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Design Real at the Serpentine

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Invoking the spirit of MoMA’s Machine Art exhibition, designer/curator Konstantin Grcic’s Design Real introduces car lights and IKEA furniture to the Serpentine Gallery

At 4am one morning in 1934, the late Philip Johnson was up drinking with his colleague Alan Blackburn. They were playing round with names for their new exhibition, which would display 400 items, including typewriter carriage springs, a self-aligning ball bearing, an outboard propeller and a cash register, at the then-fledgling Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York.

The seminal exhibition would be called Machine Art and 75 years later it is named as a major influence on Design Real by Julia Peyton-Jones and Hans Ulrich Obrist, directors of the Serpentine.

It is the gallery’s first-ever contemporary design exhibition. Rather than more familiar Serpentine fare of paintings, sculptures and video installations, Design Real include an office chair, fishing lures and plastic bins.

These components are not part of some fine they are the selection of invited curator, the German industrial designer Konstantin Grcic.

A trained cabinet maker, RCA graduate and former employee of Jasper Morrison, Grcic is an established product designer whose client list includes Muji, Krups and Moroso. This show isn’t his first foray into curation; he has previously put on exhibitions in Paris and Berlin.

Some of the designers in this show have been included recent in ‘design-art’ shows - a flashy genre, propagated by galleries such as David Gill and manufacturers Established & Sons, that waives utility in favour of pricey collectability. Grcic isn’t interested in that; his exhibition is about ‘real objects, that have a purpose in real life’. His selection includes: luggage designed by Ross Lovegrove; Herman Miller’s Aeron Chair (Size B) designed by Don Chadwick and Bill Stumpf; an IKEA Ellan chair; and clothing designed by Issey Miyake.

Konstantin Grcic’s exhibition is about ‘real objects, that have a purpose in real life’

The focus, according to Peyton-Jones, is to ‘explore the design world from the perspective of an art gallery’ and to encourage visitors to look afresh at some selected everyday objects, which may be ‘very authored’ pieces - Zaha Hadid’s shoes for Melissa Plastic Dreams - or anonymous, like the Volvo XC60 tail light.

‘He’s created a mise-en-scène of these objects that are really contributing hugely not only to the subject of design, but to the world we live in. It does include some classics like the Herman Miller chairs but it’s a personal The Critics snapshot and one we hope will speak to our audience,’ says Peyton-Jones.

The other influence on this exhibition, according to Obrist, was the work of Charles and Ray Eames and their approach to information design. The installation at the Serpentine includes a booth designed by Grcic, in which visitors can access a website purpose-built for the exhibition that gives detailed information on each exhibit.

Philip Johnson’s drunken musings were backed up with a razor-sharp exhibition, lauded both in its 31,000 visitors and by critics (it was ‘irradiated with a beauty that lifts function to its loftiest plane’, according to New York Times critic Edward Alden Jewell).

In this new step for the Serpentine, Obrist and Peyton-Jones will be crossing their fingers that they and their guest curator can do the same.

Design Real, Serpentine Gallery, London, W2 3XA, until 7 February, free, www.serpentinegallery.org, www.design-real.com


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