Architectural historian Beatriz Colombian discusses the bed as the new centre of our universe

Architectural historian Beatriz Colombian discusses the bed as the new centre of our universe

For their 90th anniversary Italian furniture manufacturer Cassina teamed up with publisher Rizzoli and editor Felix Burrichter, founder of New York-based architecture magazine 'Pin-Up', to make 'This Will Be The Place'. A book that boldly examines the home of the future with surprisingly diverse results. 

Going beyond the traditional tome that celebrates a company’s history through an historian’s focus on the past, Cassina has produced a book that is both refreshing and challenging and is about the influences on architecture shaped by our past, present and future. 'This Will Be The Place' doesn’t have all the answers, but that’s just the point. It gives us insights into the ways technology and global geopolitics might transform the future city, clearly illustrated across the pages with visceral interior vignettes designed to make us think. 

With the editorial prowess of Felix Burrichter, 'This Will Be The Place' deftly weaves together four essays and four interviews themed around very different future scenarios. Architectural historian Beatriz Colombian discusses the bed as the new centre of our universe; Chinese architect Zhao Yang discusses the importance of keeping connected to the traditions of craft; Munich-based industrial designer Konstantin Grcic talks about the power of disruption and reminds us that the future is nothing without the past; German architect Arno Brandlhuber looks at the fluidity of space, both public and private; and Finnish architect Martti Kalliala looks at architecture's new role in keeping us fit.

Barbara Lehmann, Head of the Cassina Archive, brings the future into play as she unpacks the design history of the company through the experimentation and collaboration with architects from Le Corbusier, Gio Ponti and Philippe Starck, to Mario Bellini and Patricia Urquiola. The collaborations and avant-garde experiments Cassina describes as "the air of the future", and the narrative of industrialisation and modernism meshed together, tell the story of a company that bridges culture, arts and crafts and has always had the future in its sights. 

Here more space chats with Felix Burrichter about the making of the book, its themes and impacts, the importance of books that are a slow burn, and what he hopes we all might learn.

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MS: How did this project with Cassina come about?

FB: I have known the people at Cassina for many years through 'Pin-Up'. I curated a show in 2015 at the Swiss Institute here in New York called 'Pavillon de l’Esprit Nouveau: A 21st Century Show Home', that was a riff on Le Corbusier’s 1925 'L'esprit Nouveau Pavilion' in Paris which was a very visionary show and a scandal at the time. However instead of building a home, we actually made the entire space virtual. Cassina had seen that show and they planned to re-edition their book of furnishing by Mario Bellini which was a big success back in the 1970s. Rather than looking back on Cassina’s history for their 90th anniversary, they decided to do a book about the future. I think perhaps that’s where Cassina connected the dots. The book was of course a very exciting proposal but also daunting because no one, least of all me, knows what the future is about.

Cassina was very specific about wanting to work mostly with architects rather than designers which is interesting and also makes a lot of sense. Especially when you look at the roster of designers that Cassina represents and the history of design in Italy. From Mario Bellini, Achille Castiglioni, Ettore Sottsass, to Patricia Urqiuola, they were all trained architects. Some of the big concepts for the future are in the past, looking at Le Corbusier, looking at the futurists literally. We quickly established that the main part that I would be working on would be finding people with whom to talk about the idea of the future and what that means for architecture and design. The interviews were done first then based on the interviews, we had an essay written, rather like vignettes that interpreted the different scenarios of the future. Then based on those sort of essayistic vignettes, the creative team at Cassina went to work and created the photo shoots. So all the visuals in the book are based on the essays. 

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The concept for the exhibition This Will Be The Place.

The concept for the exhibition This Will Be The Place.

Tell me about the editorial selection…

I approached it in a similar way to how I approach selecting feature subjects for 'Pin-Up' magazine. Which is to have an overall theme but then to get as many different points of view as possible. You can have a wish list and then see what’s realistic. Sometimes the people on your wish list are no longer alive. 

Imagine if you could talk with Le Corbusier, what would he think now?

I think we came pretty close with Beatriz Colomina as a scholar and the director of the Princeton Graduate Architecture program. She is a brilliant historian, and a funny historian too, because she is very interested in almost anecdotal details that may seem trivial but aren’t. Whether it’s the details of a toilet and I am bringing up toilet because for Pin-Up she wrote a whole essay on the toilet. For the book she wrote about technology and the bed. She said that as cities and urban centres become increasingly dense and populated and there is a lack of space, the homes are reduced to the utmost minimum which is the bed. That’s the one thing that we have yet to be able to get rid of, human’s necessity to sleep. The bed becomes the place where you sleep obviously, but where you also work, where you receive guests, and the window to the world is your phone. That's all you really need these days: wi-fi, a phone and a bed for sleeping. I think she made some really fantastic observations with regards to the present and what that could mean for the future. She drew parallels to the refugee crisis. The phone is what connects people. Where they have images, voice messages, photos of their families. It’s the window to everything and I think she made some fantastic observations about that. She also traced the idea that the 20th century was already the century of the bed, starting with Freud. It was a really smart analysis, brief but very concise. 

