Ghosts and Other Functionalities

Disegno #10 (2016)

Image by Albrecht Fuchs.

Corps Subtils. Elevator pitch (version one)
“Hello Constance. I’m working on talking to the spirits.”

How to sum up Corps Subtils? It’s an exhibition of tools for talking to the dead; a display of modern-arcane devices created by Felipe Ribon, a Franco-Colombian designer who is leading the discipline into a realm of Ouija, seance and ectoplasm. Commissioned by Constance Rubini, director of Bordeaux’s Musée des Arts Décoratifs et du Design (MADD), the project is a meditation on death and the hereafter, watched over by the level gaze of the iridescent evil eye. It’s Corps Subtils! A necropolitan plunge into objects adrift in the afterlife! Or that’s one interpretation.

“What’s going on after death? Is it life? Can you communicate?” asks Ribon. “Design is the most accurate discipline for asking how objects can help us create a link between worlds.” Let’s begin at the beginning: Corps Subtils is about the nature of objects.

Fittingly, MADD is something of a haunted house. It’s based in l'hôtel de Lalande, an 18th-century, central Bordeaux mansion with white stone walls, arched arcades, and peaked roofs à la française, set around a crescent-moon courtyard. The original owners met with untimely ends. Chevalier Pierre de Raymond de Lalande, its first resident, died a few years after the house’s 1779 construction and his son Jean was guillotined during the Terror. After 1880 it became the headquarters for the police, with a prison added later. The mansion, reformed as an arts museum in 1955, is now a depository for objects connected to the deposed House of Bourbon; a paper encrusted with the blood of Louis XVI, dripped from the guillotine, is among the showpieces. “It would have been quite different,” Ribon ponders, “to have held the exhibition in a white-cube gallery.”

Corps Subtils’ nominal subject is spiritism, a 19th-century doctrine devised by Hypolite Léon Denizard Rivail, pen name Allan Kardec, that claimed to study incursions of spirits into the physical world. It’s a hokum theory, but one that Ribon and Rubini insist profitably engages with contemporary design. “When I look at the field of young designers, I think Felipe is one of the most interesting,” says Rubini from her office at the top of the museum. “He’s actually bringing the subject somewhere. Of course I said yes to spiritism.” So why aren’t more young designers trying to speak to the dead? “Because people are frightened,” says Rubini, grinning.

Frightened? Of what? Ribon doesn’t seem frightened; in fact, he doesn’t even believe in ghosts: “Either you believe or you don’t,” he says. “But that’s not really the point.”

A graduate of Paris’s ENSCI design school, Ribon is a longterm protégé and collaborator of the Bouroullec brothers, for whom he oversaw all exhibition design between 2008 and 2012, and with whom he continues to work on a freelance basis. He’s also a multiple prizewinner. Ribon won the 2012 Audi Talent Award, the Grand prix du public at Design Parade 4, and Fondation Bettencourt’s prix pour l’intelligence de la main. So why play around with spiritism? And, to add to the charge sheet, Ribon isn’t simply playing: his devices actually work. At least, they do after a fashion.

Ribon’s Ghostbusters detectors are nested constructions of glass Ouija tumblers that ping and trill in response to atmospheric changes, while his Per-mutation mirrors use Narima glass to create stereoscopic reflections. “If the spirit appears as a manifestation of light, these mirrors will open your senses,” says Ribon. “They help you see the manifestation.” As we tour MADD, its rooms preserved in the fashion of its 18th-century owners, the mystery deepens. Ghostbusters hang above the sumptuous silk beds and peep from the drawers of bureaus; seance tables are set out, waiting for resonances of electric spectral communication; automatic writers are poised on the credenzas, pert and quivering. For a man who doesn’t believe in ghosts, Ribon does a good line in suggesting he wants to catch one.

But post-tour in the courtyard, he’s in the mood to demystify. “There are some levels in the exhibition that I didn’t explain well,” he says. “I never said it before, but this project is really about function. Talking with the dead? I mean, come on.”

Corps Subtils. Elevator pitch (version two)
“It’s about a non-functional function that we don’t know if it’s functioning.”

When I next see Ribon it’s at his home near the Bastille, a Parisian apartment-cum-studio above a lighting showroom. It’s small, neat and very white, with a daybed for a bed and no sign of curtains or other concessions to homeliness. “I’m all about emptiness and whiteness,” he says, busily preparing biscuits and coffee (it may not be homely, but Ribon is faultlessly hospitable). “I can’t live with things, so I’m always cleaning and taking things out. Some of the objects here I put in just for today.”

