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Escribano: «In the aftermath of this huge, global health crisis, which will have tremendous collateral economic and social effects, we will be forced to reassess what is it that we produce, with what purposes, for whom, and how we do it»

The general coordinator of the Iberoamerican Design Biennial (BID), Gloria Escribano, invites the readers to understand design as a tool to transform and become active agents in the uncertain future we face.

Born in Argentina in 1960, Gloria Escribano has lived in Madrid since she was 29 years old. Before moving to Europe, and after earning a degree in Philology in the University of Buenos Aires, she worked as a journalist for several local, cultural media.

Once settled in Spain, she enrolled in graduate and post-graduate programs with the goal of developing, directing, and managing socio-cultural and artistic projects, as well as to boost content strategies linked to communication and production.

Specialized in topics related to culture, architecture, and design, since 2007 she has undertaken the huge challenge of directing the Iberoamerican Design Biennial (BID), the most important event for contemporary Iberoamerican design. At the same time, since 2009, she has conducted the BID Encounter of Education and Design, organized by DIMAD, Madrid Design Foundation, in the Design Central at Matadero Madrid. From this position, she coordinates BID tours in different institutions, cities, and countries, mainly connected to the Spain Cultural Centers Network.

As a journalist, she has collaborated for more than thirty years with Spanish and Latin-American mass media, such as the magazines Brumaria, Yo Dona, Spanorama, Estar mejor, Obras, and with different supplements of the newspapers El Mundo and La Nación. She currently writes for the publication ROOM Diseño, where she presents and leads the FoodDI project, a meeting place co-organized alongside Roca Madrid Gallery.

Invited by IDA Foundation, Escribano answers the “Expert Opinion” questionnaire of June’s Old&Newsletter with the purpose of questioning the current role of design and reflecting about its connection to the future.

–Can we rethink or redefine the meaning of design based on knowledge? And re-define knowledge from design’s perspective? Can either one be separated from the other?
–Design basically is an adaptation to the medium, that has been the case since its inception and today, in the midst of the global pandemic emergency, it is probably more true than ever. Design is a synonym of future; it is a preparation for what lies ahead. At the same time, design cannot detach from past ideas and traditions because its practice implies trial and error, cumulative experiences and knowledge, and a corpus, both material and intangible, that works as the departing point to create new productions, some of which may even dissent from the past. It is true that design answers to present needs, nonetheless without a future projection it could not exist either.

Actually, those who don’t dream about the future, do not question, do not wonder nor are able to generate movement. Design can take ownership of the past and the present in order to renovate it. How can we conceive that future? Always considering an alliance with technology, engineering, and science. This question resonates in our uncertain context. We do not know how we are going to live and, much less, how we are going to interact with people, the environment, and objects. We can’t touch, we can't smell. What do we consider expendable and what is essential nowadays? Can we conceive design creations that do not respond to needs and problems? Are we concerned about design or about designers, their role, professional career, and individuality? What kind of utopias can we devise within a dystopia?

To me, design has always been a vehicle to break boundaries, to go beyond and step into the unknown. Today, we live in the unknown and it seems that what is familiar protects us. Within this landscape, it becomes evident that design can be —and probably it must be mandatory— bold and proactive by foreseeing and envisioning futures in order to offer, in anticipation, trends and proposals aimed at improving living standards and behaviors with the support of all available tools.

–What cases, actors, products or elements related to Argentine and international culture embody an uplifting experience of that sort?

–When discussing design and the future we must invoke Thonet, who knew how to incorporate design to industrial dynamics in the midst of the Industrial Revolution: when art and design —then referred to as Art & Craft— despised everything that related to machinery. For obvious reasons, we could talk about Bauhaus. Equally as obvious would be mentioning the Eames. The revolution they ignited during the 50’s is comparable to what Bauhaus did in the twenties. I am a fundamental and primal fan of how their creations merged beauty, durability, and ergonomics. On top of producing designs with emotional impact, they stayed true to their motto “to give the most quantity of the best to the majority of people at the lower cost”. Besides, Charles and Ray Eames worked for the US Navy in 1943, when they developed a splint that enabled first aid and the evacuation of soldiers with lower extremities injuries. “Made of laminated wood and modeled through the use of heat, the splint had holes that allow nurses to dress and fix the leg for a better treatment of the injury. It was cheap, light, stackable, easy to use, and so functional that it saved thousands of legs. It is estimated that up to 150.000 units were used between 1943 and the end of WWII '', according to ROOM magazine’s issue of November 2016. I can also elaborate about the Archigram period, during the 60’s and 70’s, when they set out to redefine the city and the world. It was the time when plastic gave a new direction to design (even though today we must reconsider if plastic ought to remain in the future), a discipline that knew how to adapt to a democratic world in which everybody could have access to whatever they wanted. Later on, it would be proven that consumerism could only lead us to the place we stand now, from where design is forced to find its way back.

