The Skygarden, 2007, for FLOS. Photo courtesy PMA
I doubt Dutch designer Marcel Wanders could work for a sturdy manufacturer like Knoll. His are accent pieces — frilly, blobby, crocheted, or dripped-on items intended to comment on your more ordinary furniture. In context, against works of more minimalist Italian brethren or more political Dutch peers, his magical take on the chair or the lamp can be charming.
But a whole roomful of charm curdles. In his current exhibition “Marcel Wanders: Daydreams at the Philadelphia Museum of Art,” the designer is both curator and subject and he manages to diminish rather than increase his appeal. Rather than educate its audience about Wanders, the museum let him dream up his own exhibition, and the results made me question both its commercial motives and Wanders’ talent.
The Crochet Chair, 2006
Wanders, probably best known for his 1996 macramé Knotted chair, was given a small gallery at the end of the skylit hall that bonds a glorious 1927 Art Deco building to its 2007 expansion by Gluckman Mayner Architects. He painted it black, and installed an array of his products under spotlights of his own design.
The Carbon Chair, 2004, for Mooi with Bert Jan Pot
The room is dominated by the 2007 Calvin lamp, 12 feet high, with a pleated shade and petticoat of ruffles illuminated by hidden bulbs. Since it looks like both a mushroom and a puffy skirt, it immediately suggests Alice. Three screens show projections of more work and since one of them pans over Wanders’ hotel designs through a keyhole, we are clearly meant to be in Wonderland.
Music tinkles. At intervals Wanders’ own voice chimes in, speaking banalities about how design needs to expand its audience. This comment seems particularly disingenuous, since this show is sponsored by Target and includes items from Wanders’ Holiday collection for them. Does his design really need more vertical integration? And is this just an elaborate product launch? Other items have also been donated by their manufacturers.
A whole roomful of accent pieces starts to look surreal. This is clearly Wanders’ intent — in the pamphlet he says he wants to inspire us to dream — but the show prompts little desire for a resin-soaked, crocheted doily chair in your everyday life. I understand that museums and designers want to avoid the Moss trap: a gallery that is a runway for chairs and looks like a shop. To let the designer create his own environment silences commercial associations, but also risks our becoming sick of his antics after five minutes.
I’ve always seen Wanders’ work juxtaposed with minimalism or with the rougher-edged contemporaries at Droog. The contrast makes those flowers and ruffles seem subversive, but here they just seem pretty, even a little tacky. Some of the pieces seem minutes away from being knocked off by Urban Outfitters. I thought this particularly of the Wallflower lamps (2009), glass blossoms with changing hues, arranged in a circle on the wall. With a blacklight and a shag rug, your tween would be all set.
The Big Shadow Lamps, 1998, for Capellini
My favorite items in the show were the black ones, which practically melted into the walls. By the door (curtained with a dark panel showing a solarized photo of Wanders with clown nose), three chairs from his New Antiques series for Cappellini (2005) — light and elegant, with turned spindles made new by virtue of their blackness. In a stack to their right, the Carbon chairs Wanders designed with Bertjan Pot for Mooi (2004) are his bid for museum cafe ubiquity. Short and simple, these chairs combine the friendly curves of the Eames fiberglass series with a seat and back made of carbon fiber, which looks as if it has been wrapped around the frame at random. It is tremendously light, but you wouldn’t know that from the installation, since you could barely see the edges.
The improvisational pattern on the Carbon chair seats was also a relief after all the ironic prettiness. Tord Boontje has also played with crystal, but at least he reworked the elaborate chandelier form into something more organic. With his Big Ben Bianco Bell (2007), Wanders seems to be saying we should wink at the chandelier because he is using it. What is missing from Daydreams is another voice or voices, either curatorial or those of other contemporary designers working in the key of kitsch. Without that friction, Wanders’ work looks weak.
This review was originally published in the Architect's Newspaper, May 7, 2010.
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