Work in progress. Photo courtesy of London CUBE CO.

Quirks of travelling minds

Ayodeji Alaka
Oct 1, 2013 · 7 min read

Cultural stimulation that challenge assumptions I would argue are typically found far from places and spaces one is familiar with,literally and metaphorically. Does distance liberate creative practitioners to the point that they are less inhibited by the status quo? Can continued travel and practice through immersive engagement with, and listening to, others become engrained that it subconsciously influences practice?

100% Design London is laid out to showcase talent new and old from around the globe. It is thriving on pockets of collaborative scenes where thinking and making are a valuable currency. It is an unlikely space to locate issues, processes, ideas informed by travel, politics of participation and their relationship to the designer’s work. Whilst on a quest for stimulation and inspiration I stumbled on two individuals whose work and developmental needs are rooted in years of routine curiosity about differences. Their practice is subject to paying attention to what other societies or users imply and leave unsaid.

Oren Shapira and Nira Liberman’s views in an article subtitled “ Why thinking about distant things can make us more creative’’ for Scientific American: “suggests that there are several simple steps we can all take to increase creativity, such as traveling to faraway places (or even just thinking about such places), thinking about the distant future, communicating with people who are dissimilar to us, and considering unlikely alternatives to reality. Perhaps the modern environment, with its increased access to people, sights, music, and food from faraway places, helps us become more creative not only by exposing us to a variety of styles and ideas, but also by allowing us to think more abstractly’’.

This may seem obvious enough, it is not cut and dry. I met Aicha El Beloui, “an architect by training and graphic designer by passion” , at 100% Design Talks. She took part in a British Council organised “Explore and Design’’ residency programme in Marrakesh. The programme is part of the British Council’s remit to use cultural diplomacy to enhance perceptions that Moroccans and British have of each other. We did not have enough time to get a sense of how the programme influenced her creative outlook. We agreed to have a Skype chat when she got back to Morocco. We did, two days later.

Aicha picking an artisan’s brain about their age old making methods. A ubiquitous scene along alleyways winding around Marrakesh’s Medina. Photo courtesy Joseph Quechen @ British Council Morocco’s FaceBook Page.

Aicha

In conversation with Aicha El Beloui, she feels “Moroccan artisanal know-how and output as appreciated by tourism industry needs to be re-evaluated. Reinterpretation of old craft techniques should inform the creation of a new surface and functional aesthetic.” The atmospheric ubiquity of souks (markets), each with its own specialty, carpets, copper-ware, silver, leather, ceramics, textiles and ironwork partly dominates perceptions about Moroccan aesthetic. Aicha’s interest in the “design and explore”programme was motivated by a line of enquiry; how should creative practitioners (in particular females) influence the future of new design frameworks. In her view these frameworks could have their basis in the knowledge of different skills, technology media, materials and experimentation.

It is critical not to lose a sense of the handmade in a digital world. She believes that the souk and traditional craft techniques are just as relevant to the future of Moroccan design as they have been to its past.

Lack of political power is as much of a stumbling block for her as it is for other women,female participation in politics, from politics of decision making, to that of influential participation in politics, is scant.

Women, like Soultana, in Morocco are using music as a vehicle to openly express their hopes, fears, dreams, and frustrations . It is now commonplace to discuss how those voices have been socially repressed. Aicha’s thinking strikes a chord in this context where appropriated hip-hop, travel and use of technology media, supports the ability of these voices to emerge slowly from the margins.

Aicha’s career trajectory has taken her through transformative work stints at The Nordic Heritage Foundation in Norway and at The African Heritage Foundation working on research projects both in Uganda and South Africa. The British Council curated programme became a platform, for her and Moroccan colleagues to share their experiences between themselves and British project facilitators. They explored the use of Moroccan narratives in ensuring the spirit and function of the craft from the souk have commercial appeal, beyond the souk. I wondered how many Aichas meaningfully influenced Swiss Architecture firm E2A’s work on Marakkesh’s Menara Airport. Might a Moroccan design and digital media industry driven by young men and women inspired by politics, a curious accumulation of stories, music genres and icons become aware of its own collective signature, commercial and social value of co-creation?

