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Saltzman: «The fundamental problem is that we still cling to things as they are: conceptions based on interactions enable us to distort the world, reconnect, be astonished, and imagine more freely»

Prestigious designer and professor, Andrea Saltzman is keen on discarding the fragmented conception of the world we currently have to foster transversal solutions originated in spaces of interaction.

Born in Buenos Aires and an architect graduate of the 1983 generation, Andrea Saltzman is a pioneer professor that has contributed to the institutionalization of Garment Design as a discipline in Argentina. In 1989, she inaugurated —alongside Rosa Skific in the University of Buenos Aires— the first Design course, integrated to the Garment and Textile Design program at the UBA, in the country. She was Chair of the program (2009-2014) and she is currently a tenured professor there and a faculty member of the MA in Interactive Design program. She also created and coordinated the Certification in Garment Production linked to the Buenos Aires City Ministry of Education (1998-2001), besides teaching training courses in several Latin American and European institutions.

Her background in architecture and dance has influenced her academic endeavors: the analysis of the interstices between space, movement, and body is a constant feature in the research that has given origin to publications like The Designed Body (Paidós, 2004) and The Skin’s Metaphor (Paidós, 2019). Her work as a professor is known for being experimental, while her contributions to fashion shows and curatorial projects reveals her endless curiosity for everything hybrid and unclassifiable.

Besides holding a PhD in Design from the Polytechnic University of Madrid and being a member of the Scientific Committee of the Ibero-American Design Biennial, she has received several national and international awards and is currently considered one of the top regional experts of the discipline.

She participates in the “Expert Opinion” section of the December issue of the Old&Newsletter sharing her insights on the topic she is specialized in and keen on deconstructing: the interrelationship between body and design.

–Can we rethink or redefine the meaning of design from the standpoint of the body? And redefine the body from design’s perspective? Can either one be separated from the other?

–That subject matter is probably my most relevant contribution to the discipline: to conceive design from the body’s point of view and the interaction they have. Ignoring this is a consequence of a fragmented perspective focused on the product and not on its complexity. The machine metaphor has ruled for a long time along with its segmenting nature and viewpoint from outside the plot. In contrast, my research has always aimed at recovering that direct involvement with the issue. As a matter of fact, my first book, The Designed Body, is written from an integrating perspective: it is not about the design object-clothing item, rather, it is about designing features for the body. In my work The Skin’s Metaphor, I examine in detail that proposal by conceiving design’s place as an “in between” space; as the intermediary between body and world; as a creative and vital place of interaction, similar to a skin.

Our discipline seeks to transform the environment —I mean the action of aggiornar or, in other words, updating garments to match social, cultural, technological, productive, gender-related, and other significations changes— and such adaptations can only originate from the aforementioned interaction spaces. Interesting ways of reconfiguring premises will appear as we continue reflecting about interactions.

Perspectives centered exclusively on the subject-object relationship result in mere industrial, mass production, repetitive processes without significant variations; an emphasis on interactions can break such an established dynamic and open the door to unknown situations. That would happen if, for example, we stopped designing based on conventional body parameters and using traditional dressmaking methods —adapting the body’s three-dimensional nature to two-dimensional textiles—, and started producing both pieces and situations from materials that can adapt to different shapes aided by other disciplines such as biology and physics.

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

–We have always detached mind from body and that is why we tend to disregard the relevance of corporal experiences in the knowledge production process, particularly within academic circles. We could understand any kind of design: industrial, architectonic, and, even more so, garment, by means of the body. It is the support, the force, and the energy that provides meaning to design. Awareness of the balance established between interior and exterior can be achieved simply by exercising breathing techniques, just by inhaling and exhaling.

Many have tried to end with such fragmented notions in the field of garment design, a discipline that shows segmentation from the get go when we conceive it as mere clothing pieces —pants, shirt, sweater, jacket—. It is known that several companies produce based on technical sheets that plainly guide through the development of each item.

One example of this dates back to the early XXth century, when the new role of women in sports provoked a radical transformation in the silhouette of female garments. Despite all fashion books identify Paul Poiré as the great revolutionary that banned corsets, and extraordinary accomplishment that implied the breach of established cultural norms, Mariano Fortuny was even more disruptive, since he not only eliminated corsets but also developed a draping technique for natural silk fabrics that enabled the production of dresses that could adapt to all body types. Actually, he patented his creation and named it the Delphos dress, defining it as a living skin of easy fit due to its movement, a feature that even canceled size issues.

