BY Lorna Lee Leslie in Profiles | 06 JUN 01
Featured in
Issue 60

A Breath of Fresh Air

Cappellini's experimental approach to design

BY Lorna Lee Leslie in Profiles | 06 JUN 01

Of all the major design companies showing at Milan this year the only one to really offer the unexpected was Cappellini, who clearly had a message to broadcast. The company works with experimental designers around the world and usually exhibits in its own showrooms during the fair. However, the latest collection was presented in a large warehouse with rooms specially constructed to show off their extensive range of new products.

Like a giant film set with a large dollop of the 1960s in the design mix, the exhibition was a structured landscape divided into a series of spaces framed by floor-to-ceiling panels with cut-out circles. These set pieces created pockets of intimacy inside the massive warehouse and ensured that the viewer homed in on a particular location, peered inside and enjoyed their own special relationship with the space and the objects on display.

The show could be divided into three broad categories: art, science and functionality. Fabio Novembre's pieces hardly look like furniture at all - should they be in an art gallery? You almost expect his table to walk off and find the diner it wishes to entertain. One hundred and seventy one stainless steel engineered discs attached to red spaghetti-like columns dangle from a sheet of 20 mm plate glass. Six 'real' legs support its weight but are camouflaged by red cord entwined round the steel rods. It isn't immediately clear what the function of this object actually is; perhaps it is more important that you simply experience it. The multiple legs would make this a very individual and possibly disturbing experience. Once seated will you feel pleasure or discomfort?

His carpet is equally weird. It is reminiscent of 1970s place mats: strange coils, embryonically linked. How practical is it? Is it really a carpet or is it a painting on the floor? It is certainly not about providing warmth or comfort. Both table and carpet are bright red and blue; it's as if Novembre does not want his work to hide behind a co-ordinated interior but grab your attention and make a bold statement. The designer writes: 'My lungs are imbued with the scent of places that I've breathed, and when I hyperventilate it's only so I can remain in apnoea for a while. As though I were pollen, I let myself go with the wind, convinced I'm able to seduce everything that surrounds me'.

Marcel Wanders takes a rather more literal approach to breathing. His vases are inspired by diseases of the nasal cavity: Ozaena, Influenza, Pollinosis, Sinusitus and Coryza, all five of which have been captured by digital 3-D nano-scans of snotty prototypes. The data is transferred to a computer and an SLS machine produces a model of the captured particle. The final product is produced by a computer-guided laser. Nano-technology is used here as a craft technique, but the process is too expensive to allow the vases to be mass produced; the works are like laboratory toys, tiny molecules blown up to nursery-sized playthings. In exploring disease Wanders finds a means of realising it as an object - a vase.

His Fish Net Chair - a tube of macramé formed into a seat and then hardened with resin - is equally disconcerting. The chair is suspended in space, defying gravity and logic. The disparity between what it is supposed to be and what it looks like is disturbing; you wonder how it stays up before even considering its function and what it might be like to sit on.

Ranon and Erwan Bouroullec also work with state-of-the-art technology and new materials, but to a different end: they are obsessed with function and control. Computers and lasers assisted the designers with the reduction of mass and elimination of detail in their table/mirror and table/vessels formed from Corian. There is a mirror and/or vase carved from the table top so that they appear to have fused together into one unit. The function of these pieces of furniture and the position of (usually) moveable elements have been decided by Tavlino and Bouroullec rather than a potential purchaser.

The differences between these three approaches are what makes Cappellini so interesting: it is a company that is willing to encourage designers to take risks and ask very different questions about how we react with the world around us.