From Objects to Interiors and Buildings
(and vice versa)
“What is an assemblage? It is a multiplicity, which is made up of many heterogeneous terms and which establishes liasions, relations between them, across ages, sexes and reigns—different natures. Thus, the assemblage’s only unity is that of co-functioning: it is symbiosis, ‘sympathy’. It is never filiations which are important, but alliances, alloys; these are not successions, lines or descent, but contagions, epidemics, the wind.”
Gilles Deleuze and Parnet, Dialogues II, 1977, p.69
“An assemblage is precisely this increase in the dimensions of a multiplicity that necessarily changes in nature as it expands its connections.”
Gilles Deleuze, Thousand Plateaus, p.8
ASSEMBLY. If we were to describe the essence of modernism in a single word, the act of assembling might give the most pertinent definition for an ongoing experiment of social and cultural practice. Throughout the history of modern architecture, product design, and modern art, the making of spaces for living, gathering and display has always related to modes of assembling forms for the creation of specific objects and environments. The assembly line of the modern factory enabled the reproduction of goods in massive quantities. One of its most profound results was the establishment of a new aesthetic regime based on the repetitive exhaustion of form. Mass production changed our perception, transforming the appearance of everyday life. As the reproduction of components, materials and textures became increasingly shaped by processes of industrialization, singular crafted objects became obsolete. The shaping of form gradually loses (‘lost’, in past tense) its decorative connotation in favor of a more rationalized and abstract conception. The lesson that was taken by the early avant-garde from the emergence of industrial production can be summarized with the question of how to reassemble objects and spaces if we loose the notion of representation and just show how things are. As object form became stripped of its symbolic meaning, its constitutive grammar—that which unites singular parts into a whole—suddenly became the focal point of artistic production. The art of assemblage emerged and countered a fixed understanding of spatial composition. As cultural response to the changing conditions of production, it gave rise to a performative space for multiple relations between objects and bodies. Here it can be of interest to take a look at the double meaning of ‘assembly’, as it refers to both the fabrication of things, as well as the congregation of members of a group—a place where people can meet and discuss common interests. While the first interpretation delineates ‘how to come to form’, the second points to the matter of ‘what formation is about’. How can we assemble a given number of elements in order to create a spatial arrangement composed of singular entities that talk (speak?) to each other? What constitutes an ensemble where the components are perceived as integral and indispensable parts of a whole? By merging object forms into a continuous spatial set-up, assemblages oscillate between questions of ‘how’ and ‘what’ and fuse the dimensions of materiality, function and scale.
FORMATION. When the early avant-garde of modernist furniture design introduced the notion of spatial assemblage, it wasn’t assumed that the new spirit would enter the lounges, lobbies and assembly rooms of the bourgeois society. In an exhibition on French decorative art that took place in Amsterdam in 1922, Eileen Gray’s famous lacquer paravent–which was displayed together with a lacquer mirror and a first version of the Transat chair–passed the general crowd unnoticed. Among the ‘monstrosities’ of decorative furniture design, the sparse language of the spatial arrangement didn’t manage to convince the audience of the sophistication of modernist design.1 Resisting being categorized under the term ‘decorative art’, an advocate of modern furniture design stated that a piece of furniture “placed in an ensemble is counting at the same time less and more than imagined […] its effect doesn’t rely on the place it occupies, but rather on its relationship with the volume of the vessel that it contains.” By considering an ensemble as a “group of objects that contribute to a unified effect”, the furniture pieces subvert subordination to architectural space—architecture ceases to reign over the objects and becomes in turn subjected to the overall spatial effect.2 Indeed, Eileen Gray’s lacquer screen gives the perfect example of the ambiguity between form and space. Composed of elementary wooden pieces with lacquer finish, its parts are assembled in a repetitive pattern in order to form a spatial division—one which might be better described with the German term ‘Raumteiler’. Space is subdivided in smaller and more intimate units, and at the same time, a device is installed that makes one aware of shared interiors. Other objects and people become dynamic aspects of the space. Serving as architecture rather than a singular object, the lacquer screen acts like a kaleidoscope, multiplying the space and providing rooms for diverse atmospheres and outfittings. Ceasing to be a singular, freestanding element, the piece reveals that form is always part of an overall formation. From here we can follow a whole range of creations that replaced the category of decorative art with the design of interiors—spatial assemblages that were needed (necessary) to fill abstract modernist space with ambiance, intimacy and comfort.
