Maria Foerlev on contemporary culture

Nordic curators across art and design are pushing the boundaries of their disciplines with a brave, experimental approach. Here, Oak meets four leaders of a new generation of museum and gallery directors across Stockholm, Stavanger, Copenhagen and Helsinki.

First up, Maria Foerlev, the founder of the highly regarded Etage Projects, a Copenhagen gallery that displays objects which are ostensibly pieces of furniture design, but operate with the potency and poetry of fine art. Her space operates as part store, part IRL forum of global avant-garde art and design’s strongest and strangest voices, and – with a growing social media following – part online meeting-place. Recent shows have included solid glass chairs, augmented-reality tables and, for Design Miami in Basel this year, a collection of soap in the shape of prehistoric axe-heads.

Can you explain your approach to curating?

My point of view is not design; I don’t think the world needs another chair, to be honest. But I do think we need art that takes you emotionally somewhere else, and I think that artists have antennas out in other places than the trend catalogues. At the same time, I do also work with designers, but designers who work conceptually, so there will always be some kind of idea or meaning, reflection or story, behind their works. I’d like to say that art creates possibilities, and design offers concrete solutions. There’s a need for art for poetic psychology and there’s also a need for function that design offers, but you can put it together. They say that the five people you see the most, you become the sum of them. That’s the same with the things you surround yourself with; they ultimately shape you. That’s why I have respect for the things I offer to the world.

Does it matter if a chair is uncomfortable to sit on? Or to put that another way; does an object need to be functional to be good design?

No, not necessarily. It doesn’t need to be comfortable to sit in . I think that if you view it from an art angle, it should take you emotionally somewhere else. I think it’s wonderful if it’s comfortable, but I also think you can appreciate the emotions that you get. For example: a Spanish architect, Guillermo Santomà, created this collection of glass chairs for the gallery. You wouldn’t necessarily want to sit in them. When you view one, you wonder if it’ll cut you, but it’s also so beautiful that you want to sit in it. The ambiguity or the idea can open up a layer of understanding. Mid-century modernism casts a long shadow over Danish design.

Are you reacting against or working within this tradition?

It’s just what I’m interested in and what I like. I have huge respect, of course, for design from the 50s and the quality that’s in the DNA of this sort of design. But I’m less interested in the rational aspects of design. My angle is not design, I’m much more interested in the poetic, conceptual side. There will definitely always be a need for functional things, but the world has enough chairs as it is.

You have 30,000 followers across your Instagram channels. What are the uses of social media as a curator?

Because it’s the future, right? So why not use it? A lot of the pieces I show don’t need a text, or a language. Descriptions are not necessary, and people are becoming more and more clever at understanding visual images. In Basel, we are showing a designer who is producing soap in the shape of spearheads and axe-heads, because he says it’s the first primordial design, which goes back 1.5 million years. And he’s producing it in soap because it’s a social thing and crucial to survival. It’s a very conceptual piece of design, yet instantly conveyed visually.

What interests you about design as a discipline?

Up until the 19th century, the majority of fine art was created for churches and the privileged few. That’s different from today, when the artist initiates a question or an answer, and come up with a critical position. Designers can use design as a tool to make things, and to develop scenarios for reflection. That comes very close to what the artist is doing. Then the lines get blurred. Maybe we should speak about contemporary culture instead, rather than pondering, “is it art or is it design?”


Continue reading in Oak volume Eight