Which is surprising, because Ribon is fascinated by objects in use. His graduation project from ENSCI was Another Bathroom (2008), a plan to recalibrate porcelain basins and baths as metal frames, around which nano-technic fabrics could be stretched to form waterproof, bacteria-free receptacles. His most recent creation is Osmos, a silver perfume diffuser hammered into a shape so complex as to be impossible to helpfully describe. (It’s a super-ellipsoid that undergoes a 90° lateral twist about its central point. This, admittedly, does not paint a picture.) In between came S.OS – a proposal to create products using cow bones from slaughterhouses – and Mind the Gap, a series of objects to facilitate hypnosis. A seriousness of intent unites these projects. “Creating an object is always about making a statement,” he says. “But a lot of statements are empty. I’m nervous about saying this, but much of what is produced by the design world is empty. I don’t necessarily know what it’s empty of; it just feels empty.”

What Ribon may be getting at is a response to Louis Sullivan’s 1896 dictum “form ever follows function”, a proto-modernist slogan memorably described by Paola Antonelli of MoMA as being “responsible for a great deal of soulless and lobotomised design”. Sullivan’s idea was that style ought to reflect purpose – which proved productive for much of the 20th century – but it’s a vision of design that is now under threat from the functional complexity of contemporary objects. What does form follows function mean in the case of technologies where use is defined by digital interfaces rather than physical appearance? And what would it mean, in any deep sense, for the form of an iPhone to follow function when the entire point of an iPhone is that it clusters functions to create a pool of customisable uses? As The New York Times critic Alice Rawsthorn noted of an iPod Shuffle, “How could you be expected to guess what that tiny metal box does by looking at it?”

Ribon is not designing at the digital interface, but he also has reservations about Sullivan’s functionalism, albeit of a different kind. Whereas Rawsthorn spoke of a recent “dislocation of form and function”, Ribon’s practice is predicated on the idea that form and function were never particularly located in the first place, especially if function is conceived of as a specific, well-defined use for which a product is designed. “To create meaningful objects is the goal of every designer,” he says. “But many modern objects are moot, partly because the industrial process tries and tends to drain them of the details and layers of meaning that were so important in the 18th, 19th and early-20th centuries.” He draws my attention to a photograph of Æther, a pyramid box created for Corps Subtils that opens to reveal an inlay of intricate walnut marquetry, a design feature with no purpose other than to be delightful. “Objects should be like this,” he says. “Always a nice detail or surprise to make it lovable.”

Æther is a neat demonstration of a wider phenomenon. Away from the world of theory, how many objects do we treat as pure tools? Objects usually have a function, but they almost always have an emotional or symbolic or otherwise ephemeral value too – considerations that sit outside function, but which nevertheless determine how we interact with a design, even the most functionalist of which usually have hidden depths. A person who tried to explain why Dieter Rams’s 606 shelving is a good design by listing ways in which it is well adapted to holding books, CDs, sugar canisters ad infinitum would be missing the point. There are more things in Rams’s shelves than are dreamt of in functionalism’s philosophy.

Ribon has another example. He created the Osmos diffuser with Nicolas Marischael, a Parisian silversmith who inherited his tools from his father. Marischael’s most treasured possession is an old hammer which, to the untrained eye, looks broken. The handle is splitting at the bottom, while its head is covered in worn wrappings of vellum and green baize. “His whole family lives out of this hammer,” says Ribon. “It is the most valuable piece he has in the whole world and when I took it away to take some pictures, he told me ‘If you lose it, I stop working.’ All of his gestures and movements which he’s learned over the last 40 years are completely blended with this tool. If you gave him another, he wouldn’t be able to work.” Which isn’t to deny that the hammer’s function is important, but rather to say that other things matter too. In fact, Marischael’s emotional attachment to and familiarity with his hammer supplements its function. The two cannot be meaningfully separated.

How does a designer fit into this, particularly given that these interactions typically evolve organically and haphazardly? Ribon argues that a good designer is one who is able to generate enough hooks in a design to make such bonds easier to form over time: a beautiful detail, an arresting material choice, a surprising visual reference. Anything that might become meaningful. It’s not a guaranteed process, but nor is it one in which the designer is completely powerless. “Why is one shape better than another?” says Ribon. “Functionality and technicality – blah, blah, blah – may make a difference, but any appreciation of shape itself is ultimately subjective. What you can do as a designer, however, is hone your intuition like a tool, such that it gets sharper each time. Good designers like the Bouroullecs are nearly always right in their decisions because their intuition is so precise. You can talk about these things as part of function, but then you need to accept that function can be non-functional.”

Corps Subtils is about coming to terms with this expanded notion of function. Ribon doesn’t necessarily dispute “form ever follows function”, at least not to me, but he does insist on greater flexibility in what we mean by “function”. So catching ghosts – although impossible – remains a function of a kind, just as Marischael’s hammer is about more than a brute ability to strike metal. “I wanted to show that a function could be a kind of non-function even though it’s still a function,” says Ribon. “Corps Subtils was about making a statement. It was all about a non-functional function that we don’t know if it’s functioning.”

