Design, affect and changing beauty

I was among the first people to have the opportunity to participate in the MOBIUS fellowship programme of the Finnish Cultural Institute in New York and the Finnish Institute in London in spring 2014. The partner organisation is the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum, which is the national design museum of the United States. Like the Design Museum, my home institution in Finland, it is a publicly funded museum specialising in design. The core content of my fellowship is to participate in preparing Beauty – Cooper Hewitt Design Triennial, a major exhibition that will open in early 2016.

My first work period took place in Helsinki from March to September 2014. During that time, I participated in curating the triennial exhibition from my home museum. Curatorial advisers were invited to participate in the early stages of the exhibition from all over the world, from each continent. Serving as one of the advisers, I suggested designers who would be suitable for the themes of the exhibition. The theme for the 2016 triennial is beauty. This classic theme will be examined from an expanded perspective, and its definition will be broadened through examples offered by design.

The exhibition will feature more than 250 works from 62 designers from all over the world. They represent a broad range of sectors, including product designers Michael Anastassiades, Scholten & Baijings and Sam Hecht & Kim Collin, fashion designers Mary Katrantzou, Gareth Pugh and Giambattista Valli, graphic designers Richard Niessen and Francesco Franchi, jewellery designers Delfina Delettrez and Hemmerle, game designers Simogo and Ken Wong and architect Sou Fujimoto, among many others.

Also included are a group of artists representing a less established sector of modern design called “design art”. They include the Haas Brothers, Formafantasma, Humans Since 1982, Studio Job and Tuomas Markunpoika, among others. Design art refers to a style of modern design that combines concepts, philosophy and research with experiments with materials, focusing on unique, edition-based works that fall between design and art by artists with an educational background in design.

The second phase of my MOBIUS fellowship took place in New York from October to December 2014. I spent two months working at the Cooper Hewitt Museum and participated in preparing the Beauty triennial exhibition by conducting around 30 interviews with designers for a book that will be published in conjunction with the exhibition. The third phase involved a special project based on my experiences and observations during the second phase and the new insights gained through these.

The most rewarding aspect of the MOBIUS fellowship is the opportunity to see and understand design, exhibition curation and museum operations from a perspective outside Finland and Europe.

Comparing Finnish design thinking with American design thinking has helped me realise that design art is almost completely lacking in Finland – that is, discourse, training, presentation practices and collectors. Through my MOBIUS special project, I want to introduce design art discussion to Finland.

Design art brings affective design into place alongside traditional, functional mass-produced design. In affective design, the main purpose of an object is to provoke an emotion and appeal to people at a level that makes their relationship with the object more intense. One of the future trends in designing objects may be a stronger focus on generating an affect instead of concentrating on function. This is a fascinating trend, as it may eventually change the global mechanisms of mass production and consumption. Is Finland creating favourable conditions for modern conceptual design?

My special project is tentatively titled An Evening With Design Art. It is a one-night salon-type event for discussing design art as a phenomenon. Participants include Netherlands-based Tuomas Markunpoika, who is one of the designers who will be exhibited at the Beauty triennial, Swedish designer and curator Kristoffer Sundin, who is organising the Örnbergsauktion event during the Stockholm Furniture & Light Fair, and a design art dealer representing the Victor Hunt Gallery in Brussels. The discussion will be held in February 2016, close to the opening day of the triennial, at a venue to be announced later. The event is open to all who are interested, but advance registration is required.


Suvi Saloniemi

Chief Curator, Design Museum