Part of: 1914 Now

Essay: Engineering the Ornament

by Kaat Debo and Kurt Vanhoutte on 4 November 2014

Curator Kaat Debo and Professor Kurt Vanhoutte consider the contexts of a 3D printed dress within the framework of modernity.

Curator Kaat Debo and Professor Kurt Vanhoutte consider the contexts of a 3D printed dress within the framework of modernity.

London College of Fashion’s invitation to respond from the perspective of fashion to Rem Kolhaas’s brief Absorbing Modernity: 1914 – 2014, offered an ideal opportunity to bring together a multidisciplinary team: a fashion curator (Kaat Debo, ModeMuseum Antwerp), a fashion designer (Alexandra Verschueren), an architect and artist/ 3D-designer (Tobias Klein), a 3D-printing manufacturer (Materialise, under the supervision of Joris Debo), an academic (Prof. Kurt Vanhoutte, University of Antwerp) and a director (Marie Schuller for SHOWstudio). The Fashion Museum houses a collection of 25,000 objects. Together with an historical collection, with modernity as its centre of gravity, since the late 1990s it has focused on contemporary, particularly Belgian fashion. The inherently fast pace of the fashion business leaves little time for historicising. New pieces must be purchased immediately after the show-rooms have closed, meaning that decisions about relevant collection articles must be taken quickly and on the spot. Furthermore, textiles are amongst the most fragile and thus most difficult materials to preserve. Particular to fashion, moreover, is that it is made to be worn by a body, and it is precisely this body that is excluded in the museum context. These three characteristics – fast pace, fragility and materiality – constitute the paradoxes and challenges that a curator of a fashion museum must deal with. Incunabula embodies all of these paradoxes and simultaneously raises them to a higher level.
Whoever visits the MoMu Fashion Museum by train disembarks underneath a platform roof that is nearly seventy metres across and fifty metres high. The steel and glass construction is a showpiece of innovative architecture from the late nineteenth century. On the way to the Antwerp Station central concourse, the visitor then passes by an enormous clock, the pre-eminent symbol of the accelerated pace of modern life. But the dial is enshrined in excessive ornaments from a much earlier time, in stone and gold leaf. The central concourse furthermore turns out to be a gigantic dome modelled on the Roman Pantheon. Antwerpians call their station the ‘railway cathedral’. This curious contradiction of new and old typifies modernity. In effect, the will to progress, technological innovation and rationality come into conflict with the desire for escapism, intoxication and ornament. Walter Benjamin, chronicler of modernity, recognised in this the quintessence of his era. He termed it ‘dialectics at a standstill’: the tension of an era that, under pressure from new technologies, does not arrive at a new synthesis and thus remains suspended in midair. In the early nineteenth century, innovation first and foremost harked back to tradition. ‘These architects design supports resembling Pompeian columns, and factories that imitate residential houses, just as later the first railroad stations will be modelled on chalets’, states Benjamin in Paris, the Capital of the Nineteenth Century (1935) (1). The avant-garde would counter this contradiction with radical manifestos. They turned the contradiction into their battleground, by pushing the extremes further apart, or at least by making each other ignite and burn. Functionalism would make art serve the purposefulness of the design. But here as well, there was no mediation of the extremes. 

According to Rem Koolhaas, modernisation is still our strongest drug. Ever since Delirious New York: A Retroactive Manifesto for Manhattan (1978), he has analysed the dynamic of modernity that continues unabated. He does so, at once with passion, then with provocation. ‘The city is no longer, we can leave the theatre now …’ he concludes in S, M, L, XL (2). Life in ‘the generic city’ is like life at an airport. We inhabit a transit zone, an abstraction removed from time, and with our only function being always to consume the same products. With Absorbing Modernity: 1914 – 2014, Koolhaas has organised a genealogy of this condition for the Biennale. ‘We didn’t necessarily mean “absorbing” as a happy thing,’ he clarifies in an interview with The Guardian, ‘it is more like the way a boxer absorbs a blow from his enemy’ (3). The exhibition shows how each country absorbs and processes this attack. In the central pavilion, Koolhaas himself reduces the many contradictions to a single pointed statement. His Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) has a clearly visible false ceiling, mounted underneath the decorative Venetian dome of yore. The cool neon and the industrial superstructure of tubes and pipes form an unsettling contrast with the iconic baroque decorations and symbolic scenes above them. The intervention is programmatic because it makes the fundamental conflict, which is the motor of modernity, intrusively visible. The result is simultaneously provocative and melancholic.

