The brief for Design Walk 2010 that the 13 graphic design studios received from the London agency double-decker was to “create a piece of work inspired by the contradictions / oppositions with which every designer has to deal”. Fittingly the dichotomies which served both as source of inspiration and as subject matter to be incorporated into the work on exhibition—dualities such as noise vs. silence, interesting vs. boring, or anarchy vs. order—could also be seen in Psyrri itself, the neighborhood in which nearly all these studios are located.
In a way, the neighborhood was even a part of the exhibition. The “walk” of the title is just that: the exhibition, entitled Poles Apart, is held simultaneously at all the 13 studios (each presenting the work of its “own” dichotomy); the neighborhood is the connective tissue in which the studios are embedded and through which numerous small groups of friends and solitary visitors made their way from one studio to the other. I could easily identify them by the magenta-colored exhibition brochure cum map (thoughtfully published in both English and Greek versions) that they clutched under their umbrellas on this cold wet Sunday afternoon. As the day progressed, I found myself running into people I had seen earlier at one studio or another.
The clean, minimalist map of the design walk could have been overlaid over any European city with a concentration of galleries, theaters, cafés and bars in a once (and in some respects, still) neglected city neighborhood. But in contrast to other urban reclamation projects, such as Berlin’s Kreuzberg or Friedrichshain, Psyrri is not particularly blessed with buildings that are architecturally worth salvaging. There are buildings of architectural interest of course—a sprinkling of neo-Classical buildings, some examples of between-the-wars Bauhaus-influenced gems of the 1930s, a number of modernist buildings of the 50s—but they are woefully outnumbered by the squat, low-ceilinged concrete constructions, the buildings that housed the sweatshops and small businesses that were once the economic lifeblood of the area.
I was wondering what dichotomy best suited the neighborhood. Interesting vs. boring came immediately to mind. But also lethargy and vitality (which incidentally was not one of the dualities taken up in Design Walk). These drab and rundown buildings with their half-meter-wide balconies and cheap terrazzo floors are now home to some of the most dynamic creative talent the city has to offer.
The designers had been told to approach their contradiction as “creative fuel, with no restrictions on medium or scale”, something which was immediately evident in the exhibits themselves. The design firm 3 in a Box cast their work in terms of typography, mostly using photography to capture the results of their investigation of the bold and the thin as concepts and font weights, an inquiry which involved experimentation with such things as metal filings and magnets, iced and burning letters, and seed sprouts, to name just a few.
I thought the sprouts were particularly interesting. The design associates began with a piece of sod on which they laid a second carpet of beans through a stencil that let the phrase thin lets others grow by removing the beans emerge unseeded. And then they watered it and kept it warm and watered it. The five-cm carpet of sprouts that eventually grew (and which was on exhibit as well) left only a very faint and in fact illegible trace of the original phrase—the whims of nature defying human intention I suppose, but also confirmation of the designer’s statement that “thin characters leave room for others to express [themselves]. Sometimes [at] their own expense.” Which in my case (as a person who’s, well, let’s not say skinny, say wiry), is fairly apt.
I didn’t expect an iconoclastic design studio like Sereal Designers to actually do anything boring with their dichotomy of boring/interesting, and they didn’t (though the large chessboard with knee-high pieces sporting gas masks was close). The most interesting stuff for me was the designers’ My Boring Interests Collection, a series of postcard tiles which hosted captioned drawings of eccentric pastimes. “Imaging what all these soldiers do in their spare time” anchors a drawing of a soldier clad in combat gear in front of an easel with a painting of a grenade. “Watching movies without subtitles and imaging alternative dialogues,” adorns a drawing of a 1950s couple vaguely reminiscent of Bogart and Bacall, with the man asking “do you love me” and the woman replying, “No, Lucy is my lover now and she gives me multiple orgasms.” Though come to think of it, when I was first learning Greek I often had to improvise my own dialogue when I went to the cinema or theater with friends. This was frustrating of course since, as was often the case in the theater (and in life, I suppose), the play refused to follow my script.
For those who read Greek, there’s an absorbing piece by Sofia Ignatiadou called “Is There Life in Psirri” that has been posted to the Metaxourgeio-Kerameikos blog.
Image: “Bold and Thin”, from 3 in a Box