Home arts visual arts When everything old is new again: Volker Albus talks design



When everything old is new again: Volker Albus talks design

January 2013

  • Evelyn Tsitas

As Professor Volker Albus prowls around the various gallery spaces at RMIT Gallery, unpacking some 63 large crates, and pulling out Modern European furniture, it’s like he is greeting old friends. And in a way, that’s exactly what the German designer is doing.

His current exhibition, New Olds: Design Between Tradition and Innovation, is the third major show Albus has presented at RMIT Gallery over the past decade. The quirky designs in New Olds are very familiar to him now, as this travelling design exhibition is showcasing in Melbourne after tours in Israel and India. Yet he never fails to be amused by some of the designer’s whimsical tricks – the flexible ornate candle holders by David Hanauer which wobble but stand erect when a candle is lit. The dark souvenirs by Constantin Boym, with their macabre celebration of disasters like the Parisian tunnel where Princess Diana was killed or the nuclear reactor at Chernobyl.

Some works look very familiar, such as the wooden three dimensional moose head. Albus, senior Professor at Karlsruhe State Academy of Design and renowned as an outstanding exponent of new German design, agrees; he says that while much of the work in the exhibition is intentionally experimental, other designs have found their way into the commercial stream.

“Tradition is a main issue of our culture and that was the inspiration for this exhibition. I think we are, in Europe, more aware of our culture, and look to it when designing the new. But what concerned me when travelling in South East Asia was that young designers focus very much on what is going on in Europe and in America. They try to be more European than the Europeans themselves,” Albus observes.

“I want to remind people to look first and to start with their own culture. I want to remind them that when they start thinking of design they should think of what is happening in their country. That goes for everyone.

“I am annoyed that so many Germans think we have to eat pommes frites instead of the traditional style German potato. We are not French. We shouldn’t try to be. I apply the same standard to design. Look to your own culture first, and play around with that.”

Despite the fact that New Olds is presented with the support of the Institut fur Auslandsbeziehungen (IFA – The Institute for Foreign Cultural Relations) and in cooperation with the Goethe-Institut, Australia, Albus is adamant that it is not seen as simply a German design exhibition. He points out that there are many works by Dutch and French designers, and in each location that New Olds is staged, he selects work by several local designers.

In Melbourne, Albus chose work by designers Tim Collins, Dale Hardiman and Scott Mitchell. For Hardiman, a young RMIT design graduate, the exhibition is not only an opportunity to see first hand items he has studied and admired over the years, but also a privilege for his work to sit side by side with the likes of designers such as Studio Makkink & Bey,  Bo Reudler Studio and Khashayar Naimanan. 

While all three Australian designers’ works sit well within the exhibition, they are indeed reflective of the local culture. Hardiman uses local twigs for his lights, and has made a “cook your own eco seat” version of a child’s stool.  Collins’ computer key seats seem like iconic, robust outdoor stools made for Aussie barbeques, while Mitchell has teamed up with Melbourne abstract artist Karl Wiebke to modify a 1970s Bang & Olufsen stereo using one of Wiebke’s paintings and about 800 of the songs digitised from the painter’s extensive music collection.

The idea that design strength comes from cultural heritage, and an often subversive take on that heritage, is very much in evidence in the pieces Albus has selected for New Olds. He excitedly picks up a plate by Khashayar Naimanan, telling me the story behind the piece. His face lights up – it is these back stories he wants to share with visitors, and has painstakingly supplied little vignettes of the items in handouts that gallery visitors can read.

“This is a particularly subversive piece by Naimanan, as he takes the porcelain manufacturer’s seal – the famed Nymphenburg porcelain manufacturer – and places it on the top surface rather than underneath. Because we all know that visitors are only interested in how much you spent on the piece, not on the actual design,” Albus said.
“It also taps into that idea that every design object now should be stamped with the insignia of prominent fashion houses. The mark is more important than the item.”

For Albus, good design is all about the important balance between function, configuration, material, stability and the price at the end of the process. While there are many pieces in New Olds that will bring a flash of recognition or a wry smile at conventions being challenged, the curator wants visitors to understand that, like a couture fashion exhibition, not all pieces have to be practical or indeed, bound for the showroom.

“I don’t want to be nostalgic with this exhibition. Yes, some of these pieces are very experimental – they show how you should leave all borders behind and think very open, by looking forward as well as looking back. The fact that many of these works are innovative and may not be a commercial success is very important for me,” Albus said.


New Olds: Design between Tradition and Innovation shows at RMIT Gallery, 344 Swanston St, Melbourne, until March 9.


Image: Scott Mitchell / Karl FM / Wall hanging / 2011. Image Mark Ashkanasy, RMIT Gallery, 2012.



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