DISPOSITION. Modernist architecture has always been confronted with this very specific dilemma—as soon as we conceive space as a boundless continuum where objects and people float freely, additional devices that provide privacy and protection are needed. The relationship between modern architecture and interior design becomes ever more clearly articulated when architects equip their creations with custom-made design. How would we be able to understand Mies van der Rohe’s architecture without the ‘Freischwinger’, his iconic tubular cantilever chair? Would Mies be able to achieve the high level of sophistication his architecture stands testament to without swaying the use of the interior to precisely define how social life is takes place? By meticulously arranging furniture and freestanding partitions, his architectures are (architecture is) turned into spatial collages in which the distinction between space and object is blurred. Seen from this point of view, the history of modern architecture can be revisited as an alteration of configurations between buildings and interiors equipped by object forms. While architectures and objects mutually condition the lifestyle of its users (and eventually also their behaviors), reconfiguring space ultimately impacts its performance. The intricate relationship between spatial and social design can be conceived in its most radical manifestation as ‘Gesamtkunstwerk’, where design affects every single aspect of life. How far should the pervasion of overall control on the living environment be pushed? Unlike the totalitarian ambitions of the purist modernist architects, Josef Frank pursued an alternative path by mitigating hard-edged modernism with respect to diverse necessities and tastes. In stark contrast to rigid set-ups, his designs are like assemblages that allocate more loosely distinct parts in space. In his work, interiors are rendered as substructures enabling free disposition. Though despised by his more prominent colleagues who accused him of being too inconsistent, some regarded him as the founder of modern Swedish furniture design following his move to Stockholm in the 1930s.3 Could we retrospectively argue that modern design was more persistent when conceived as a relationship between objects and spaces that do not pretend to construct a coherent whole? Wouldn’t it be more appropriate to revise modernism in terms of practice for the creation of spatial experiences where singular forms are assembled into a revolving ensemble around all diverse characters at stake? In any case, if we consider assemblages as installations enabling disposition, architecture and furniture design equally lose their object quality to the function of multi-scalar interaction. The distinction between architects who design objects and object designers who conceive architectures then loosens its epistemic grip. The more in-depth knowledge we have about the way things are assembled, the greater our amplitude will be in fine-tuning the relationship between parts and the whole. Vice versa, if objects are projected like architectures their performance increases with their capacity to absorb more external factors. The moment furnishings are designed architecturally, they themselves act as assemblages. As frameworks for spatial dispositions, they conduct balance – holding other objects and artifacts in place.
PERFORMANCE. Minimal and performance art bring us even closer to the constitutive language and grammar of assembling. Stripped of its representational function and made bare, the minimal art object reveals the conceptual logic and exposes how materials come together. When Sol LeWitt declares, “I wasn’t really that interested in objects, I was interested in ideas” he underlines the fact that minimal art is about pushing abstraction to its logical conclusion.4 Instead of fetishizing the object character, the art installation explicates the ordering of assembly. Singular form, and its occasional repetition, is exposed to demonstrate the basic qualities of the spatial arrangement. What is more, concentration on how things are constituted brings us ultimately closer to disclosing what they are. The interplay between minimal and concept art addresses relations and at the same time it sensitizes the experience of materiality and texture. While phenomenology replaces representation, the work only refers to itself. The art piece is about what we see—its function is to render visible tactile qualities, fabrication, color and light. When we look at Dan Flavin’s ‚Tatlin Monument‘ contemplation on an arrangement of industrial products is triggered. But we also perceive the transformative quality of lighting that affects the space as a whole. So what exactly is the message of minimal art if the object escapes its own limitations? How can it be considered in an environment that fuses materiality and space? By reassembling existing elements and materials in unforeseen contexts and constellations, a new language out of ordinary things is developed. A reality is uncovered, one which only seemingly appears familiar to us. Similar in vein, since the 1960s the avant-garde of performance art has investigated what can happen when theater and dance use the stage to reflect what reality can offer. As choreography shifted focus towards