The layer that protects, beautifies, improves or strengthens materials is the subject of an exhibition at Het Nieuwe Instituut from 27 January 2017. In recent years, the institute has devoted exhibitions to the materials wood, plastic and glass. Designer Chris Kabel decided to approach the subject of materials in another way, namely by looking at their finish. Together with design studio Koehorst in ’t Veld he has curated an exhibition on the subject.
What makes this subject so interesting for you?
Chris Kabel: If you look closely, you’ll see that all the materials around us have a finish. This chair has a powder coating, the wall is painted and your mobile phone has a coating to stop it getting greasy. Many things could not function at all without a final layer. Ships, for example, cannot set sail without a coat of paint. An excellent example of an object that is almost entirely reliant on its surface coating for its integrity is IKEA’s famous LACK side table, which comprises nothing more than particleboard covered with a layer of laminate. I thought it would be interesting to look at the final layer that gives things their functionality.
Toon Koehorst: We are especially interested in the coatings used to achieve a certain effect, the finishing layer intended to cover something or make it more beautiful or more attractive, or which aims to tone something down or indeed to intensify it. The fascinating thing is that it is usually a very thin layer, sometimes only a few micrometres thick. And that wafer-thin later determines everything. You can use it to seduce, but also to disguise. You see this, for example, in car paints: those gleaming and glistening coatings are explicitly designed to give cars a seductive appearance while also concealing plastic components.
Jannetje in ’t Veld: Many coatings are invisible, such as the ones sprayed on apples, frying pans, walls or clothing. These surfaces are designed not to seduce but to repel. They have a phobic effect: anti-graffiti, non-stick, rainproof or anti-Wi-Fi.
What do you want to achieve with the exhibition? What can the visitor expect?
TK: Architectural practice Monadnock designed a series of spectacular pavilions based on a funfair. These contain a veritable ‘cabinet of curiosities’ of extraordinary and unexpected objects and projects, all of them focussing on the outer skin. The visitor can then delve into the often-invisible functions, meanings and possibilities of coatings and finishes.
What makes the subject so urgent is that there’s a great awareness of the potential of the surface within industry and science, while hardly any attention is paid to finishes in design education. That’s where the profit margin is for industry: new applications and functionalities can be developed for finishes that have hardly any volume and yet have an enormous impact. This makes it a fascinating subject to explore, especially in the design world: we need to talk about the finish!
CK: Though new technologies such as nanotechnology, the final layer can add new behaviour to materials and objects. For example, we now have conductive paint that does away with the need for electric cabling. Miniscule solar cells can also be added to paint. The possibilities for surface treatments are growing all the time. It is now possible to have a print float on water. When you dip an object into it, the water seamlessly coats the object with the print. In America many people use this technique to give their weapons or car rims a camouflage print. These are fairly banal examples, but these are techniques that designers could do very interesting things with.
How are these various examples and aspects of finishes presented in the exhibition?
CK: The first pavilion celebrates the surface layer in all its variety. What kind of finishes exist, what effects and what qualities? The second pavilion deals mainly with the technology. It takes the form of a studio where you can see how the finishes are applied. Then there is a pavilion about the necessity for finishes. Here we show how materials deteriorate if they are not coated. This decay can be very beautiful and some materials form their own protective layer: a patina. This pavilion features a fountain designed by Lex Pott, containing objects with a variety of coatings. They are sprayed with a corrosive fluid so that the materials begin to break down. We want to show two sides of the erosion process: some materials deteriorate, others become more beautiful.
How does the exhibition Designing the Surface relate to your own design practice?
CK: I’m a product designer. Many of my projects derive from very light, simple interventions in materials that have a surprising effect. The choice for this design stems from a fascination with the fact that we live in a world in which everything has a coating of some kind and almost no one talks about it.
TK: We are graphic designers and exhibition curators with a great interest in cultural history. We like to make connections between wide-ranging things and ideas. Books and exhibitions lend themselves to this aim.
JV: In past exhibitions about materials at Het Nieuwe Instituut we were involved as designers and then we gradually became more involved in the content as curators. For both WOOD and GLASS we tried to create a world in which the visitor is submerged. The materials of the exhibition infrastructure, the sounds and even smells play a role in that. We choreograph an environment that allows objects to enter into new relationships.
What are your favourite exhibits in Designing the Surface?
CK: I love the mirror, although it deviates from the rest because the surface layer is on the back. By adding a thin layer of silver, the material’s function changes completely: transparent glass becomes a mirror, which reflects an image rather than letting it through. A comparable example is the reflective paint used to coat reindeer antlers in Finland to prevent them getting hit by cars. That must be a strange sight when you see a group of lit-up antlers from your car at night. It’s a fascinating clash between old and new, and a very clever application of a coating.
TK: I’m excited by the decorative painting techniques that can give simple materials a luxury appearance, transforming inferior types of woods into expensive varieties or marble. It’s a neat reversal that rising labour costs and falling prices of raw materials have made these techniques relatively affordable today. Best of all is when these traditional repro techniques lead to new fantasy materials such as crazy marbles and excessive, flaming wood sorts. You see something comparable in the automotive industry, which is developing new materials that surpass the materials they are meant to imitate in all respects: they are cheaper, safer, stronger, easier to maintain and even softer than the original. It’s not only about the look but also about the feel.
JV: What interests me is the great diversity of objects that raise questions about surfaces and their underlying ideas and motives. It’s an exhibition that brings together the gilded weathercock that usually sits above the church tower in Doesburg and a paint gun (a paint-filled super-soaker) used during the recent Colourful Revolution in Macedonia. The tension between preservation and deterioration, seduction and repulsion is present throughout the entire exhibition.
Interview: Lotte Haagsma