At The London Design Festival, Part III

When you visit the show Image for a Title, curated by Study O Portable as part of the Brompton Design District, you can just about conjure the illusion that you’re in a world-class design-art gallery in some chic back alley of Paris, rather than a sunlight-starved basement at a hard-to-find address that happened to be printed incorrectly in this year’s Icon Design Trail guide. The show looks — and reads — so impressively that you start to believe what you want to believe rather than the reality, which is that many of the LDF’s visitors are likely to inadvertently miss out on seeing it, and that when it’s over many of the pieces will, shrugs co-curator Bernadette Deddens, probably just wind up in storage. Welcome to the placebo effect, or at least our crude metaphorical approximation of it: the ability of humans to bestow a pill, an object, or in this case an exhibition with the qualities they expect or desire it to have. Deddens and her partner in crime, Tetsuo Mukai, invited a handful of designers to join them in exploring the possibilities of placebo thinking, producing an installation so well resolved that we’re going to go right on insisting it’s one of the top gallery shows on offer this week. Although, being more realists than dreamers, we’ve decided to help actualize our version of events by publicizing the show here on Sight Unseen. Check out each of its five projects below, and if you still have time to go see them before it closes at the end of the weekend, make sure to map your way to 8 Edgerton Gardens Mews.

I. Paul Elliman, Baby You Could Have Whatever You Like
Paul Elliman is officially our hero (I’m sure we’re not alone). Not only does he make amazing fonts out of found objects, the white quartz-like crystal in this assemblage piece — which he crafted from empty Bic pen shards — is a mind-bending stroke of genius. The designer/artist and Werkplaats Typografie professor created two vitrines for Image for a Title: one contains bricks and rocks he found in the streets of London after last year’s riots, and the other is filled with a constellation of handmade and found objects that resemble rocks and minerals, but are in fact only lumps of everyday detritus like melted detergent bottles and shattered car-window glass.
There are also soap flakes and balls of broken bike-reflector shards in the mix; the general idea, we assume, is to underscore the contrast between objects of real value (actual stones and crystals) and perceived value (Elliman’s junkyard creations). Though perhaps we’re wrong, considering these handmade baubles are probably worth more than their real-life counterparts.Above, the Bic quartz; below left, an “oyster shell” made from melted deodorant cases. In a small catalog that accompanies the show, Elliman offers a small anecdote that complements his project nicely: “…After a hailstorm of mysterious blue crystals had fallen from the sky over Dorset,” it reads, “several explanations were offered, suggesting they were the eggs of an unknown marine creature, or even the bodily secretions of angels. Scientists at Bournemouth University apparently issued a statement that the crystals were ‘not a life form,’ then set out to identify their molecular fingerprint, a procedure used at crime scenes to establish the nature of a particular substance. The crystals were later explained as sodium polyacrylate, an absorbent polymer used by florists and in the production of babies’ nappies.”
II. Study O Portable, RGB
Remember playing with microscopes in science class as a kid? Or in my case, being that I was a total nerd, in your bedroom? You’d put a small bead of liquid on a glass slide and slowly drop a second slide on top, watching as the contents spread haphazardly in between the two plates, always amazed when they didn’t spill out the sides. For their RGB panels, Study O Portable have used the exact same technique, only on a larger scale, with natural mineral pigments of cinnabar, malachite, and azurite. The placebo effect here concerns the “supernatural power” that people once ascribed to these minerals, according to Deddens and Mukai.
“Each of these pigments, like many others, are made from rare minerals once considered magical or sacred, and the paintings made with these pigments are thought to be of special significance,” they write in the catalog. “RGB merges the conditions of communication, from ancient paintings to our modern obsession with monitors and displays, and provide a connection through the literal translation of the term RGB: both a name for a technology and an acronym of three colors.”
III. Gemma Holt, Semblance
Designer and jewelry maker Gemma Holt gave her contribution to the show a little twist — it looks like a table full of wood offcuts when you first approach, various solid chunks of 1x2s and 2x2s laid out so plainly that you fear any significance behind the display might right go over your head. But then, one of the show’s organizers strolls over to reveal the truth: the offcuts are lightweight boxes, covered on all sides by a thin layer of veneer, right down to the perfectly matched endgrain.
Holt insisted, in fact, that all the boxes be displayed in tact, so the casual passerby wouldn’t get the trick. The truth requires a physical intervention: “The hand touches a void but the eye, seduced, sees a solid,” she writes. “Veneers (by definition a decorative facing, a deception, a superficial show) are used to replicate typical blocks of wood; discarded off-cuts now capable of disguising other objects within.”
IV. Tim Parsons and Jessica Charlesworth, A Form of Happiness
For this project, Parsons and Charlesworth boil happiness down to a single physical mechanism — dopamine release. Their wooden model/toy takes the form of dopamine’s molecular structure, rendered as a series of rounded shapes held together by neodymium magnets, and it “comes with a pamphlet of stories that explore potential narratives as to how the object could play a variety of roles in an individual’s life.” We didn’t read said pamphlet, so we’re not sure exactly what the nature of those stories might be, but as we see it, the piece works on two levels. First, holding it is like symbolically holding human happiness in one’s hands, which is not only amusingly meta but may cause users to consider the object as spiritually charged in some way.
But there’s also a more literal effect the model might have on those who take the time to consider it, this one wholly subconscious. “Browsing for potential purchases is known to result in dopamine release,” the pair write. “This occurs when we find what we are looking for, or spot something else desirable. Interestingly, it is the discovery rather than the purchase that releases the most dopamine. … [Our] object and stories raise awareness of what happens in the brain when we feel compelled to make a spontaneous purchase. It is a rhetorical object in that it represents the chemical desire it might create in the mind of a customer thinking of purchasing it.”
V. Sam Jacob, Solid Shadow
Sam Jacob of Fat Architecture puts it plainly in his project statement: “The inert placebo takes on the powers of the thing we imagine it to be. It projects back into our imagination from the physical world.” While he momentarily dwells on how the designer’s role can be quite similar — to imbue something with qualities it doesn’t necessarily have, which might not change the object’s performance but can alter the way we perceive that performance — he ultimately comes back to emphasizing the placebo’s total lack of functionality.
“It is always an object that exists in relation to something else,” he writes. “It is a powerless replica, a dud twin, a three dimensional and solid shadow with all the function sucked out of it.” That said, he points out that “the gap between the active object and its placebic doppleganger is, as in medical trials, the space in which we can see the way objects exist in the world.” And it’s that idea he most likely had in mind when he made the piece above — a solid terra cotta orb that very closely resembles a basketball, but is in fact anything but.