Design from the Factory Floor

Designer’s Saturday, Langenthal, Switzerland
Written for Kinneir Dufort: http://www.kinneirdufort.com/blog/design-factory-floor

A welcome trend in recent years has been the increased interest from consumers in where products come from, and what they’re made of.  The drive towards sustainability requires us all to ask more questions about the things we buy, but sometimes it’s very difficult to make an informed decision when you’re standing in a shop – even when you’re a product designer.  We need companies to tell us more about the things they make, and in turn we need to learn a little more about how things get from the factory to our shopping baskets.


With this in mind, I just got back to the studio after spending an inspiring week in Switzerland, visiting an old product designer friend.  Whilst there, I was invited to join design students from ECAL University of Art and Design (Ecole cantonale d’art de Lausanne), and visit a series of exhibitions in nearby Langenthal.  The show was called Designer’s Saturday, and showcased new work by product, lighting and furniture designers from across the region. As I usually don’t get much time to visit shows of this nature, I was very happy to be seeking out fresh inspiration and see what my contemporaries in Switzerland are up to these days.

I sometimes get frustrated when visiting galleries. I want to grill the artists with questions about why they made their sculpture in a certain way, or find out the story behind its creation. Being naturally inquisitive, I was pleased that most of the designers were loitering near their work and were more than happy to discuss their ideas and processes. In particular, Rita Botelho of ECAL and Ronan Bouroullec of Bouroullec Design were among several product designers exhibiting a range of beautifully detailed bathroom accessories for Axor.  Other products of note were Aqua Creation’s very original organic lamps – seemingly inspired by flora and jellyfish,  and Vitra’s ‘Chairless’ – essentially a big pink elastic band that you wrap around yourself, allowing you to sit surprisingly comfortably on the floor without a chair.

In many ways though, it was the space that created the strongest impression. The event took place in a series of factories around Langenthal, which, during the week, make furniture and textile products such as chairs, carpets and lamps. This time, when the employees went home on Friday night, the factories stayed open and the product designers were allowed to come in and set up some wonderfully creative exhibition spaces for the public to walk through. On the Saturday we wandered through a series of themed rooms, often built using crates and waste packaging from the factory itself. Special mention goes to Aqua Design for turning a woodworking studio into an eerie, Alice in Wonderland style forest. The end result was full of new surprises around each corner or behind the every crate.

Alongside the exhibited work, factory employees were also showing off their own capabilities. On one site, a crowd was gathered around someone using a tube-forming machine to make aluminium chair frames. In another building, visitors were hypnotised by an enormous robot weaving an intricately patterned rug, in much the same way as a CNC mill cuts metal or plastic.  What was particularly impressive was that manufacturers and product designers had teamed up in this way to make the exhibition a reality. With the public streaming through the doors, both parties had a chance to show their skills and tell the story of how designers and manufacturers had worked together to make the products real. Rather than simply showing glossy products on pedestals, this show emphasised the story behind them.

As we begin to place stronger emphasis as a culture on products that are locally sourced and will last us longer, this sort of education is important to make better informed consumers out of us all. We all want to make more intelligent and sustainable product choices, but often there is little information available to us about product’s origin and materials. It is encouraging to see companies telling their consumers more about how products are made, and in turn seeing the interest from their customers in learning. Designers Saturday told this story in an especially engaging way.

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