Horizons of Interdisciplinarity

authors emiliana design studio
written by Sonja Leboš

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In the continuous flow of reciprocity between a person and a structure, structures empower our bodies, just as it is vice versa. [...] The structures are some sort of prosthesis of our minds.[1]


The space between the people and the things is almost as important as the space between the people-among-themselves. The things condition the relations among the people far more than the people are willing to admit. I am not talking here only about the Freudian-Marxist thesis of the fetishization, though it is essential, but about the agency of artifacts in a way in which Bruno Latour, for example, speaks of it. Among other things, it is about the interpretation of the properties of inanimate objects in order to understand them as actors. Latour, just like Molotch, reflects on the persistent reciprocity of the material and the social. In this sense, the design is some sort of prototyping of social relations, and the network of interactions between people, respectively.


The interpretation of the design is equally a personal and a social process. A review of the Catalan design is impossible without reflecting on a broader picture. Barcelona, after all, is one of the most creative cities in the world—a history of this city is also a history of the artifacts that were manufactured, used, and exported, as well as imported and adapted for their use in some specific local context. These artifacts determined social hierarchies, gender relations, the rites of conception and birth, of death; they co-created the systems of values and valid standards. While handling things or using objects very specific cultural information about a particular segment of the human activity was evoked.


It is not difficult to imagine how, in that specific environment, the classical mannerist idea of disegno, consistent with the notion of concept, played an important role. It is precisely in the cities like Barcelona, from where literally, for example, at the time of Charles V, along with other Habsburg cities, of course, the huge imperial empire was managed that stretched from the Philippines on one side to the Sava River basin (which at the time represented the boundary with the Ottoman Empire) on the other, that different systems of relationships between things and people determined the civilization parameters of the organization of urban life. These are also valid in contemporary Spain: from sitting on the throne, the import of cheap labor force, to the export of products throughout the world. Materiality and sociability, rhythmically systematized, determine the character of the place which is today treated like a (tourist) product. Decisions made by those who rule are implanted in the physical apparatus which consists of people and things. Latour’s Parliament of Things’(2001) suggests that political technologies of materiality systematize social and political life. Being the capital and the center of the region, Barcelona is an explanatory example: from the period of mannerism and close ties with Italy, from being the center of global imperialism, from the rational systematization of modern urbanity through the global example of urban planning, as modeled by Ildefons Cerdà, to Gaudí’s eccentric, mystical structures to, finally, present-day eu megacity. But Barcelona is also a city of The Short Summer of Anarchy, a permanently inspiring model of the horizontal organization of human work and activities, of life in general, a monumental reference point for the opportunity of a classless society.


No wonder then that from a city like this, even today, come the world-renowned impulses for the shaping of objects, social interactions and systems, critical and responsive design.


Catalan designers, such as Òscar Tusquets Blanca, who promoted new trends in the 1970s, and have remained on the world stage to this day, introduced playfulness to industrial design in the 1980s. Politicians enabled a great impetus for the transformation of the city during the 1992 Olympic Games.


In the new millennium, Catalan design again turned toward minimalism and, as is the case with the main protagonists of this review, the Emiliana designer duo comprising Emili Padrós and Ana Mir, toward more experimental and interdisciplinary perspectives.


The social awareness of the designers as the creators of social interaction, where the Emiliana duo played a leading role, at the same time focusing on the overall context which the role implied, is perhaps best reflected in projects such as the one titled, Terapias Urbanas Menos de 40, which was started by Architects’ Association of Catalonia, the renowned coac, in 2003. A series of shaped objects, but also installations and services, was aimed at encouraging discussion and generating debate among designers under the age of 40, public institutions, and the general public, but also at examining the existing models of objects not only physically, but also culturally embedded in urban space.


By playfully modulating the urban space, which they achieved by illuminating the Christmas festivities in 2014, a work titled sons, Emiliana has shown the spirit which has permeated Barcelona ever since the era of Mannerism, the spirit conceived in the interaction between conceptual thinking and aesthetic act. By using onomatopoetic means, they achieved an extraordinary effect of a festive Barcelona in its public spaces—exciting, playful, as well as human: the people munching and toasting on every corner of Barcelona. Emiliana thus acts in the best Catalan tradition, in its roots, because in the self-inventiveness of this tradition lies its greatest strength—it does not just snore complacently on the laurels of long bygone times, but actively shapes its reality. Yet, by definition, design involves examining alternatives and a somewhat Marcusean subversive plan for the future.


But even everyday intimate routine does not have to be ordinary. A product from 2002, named The Flying Carpet, clearly indicates fairy-tale possibilities of transforming everyday objects: a carpet is at the same time a sofa, a piece of room lawn that evokes The Luncheon on the Grass, and a potential yoga mat—all in one object. Of course, The Flying Carpet is now part of the permanent collection of Barcelona’s Museum of Decorative Arts.


The history of the city of Barcelona is also the history of the most diverse forms of cohabitation, procreation and human contacts, prostitution being among the oldest paradigms of urban relations in general. A door to the real world is too seldom opened, so that the product called Hot Urban Service, dating from 2003, presents a pleasant change. A transparent volume emits heat and light, providing male and female sex workers with immediate relief and comfort in the context of certainly the hardest possible working environment, a street in the megacity. This is an object that, as highlighted by Latour (2007), stratifies the character of the social. Therefore it is an excellent design, because it changes this character, making it more humane, more solidary, more sensitive.


And finally, about the currently most important resource on the planet—water. In 2014, within the framework of the We Are Water Foundation, and in collaboration with the unicef, Emiliana proposed the adaptation of the Tippy Tap System in the schools of Zagora, a very dry area of Morocco. It is a mediation of the process that relies on the local Berber culture, its hygiene customs, logistics trajectories, and environmental aspects, where the facilities used are produced of clay that is immediately available.


The Emiliana designer duo proves that to think and act interdisciplinary means to responsibly take the most diverse social roles—from curator to mediator, from playful screenwriter to social diagnostician, from field researcher to artist and scientist. To put it simply, Emiliana knows that interdisciplinarity is a quality immanent to the design profession.

[1] Harvey Molotch (2011), p. 102