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International Friend of Habitare in 2016:
Alice Rawsthorn

Alice Rawsthorn to be an International Friend of Habitare

The design critic and author Alice Rawsthorn has been invited to be the first International Friend of Habitare. The new International Friend will choose the most exciting products and phenomena from the Habitare fair offering, and participate in a panel discussion during the fair.

Alice Rawsthorn

  • writes about design in the International New York Times and the magazine Frieze.
  • speaks about design at global events including TED and the World Economic Forum’s annual meetings in Davos, Switzerland. Based in London,
  • is the chair of trustees of the Chisenhale Gallery and the contemporary dance group Michael Clark Company, and a trustee of the Whitechapel Gallery.
  • was awarded the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 2014 for services to design and the arts.

Her latest book, Hello World: Where Design Meets Life, explores design’s impact on our lives: past, present and future.

(photography: Michael Leckie)

Interview with Alice Rawsthorn

Q. What made you accept the invitation to become an International Friend of Habitare?

A. I am very interested in Finnish design and craft, both historic and contemporary, so was delighted to be invited to become an International Friend of Habitare, as it will give me an opportunity to find out about recent developments on the Helsinki design scene.


Q. In your opinion, what role fairs and design weeks have in the design trade?

A. Scores of design weeks, festivals, biennials and triennials are now held in different cities worldwide every year. The most dynamic events offer opportunities for local people to discover their city’s design culture, and for international visitors to do the same. Milan Design Week is still the busiest and noisiest, of course. But Vienna Design Week, for example, has done a great job of reminding us of the richness of the city’s design and craft heritage, as well as showcasing the contemporary Viennese design scene. And both Istanbul and Ljubljana have staged culturally ambitious design biennials that have made important contributions to international design discourse.


Q. What are you particularly looking forward to seeing in Helsinki in the autumn?

A. As I haven’t been to Helsinki for several years, I am looking forward to seeing the city again, and exploring some of the new additions to the design scene and aspects of Finnish design history that I missed on previous visits.


Q. The theme of Habitare 2016 is ‘Open the Doors’, as the fair explores issues such as a more open urban structure, the sharing economy, and the collective home. From a design critic’s point of view, how do you see the theme?

A. ‘Open the Doors’ is an apt and timely theme. One of the biggest changes in consumer culture in the last decade has been the transformation in attitudes to sharing, and the emergence of smart design solutions that have established sharing not only as an efficient alternative to ownership, but as an appealing and empowering option. Airbnb is an obvious example. It was founded by a group of San Francisco graphic designers, who are committed to continually redesigning it to fix any problems that arise and to adapt to changing circumstances. They have succeeded in redefining people’s perceptions of sharing their homes as Airbnb hosts, and sharing those of others as guests. This shift has profound implications for the design of homes in the future, many of which may share certain communal spaces, and the things we put in them.
Q. In your opinion, which are the strengths and weaknesses of Finnish contemporary design?

A. Contemporary Finnish design has many strengths to build on. Not only does Finland have an unusually rich modern design heritage, it has a wonderful history of craft and folklore, and a dynamic tech industry. Those are huge advantages for the contemporary design scene.
Q. There a strong craft tradition in Finland. How do you see the importance of manual skill in a world dominated by mass production?

A, Finland’s craft tradition is a very valuable asset for the design community. Once, craft was dismissed as twee, archaic and irrelevant, but attitudes towards it have changed radically in recent years. One issue is that standardisation is now so ubiquitous that we take its benefits for granted, and tend to see it as bland and soulless. Another is that it is impossible to ignore the dark side of globalisation and industrialisation, in terms of labour exploitation and environmental damage. A third is that our dependence on digital culture has made us crave the spontaneity and idiosyncrasies of craftsmanship. As a result, artists and designers have reassessed their relationship to craft and artisanal production, as has the public. Some of the most popular recent TV shows in Britain, for example, are The Great Pottery Throw Down and the Great British Sewing Bee. There is a global phenomenon of people watching film clips of potters at work on YouTube and of signing up for craft courses in ceramics, metalwork, embroidery and so on. It will be fascinating to see how this resurgence of interest in craft influences the work of young makers in the future.


Q. There is a lot of debate on the role of the designer growing and spreading into new sectors. How do you see the role and responsibility of a designer?

