Autumn 2002

Beneath the surface

Skin: surface substance + design

Ellen Lupton
Laurence King, £26

Ellen Lupton, the editor and principal author of this book, will be familiar to many readers of Eye. The author of some of the most perceptive, readable writing on design in recent years, Lupton, curator of contemporary design at the Cooper Hewitt in New York, examines a range of two- and three-dimensional objects and technologies that not only illustrate new ideas about surface materials and textures, but also remind us of the importance of our own skins as the site of sensation. The works examined include familiar products, such as Jasper Morrison’s Hi Pad chair for Capellini (1999), as well as artworks destined for the gallery, such as Margi Geerlinks’ memorable images of Gepetto, the fairytale tailor, stitching the folds and muscles of a naked woman with an electric sewing machine. In this book, and in the exhibition that it accompanied at the Cooper Hewitt, the status of these works as products, prototypes or ‘art’ is less important than the way that they provoke ideas about skin.

Skin reflects a phenomenological turn that has taken place in much writing on design and culture in the past decade. The material world offers a range of sensations and meanings that have been undervalued by the dominance of the eye in Western culture. As if to remind us of the fact, many designs – from Gaetano Pesce’s anthropomorphic ‘Up’ chairs of the late 1960s to Droog’s Hella Jongerius’s beautifully flawed polyurethane sinks and vases today – have suggested the form of bodies . . .

. . .

. . . Today, the certainty with which we once approached the material world is cracked with doubt. In Lupton’s words, ‘hard surfaces look soft and soft surfaces look hard . . . smooth planes are rippled, bubbled or scarred with digital imagery.’ As this book powerfully suggests, in an age of so many brilliant artificial skins, it is becoming increasingly hard and perhaps impossible to distinguish ourselves from the things that surround us.

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