Koolhaas’s intervention resolutely visualises the contradiction between art and engineering. The project by Tobias Klein and Alexandra Verschueren is consistent with this intention. It is no coincidence that their creation straddles the boundary between architecture and fashion. Both disciplines reached maturity in the nineteenth century, to the rhythm of capitalist expansion. Industrial production and new technology and merchandising regimes first enabled fashion as a product. From the very start, the cultural elite waged its battle concerning the definition of the urbane in the architectural arena. Furthermore, fashion, as well as architecture, was torn between pragmatism and aesthetics, practical demands and artistic choices. Against the background of that debate, the hybrid design by Verschueren and Klein once again poses the question about the relationship between art and technology. Their combination of revolutionary 3D-printing techniques using living crystals materialises the poetics of modernity. At the same time, their creation is an index for the contemporary manifestation of the modern. Silhouette, choice of material and production not only constitute an intellectual allegory, a work that makes one think, but the dress is above all a living organism with its own afterlife. It sets time in motion.

At first glance, the silhouette is distinctively modernist. The avant-garde liberated women from the straitjackets of hoop skirt and corset, by no longer pinching the middle in order to emphasise the bust and hips. The new, modern silhouette places greater emphasis on the shoulders as a structuring element and prefers a rather formless silhouette, which offers the female body unprecedented freedom of movement. This change was in line with the functionalist pursuit of simplicity and abstraction. But at the same time, people also became inspired by the exotic Orient. For instance, near the turn of the twentieth century, Paul Poiret found in the Japanese kimono the model for his evening dresses. Accordingly, Eastern techniques were also an important source of inspiration for Alexandra Verschueren. A year after graduating from the Royal Academy of Fine Arts, she won the top prize at the International Festival for Fashion and Photography, in Hyères, with a collection that originated in origami and the technique of folding. Layering continued to be a central technique in her subsequent collections. She intensively searched for a balance between innovative technologies and traditional crafts, with her objective being a line that made use of folded, wearable and washable textiles that keep their shape. She collaborated with a Japanese pleating company that created handmade paper moulds for steam ovens, in order to produce the desired shapes in thin polyester. The collaboration resulted in Shift, a collection that, in her own words, expressed ‘the constant shifting and changing from one thing into another, sometimes resulting in an overlap and ultimately in transformation’. Even though the pleats looked high-tech, they were still the result of a very artisanal and manual process. Verschueren wanted to transform the idea of a flower, something very organic, into an abstract and geometric pattern. Given her fascination with the interaction between nature and artifice, it should not be surprising that the designer eventually found her way to 3D-printing techniques. It is here that the collaboration with Hong Kong- and London-based architect, artist and 3D-designer Tobias Klein, and Materialise, a pioneering 3D-printing company based in Leuven, Belgium, began. 

At the time of writing, in China, the first homes made of cement and waste are being rolled out of a gigantic printer, at a pace of ten per day. Stated otherwise, 3D printing is for the twenty-first century what steel and glass were for modernity.

3D-printing technology originated nearly 30 years ago and was initially used for prototyping purposes. The technology was also used systematically for industrial and medical applications. Starting in the early 2000s, the technology made inroads into art, design and architecture; in the latter field, it was first used mainly for creating models and 3D visualisations. Consumer applications are very recent and are still in the development phase. In recent years, the technology has shifted from prototyping to additive manufacturing, in which the focus is on building up materials layer by layer, and the emphasis is on the most efficient possible use of raw materials. Whereas 30 years ago it was only possible to print in epoxy resin, today the most diverse materials, such as ceramics, glass and metals, are eligible for 3D printing. In the fashion world, the technology was a hit with the collection of digitally printed clothes by Dutch fashion designer Iris Van Herpen and London architect Daniel Widrig. Whereas the first applications were mainly conceptual, the use of materials such as highly flexible polyurethane makes more recent creations much more wearable. It quickly became clear that the process would recalibrate the relationship between art and engineering. 3D printing has developed into the prototypical technology of the future. The technique promises unbridled creativity and, even more, a new democratisation of the artistic process. The products, which initially ranged from jewellery to tech accessories, can be personalised with choices of material, style, colour, text and images. At the time of writing, in China, the first homes made of cement and waste are being rolled out of a gigantic printer, at a pace of ten per day. Stated otherwise, 3D printing is for the twenty-first century what steel and glass were for modernity.

