` We Want to Take You Higher (2024) – Friedman Benda

We Want to Take You Higher (2024)

Glenn Adamson


          Transcendence. The word means, literally, “rising above,” and the feeling of it is just that: a certain interval, perhaps sustained, perhaps over in a mere flash, in which the everyday world falls away, and a higher connection prevails. Is it likely – is it even possible – that one could find such uplift in design? The prospect may seem remote. Chairs, lamps, cabinets, and vessels are earthly things. They attend to our practical rather than our spiritual needs. They are often regarded as mere commodities, or otherwise cast in a cultural supporting role. What would it take for us to invert these expectations, and to see functional objects as the ultimate vehicle for transport? More than that: to see them as incarnating, on the worldly plane, a quality of transcendence that is sui generis, literally super-human, providing to us nothing but inspiration and requiring nothing from us but reverence?

          This exhibition offers a provisional answer to these questions, which are among the most challenging that could be brought to contemporary design. It is a focused undertaking, with only six participants, but an extremely ambitious one, in that it departs decisively from established expectations of design. We readily associate it with a range of objectives: experimenting with new technologies, prototyping material solutions, expressing individual sensibility, capturing the zeitgeist. Despite that range, though, design these days is almost entirely secular in intent, and typically very goal-oriented, from the point of genesis to realization. This is part of its inheritance from modernism, the period when the design avant garde first assumed a radical posture, repudiating traditional frameworks, including those of religion.

          The New Transcendence marks an emergent re-evaluation in this state of affairs. It is the culmination of a trilogy, three shows each devoted to a developing tendency in design today. The series began in 2021 with A New Realism, which looked at materially-intensive processes as a means to individualistic expression, and continued in 2022 with The New Figuration, an examination of the human form as inspiration. Now, we look in a different direction. Not at what design is made from, and how; not to what it depicts; but to the domain of immateriality itself. We look upwards, in other words, and in doing so, complete a metaphorical arc from raw matter, and its transformation, through the body, to the heavens.

          Together, these three exhibitions, speculative as they may be, also suggest a momentous paradigm shift for the design avant garde. The modernist legacy (including its solipsistic “postmodern” critique) is ultimately concerned with cultural questions, taking for granted the principle that design can, should, and indeed must shape the world for the better. But under present conditions, there seems to be a turn inward, to personal resources, imagery, and beliefs.

          This should not be seen as a sign of retreat. On the contrary, the works we presented in A New Realism and The New Figuration asserted a potent new role for the design avant garde, in which its problem-solving, form-propagating tendencies were deemphasized in favor of personal narratives. Rather than adopting a position of objective authority, so intrinsic to the modernist designer’s persona and now so difficult to justify, they modeled a self-aware subjectivity.

          The New Transcendence extends this picture by considering the way energy passes from person to person, and from the person to the cosmos, via the object as medium. This principle is best demonstrated in the gallery space itself. To the extent that the exhibition’s six participants are in a conversation with one another, that is only because we have orchestrated it. And yet there is, among the group, a remarkable internal resonance, born of a continuity of purpose. All of them create objects that are infused with profound significance, whether as relics, ritual tools, or representations: material anchors for spiritual expression and meaning.

          In October of last year, as we were organizing this exhibition, Andrea Branzi died, aged 85. His presence here is intended partly as a tribute, partly as a reflection on his own thoughts about spirituality. From his first experimental work with Archizoom Associati to his most recent works – including the triptych of Roots chairs that preside over our show – he pursued a profound synthesis, in which human beings, technology, and the natural world were understood as imbricated in one another. He was the ultimate exponent of “organic design,” not in the sense that term was typically used in the 1950s (biomorphic shapes) or more recently (biomimetic processes), but rather in the sense of pursuing a larger integration, in which the object is conceived as a nexus or convergence within “a flow of various dynamic energies.” He took the same view of his own practice. Branzi didn’t really think of himself as a professional designer. He characterized his activities as more like “a domestic scenario, a very full house bursting with interfamily connections, including both people and animals… an affirmation of the comedy of life, of work, of art.”

          This same perspective pervades The New Transcendence. The works we have included here arise at the confluence of designerly procedure with larger, more inchoate forces. Precisely which forces these might be differ; each of the other five participants may be said to have their own theology of practice. Their philosophies and methods are constituted from domains as varied as animism and artificial intelligence, careful observation of nature and autonomous abstraction. While most of the works on view are furniture, nominally speaking, they occupy real space without being subsumed into its exigencies; what they furnish, primarily, is the mind and spirit.

          These foundations anchor our exhibition far from the domain of organized religion and its trappings. To be sure, physical artifacts may help the prepared faithful along their way to transcendence: the chalice and paten of the Catholic host, the ark that holds the Torah scrolls, the intoning bell of Buddhist ceremony, the intricate tilework of mosques. All of these archetypes have persisted over the course of generations, indexing tidal shifts in aesthetics even as they retained an underlying continuity of meaning. But these are not useful precedents for contemporary design, who, unlike artisans who fashioned ecclesiastical equipment in the past, are working well outside of proscribed forms. Their definition of the sacred is too pervasive for that, too integrated into the texture of everyday life; it is more akin to the holistic spirituality of traditional and Indigenous cultures (frequently, they take direct inspiration from those sources) than holy but separate precincts.

          Yet the works in The New Transcendence are indeed extraordinary, and in a somewhat different sense than the exemplary objects seen in the first two installments of our trilogy. It is perhaps difficult to account for their power fully; doubtless, it is the result of deep commitment on the designers’ part, but there is also something that remains private, originating in the soul. Apart from Branzi’s triad of chairs, we made the decision to present only one object by each participating designer; thus highlighted, they come across, almost, as allegorical self-portraits.

          Almost – because each of these designers also aspires to a certain universality. This is the paradoxical promise of the spiritual, and what most accounts for its new relevance in contemporary design. Gestures beyond the self, beyond the social, offer the possibility of a communal binding. Each of us may differ in our beliefs, but we all do believe in something; life would otherwise be unnavigable. In seeing others ask themselves big questions (for doubt is also a groundspring for spirituality) and offering their own individual responses, we recognize something of our own struggle. The drive toward transcendence is just a fundamental part of being human; perhaps it is the one impulse that most distinguishes us from other forms of consciousness (animal, technological, and those yet to be imagined). This is a final continuity between the present exhibitions and its predecessors. The New Realism and A New Figuration sought to map the common ground of design in the 21st century, a foundation still in formation. With this last show in the series, we continue this project, now illuminating the discipline’s highest aspiration: the impetus to infuse contemporary objects with a degree of the miraculous. Design, after all, is our emissary in the world. We should expect of it nothing less.


This essay was originally published in exhibition catalogue The New Transcendence, Friedman Benda, New York, NY, January 2013. 

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