Inside This Will Be The Place exhibition, designed by Patricia Urquiola. 

Inside This Will Be The Place exhibition, designed by Patricia Urquiola. 

As technology changes, cities will need to be reshaped. Is that one of the propositions in the book? To sort of hand down that challenge to architects and designers?

Absolutely. It’s funny you bring that up because it goes seamlessly into the interview with Arno Brandlhuber who is an architect based in Berlin and who advocates for more communal spaces in cities, and less boundaries within our homes and the city. It’s quite utopian in some ways. The realists will say, how can this be possible you can’t have your private staircase open to the public where everyone just hangs out. He is based in Berlin so he is a German architect and Germany is known for many of the rules within the building code. He’s advocating for less rules and more openness and not be so precise about delineating what space is what but also wan openness in the public that helps reconcile the private and the public realm to connect people. This is something we tried to interpret tin the book through the idea of free flow. More within the perimeter of the actual home because that is what Cassina does. I think what Arno is referring to is a much broader sense of openness where things become more ambivalent. At one point in the interview we talk about furniture and he says instead of buying one chair buy 20 and they can also become the night stand, or you stack them up and you have a shelving systems. Things can have many different roles. His approach was very interesting because his practice deals with using existing structures. Whether it’s abandoned building lots where he uses the existing foundations, or reusing factory spaces and turning them into housing. He also transforms spaces for short-term and immediate use by people whose stay is transient. Many of the interviews were done in the summer of 2016 at the height of the refugee crisis which is still going on, we just talk about it less. That was his contribution to the idea of the book. 

Just as room typologies are dissolving, so too are categories of furniture
— Arno Brandlhuber
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Tell me about the importance of including Konstantin Grcic.

Konstantin Grcic is the only industrial designer who was interviewed for the book. He had a retrospective exhibition at the Vitra Design Museum in 2013 in Basel which was called ‘Panorama'. I thought it was a great exhibition. It turned out that he wasn’t very happy with it but he is also very critical of his own work. I wanted to talk with him because in the show included elements of the home of the future. He is really interested in what is considered comfort now and what would be considered comfort in the future, and the idea of the palimsest. That something can be read as both positive and negative. For example, having an apartment in an airport. The benefits are that you are close to all the amenities and in most cases you are not far from the city centre. One of the negatives is the noise. For Grcic furniture has to have that element of disruption, otherwise he believes design doesn’t work. 

Architect Zhao advocates for craftsmanship and a return to simplicity.

Architect Zhao advocates for craftsmanship and a return to simplicity.

The Chinese architect Zhao Yang’s approach to craft is fascinating, particularly in a country that has a history of forgetting the past. 

Yes, Zhao Yang is a young architect in China who deliberately decided to not practice in Beijing and to not build in cities but to prescribe to a critical regionalism. Rediscovering vernacular techniques and building methods but interpreting them in a contemporary way. With the eyes of a trained architect. His work is most interesting in and of itself. He doesn’t theoreticise too much around it, or about it, it’s more the actual results and the things that he is looking for, the artisans that he decides to work with that are interesting and speak for themselves. I thought this was really interesting coming from someone who went to Harvard but is coming from a country that has lived through an incredible growth industrially over the past 20 years and post-industrial actually, its doing the whole evolution of the western 20th century within the span of 25 years. For him to not entirely denounce but instead of building in the cities for him to rediscover these ancient techniques over this brief period of 25 years have got completely dismissed I think was fascinating. That return to simplicity resonates with a lot of people today and of course the idea of craft and craftsmanship really resonated with Cassina

Is there an element of protest in Zhao Yang's work?

Yes I think so. It’s a very tacid protest and political as well. He actually says so. He wants to be as far away as possible from the political machinations of Beijing. He repeatedly says that you are a lot more free way over in western China. There they have special laws in place where individuals are allowed to own property as apposed to having a lease it from the state.  

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Berlin-based architect Arno Brandlhuber is interested in fluid cities that provide more communal spaces and blur private and public zones. 

Berlin-based architect Arno Brandlhuber is interested in fluid cities that provide more communal spaces and blur private and public zones. 

I am interested in how different the four essays about the future each are.