In the nineteenth century, steel and glass held out the prospect of a utopia of transparency, sustainability and bearing-capacity. In reality, however, the new materials brought about a deep schism in the nature of art. At that time, the emancipation of the artist did not happen. In his Arcades Project, Benjamin noted that the artist was too heavily addicted to pre-modern gold fever in the pursuit of eternal values in art. Still, at the beginning of the twentieth century, a movement such as Art Nouveau resisted progress by forging steel into floral ornaments and vegetal symbols. The new was reduced, as it were, to eternal nature. In spite of this, a radical formalism developed an aversion to ornament. People wanted to put an end to tradition, by placing art in the service of social purpose. The social housing projects of the later Bauhaus or Das Neue Frankfurt appeared convinced that techniques developed under capitalism were not contradictory to the reasonableness that they had in mind: a social system based on equality and homogeneity. Ornament versus engineering – Benjamin already seemed to see both extremes as inadequate ways of dealing with the new. Whereas Art Nouveau lingered in the past, the ‘technical absolutism that is fundamental to iron construction’ (4) all too quickly committed a character assassination on art. Benjamin pointed out that the schism had already institutionalised itself at the start of the eighteenth century in the conflict between L’École des Beaux-Arts and L’École Polytechnique. The latter educated engineers for the construction of military and industrial complexes; the former resolutely refused any form of functionalism in favour of subjective aesthetic intuition. That which went together seamlessly in the Baroque split up, and the architect ended up in a dilemma between art and engineering.

This tense relationship constitutes an explicit reference in the work of Studio Tobias Klein. An earlier work, Immersive Ornament, is a direct response to the influential manifesto by Viennese architect and functionalist Adolf Loos. His Ornament and Crime from 1913 was a crystal clear plea for the eradication of the ornamental. The elimination of all things decorative would purify aesthetics of its ‘immorality’ (Loos) and save art from its own decline by extracting it from the history of ever-changing styles. Tobias Klein put this universalistic claim into perspective by creating a self-referential, three-dimensional folded space that mimics lush ornaments from Alhambra in photo-etched brass, with no function and, in a certain sense, incomplete because it has no context. He operationalised the ornament in the context of new technologies. It is a fine example of how Studio Tobias Klein achieves a repositioning of the understanding of modern relationships in what he calls ‘the field of narrated embodied space’. This approach reached a new pinnacle in his work with living crystals. In Still Life, Klein created a contemporary vanitas scene by filling a 3D-scanned capture of a floral bouquet with live, grown crystals, decaying over a period of 16 days. Probably not coincidentally, with this he continued a genre from before the great divide, namely, vanitas, an allegorical work of art from the Baroque period. The promise of functionalist technology finds its counterpoint in a timeless image of withering nature. A comparable logic is intrinsic to the dress by Verschueren and Klein.

Alexandra Verschueren starts her fashion design with the use of lace. Lace is traditionally considered as a symbol of the rich and delicate, seductive feminine. But first, in the course of the nineteenth century, it would undergo a crucial transformation from a manufacturing to a textile product. Along the way, it obtained all the contradictory characteristics of modernity. Verschueren was particularly inspired by the practice of Irish lace (Irish crochet lace) – a variety that applies extremely detailed floral motifs using one needle. They seem to grow on top of the fabric. This craft is known because of its social dimension: during the famine of 1840, it appeared to be the best way for women to support their families at home. But even more notorious are the analyses by Karl Marx, who found in the emerging lace industry his first case of boundless exploitation of the working class. The changing relationship between the artist/designer and craftsman/maker is part of this analysis. In 1884, Brenan and Cole, in the Catalogue of Antique Laces at the Cork School of Art, emphasised the strict separation between designer and producer. An intimate dialogue between them is necessary, but then specifically from a clearly delineated profile: ‘The two skills are by no means coincidental and “lace-makers are not as a body specially fitted to be trained into designers of ornament any more than bricklayers are peculiarly destined to become architects”.’(5) The outbreak of the First World War placed great pressure on the lace market. This, and the subsequent war, further provided an impetus for the production of new techniques and machines. In other words, 1914 marked the end of one development and the beginning of a new era. Since then, the dichotomy between ornament and functionality establishes the guiding standard. The multidisciplinary approach of Incunabula observes this standard. 

In the design of Verschueren and Klein, the lace-like pattern serves as a breeding ground for the crystals that are placed on the 3D silhouette and which reinforce the effect of the Irish lace. When fluid is removed during the course of the working process, the crystal growth stops, and the dress retains this lace-like texture. The longest crystal work preserved is said to be three years old. However, the creation will not stay like this forever. The material will eventually deteriorate. In 2014, the recording of the installation by Marie Schuller adds yet another layer to this multiplicity. The film technology preserves the aura of the work, but in doing so is obliged to bring it to a temporal standstill. Living crystal is an ephemeral medium. The filmed hybrid dress of printed high-tech and living crystal, engineering and ornament, again sets modern time in motion. The duration is not a function of the installation, but is inherent to the design. It will remain an amalgamation of eternally smooth and timely decay, mediating the categorical distinctions of modernity.



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