On its 50th anniversary, the world's oldest design biennial has completely changed its approach and knocked decades off its appearance. uncube's Editor-in-Chief Sophie Lovell went to Ljubljana, Slovenia, to find that the BIO 50, in daring to take a long overdue step, may well be on the way to becoming a leading European design event once again – and for all the right reasons.
Back in the day, the BIO Ljubljana design biennial was an important date in the European industrial designer’s calendar. Founded in 1964, when the Slovenian (then Yugoslavian) manufacturing and design industry was buoyed by modernist design-driven principles and a burgeoning economy, this, the world’s first design biennial, was conceived as a platform for the best of international design. A jury-selected collection of products ranging from furniture to electrical appliances – both domestic and industrial – was shown each year and attracted considerable crowds. Past catalogue images from successive iterations of BIO read like a who’s who of late 20th century design – with the added rarity of mixing Socialist-state designs with those of the West. It was, says current director Matevž Čelik, “a window for the West through which it was possible to at least peek at Eastern bloc production” (see interview in uncube issue No.18 Slovenia!).
But the process of de-industrialisation paired with the restoration of capitalism in the 1990s took its toll and by the time the economic crisis hit in 2007, the future of Slovenian industrial design and the BIO was beginning to look rather uncertain. Then along came fresh blood in the form of architect Matevž Čelik, head of the Ljubljana Museum of Architecture and Design, and his team. In a bold move Čelik began shifting the entire focus of the BIO away from the “fetishisation of products” and towards the more “delicate and vulnerable” aspects of design: research, experimentation and creativity. Essentially adapting the stagnated format of the biennale to be more in tune with the changes that design itself has been going through. The only thing remaining from the past format was the selection of prizewinning projects by a jury: this year Konstantin Grcic, Alice Rawsthorne and local design legend Saša J. Mächtig.
In the 2012 biennale, BIO 23, Čelik invited Margriet Vollenberg and Margo Konings the Dutch founders of Organisation in Design (who also curate the off-venue Ventura Lambrate during the Milan Design Week) to explore and exhibit new social, cultural and emotional questions in design. This year he took things a step further by inviting the Belgian critic, curator and Social Design professor Jan Boelen to curate what became a six month experimental and collaborative “lab”, culminating in the BIO 50 (it is actually the 24th biennale, but the 50th anniversary – hence BIO 50, rather than BIO 24) running from September to December of this year.
Subtitled “3,2,1…TEST”, Boelen’s BIO 50 experiment consisted of 120 participating designers in 12 design project groups, distilled from 600 applicants from 55 countries. Each group was headed by a pair of “mentors” from the field, usually one local, one visiting. The research projects with titles such as Affordable Living, Public Water Public Space, Hacking Households Nanotourism, Walking the City and Knowing Food were then conducted by the participants – sometimes on site, often by skype and mail – over a six month period running up to the opening. As Jan Boelen says, the biennale was about learning, about “stretching the discipline of design through tactics and strategies”, and as such, “it became a learning process for me as well”.
It is not easy to present experimental research projects of this kind effectively to communicate them to a broad audience, but this show is a resounding success. It is one of the most fascinating and well-organised design events I have experienced in a long time. Boelen and his co-curators Maja Vardjan and Cvetka Požar did an excellent job of connecting key contemporary design issues with the local and the presentation was clear and well documented. Not all of the projects are a success, but failure is part of the process. As jury member and design critic Alice Rawsthorne so succinctly put it: “This biennale was about collaboration. Whilst some projects were successful, some were failures – even abject failures – but they were all lessons.”
Highlights of the show included Hacking Households, mentored by Tilen Sepič from Rompom and Jesse Howard from Open Structures which looked at the adaptation of domestic appliances to change functionality and allow repair and enhancement through both soft- and hardware. The Knowing Food project looked at models for food production and consumption, connecting, for example, raw milk directly with the consumer via a vending machine, or converting invasive plant pests, such as Japanese Knotweed into a food source. Nanotourism, mentored by Tina Gregorič and Aljoša Dekleva from Dekleva Gregorič arhitekti studio, addressed tourism through non-intrusive local sourcing and local economies, picking up on the Airbnb principle and taking it a step further where, for example guests and visitors paid for their stay in kind by engaging in some way with the community that was hosting them. Engine Block, mentored by Gaspard Tiné-Berès and Tristan Kopp, founders of Re-do Studio, also deserves a mention. They took the engine block of a classic motorbike by the 100-year-old Slovenian firm Tomos and “hacked” it by creating a variety of other tools into which it could be easily inserted and thus deliver a new function – from an outboard motor to a cement mixer. This was a project made even more poignant by the fact that the firm Tomos went into receivership just as the project was starting. Which makes you wonder what might have happened if this manufacturer had considered changing its design thinking earlier…
Part of the biennial includes a retrospective of exhibits from past BIO shows in the Jakopič Gallery, underscoring the giant leap that design thinking has made in the past few years: Individual objects, delightful in themselves but completely divorced from the process, context and users they are intended to serve, like so many fossils frozen within in a thin sedimentary layer of the long history of tools for living.
Here’s hoping that Ljubljana’s design biennial continues to evolve with the times and regains the status it deserves as one of the most intriguing dates in the design calendar.
– Sophie Lovell
18 Sept – 7 Dec 2014, Tues – Sun, 10am-6pm
For those unable to make it to Ljubljana, there is a book accompanying the exhibition, Designing Everyday Life, published by Park Books.
Further reading: uncube's issue no.18 Slovenia!