The loyalties and affiliations of Aicha’s imagination are being reconfigured not only by being part of a process where social structures are slowly unraveling in collision with relative prosperity of Morocco, digital networks, inexpensive travel and social media. Being non-ideological, experimental and curious enough to learn transformative lessons seem engrained into her DNA.

Claretta responding to a curious exhibition visitor

Claretta

On the flip side of this Claretta Pierantozzi’s collection of quirky one off pieces of box-shaped furniture got the better side of my curiosity. It seemed at first glance like their intricate surface detailing had been fabricated by expert hands.In fact they were done by laser cutting the fretwork. London Cube Co. showed off the intricacies only a machine can achieve when guided by a curious team, with creative ideas. Claretta refers to it as a “craft-tech’’ process.

A recurring thread ran through London Cube Co.’s approach to product development, interesting use of travelling minds, ‘’craft-tech’’ co-creative process (where geographically dispersed clients participate in the ideation process) and use of technology to cross boundaries of culture, language and aesthetic preferences.

Claretta collaborates with a culturally diverse mix of creative colleagues, with an emphasis on the value of client involvement to co-creation. This approach is motivated by a desire to transform clients into creative participants so that the products they design, produce and sell will better meet both their own and other people’s aspirations. It is easy to think this is solely related to monetary value. Intrinsic social value extends beyond monetary gain.

Eero Saarinen line of thought “Always design a thing by considering its next larger context — a chair in a room, a room in a house, a house in an environment, an environment in a city plan” is perspective broadening. Perhaps even more so when diverse minds share stakes in the imaginative effort.

This venture is a business proposition and the current product range are structurally (physically and in terms of processes) defined around client participation. Whether by design or default the social value of its co-creative philosophy seems to be driven by longer term aspirations, developing sustainable ways of working with and developing a growing client base.

It supports the exploration of open-ended questions such as how should one consider decisions of clients predicated on their feelings about aesthetic qualities of their domestic space? A similar question could apply when figuring out how to use contemporary idioms to re-interpret Moroccan craft vernacular.

When working within this context one does not generally have preconceived notions of the outcome since determination of the form of the outcome is part of the challenge. Co-creation of this type involves expertise integration and people working closely together. Rapid prototyping, social intercourse and collaborative visualization of ideas combine to enhance project contributors’ collective imagination.

Claretta sums it up with the inspiration behind London Cube Co:

“throughout the years I have been practicing architecture I have seen how technology has slowly become a fundamental part of the design process. While the technology is proving invaluable by opening doors for the field, from speeding up construction to improving precision I have always felt there were some missed opportunities in technology. This is particularly true when it comes to providing high quality designs for the end-client. London Cube Co. was born out of an interest to integrate this side of technology with more craft oriented methods in furniture design.”

Design and Explore Workshop — British Council faciliated session in Marakkesh. Participants include Aicha, seen at far left end of table. Photo courtesy Joseph Quechen @ British Council Morocco’s FaceBook Page.

Both Aicha and Claretta imply empathy between co-creators is essential. Their work is influenced by deep roots in each of their operating environments. Deep rooted influences are relative. They range from entrenched patriarchy through exposure to diversity of thought, to constantly evolving means of making. Perhaps environments that make liberal mindedness easy also make technology development and production technologies accessible. In a societal structure struggling with entrenched patriarchy, politics of participation continues to inspire the imagination of creatives.

It is easy to be judgmental and critical whilst outside of situations creative practitioners operate in, across different parts of the world. For creative practitioners out there trying their best, it is not always an easy business. Progress has always had to free itself from the clutches of political and economic vested interests.

Personal interactions, immersive cultural experiences, ways in which we think about technology and conversations can be critical to building a co-creative edge.

Jaron Lanier writing in “Who owns the Future” views “Progress as Compulsory”

“…New technological syntheses that will solve the great challenge of the day are less likely to come from garages than from collaborations by many people over giant computer networks. It is the politics and economics of these networks that will determine how new capabilities will translate into new benefits for ordinary people.”

    Ayodeji Alaka

    Written by

    Ayodeji is a design strategist at OsanNimu 3D Branding and Packaging Design LLP. See www.osannimu.com

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