Whither goest?

Just as it is said that you can learn a lot about a city by the postcards it produces, the same is true for trade fairs and their posters. They serve as a window into the organizer’s visions of and for the fair itself. The trick – and fun – is in deciphering which messages are intentional and which are accidental.

The poster for last fall’s 20th Interieur Biennale in Kortrijk, Belgium, features a background motif of legendary design objects, including, among others, Philippe Starck’s fruit press, Alessandro Mendini’s corkscrew and iconic chairs by Verner Panton and Konstantin Grcic – all past guests of honour at this fair. And obviously it is not a coincidence that the 2006 poster refers to the fair’s past, since this is a special anniversary. So perhaps a little self-reflection is to be expected, even forgiven.

[The cavalcade of recurring images also hint at a coy statement about design plagiarism, copying and “bootlegging” – a serious issue for designers. Having Charles and Ray Eames’ heir Eames Demetrios present his stump lecture, “Who cares about design authenticity,” hints at Interieur’s awareness of the problem, but the poster gives a wholly different take on the fair organizers’ viewpoint.]

Designing a poster that highlights past guests of honour naturally puts a spotlight on whoever would assume that mantle for this edition, and to Interieur’s credit, choosing Swiss designer Alfredo Hberli was ballsy, given his very saucy – and very public – criticism of past holders of this position: “I’m somewhat afraid that the Interieur Biennale is slowly losing its way,” he said.

“There is hardly any room left for questions. When I saw who were invited as guests of honour in 2002 and 2004, I was no longer interested. I felt they were becoming more commercial and started looking like all other fairs. I think it’s time that we designers speak with a louder voice. Kortrijk used to be the only fair that made a real cultural statement. The small scale and the beautiful presentation added value. One thought, ‘wow, I can breathe here, reflect, communicate.’ The manufacturers I designed for used to prefer coming to Kortrijk rather than Cologne. Kortrijk was unique and different.”

Hberli earned his esteemed reputation based on work he’s done with European companies from Alias to Zanotta (keep an eye out for upcoming collaborations with Camper, Volvo, Ruckstuhl and Kvadrat). However, his installation – The In-betweens, a showpiece for his own work, consisted of three sculptural volumes, the largest at 85-feet-long, cut with windows and openings – looked haphazardly constructed, like an art project that a child lost interest in partway through.

Belgian firms DOORZON (Stephanie Everaert and Caroline Lateur) and NU architectuuratelier (Amand Eeckels, Arunas Arlauskas, Halewjin Lievens) were tasked with formulating the layout of the Biennale, including a wayfinding technique referred to whimsically in the press materials as “the RING,” which was an attempt to connect all the halls with unified elements such as lighting, signage, and resting places.

The best part of RING was a dazzling portal called EXILE that connected the large empty outdoor space between Halls 4 and 5. Designed by Swedish architect Mats Karlssons, the large origami-like tube was constructed from coated cardboard sheets folded into a three-dimensional truss-system.

As is the case with many design trade fairs, the work produced by young and usually non-professional designers invited to participate in a parallel event is often the most exciting. Design for Europe, the Interieur Foundation’s prototype competition, was presented in the Underground, which, not incidentally, contained the greatest buzz of energy anywhere within the expo halls.

The 20 Interieur Biennales from 1968 to 2006 have witnessed the rise of plastics in the 1970s, the colours of the ’80s, the restraint of the ’90s, the innovative materials of the new millennium, Scandinavian diligence, Italian mastery, French playfulness, British arts and crafts, and Belgian surrealism. And in some form or another, they could all be seen in the expo halls this time around.

Ultimately this edition, while suitably rich in styles, tastes and forms, seemed poor in honest evaluation. Ironically, maybe Hberli’s ominous assessment was fitting, and Interieur needs to stop toasting itself and get back to asking the right questions.