A. Design and designers have played many different roles at different times and in different contexts, but design has always had one elemental guise as an agent of change that can help us to adapt to changes in any area of our lives, and to try to ensure that they affect us for better, not worse. This means that the role of designers will be in a constant state of flux, especially in as turbulent a time as this one. A heartening development in recent years is that designers have become involved with an ever wider range of challenges, for example, by collaborating with specialists from other disciplines to redesign areas of social services, like caring for the elderly or helping the unemployed return to work, that are no longer fit for purpose. Rather than designing websites or brochures, which explain the decisions that have been taken by other people, designers are increasingly part of the decision-making process. As they should be.


Q. Finland is a nation (largely) driven by engineers, and technology plays an increasingly large role in the design and manufacture of products. How do you see the importance of new technologies for design?

A. Identifying and developing useful applications for new technologies has been one of design’s most important roles as an agent of change throughout history. This will continue to be the case in future as the speed and scale of technological change accelerates. Just think of all the new technologies that we expect to be using within the next few years: driverless cars, augmented reality, 5G wireless networks, artificial intelligence, increasingly powerful drones and Internet of Things devices. Design will play a critical role in their development, as it will in the evolution of future technologies such as neuromorphic and quantum computing, and smart chips.


Q. Trade fairs are about introducing new products, which, to some people, may be irresponsible from the point of view of sustainable development. How do you see design relative to environmental concerns and sustainable development?

A. Helping us to live more sustainably is among the most important challenges – and exciting opportunities – for designers today. The pressure to ensure that we have no cause for concern in terms of how products were designed, manufactured, tested, shipped, sold and will eventually be disposed of will continue to intensify – rightly so.


Q. Has the concept of design been devalued? Is the term too broad, and is it being adapted for use in too many domains?

A. The word ‘design’ has become so fashionable and is applied so liberally, just like “meme” and “curator”, that, in theory, it could risk being devalued. After all, design has always suffered from muddles and misunderstandings, and if it becomes even fuzzier by being applied so freely, isn’t the confusion about its meaning likely to worsen? Possibly. But I believe it is more important to focus less on the definition of design, and more on its impact. If treating any activity as a design exercise – whether it is wrapping a present, planning a journey or developing a new software program – is likely to improve the quality of the outcome, then the advantages of perceiving it as having been ‘designed’, far outweigh the disadvantages.


Q. Which city or country is producing the most exciting new design ideas at the moment?

A. Some of the most interesting new developments in design are coming from African countries, whose design culture is being transformed by digital technology, by cell phone access in particular. As a result, a new generation of African designers are developing ingenious Internet of Things devices that promise to improve the quality of millions of people’s lives. A Cameroonian design engineer Arthur Zang has devised a mobile heart monitoring device, the Cardiopad, which assesses the hearts of people in remote rural areas, and sends the data for diagnosis in well-equipped hospitals hundreds of miles away on a cellular network. A group of doctors and designers in Kenya, Peek Vision, has applied similar principles to design the Peek Retina mobile eye examination kit. In countries like Cameroon and Kenya where medical resources are perilously scarce, and more people now have access to cellular connections than clean running water, smartly designed Internet of Things devices like these could have a huge effect on health care provision.
Q. In your opinion, what is the most important role of design today?

A. Design has meant many different things in different contexts at different times, but it has always had one elemental role as an age of change that can help us to make sense of changes and to ensure that they affect us positively rather than negatively.
Q. Is the importance of small series and unique works increasing in design?

A. More and more designers are using small editions of works as opportunities for experimentation and as ways of working independently, to realise their own objectives rather than working under instruction from clients. Thanks to fairly basic digital tools it is increasingly easy for them to do so, by raising investment on crowdfunding platforms, for example, flushing out collaborators and cloud manufacturers on social media, publicising their work there and selling it online.
Q. Who are your favourite Finnish designers, and why?

A. One of my favourite recent examples of Finnish design is The Flow Towards Europe, a data visualization project designed by Lucify to reveal the scale and speed of the refugee crisis by charting the influx of refugees into Europe. By showing where the refugees have come from, and where they are heading, this project is a brilliant example of design’s ability to help us to understand complex developments by illustrating them clearly and compellingly.