Recently, I spent several weeks in Northern Europe, specifically Germany, Denmark and The Netherlands. I was astonished at the appreciation of modern art and modern design there. In particular the way the modern mixes with the traditional and coexists to add a historic depth to both.
If I had to choose another career in my life, I would have a hard time choosing because I love so many things, but I would have probably been an architect or industrial designer. As a kid, I learned about photography by going to the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Next to the photography department was the museums Industrial Design collection. Before that, I could have never conceived that common objects like a coffee pot, chair or typewriter could be a work of design genius. This is especially true since I grew up in a home of the tacky, ornate, and faux rococo design. Luxury was perceived by my mom (she was the purchaser in the home) as being decorative, not clean in its design. To give her credit, that was also the populist taste at the time. It was pre Design Within Reach/CB2.
So, I have always loved the opposite: clean modern lines and smart objects where the form does follow the function. This was especially true after being exposed to what design could be, smart, funny and conceptual. My recent pleasure was seeing that esthetic all around me, in the most mundane of places like a modernist factory building making a bold statement in the Danish countryside. And this was not one isolated factory, mostly all of the industrial architecture on the road from Copenhagen to Aarhus was an architectural statement- strong, bold and colorful.
My trip began in Cologne (or Kƒ ¶ln) at the opening of a show I had in that city. I was also at Photokina were one of the exhibit halls was The Visual Gallery space featuring current European photography. Those galleries had bold new work and gave me a sense of what European photographers were doing. One in particular is the aerial photographer Stephan Zirwes who shoots his high resolution images with a Hasselblad out of a helicopter. These exceptionally detailed images create intensely graphic photographs reminiscent of a Joseph Albers painting in their optical effect. The one image that is not an aerial is of scaffolding on a column that is a symphony of line, light and shadow; it appears to vibrate.
Another photographer featured there was Sebastian Riemer. His work also deals with perception and verges on the conceptual. His intensely graphic images reveal a subdued image beneath. You have to look through the surface to find a deeper secondary meaning such as the speakers of a loudspeaker underneath the grill. His images deal with not only perception, but they play on realities and the role of photographys intrinsic nature to document.
After Cologne I was in the Dƒ ¼sseldorf airport while making my way to Copenhagen. At the airport, in empty storefront, were the winners of a fashion forward design competition from the Akademie Mode & Design. You would rarely if ever find something like that in the US, the country of consumerism.
All the designs used the same felt like fabric reducing the work to its structural elements. Each work became a sculpture and not just a dress; it was as much a play of engineering and architecture as it was of fashion design. The fabric was cut and shaped to make not a fashion statement, but also a structural statement. They were striking. I wanted to see these pieces fully executed and on the runways of Milan or Paris.
In Copenhagen, I stayed at the Tivoli Hotel which was under construction. The lobby looked like a bomb hit it and the rooms were ridiculously small. The bright side was my view of the exterior plaza which was also still under construction. The architecture was smart, the skylights for the portico below became glowing pyramids for the second floor plaza. The very dramatic area was designed for outdoor social events. It extended in front of the building all the way across the street, giving people an easy way to get across the street with busy traffic.
Many of the light fixtures in the hotel were a little garish (like the balls in the outdoor pyramids). I believe this was because of the hotels thematic association with its slightly Disney-like namesake (Tivoli Gardens is an amusement park in the city). That said many other light fixtures were textural wonders. The lights upstairs in the Sticks and Sushi restaurant, in particular, used different fabrics in different fixtures to create either a translucence textural feel or a black void of light outside the fixture. The black lights glowed from within, radiating their light straight down as they appear to float in negative space.
The last time I was in the city, I stayed in a small section that I had not realized was actually outside of the city leading me to believe Copenhagen was small and not very interesting. On this trip I had almost a week in the city and discovered its true mix of modern and traditional beauty.
One of the most memorable things was the David Lynch exhibit at the GL Strand, not far from the new harbor area of the city. GL Strand is a historic (by LA standards anyway!) 4 story building and the work was incorporated into the courtyard and the upper floors. Downstairs was a installation piece by Danish artist Erik A. Frandsen. The work was a play on European culture and the esthetic I have been so enamored with here: contemporary art playing it off of a traditional reference.
Erik A. Frandsens work consisted of three neon light fixtures that were almost global representations of the confusing mix of world cultures done in the best of pop-art style. The polished inner globe on the inside reflects the neon light on the outside repeating the pattern of light. The room itself then repeated the pattern again with its mirrored walls. The mirrors were reminiscent of those used in the Hall of Mirrors at the Palace of Versailles. They were used to give the room an additional grandeur and a larger sense of space. The hook was, the wall was not made of mirrors, it was polished stainless steel and had decorative floral designs ground into the steel with a grinder. The effect was a play on the decorative, the modern and the conceptual. The flowers in particular gave a sense of European Tulips which tie the piece to its origin.
While walking through the museum I spied the conference room called the Salen which was decorated as a modernist art installation designed by artist Kirstine Roepstorff. The Formica table and the curtains were reminiscent of more modernist Rauschenberg, all set in the context of a very tradition historic building.
Next, I was off to Maastricht in The Netherlands. I was lecturing at the Museum Bonnefantenmuseum. I stayed at an inn called the Galerie Hotel Dis. It was appropriately named because the first floor was an art gallery consisting of paintings, rubber light fixtures and functional art furniture. The furniture was by an artist named Partrick Schols and reminded me of the some of the furniture design pieces I saw as a kid at the MOMA because of their use of progressive materials.
The beauty of my trip was the design surprise factor while walking around. One moment you pass traditional house after house and then you see a building that has its bricks ripped away to reveal the modern glass interior of the build. The building was done in such a way to make the arched windows, that would normally be the structural support of the building, appear to float weightlessly within the wall of the building. This was a beautifully surreal illusion. Additionally, the mechanics of the interior were designed in such a way that they protected the interior structure from the elements without requiring additional awnings or covers.
Another design encounter was this last image. It illustrates this idea of playful contemporary design and exists in a simple passageway. Florescent tubes were covered with green gels and installed in an alternating series of angles to make the passageway a combination of Star Trek Lighting and Dutch bicycle culture. The real surprise is how well it worked together.
My trip made me want to live in Europe for a while, or at least visit a whole lot more. Besides the great design, they really appreciate the other arts, like photography just as passionately.‚ – Michael