The Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA) is set to open an exhibit on the product design of vaunted British architect Zaha Hadid. Hadid is famous for her wild, swooping, techno-fanciful buildings — stuff that seems like it came straight out of intergalactic space. The objects she designs, whether a Swarovski necklace or a (deeply uncomfortable-looking) sofa, aren’t loads different, and that’s part of what makes them so seductive. They’re starchitecture you can squeeze into your living room.
Of course, countless architects have moonlighted as product designers and put on quite a show in doing so. What sets Hadid apart is that she’s a total tech freak. "She was early and extremely consistent in adopting direct-to-production technology," says PMA curator Kathryn Hiesinger. "You have a computer program feeding itself into a manufacturing system, so her design gets translated very directly into a finished product." And that applies to everything she designs, from tables to opera houses.
The appeal of the method (which is pretty widespread nowadays, but wasn’t when she got her start) is twofold: First, you have more control over the final result than you would if you sent a vague, hand-drawn sketch to manufacturers and let them fill in the blanks. Secondly, it frees you up to experiment with all kinds of shapes, symmetries, and sizes. In short, it turns design into something that more closely resembles art.
Hadid’s product designs are nothing if not artful. The exhibit will feature some 40 objects of her own choosing, including a sterling silver coffee and tea set for Sawaya & Moroni, shoes for Lacoste, and a carbon fiber concept car for an art dealer in the U.K. The pieces are sculptural and liquid-cool, and none resembles anything you’ve seen before. The shoes look like Roman sandals for an alien. The car might as well be the love child of a DeLorean and go-kart.
Hiesinger insists these are not strictly formal experiments (a critique lobbed frequently, and venomously, at Hadid’s architecture and one that seems pretty fair when you glance over her jutting steel Z-Chairs or even the aforementioned Lacoste shoes). Hiesinger points to Niche, a centerpiece Hadid designed for Alessi. The object has a crazy, complex form, but also works as a set of nesting dishes that can be arranged in multiple permutations to accommodate the layout of the table. It’s a clever solution to a mundane domestic problem and suggests that Hadid is more than the high-minded artiste much of her work would have you believe. As Hiesinger tells it: "What she does is part sculpture and part a matter of function."
[Images courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art]