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Milan Dispatch: OMA’s "Tools for Life"

Sizing up the firm's new collection for Knoll at the Milan furniture fair.

By Justin McGuirk
April 10, 2013
Photo © A. Osio / Knoll
The Tools for Life collection is on view during the 2013 Salone del Mobile at Prada’s Milan exhibition space at via Fogazzaro, 36.

One of the interesting aspects of the Milan furniture fair in the last couple of years is the way in which a particular group of journalists and critics has set the agenda before the fair has even begun. In 2011, there was a concerted move to raise awareness of the way designers are not always fairly treated by the design industry (this is a system that routinely compensates designers with the promise of raising their profile rather than with actual payment). In 2012, that same group was at pains to draw attention to young designers exploring new means of production (often open-source and collective), and shift some attention away from the big brands and the usual suspects. While no unifying theme or agenda has yet floated to the surface at the show this year so far, there was one early talking point: OMA’s new furniture collection for Knoll.

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When images of OMA’s Tools for Life collection first started circulating, the Twittersphere was quick to heap mockery on it. A photograph of Rem Koolhaas perched on his 04 Counter, a rotating partition-cum-seating area, trying to look poised with both feet dangling in the air, didn’t help. Here at last, one observer noted, was something Rem wasn’t good at.

Well, let’s not speak too soon. The success or failure of this furniture series depends on what you think it is for. The price tags on these pieces (the 05 Round Table will set you back €50,000) suggest that they are not for wide distribution. They might be better seen as marketable experiments, and as the culmination of Knoll’s desire to update its catalog by bagging an undisputed heavyweight. And if there is one thing that Koolhaas is good at, it’s questioning the thing he’s supposed to be designing.

The series is on display in a cavernous space at Prada’s Milan exhibition space on via Fogazzaro, where it is divided into prototypes on one side and finished products on the other. The prototypes are unmistakably the output of an architecture office – bits of blue foam and plexiglass that would blend right in with models of museums and office blocks. When these were first revealed during Milan fashion week earlier this year, one of the armchairs struck me as a work of brilliance. Covered with pink sound-insulation foam with a spiky surface, it was characteristically contrarian – potentially painful but effortlessly cool.

Alas OMA ditched that idea. Instead, the pieces have elementally simple forms, deriving all of their drama from a theatrical kineticism. The partition mentioned earlier is made of three rectangular blocks that swivel to cantilevered effect (it could easily pass for a model of an OMA building). But more excitingly, the armchairs and tables rise up and down on hydraulic columns at the push of a big red button. Now, the “Tools for Life” title hints at the fact that this series is aimed at new, flexible modes of working – not office furniture, but furniture that can be productive one minute and social the next. All this mechanised adjustability is a nod to the ergonomic work culture that is simply standard (indeed regulated) in countries like Sweden. But, presumably with its tongue in its cheek, OMA takes this worthy approach to an absurd limit. Unless you have peculiarly long legs, holding down the red button on one of these armchairs can easily raise your feet off the ground. In which case, is this is a “high-performance tool”, as the press release assures us, or a performance?

I think we know the answer. The very buttons themselves gamify the furniture. In the case of the tables, for instance, they are standalone objects, like joysticks. These are tables that the gamer-worker has to operate, like industrial machinery. And there’s the point. Rather than looking forward to the politically correct, ergonomic culture of the modern workplace, this series harks back to the factoryscapes of heavy industry. Far from being merely functional, all this hydraulic machinery turns the industrial into a fetish.

The point of industry, of mass production, is to produce affordable goods. When luxury goods ape the language of heavy industry, that’s fetishisation. In Europe, of course, we are nostalgic for the industrial. I write this, after all, in a Milan that looks on helplessly as its industrial power wanes – and I’ll take it as a happy accident that Tools for Life was launched on the day that Margaret Thatcher died, the lady who did more than anyone else to dismantle industry in the U.K. OMA designing hydraulic machinery for Knoll, sponsored by Prada, is the industrial revived not as tragedy but as farce.

Justin McGuirk is a writer, critic, and curator based in London. He is the director of Strelka Press, the publishing arm of the Strelka Institute in Moscow

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