–Has the bond between design and production changed throughout the XXI century as a result of new technologies and new ways of teaching, living, consuming, and interacting?

–Everything can fit into design: unique pieces and art design, that display freedom, creativity, and experimentation without any specific function rule in exclusive galleries, with exorbitant prices, and assiduous collectors; pieces made for popular fairs that still survive and showcase brands and authors, a model that repeats itself and every time it seems exhausted, rises up again summoning thousands of people; finally, there is also a space, that keeps expanding, for initiatives related to collective, local, and small scale production endeavors, as well as for projects that aim to impact society, almost in a militant attitude, by fostering people’s and environmental development and sustainability, concepts that are directly related to our ways of living, interacting, and understanding the place we inhabit and the purpose of our existence.

New technologies —as we experience daily in our screen-mediated lives— are supports that help, enable, and open great opportunities in different fields, However, as I stated before, technology must be linked to engineering, research, science, anthropology, and sociology in order to provide media and resources, boost processes and experiments, and to be conducive. Sometimes, technology and innovation make no sense unless they are applied in industrial processes that besides making objects or providing useful and functional services, are viable and meaningful.

In the aftermath of this huge, global health crisis, which will have tremendous collateral economic and social effects, we will be forced to reassess what is it that we produce, with what purposes, for whom, and how we do it. How do we encourage such processes, whether they are related to industries, crafts, or communications? Will the field be able to provide answers to this chaos? Will this mean that we will stop producing chairs, tables, and lamps to start making ventilators and hospital beds? And, if we think about the more distant future, will we have to create bacteria-proof materials and surfaces? Will location and temperature taking apps become the most important products? Will textiles necessarily be sustainable and technologically produced? At a time when the world is fighting to stay alive, does fashion become a superfluous thing?

Now that Europe is gradually going out of lockdown, people queue on the streets to access stores like Zara and Primark, even without having the necessity to go out or meet someone. In that sense, the quarantine apparently has not changed much consumption patterns.

I do not like extremes but it is clear that designers can´t just produce based on individual whims. In the present context, the strengths of the profession will depend on an enhanced dialogue between different areas and other, complementary disciplines. It is the ideal moment to heighten design’s position within society, by transforming it into a critical voice that mediates a dialogue among people, institutions, and governments and a fundamental vehicle in the consolidation of new economic systems and social interactions.

The future conception of design will imply a new understanding of how to teach and practice it with the aim of supporting specific segments and systems and moving away from speculations and abstractions. To think about design is, definitely, to think about values.

–How can we boost the potential of this pairing in order to produce innovative solutions that foster improvement in such areas as social inclusion, cultural diversity, gender equality, environmental care, and access to education?

–The current situation has revealed all kinds of gaps. Among countries, among governments, among provinces, and within society. Design’s agenda can’t ignore fundamental axes such as development, sustainability, gender equality, and all types of diversity. On the one hand, they are mandatory goals linked to basic respect for people’s life and wellbeing. On the other, they are closely related to innovation and productive competitiveness. Why not?

In order to emphasize these aims, there must exist a purposeful narrative emanated from power instances, educational areas, and those who shape public opinion. The spirit to explore unknown paths will also be needed to become free from dogmas and have the ability to recognize that projects can be delayed if needed for the sake of using cleaner methods, less damaging to the planet. To accomplish such a feat, designers will have to improve and nurture their relationships with people, with the purpose of understanding their needs and problems.

In the future, design must be a pioneering endeavor that leaves behind excuses and assumes its ability to transform realities. Precisely that is one of the original goals of the Iberoamerican Biennial. We aim to go beyond surprising and fascinating design creations, we strive to expand design products that can provide something more enlightening besides flashing and trendy results. We have always attempted to gather work that is sometimes simple yet eloquent, which manifest potential for change and a certain hope in humanity. We must prove ourselves capable of constant improvement and willing to embrace new perspectives.