New takes on old ideas

A new exhibition at the Design Museum in Holon is now showing more than 70 new works that go against the known and familiar.

Mesh by Tal Gur_250 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Mesh by Tal Gur_250
(photo credit: Courtesy)
If you study the history of technology, you are likely to make a couple of interesting observations. The first is that most people tend to be conservative and often resistant to change. The second is that because people are uncomfortable with change, whenever something new is invented, it is often designed to look like the older form of technology it was invented to replace.
That is why the early automobiles were designed to look like buggies, or “horseless carriages”; why the early television sets sold in the late 1940s and early 1950s were made to look like the radios of that era; and why the early personal computers sold in the 1970s looked so much like IBM Selectric II typewriters with little TV screens on top.
Word processing programs like Microsoft Word still use graphic interfaces that reference the look of a sheet of paper in a typewriter, and writers are still able to “cut,” “paste” and make use of helpful things like “spikes” and “clipboards,” if only metaphorically.
We have apparently been up to this trick for a very long time.
Archeologists say that some of the earliest pottery ever found – from more than 9,000 years ago –was decorated, however crudely, to look a little like the straw baskets that people were using right up to the moment before the first person sat down somewhere to make the first clay pot.
Apparently, we ease our transition into a radically new technology by expressing it in the idiom of the old, the familiar, and the comfortable. We make strange new things easy to accept by making them look like what we have already grown accustomed to.
Stated simply, we put old designs on new ideas.
But now, a new exhibition at the Design Museum in Holon is setting our old habits on their ear by showing more than 70 new works that do precisely the opposite. Instead of taking new things and making them look old, they are taking old things – banally old things like picnic tables and flower vases – and making them cleverly new.
The exhibition, called “New Olds: Design between Tradition and Innovation,” brings together more than 60 young, up-andcoming European, American and Israeli designers presenting creative new interpretations for motifs from the past. Each of these designers finds the past a source of inspiration and each enjoys showing his or her individual “take” on a specific period in history.
“New Olds” was organized and sponsored by the German government’s Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen (Institute for Foreign Cultural Relations, known internationally as “ifa”), and designed and curated by the Institute’s Volker Albus – architect, designer and professor of product design at the University for Design in Karlsruhe, Germany.
Albus was on hand for the opening of the exhibition at the Design Museum, where he explained the idea of the show.
“I have traveled the world a lot over the years in the course of working in the field of design. It has been during the past five years that I have seen tradition assume a role of greater importance in my travels around the world.
Especially in places like China and Eastern Europe, tradition has become more and more important.
“Until the 1990s, culture, architecture, design, contemporary art, was mainly dominated by American and Western European influences. There were traditional cultures in places like Russia and China, but the focus in these places was what was happening in London, in New York, in Paris and Berlin, and there was little attention being paid to the traditional qualities of these other cultures.
“This has changed in the past few years. For example, we have in our university a lot of Chinese students. They are more and more focused on their own culture, their traditional Chinese culture. And they try to transform this in a contemporary language.
So as I have moved around and visited exhibitions and seen what is happening elsewhere, I have realized that a lot of designers are working with this issue – transforming tradition into a contemporary language.”
Albus acknowledges, however, that not all of the focus on tradition that he has seen is anything to get excited about. He notes that in some parts of the world, especially in Southeast Asia, the attention to tradition has meant little more than just slavishly copying old styles outright, without any reinterpretation or adaptation to changing public tastes.
Still, Albus is not discouraged.
“The new interpretation, of transforming tradition into a contemporary language, has really begun just in the last 10 years,” he says. “It began with the growing up of a new generation. The members of this generation, which is beginning to dominate in the field of design, are around 20 to 25 years old. And it is a selection of their work, what I like to call ‘part-progressive,’ that you will see in this exhibition.”
THE INSTITUTE for Foreign Cultural Relations has several exhibitions traveling the world, and their exhibitions typically have life spans of at least 10 years.
“New Olds” is Albus’s fourth exhibition with the Institute; his third just closed in Mexico City after traveling the world for 14 years.
As plans for “New Olds” began to take shape, there was no doubt that it should premiere anywhere other than Israel.
Albus explains, “We thought it would be a fantastic idea to start this exhibition in Israel. Israel is a quite new country, with such an old culture. You have Israeli designers like Ron Arad, who designed this museum. He is really the prototype of the contemporary designer. He has done a lot of work dealing with tradition, expressed in a contemporary language.
“Another reason that it’s wonderful to start this exhibition here is that when we deliver an exhibition, we ask our local partners to bring us designers from their own country. Too many times, an exhibition will come to a place, run for a while, then say good-bye and go.
“[But] when I was here for preparation of the exhibit back in February, the people here at the museum were able to suggest no fewer than 18 Israeli designers. This is wonderful. Not only is this a European exhibition, it’s an Israeli exhibition as well. We have established wonderful professional relationships with Israeli designers. They show how they transform the idioms of the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s into a contemporary language.”
The designers are young and clever; their works are playful and amusing.
A delftware vase, blown by a heavy wind, defiantly bends instead of breaking. A black plastic slab, carved to look like a clothes cabinet, has its “contents” stuck to it instead of placed inside it.
That way, we are told, the owner will know where everything is at a glance.
A picnic table and two matching benches, which anyone would expect to be made of wood, are instead made from recycled plastics.
And a simple plastic chair, the kind you stack along the back wall of a banquet hall when not in use, turns out upon closer inspection to be made of wood.
A couple of authentic-looking, tightly-woven Oriental carpets are in fact proudly polyurethane, and an easy chair like the one your grandmother used to sit in is actually made from a bunch of balloons.
One or two of the young designers are, in fact, so “playful and amusing” that you almost want to wring their youthful necks. A group of oddly shaped vases, for example, are titled “Golden Age” and said to “resemble sagging skin during old age.”
Many museums are content to let the art works speak for themselves.
Our own Design Museum Holon, however, has enriched this exhibition with individual portable audio guides, in both Hebrew and English.
Says curator Albus, “This is such a professional place here. I have done 15 exhibitions around the world, but I have never worked with such a professional staff.”
“New Olds: Design between Tradition and Innovation” is showing until September 10 at the Design Museum Holon, Rehov Pinhas Eilon 8, Holon. For information about exhibitions, opening hours, tickets, guided tours, etc. call 073-215- 1515 or visit