That was really the goal to have perspectives that come from completely different backgrounds, yet pieced together they are not completely separate from each other. There are elements of what Colomina said in Brandlhuber, and there are elements of Brandlhuber in Colomina. I think then the key was to look at how they overlap and the essence of them all. You realise that in the end you are not stuck with one future, there are many different life scenarios. 

If you look at the momentum of change now, call it the digital revolution, how does that compare to the industrial revolution when furniture manufacturers in Italy were also in a state of flux.  

The big difference between the industrial revolution and the idea of the future then to what we did with 'This Will Be The Place' is that the digital revolution, if you want to call it that, produces an increased fragmentation and I think that is what we came away with. You cannot prescribe one type of future for all of mankind. Fragmentation in this internet age, this age of social media and politics that has a bad wrap, but in this case it’s actually a positive thing. It is recognising the differences and recognising the nuances. I think that is also one of the big differences with Mario Bellini’s original book. It was really about material exploration and object focused. This one is very much ideas based. 

Finnish architect Martti Kalliala looks at architecture's new role in keeping us fit, with interiors featuring fireman's poles and medicine balls.

Finnish architect Martti Kalliala looks at architecture's new role in keeping us fit, with interiors featuring fireman's poles and medicine balls.

Did Cassina's first book with Mario Bellini, released in the 1970s, also look at social influence and the effects on interiors and architecture?

It was a very careful analysis of materiality and how that works in the home. It’s a beautiful book and very well done, very considerate and carefully breaking down different materials and how they work in a space together, and how they work in a home. In that sense it also addresses social aspects. Where the family may sit together for example. But it doesn’t’ address what this book does, for example the changing demographics within the nuclear family that back in the 1970s was  considered the norm. I think all of these things really influence the conceptual backbone of 'This Will Be The Place'

The title 'This Will Be The Place'… where does that come from?

(Laughter) I originally wanted to call it 'The Book of Furnishings' but the title we ended up choosing was actually borrowed from a Paolo Sorrentino movie from 2001 called 'This Must Be The Place'. They had borrowed it from a Talking Heads song. So it was a double repurposing (laughter). In the end what was really great is that it is a sampling that’s a reference to popular culture and to cinematic aspects of engaging. Over 50% of the book is staging these scenarios photographically so I thought it was a really beautiful way to do that. During the press presentation during Milan my one liner for the press was always this: “There are many different types of futures but Cassina has got the furniture for all of them (laughter). Cassina has the answers”.

Where do you hope the book might navigate its readers?

My biggest hope is that this book will inspire readers to have more autonomy or more agency in choosing what they put in their homes, to do it more intelligently and to put more thought into the the things that we buy. I think this is very much in line with what Cassina is trying to achieve. They would word it a little differently of course (laughter). They are trying to raise awareness for craft of course, their furniture is not cheap but it is incredibly well made and when you buy a piece from Cassina you don’t intend to throw it away. That is another way of thinking about the future. What kind of things will I still own in 5 years time, in 10 years time, in 20 years time? When you actually scan your surroundings, almost a forensic analysis of the things you are surrounded with, you realise what is necessary, what is of value, and what isn’t. Those are the ideas that hopefully people will take away, and the beautiful visuals of course!

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Was there one future perspective that was closest to your heart?

I would say that the one that I really fought for was 'Bed Time'. Looking at the book now after having a bit of distance I would say that story is still the most important because it is the most radical as a proposal. It is based on the idea that your home is reduced to a bed. It makes very direct reference to virtual reality and technological devices like smart phones. It was also the most contested within the process. There were many voices that thought it was not pleasant enough and I am glad we were able to include it in the end. If you look at the pieces Cassina has re-editioned from Le Corbusier and Charles Mackintosh, all these incredible design icons, they are classics now but they were once the future. By always working with contemporary designers, Cassina has developed an incredible roster and all the elements of staying relevant in the years to come. So I think it was really important to be able to tell that story in the book. 

How have people responded to the book. It was officially launched during Milan Design Week wasn’t it?

Yes. I think the book will turn out to be a bit of a sleeper hit to be honest. The difficulty with books is always how do you communicate a book during a week of non-stop presentations where people, including myself, sometimes see 30, 40 or 50 things a day. The responses to the book beyond the initial: “Oooh I like the cover, can you send me one?” will take some time. Everyone really loved the cover I know that for sure (laughter), but I think people need to sit down with it and hopefully the conceptual ideas that went into it will sink in and resonate. It was always going to be a slow burn.

I think a slow burn is actually a very good outcome for a book.

Exactly. I want people to be able to refer to it in 3 years time, in 5 years time, in 7 years time and look at it and say: “Wow, this is so relevant still”.

Thank you Felix.

Purchase 'The Will Be The Place' here

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