Sounds matter

As you stare up at the ceiling you are treated to a psychedelic display of constantly changing shapes that meld and split, and go with the musical flow.

The Sound and Matter in Design exhibition offers a new angle on audio aesthetics. (photo credit: SHAY BEN EPHRAIM)
The Sound and Matter in Design exhibition offers a new angle on audio aesthetics.
(photo credit: SHAY BEN EPHRAIM)
In this information-laden day and age we tend to filter out data we feel interfere with our attempt to home in on the core of the matter in hand. This is often not even a proactive, conscious course of action – rather our brain simply keeps the “superfluous” stuff under wraps.
But what about sound? Here, too, we are bombarded from all angles. Ever walked along a downtown street and consciously listened to the cacophony to which we are constantly subjected? Cars, trucks, buses, motorbikes, construction works, not to mention our fellow humans prattling on vociferously on their cellphones and, if we are fortunate and sensitive enough, we might even catch the intermittent diverse calls of some of our feathered friends on high.
Anat Safran wants us to take a keener interest in our sonic surroundings. Safran is co-curator, along with Lilach Chitayat, of the Sound and Matter in Design exhibition currently in progress at the Design Museum in Holon. The show bumf says this is an exercise in “examining the relationship between sound and design and the ways in which shapes, environments and everyday experiences are influenced by sound.”
These days it is difficult to espy many people under the age of, say, 40 who are devoid of wires coming out of their ears as they switch off from their physical surroundings with the help of cell-phone filtered music. Safran wants us to take our listening experiences more seriously, and fully admits to having some didactic subtext to the Holon exhibition. Are the curators trying to tell us we can do something about our listening habits?
“Absolutely,” says Safran. “It is primarily, firstly, about awareness, awareness of listening and of sound.” The proof of the pudding, she notes, was in her own experience.
“While Lilach and I worked on the exhibition, we became more aware of our own sonorous domain. We might be sitting in a café, and we’d notice what was around us. Our level of sensitivity rose. We were more aware of it [sound] so we paid more attention to it.”
That implies the premeditated plan behind the multi-sensorial aesthetics exercise – to get the rest of us on board the heedfulness train.
“One of the things we wanted to happen in the wake of this exhibition is that, first and foremost, people will come and experience all kinds of encounters with sound. But we also want, when they leave the museum, that they should maintain their level of sensitivity [to the sounds around them]. I think the visitors have some special sound-related experiences at the exhibition.”
Safran and Chitayat have certainly pulled out all the stops to appeal to our curiosity and sometimes tickle our funny bone in getting us actively involved in what we hear and how we hear it. There is the Seeing Sound section of the layout, on the upper floor, which takes in a fetching array of 50 objects, designed over the last 50-plus years. There are some alluring pieces in there that not only produce quality tones, but also draw the eye. There are also a handful of funky-looking record players – a fitting inclusion, in view of the gathering comeback of the LP to wider usage.
The exhibits on the upper level are divided into three categories – stationary, mobile and interactive objects. The throwback items give the visitor some idea of the evolution of sound-transmitting products over time, including stereo systems and speakers, and there are some delightful contemporary pieces that serve as great furniture accessories for the living room. The pieces exemplify the conceptual shift from object design to the design of a user experience, while showcasing the way sound and design fit harmoniously into domestic environments.
Safran says she and Chitayat observed a clear continuum to the design mind-set.
“We noticed three patterns from the time when the object was at the center of the house, in the middle of the living room, whereby the members of the family would meet around the record player or radio to listen together.”
Technological progress eventually put paid to that.
“The second development is the emergence of the cell phone and Bluetooth [wireless technology]. As soon as that happens, we no longer have cables, or control buttons [on sound appliances], everything works through our telephone.”
That, says Safran, was a fundamental game changer.
“That freed the user and designer from the immobility of the earlier devices. Things could become much smaller, more mobile and far simpler. The last stage is when the listener takes on a much more active role. They become an active listener. They could produce sound themselves.”
That proffers all sorts of implications.
“This is the result of changes on all kinds of levels,” Safran adds, “social, political and cultural. We can see that, over the years, through the design. That is very striking in the visual aesthetics.”
Sound and Matter in Design also considers the way people deal with audio sensory impairments.
“The interactive section of the exhibition relates to very specific groups,” explains Safran. “There is a work by a student – it was her final project work – that examines how to transmit sound to deaf people.”
That conjures up images of Helen Keller, and her well-documented experience of “listening” to a radio broadcast of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, almost a century ago, by placing her hand on the radio speaker.
“The work has two objects,” the curator continues, “one that works on vibrations that you feel through your feet, and one that is more visual and incorporates 3D movement.”
To listen properly, you need to hone your concentration, which, for example, for people with autism, can be quite a hurdle to negotiate. That particular ailment is also addressed in the exhibition.
“You can look at sound, and the ghetto of sound, as something therapeutic,” Safran suggests. “It can help people, too. I think that is very interesting.”
The Dr. Shulamit Katzman Gallery, the lower gallery of the museum, hosts the grandest crafted exhibit of the lot. Safran and Chitayat, whose eclectic professional training includes architecture, new media art and experimental design, have put together an installation they call Sensing Sound. It is a pretty self-explanatory title, as you quickly discover when you make your way between totemic loudspeakers and clamber aboard an enormous black two-tier circular sofa.
The wavy structure easily accommodates your body as you relax into the welcoming fabric. As you stare up at the ceiling you are treated to a psychedelic display of constantly changing shapes that meld and split, and go with the musical flow. The audio aspect comes at you through speakers embedded in the sofa, and from the surround speakers. It certainly gets you in the mood. By the way, on a patriotic note, much of the amplification accessories in the design were provided by Israeli company Morel, which has been manufacturing nifty products for audiophiles, here and across the globe, for over 40 years.
One another aesthetic note, the circular corridor on the lower level houses an alluring offering of quirky sound-related jewelry, called Through the Mesh, courtesy of Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design alumnus, and now teacher, Dana Hakim Bercovich. It was curated by Yael Taragan.
Museum chief curator Maya Dvash notes that the current exhibition is part of a sequence, which also takes its physical context very much into account.
“With our previous Overview exhibition we laid the path for a core focus on senses and their interplay with the world of design,” says Dvash.
“With this exhibition, we wanted to take this emphasis one step further to provide visitors with something truly experiential, where the building itself is given a voice and visitors find themselves listening to it. For the first time, the exhibition premises will be used in their entirety with an attentive eye on how each sound, each piece, each element can and should be juxtaposed to the space at hand. Historical musical objects, which are included in this exhibition, will be accompanied by installations featuring no object at all, further demonstrating how design transcends the strictly physical to encompass the seemingly abstract.”
Seemingly indeed.
Sound and Matter in Design closes on October 28. For more information: (073) 215-1500 and