the raw material of its characters another reading of movement, another kind of spatial narrative was introduced. Similar to conceptual and minimal art, the stage-space was considered as scenery where set design, objects, and performers create atmospheres that are continuously subject to transformation. When conceived as a spatial arrangement that is deployed over time, an assemblage is about more than just a certain composition of objects in space; what is assembled then is a series of relationships forming an open system of analogies, distinctions, connotations, connections and associations that reach out far beyond what is presented on stage. If the assemblage becomes an occurrence, then it acts like an instrument that should be versatile enough to assemble almost any kind of imagination and project within a given space: sound, lighting, object design, architecture, movement, or narrative construction. Or, if we convey this in the words of Robert Wilson, who probably more than any other artist stands for the intersection between performing arts, scenography, visual arts, object design and architecture: “The first thing you must know as an actor or director is the space you will inhabit. See the architecture; imagine where things can happen in space.“
ESTRANGEMENT. The object is installed right on the doorstep almost blocking the entrance of the exhibition space. “The Interior I Like” installation by Gonzales Haase AAS and part of the show “How Soon Is Now”, a two-story metal structure measuring 4x3x5m, acts like a kind of antichambre, like a counter-model to the transparency of the modernist lobby. Instead of providing open continuity this chamber cannot be accessed by the visitor. Its walls are penetrable by only a ventilation system only, blowing air inside. What could be identified as an ordinary technical installation, one that is common to functional spaces and service buildings, speaks the language of industrial production. Erected from steel studs for dry gypsum walls–a typical material often used for the construction of partition walls–the installation represents the commonly camouflaged reality of technical supply. At the same time there is an effect of estrangement caused by the ambiguous combination between arbitrariness and the subversion of technical equipment. Surprisingly, the long profiles of the metal framework reveal a quality that is overseen when merely taken for its ordinary function. The repetitive array of elements forms a shiny surface that reflects the gallery light in many different nuances – depending on the position of the observer. While searching for the entry point to the closed space, the viewer might also pay particular attention to the details of the arrangement—the way the metal sheet folds in order to create a ribbed and perforated surface transforming industrial harshness into artistic expression. Whether we like this kind of interior or not can remain unanswered as it only can be envisioned through our imagination. The installation tells the story of a closed interior that, from the outside, looks like architecture. Yet at the same time it appears as an object when viewed from the inside, an installation in the gallery space. Whether we read it as a minimal art piece or an architectural model, its qualities unfold as soon as it starts to perform in space. Here, the assemblage consists of ordinary materials that are mounted to a level of sophistication namely because of the concise way it has been put together. The act of assembling is not only subject to the production process, it is also a determinant factor for the visual expression of design. The cumulative work of Gonzalez Haase AAS reflects a steady theme of assemblage, whether it’s the treatment of ordinary chipboard, the repetitive array of elements forming a shelf-system, the details of the glass paravent (inspired by Miguel Berrocals work ‘der Korpus’) or the overall arrangement of objects in the gallery space that we look towards. In each case, the designed object sheds its character as a mere object when assembled in relation to light and space. The design atmospheres blur distinctions, infusing space and form with specific qualities of light. Pure object characteristics escape as the common scales of furnishings are exceeded. Pieces represent conception beyond their mere function, producing estrangement. The designs of Gonzalez Haase AAS are investigations of various modes of assembling. They form assemblages between building, interior and objects, challenging not only convention, but also the viewer’s own imagination.
Text By Rainer Hehl
Contribution to the Exhibition ASSEMBLING by Gonzales Haase AAS
1 Jan Wils, one of the first collaborators of the magazine De Stijl expressed in a letter to Eileen Gray from 9th December how shocked he was when seeing Gray’s pieces “getting totally lost in between these monstrosities” (AAD/1980/9).
2 Guillaume Janneau, „Introduction à l’exposition des arts décoratifs“, p.136
3 Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier called Josef Frank’s design of a fully furnished semi-detached house as ‘Bordello Frank’.
4 Sol LeWitt, Critical Texts, ed. Adachiara Zevi (Rome: Editrice Inonia, 1994), p.123
5 Arthur Holmberg, The Theater of Robert Wilson (Cambridge University Press, 1996), p.201