy of an artist, by an amount of concentration that is required when one enters the sphere of sacrum. Pieńkoś refers to the text by Jan Białostocki who compares the visit in an artist’s studio to an experience of initiation: “the initiation ceremony of entering the atelier was important because in the 19th century visiting ateliers became a sort of cultural obligation and an almost celebrated custom”(4).

On the one hand the project of Rooted Design for Routed Living refers to the mysticism of the artist’s house, and on the other it treats it very nonchalantly. A group of designers were commissioned to design furniture and everyday articles which can (but don’t have to) become the furnishings of the spaces where residency programmes of the Warsaw a-i-r laboratory and the Norwegian Nordic Artist’s Centre are based. This task may be fulfilled by a professional designer. These postulates belong to a different tradition of thinking about both the process of creation and the space for creation than the romantic tradition mentioned above. The focus is put on effectiveness – the most cherished feature of the post-industrial culture. Naturally, it is hard to imagine that one of the accepted outcomes of a residency is a nervous breakdown or a psychotic collapse. An artist must be energetic, flexible and enterprising for the residency to have notable effects. The curators are aware of the decline of the romantic model of the studio. This is why in the publication that followed the project of RDRL published by Ujazdowski Castle, the authors and interviewees often mention the canonical text of the French conceptual artist, Daniel Buren, entitled The Function of the Studio in which the author places the studio within the limiting and framing system of art production together with museums and galleries. He compares it with the purgatory where the inspecting curator may grant the artist his grace. In an essay entitled Live/Work Katy Siegel tries to overcome the category of “post-studio art” formulated by Daniel Buren. According to Siegel, the position of contemporary artist is determined by the lack of the privilege to own an atelier and, what follows, the lack of division, both in terms of time and in terms of mental approach, to the spheres of life and work, as well as the lack of time for holidays. This is why the studio (which is also a living space usually taking the form of a postindustrial loft) is predominantly a space of expansion.

Amy Hunting, Magnet Table, Ottoman, photo: Nicolas Grospierre

In the context of residency the aspect of „conquering” the space by the artist is modified. This situation imposes an opposite direction to the one of occupying a territory – all the essential things must be fit into several suitcases, and the objects are strictly selected. In one of the interviews included in the above mentioned publication, Kaja Pawełek asks about the things that are included in the set of essential objects. Bjorn Hegardt, an artist living in Berlin, cannot go without a coffee maker, Nick Oberthaler from Vienna needs a bicycle with a luggage carrier to collect materials and go around the city. But it’s not this “pilgrim’s bundle” that it is all about; the point is to have a possibility to design a studio, a “useful” set of objects and arrangement of space. “I believe any construction has to stem from, and remain in a close relationship with, the place where it occurs. An 'optimal laboratory' sounds like an artificial thing and in this sense, I'm opposed to it. Generally, I believe that an artist should live in a close relationship with the realities of the given place rather than secluding themselves in elite centres that detach them from reality” (5) said Anna Ostoya in conversation with Kaja Pawełek. Other artists point to the need of flexibility of such a space and at the same time the need to control it, the need for the space to provide isolation or, on the contrary, to provide conditions to invite other residents.

Elements of designed world
This difficult situation that combines prestige with discomfort is to be solved by a designer. In a book recently published by Bęc Zmiana entitled Przemyśleć u/życie. Projektanci. Przedmioty. Życie społeczne (Rethinking life/use. Designers, Objects, Social life) Monika Rosińska links the process of the growing importance of the figure of a designer in the media discourse with the way we think about “a professional who will control the complex set of things, who makes objects flexible, who predicts all their possible functions, who cleverly combines them and composes new wholes out of the well known things. The designer dispels our doubts regarding the way how and with the use of what we should satisfy our everyday needs, as well as more refined requirements related to the individual and social identity, status and life style, because by providing material objects they provide ready solutions to abstract problems”(6). The author enumerates various more or less radical social theories according to which objects that surround us give us a sense of continuity and identification in social reality which has lost its regulative power. They communicate our financial and social aspirations, they inform about our professional or subcultural affiliation, they offer a way to find one’s place in the world, and they mark the limits of our possibilities. The most radical thinkers treat objects as things that improve reality, but also as our partners. Appropriated by the sphere of things we identify with, the artefacts become a proof of our individual existence, they relate us to the past and let us project our future.

Maja Ganszyniec, Stones set of vessels, photo: Nicolas Grospierre

What kind of network of meanings is generated by the series of objects made by the participants of Rooted Design for Routed Living? Field research – a visit to the collection of the Centre for Modern Design in Otwock Wielki and the visit to the Norwegian ethnographic museum – turned out to be inspiring for the participants of both groups; the visits offered a possibility of confronting the design history of one’s own country, or of an encounter with new things. The contrastingly different spaces in which the residencies are located – a renovated building in an arts centre in the capital of a post-communist country and a fjord coastline of western Norway were to mark two tracks of artistic experiments. However, it seems that the most interesting works were the ones in which designers managed to express their own synthesis of the styles of the two design traditions. Taking into consideration only the categories of country/town, East-Central Europe/Scandinavia can lead to banal solutions, and it is also inadequate in relation to the present design practices determined by the global movement of influences and goods. This is why the designers emphasized the necessity to combine different trends, to search for originality that could distinguish their “product” from the standardized objects that flood the market, to combine freely Polish and Norwegian experiences, and to be sensitive to the local environment of the residency.