Corps Subtils. Elevator pitch (version three)
“Here’s a big bowl of cauliflower. Eat it.”

Why pick something as esoteric as ghosts to make this point? In part, it’s simply the kind of topic that appeals to Ribon. He left Colombia for France when he was 20 – “My mother’s family is French. France felt part of me” – and studied environmental engineering in Nantes. “But I was the worst engineer,” he says. “I was more interested in a creative process, so I took a year out in Paris to understand what was going on in art, architecture and design.” He briefly attended both design classes at ENSCI and art classes at the École nationale supérieure des Beaux-arts, before ultimately committing to the former: “Art felt more selfish. More about finding yourself in the work, whereas design is about connecting with others.”

Something of this dilettantish inquisitiveness has remained with Ribon. His projects are research heavy – picking magpie-like from whatever happens to catch his eye – and grow spontaneously, one out of another. The spiritist objects were a development of his Mind the Gap hypnosis project; aspects of Corps Subtils are now being shaped into an exhibition about superstition’s relationship to industrial objects. “I can work with superstition and I can also do a very functional industrial project,” he says. “I’m a designer: any project that’s meaningful, I’m happy to do.”

This notion of meaningfulness – moving beyond the veil of pure function – is crucial. Back at MADD, Constance Rubini remembers one of the challenges of Corps Subtils. “At the opening I had to do a TV interview in which I was asked to say what kind of designer Felipe is in two words,” she says. “That was very difficult.” I suggest that he’s a conceptual designer, but Rubini has doubts. “But he’s not a conceptual designer,” she replies, “because he’s actually making objects. If you look at conceptual designers, they’re not creating working objects: they’re extrapolating the contemporary situation instead. Sure, Felipe’s objects are not going to be industrialised tomorrow, but they’re still objects to be used.”

The outcomes reached by contemporary designers are expanding rapidly. Conceptual designers such as Dunne and Raby subjugate objects to the concepts they express, such that a Dunne and Raby object like the Huggable Atomic Mushroom cushion might be better described as a model or prop. Elsewhere, the expansion is even broader: Yuri Suzuki has pioneered sound design, Ilona Gaynor a practice in which film plays the predominant role, and Folkform recently launched Now You Are at the Beginning Again, a book of closing lines from classic novels. All these studios identify with design, but none restrict themselves to objects. If a project is better served by a different medium, they happily adopt it.

Ribon is different. Every piece of research he undertakes is materialised, even when doing so makes life difficult (there is a reason why ghost stories and horror films remain common in contemporary society, but spiritist objects do not). “For me, objects are the things that really strike us,” he says. “There is a special level of intimacy because you actually use them and they’re something you need. You can’t escape objects, but a good object has power to say things and diffuse ideas in a more indirect and gentler way than, for instance, a novel. That’s true of Corps Subtils. These objects are designed to be like feeding children. You’re hiding the vegetables inside a piece of pie. You’re not lying to them, you’re just presenting it in another way. Not, ‘Here’s a big bowl of cauliflower. Eat it.’ I mean, it’s in the title: these are supposed to be subtle links.”

The cauliflower in the Corps Subtils objects – trussed up in irresistible trappings of the supernatural – is, Rubini suggests, a desire for society to discuss bereavement. “We have no place for death anymore,” she says. “It’s completely taboo. If a guy in your office has lost his daughter, you don’t dare ask about it. But that’s crazy, because if you have life, then you have death. For me, that’s the exhibition: how do you deal with a souvenir of the people you loved who are not there any more? These objects may not help – you can’t talk with the dead – but they confront you with death and make you deal with it. Felipe Ribon is not just some guy who thinks it’s funny to speak to ghosts. Death is the most quotidian thing there is.”

Rubini’s idea captures the cosmic joke behind Corps Subtils: at heart, it’s a realist exhibition; at heart, Ribon is a realist designer. He’s not concerned with everyday objects, but he is concerned with everyday interaction with objects. “The bonds that exist between these objects and their owners are complex, and formed over time through use and contemplation… [they are] an affirmation of the potential of an object to reflect and nurture the human spirit.” This could be the mission statement for Corps Subtils, but its actually from Source Material by designers Jonathan Olivares, Marco Velardi and Jasper Morrison (design’s reigning king of the quotidian), a book of 54 everyday objects that have inspired leading designers, architects and artists.

Morrison, you suspect, would not go in for spiritism, but the basic impulse remains the same: take objects seriously, think honestly about what they mean. “Death is universal and we all have to deal with questions about it at some point in our lives,” says Ribon. “I hate it when people say that my projects are speculative, because connecting with ghosts and death is for today. It’s not for the past, or for 10 or 20 years in the future. Objects have always been things that let you communicate with what is bigger and more abstract than you. The designer’s work is to enable that.”