BY Emily King in Profiles | 24 JUL 19

Hella Jongerius: An Argument Against Fast Fashion

By transforming Paris’s Lafayette Anticipations into a weaving machine, the Dutch designer suggests alternative architectural uses of textiles

BY Emily King in Profiles | 24 JUL 19

Designed by OMA, the architecture of Lafayette Anticipations is a paradox. The central sections of the three main floors are able to slide up and down a gantry, ostensibly allowing for the adjustment of the galleries’ ceiling heights according to the needs of the art on show. From the launch exhibition on, however, it has been apparent that the workings take up so much space that the very mechanism designed to generate flexibility is, in fact, the source of considerable restriction. Over the past year, artists such as Simon Fujiwara and the duo Atelier EB have been resourceful in working their way around the architecture, but the designer Hella Jongerius is the first in the gallery’s programme to actively take it on. 

Hella Jongerius, Space Loom, 2019, installation view. Courtesy: the artist and Lafayette Anticipation, Paris; photograph: ©Roel van Tour 

‘Interlace, Textile Research’, Jongerius’s response to what she calls the ‘building’s performative qualities’ takes the three floating floors to ground level, creating an open four-storey tower. Inside this, she has installed a Space Loom, with individually designed 16-metre warp threads hanging from floor to ceiling – a waterfall of predominantly black strands, with patches of colour and texture bursting, foamlike, from the flow. Over the course of her summer-long exhibition, weavers will intertwine weft yarns at various levels to form three-dimensional woven shapes over the full height. Weaving convention has it that warp threads are uniform, while pattern and texture is created in the weft. By draping custom-created vertical yarns, Jongerius has not only confronted the architecture, but also reversed what the exhibition text calls the loom’s ‘ancestral hierarchy’.

Hella Jongerius, B-Set prototypes, 1997, porcelain and glaze. Courtesy: the artist; photograph: ©Gerrit Schreurs  

During gallery hours a small team based in a workshop on the residual parts of the gallery’s first floor hand weaves elements that will be threaded into the warp. Combining materials of very different scales, shapes and textures, these pieces dramatize the tension between warp and weft. Tape, string, raffia and cord pull and push each other into shape. On the wall, a set of shelves display multiple reels of coloured thread that are evidence of Jongerius’s particular genius for hue. (Her 2017 Show at London’s Design Museum, titled ‘Breathing Colour’, was an antidote industrialization’s drive to standardize shade.) Nearby, there is a contraption called a Seamless Loom made from four handlooms joined together at right angles. Designed at Jongeriuslab, the designer’s Berlin studio, it produces three dimensional woven bricks that suggest an eco-friendly alternative to traditional building materials. 

Braiding Machine at the Jongeriuslab Studio in Berlin, 2019. Courtesy: the artist; photograph: ©Roel van Tour

According to the exhibition’s introduction, weaving ‘is not only a technique, a craft or an entanglement of simple materials: it is a multidisciplinary and multi-layered metaphor to discuss broader subjects such as culture, society, economy and the environment’. This conflation of method and metaphor has been consistent in Jongerius’s career for over 25 years. Among the earliest pieces included in her 2010 monograph Misfit is the Soft Urn from 1993, a conventionally shaped vessel cast in silicone rubber. A retort to the homogenized faultlessness that is the product of industrialization, the urn’s edges are uncut, its material is shot through with air bubbles and other impurities, and it is vulnerable to aging. Making a set of more orthodox ceramic vases for the mass retailer Ikea several years later, Jongerius found the moulds produced by the factory too perfect. Much to the surprise of the skilled Chinese manufacturer, she asked that they be roughed up a bit to retain traces of the process by which they were made – albeit an Ikea product line.

Hella Jongerius, Space Loom, 2019, installation view. Courtesy: the artist and Lafayette Anticipation, Paris; photograph: ©Roel van Tour 

In 1997, Jongerius collaborated with the Dutch ceramic manufacturer Royal Tichelaar Makkum on a range of porcelain tableware called B-Set. Baked in a kiln that is too hot for conventional porcelain production, each B-Set piece, although made from a single set of moulds, has a uniquely wonky shape. The higher the temperature, the more pronounced the irregularity. A pile of B-Set dinner plates sits like a stack of papadums. Again, Jongerius was making the case against the oppressive level of perfection that arises from mass production, in this instance reconciling a pared-down process with an appealing variety of output.

Hella Jongerius, Breathing Colour, 2017, installation view. Courtesy: the artist; photograph: ©Luke Hayes 

Initially Tichelaar Makkum produced the B-Set only in porcelain’s natural off white but, nearly a decade later, Jongerius introduced several other shades to the range. This reflects her increasing engagement with colour and, in the mid ’00s, she undertook a long-term colour-related research project for the Swiss furniture manufacturer Vitra. Not only generating a new palette for significant pieces from the Vitra archives (Eames Aluminium Chairs and the like) Jongerius has also designed several sofas for the company in which the colour and texture of the fabric covers play the lead role. The most recent of these is the Vlinder sofa that will be on sale from September this year and a sample of which is available for lounging in the Lafayette Anticipations’s shop, À Rebours. A conventionally shaped piece of furniture, the Vlinder has a thick fabric cover that combines eight colours, using two different thicknesses of yarn and seven different Jacquard weaves.

Hella Jongerius, Space Loom, 2019, installation view. Courtesy: the artist and Lafayette Anticipation, Paris; photograph: ©Roel van Tour 

On 6 September, Jongerius’s exhibition will conclude with a symposium focusing, among other things, on the relationship between weaving, the manufacture of clothing and pertinent economic, social and environmental issues. For her, the slow production of the piece on the giant Space Loom amounts to an argument against fast fashion as a whole. In 2015, Jongerius co-authored a manifesto titled ‘Beyond the New’ with the design historian Louise Schouwenberg, the first point of which was: ‘Count the blessings of industry.’ It’s a nuanced path, actively promoting the benefits of mass production, while, at the same time, warning against its excesses. The implication of this exhibition is that we can revive industry through simply being more alert to the complex conditions by which fabrics are made and reach the market. This hints at an intricate mesh of factors, a notion that takes us back to the metaphor of the entangled threads.

It’s been a big year for weaving with Tate Modern’s glorious Anni Albers exhibition, the ever-increasing profile of Sheila Hicks and the like. Jongerius’s contribution to that party, alongside her brilliant understanding of colour and texture, is a sense of politics – the connection between the criss-crossed threads in the gallery and those on our backs.

Main image: Hella Jongerius, Seamless Loom, 2019. Courtesy: the artist and Lafayette Anticipations, Paris; photograph: © Roel van Tour 

Emily King is a London-based writer and curator with a specialism in design.