Maja Ganszyniec, Stones set of vessels, stoneware, glaze, photo: Nicolas Grospierre

Paweł Jasiewicz, Split chair, mixed wood, photo: Nicolas Grospierre

Paweł Jasiewicz’s set called Split reinterprets and combines elegant and modest form of furniture produced by the Polish Artistic Cooperative Ład with the simplicity of Scandinavian objects such as the first skis and a crawfish harpoon. He made chairs and a table of mixed wood by means of clamp technique, as well as a lamp and hangers. The use of simple, locally accessible materials (spruce timber and pinewood in Poland) and exposing the structure of the object are elements typical of Ład. Nevertheless, the line of furniture designed by Jasiewicz is not a quotation, but a good example of a pursuit of “perfection of form, material and execution”, and making design contextual. Similar austerity, discreetness, and functionality characterize a Dead Wedge Bench by Oskar Narud made of boards stuck in cast-iron legs, and a Ship Shape Shelves with the shape based on the simplest form of the letter “A” which can be unfold without any additional fastenings. Maja Gnaszyniec, Ola Mirecka and Amy Hunting explore the techniques of fast transformation and adaptation of furniture in the specifically limiting conditions of residencies. They search for user-friendly and easily assembled solutions. Huba [bracket fungus], a turning table made by Ola Mirecka, refers to the form of the sculpting table. It can be attached to any kind of top thus enlarging it. F Table by Maja Gnaszyniec changes into a drawing table. Its drawers may store dishes or workshop tools. The multifunctional character of a Magnet Table by Amy Hunting: when it is standing on a magnetic leg it can be used for work, in a low and horizontal version it is used as a coffee table.

Ola Mirecka, Huba [bracket fungus] additional table, wood, metal, photo: Nicolas Grospierre

Maja Ganszyniec, F Table, oak wood, photo: Nicolas Grospierre

Ola Mirecka, Snakes objects to play with, yarn, metal, photo: Nicolas Grospierre

The attempt to penetrate the severe Norwegian landscape and to confront the powers of nature was made by a duet of Maja Gnaszyniec and Paweł Jasiewicz together with an architect Kuba Szczęsny. In case of the Barn Closet – a wooden closet-barn left to confront the powers of nature – the offhanded treatment of the object was planned: the shed was doomed to oblivion when confronted with rain, sun and wind. Kuba Szczęsny planned to create a piece of furniture with rough surface that would blend in with the rocky surroundings and at the same time provide reliable construction and comfort. He made a suite called Relic which includes a chaise longue and a footrest made of experimental material used in army industry, namely the concrete cloth. Szczęsny’s big ugly furniture look like sculpture casts or chipped archaeological excavations. Ola Mirecka suggested a completely different, light and non-pompous, interpretation of “cosines” in her series of strange colourful Snakes. At first it is difficult to guess the function of pipes covered with knitted material. These modern, slightly ironic gadgets may turn into hangers or stands, but their charm lies mainly in the freedom of choice. Easy to use and transport, they may be left in the corner, placed centrally, become a pretext for playing or a chance to relax. They will certainly fit into a suitcase, even a hand luggage. It is difficult to predict to what extent the contact with these object could make the life in the residencies easier. The quality of the artist’s life is not measurable. Comfort does not have to be proportional to the creative potential, material beauty may evoke laziness rather than energy.

Kuba Szczęsny, Relic armchair, Concrete Cloth, photo: Nicolas Grospierre

However, the coordinators of the project emphasized the universal value of a well designed object. It questions the culture of sham and temporariness, it opposes homogenization of visual world. In reality in which everyone may call themselves an artist, everyone has the right to decorate their home in a studio-like fashion. So the series of furniture and objects designed during Rooted Design for Routed Living workshops may be regarded as a wider suggestion for a rooted living.

Rooted Design for Routed Living exhibition:

(1) Rooted Design for Rooted Living, Warszawa 2010, Centrum Sztuki Współczesnej Zamek Ujazdowski 2010, p. 76.
(2) Andrzej Pieńkos, Dom Sztuki, Siedziby artystów w nowożytnej kulturze europejskiej (The House for Art. Artists’ Homes in Modern European Culture, Wydawnictwa Uniwersytetu Warszawskiego, 2005, p. 17.
(3) Giovanni Pietro Bellori, The Lives of the Modern Painters, Sculptors and Architects, Cambridge University Press 2005, p. 204.
(4) Jan Białostocki, Ikonografia Romantyczna. Przegląd problemów badawczych (Romantic Iconography. A Review of Research Problems)., Materiały sesji SHS, Warszawa 1967, p. 65.
(5) Rooted Design..., p. 123.
(6) Monika Rosińska, Przemyśleć u/Życie. Projektanci, Przedmioty. Życie społeczne (Rethinking life/use. Designers, Objects, Social life), Bęc Zmiana, Warszawa 2010, p. 8.

Translation: Karolina Kolenda