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Contemporary design enables critical reflection

Design is the method with which we shape our world. The new MA Contemporary Design combines material-led design with critical and conceptual thinking practices.
What is contemporary design?

Designing is a poetical and political act that changes a situation to a preferred one.

But how do we know what is preferred, and for whom? What should we affirm and what should we challenge through our actions? Where will all this lead us?

We know that if we want to have a future at all, we need to develop other ways of being in the world and to critically reflect on attitudes and approaches we take for granted. 

The new MA Contemporary Design combines material-led design with critical and conceptual thinking practices. The programme aims to understand the extended scope of design and to position student work within the ongoing discourse.

Professor Maarit Mäkelä painting a vessel made of contaminated soil from Venice. Photo: Anne Kinnunen
Associate Professor Maarit Mäkelä painting a vessel with slips made of contaminated soil from Venice. Photo: Anne Kinnunen

Extending the scope of design

To understand what we need to change and how to do so, we need to extend our awareness in two directions:

  • Inwards—to understand the meaning of our tacit knowledge and sense the poetical dimension of our endeavours.
  • Outwards—to grasp the political, social, technical and ecological systems that our work is embedded in and understand the implications of the changes we pursue.

We value processes—drawing, prototyping, experimenting and making—for their reflective potential as much as for their material outcomes. We learn skills to enable us to manipulate established and new materials, bringing contemporary relevance to traditional craft processes and updating them with 21st-century technologies.

Through transdisciplinary design, we can interweave knowledge from various fields, and raise questions and not wait until we have found answers to speak. We can translate tacit and fleeting experiences into resonant pieces that engage others in discourse. 

We unpack the complexities of what surrounds us so that we understand how our actions affect these situations. We narrate the stories that help us make sense of the complexities of the 21st century. This enables us to find ways to be more benign towards the world we depend upon. 

Julia_Lohmann_Petr Krejci_CoDe_LowRes
Professor of Practice Julia Lohmann showing seaweed, a natural raw material of the future. Photo: Petr Krejci

Curating and Storytelling course

The Curating and Storytelling course created three visual and textual essays about the first academic year of the MA Contemporary Design. The course adopts the programme’s pedagogical concept in which we combine thinking and making with acting and reflecting as drivers for discovery. The learning often takes place in studio contexts and on excursions where the students are immersed with all senses in processes of making.

We asked students to reflect on the issues, ideas and practices they engaged with throughout the year. In the following three examples, the students share their understanding of the extended field of contemporary design in a ‘text in progress’ that gives a glimpse into the multi-vocal practices and cultures of discourse that shapes our programme. 

We also reflect on two ongoing exhibitions the students contributed to, both concerned with the ways we as humans have neglected the wellbeing of our environment: The Working with Soil Project that took place in the context of Venice Biennale during summer 2019 (8 May until 28 August) and the Critical Tide exhibition that was exhibited in the Design Museum Helsinki in autumn 2019 (6 September until 27 October).

Text:
Maarit Mäkelä
Associate Professor, Practice-led Design Research, Department of Design

Julia Lohmann
Professor of Practice, Contemporary Design,
Department of Design

Critical Tide exhibition at the Design Museum’s Gallery

At a time of deep ecological crises, Critical Tide will open our eyes to the urgent issues our oceans face and showcase creative ways of intervening.

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Critical Tide Seaweed Sculpture Oki naganode by Julia Lohmann photo: Noortje Knulst

Traces from the Anthropocene. Working with Soil.

A multidisciplinary research project that addresses the ecological consequences of the human footprint through ceramic art. The exhibition is a part of Venice Biennale during summer 2019.

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Traces from the Antropocene exhibition in Venice Biennale in 2019. Photo: Tzuyu Chen
(non)manifesto of contemporary design

What is contemporary design?

Concept, (non)manifesto, and facilitation by contemporary design MA students.

Students' portraits with their adopted creatures in Kristineberg workshop in April, 2019

Empathy: Design in a Social Context

Reaching out to non-human stakeholders

Unfolded
Sediment sampling in the historical centre of Venice with the Limnos sampler provided by the Finnish Environmental Institute SYKE. Image: Pauliina Purhonen

The trip to Venice—in the words of the students

Contemporary design students spent a week in Venice setting up the exhibition and gathering soil samples for the research.

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Unfolded

Aalto University UNFOLDED magazine is an engaging look at art, design and creativity across Aalto University and our wider community.

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