By Michelle Mckenna
Allow me to trade in the Inspiration Truck metaphor I’ve been using. And exchange it for the Inspiration Freight Train.
The third and final day of Design Indaba rode over me with maximum impact existential angst, the kind that prompts you to seriously reconsider your life-choices and see if there’s not some more meaningful way to do what you do that actually makes a difference.
It kicked off with a rousing burst of song by Yvonne Chaka Chaka, homegrown singer and Goodwill Ambassador for ‘Goodbye Malaria’. The anti-malaria organization’s fundraising pyjama pants have been a hit at the Indaba: Michael Beirut sported a pair on Day One (what a brilliant MC he has been), and I was impressed to see Rosario Hurtado and Roberto Feo (from El Ultimo Grito design) appear on stage in theirs today for their talk. (This quirky Mexican design duo’s work includes the MICO Magis kiddies chairs (below) featured in a permanent exhibit at the V&A Museum and at MoMA).
High on my list of people who are making a real difference to their world, is Issa Diabaté, Kenyan architect. His firm Koffi-Diabaté, is tackling the urban-planning nightmare that is Abidjan, by introducing sustainable upmarket cluster apartments, pre-empting the future densification of the city with gorgeous green design. These guys win my USE-OF-INITIATIVE Award with their notion that if their government won’t provide infrastructure and leadership in urban planning matters, they will. And the clincher is that, while their river clean-up project waits for countless layers of approval, they while away the time by starting the region’s first architecture school. Idle, these men are not.
My own personal, RETHINK-THIS Award goes to “89plus”. This project, founded by Hans Ulrich Obrist and Simon Castets, investigates work by artists born in the age of the world wide web. Now, yesterday, I couldn’t quite fathom the young performance and conceptual artists’ work. But today, watching this panel, I realized that perhaps it is I who need to make a shift in my perceptions. And that ‘art’ means something different to the next generation, who are grappling with a whole new socio-political context, and that I should not be so hasty to judge, but rather, listen. Raising another Indaba theme, which has been ‘empathy’. And we could all do with a little extra helping of that.
By far the most emotion-wrenching, profound presentation of the Indaba for me, was that of South African photographer-icon David Goldblatt. His work tells some of the most painful and poignant stories of Apartheid. He greeted the dumbstruck audience with the words, “I’m not a very creative person”, and told how he had planned to use the excuse of geriatry (he’s in his 80s) but that actually he would just have to tell the truth. And that’s what his photos have always done. They shine a light into the dark corners no one wants to look, with such aching beauty, that much of the audience were in tears by the end.
A couple of SPECIAL MENTIONS for the Danish Designer Panel:
• Wille Juul-Sørensen, who said, “There are enough chairs and white coffee cups”. To illustrate his thinking, he contrasted the idea of an expensive handbag as a ‘luxury product’ (relevant to 1% of the global population), to the notion of a glass of clean running water as a ‘luxury product’ (relevant to the remaining 99%). And then charged the audience with the responsibility to henceforth “design like you give a damn”.
• Vinay Venkatraman, recipient of the USELFUL-THINGS-TO-MAKE-WITH-AN-ALARM-CLOCK Award. This interactive designer showed how a simple, cheaply mass-produced item had been modified to become a medical screening tool. It checks your pulse, respiration rate, body temperature and oxygen saturation levels. One thing it can’t yet do, and his challenge to the audience to solve: how to check blood sugar levels.
• Hendrik Vibskov – fashion designer and recipient of the SMALLEST BLADDER Award, greeted us from his chair and very frankly told the audience that he desperately needed a pee. And if it was alright with us, he’d rather stay seated. Perhaps his brain has been pickled over time, as his exhibition pieces included 2000 latex-looking boobs suspended on sticks, and a giant, unidentifiable mint coloured thing (a caterpillar? – shot in the dark) which he inflated live on the stage with a jumping castle blower, and the assistance of 7 dress-wearing gentlemen.
• Naoto Fukushawa (product designer) for some mind-opening thoughts I don’t have space to really do justice to here. But also for winning the BEST-BANANA-IMPERSONATION Award and for this milkshake packaging.
Come on, that’s cool.
Now, a toss-up for MOST ENTERTAINING PRESENTATION OF THE DAY is between a Kiwi Creative Director, Dean Poole and Graphic Designer, Stefan Sagmeister.
Dean Poole is one of the most fascinating wordplay artists I’ve ever seen, and his presentation was filled with humorous examples of his craft. These were sometimes visual, e.g. the design identity for the Auckland Art Gallery, where the word ART is laid out and used as a central structure around which to build any word cluster you can imagine.
Another highlight was a genius story that began with the wordplay that results when you see:
and read: THIS over THAT. Poole proceeded to tell a hilarious story that was easily 5 minutes long, with what felt like over 100 examples of this (SO over YOU, VICTORY over DEATH, ACCOUNT over DRAWN)
Sagmeister, in response to Vibskov’s bladder predicament, greeted the audience and informed them that he had just had a most spectacular pee, and that he was therefore: (1) ready to talk and (2) happy.
He then led the audience on a delightful journey through his work relating to happiness, and the resultant travelling exhibition.
The presentation ended with the audience on their feet, singing karaoke with uncharacteristic group gusto.
And thus, Design Indaba was ended on a joyful, and fittingly celebratory note.
By now I’ve said enough.
But to end, I’ll slightly misquote an M People song (as almost sung by Chaka Chaka). It’s actually a question, one that you can’t help but leave Design Indaba with, and one we should never stop asking ourselves: “What have you done today, to (really, really) make you feel proud?”
About Michelle Mckenna
Senior Copywriter and Art Director at Ogilvy & Mather Johannesburg