Issey Miyake continued this tradition and has turned in a remarkable explorer, who can design textile sculptures brought alive by body actions that accompany corporal movements by integrating his personal cultural knowledge through the inclusion of flexibility features, designing passages from flat to three-dimensional shapes, or using origami techniques to create garments.

In my point of view, there are many interesting examples. Churba has explored graphic techniques and knows how to handle the iron to infringe many established rules of design creation.

In relation to other fields, I am interested in the work produced by Diana Cabeza, who is an industrial designer keen on creating topographies to own the body, rather than mere benches or chairs. When she conceives something, she takes into account the possibilities encompassed in interaction between bodies and multiple settings.

Thinking about the body is thinking about narratives. It is not only a body that wears and is dressed, it is not simply shape nor anatomy, it is also a body that produces, works, gets nurtured, inhabits, uses and communicates resources.

Designers tend to anticipate cultural changes. The daily environment is so close to us that we give for granted things should be just as they are, however, many current shapes, resources, and techniques make no sense in today’s context. The main problem is that we are still attached to things as they are. If we conceive things from a perspective based on interactions, we can distort the world to make new connections, amaze ourselves, and imagine freely.

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

–Of course, it has changed and it will keep changing because current issues are different from XXth century issues. The extreme situations we experience today demand a reformulation of the ways we inhabit and appropriate things. I think about Friedensreich Hundertwasser, author of the Five Skins theory, who, during the climax of rationalism, claimed that buildings should be able to ingest their own waste and generate cultivation terraces. His ideas made him one of the first ecologists. Today, he is a key reference when discussing sustainable architecture.

In my point of view, the proposals of physicist Fritjof Capra are fundamental. His book The Turning Point (1982) reveals the need to reinterpret our world based on a complex perspective aimed at overcoming dualist conceptions that place us outside nature itself. He encourages us to reflect about the effects of modernity and to understand the intimate relationship that exists between individuals, ecology, and environment.

The predator drive is linked to the fragmented vision, a conception that is absent from native civilizations’ mindset. Facing such a situation, it is urgent to refocus, be aware of design’s role within the complex framework that is the metaphor of the skin.

Singular situations have developed during the quarantine, in part, motivated by the mandatory isolation. A new dialogue was established between customers and private producers through small, online orders unrelated to worthless overproduction. This dynamic has strengthened not only interactions but also the material value of objects that —far from being disposable— even acquire an emotional charge.

Certainly, more radical changes are about to happen. Reinforced by the pandemic context, the omnipresence of the digital network implies the transformation of the idea of the body we deal with daily. It pushes us to rebuild our skin based on new conceptions of body-space-time which are odorless, impalpable, and tasteless.

Technological premises also originate from powerful possibilities linked to 3D composition systems. Free from industrial patterns used for massive reproduction, designers can produce particular pieces for each body. It is almost a return to handcraft dynamics, when dresses were conceived as interaction objects that fulfilled a purpose and were made for specific individuals.

Many innovative representational systems convey complex perspectives, from different angles, that allow us to enter and explore interstices: this also changes the dimension of our own bodies. That was not the case back when I studied architecture. In the fragmented blueprints the observer was generally placed outside the space. Perspective, view, level, cut: all pieces highlighted building qualities instead of immersing the individual who was meant to inhabit and perceive it.

On the other hand, the shapes and materials that have originated from the interweaving with other fields, such as biology, are very interesting. Several Argentinian designers work with fungi and bacteria —kombucha, for example—; others, like the Bondi Group, directly intervene and mold fruits and “cultivate” products: case in point are the fun, popular rooted, and parodic pieces like the pumpkin mate cups with Pope Francis’ face.

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

–For starters, we must stop designing alone. We have to create within a network that connects different knowledge fields. We have limited ways of handling things: we must communicate better and in a different manner, build together and consider everyone.

The shared conflict revealed by the Covid pandemic also speaks of a body, a body-world, a body-nature. Before such evidence, how can we perceive the body as an alien element? We are the air we inhale and exhale all around us; if something makes us sick, we spread it to the environment.

The environmental aspect is one of the biggest challenges we still need to face. For a long time, we have justified and naturalized the boundaries between territories: now we have to start working as a community, connecting different dimensions and traverse them. The body is not the body: it is the body and the space, it is the body and nature, the body is a tapestry. Thinking about that vital interweaving is our true challenge.