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By Gabrielle Kennedy

Sometimes to move forward in the design process students need to intellectually go somewhere else.  It becomes the only way to reach a better understanding of their own social assumptions.
A good example of this is recent Masters graduate Fiona du Mesnildot whose project ‘Domestic Theatre’ found parallels between social structures and the design process.  For her, delving into the mundaneness of one, made the dynamics of the other much clearer.

 

“The first thing I was asked in school was to define social design,” Fiona says, “but for me, I needed to first understand society and how it worked.  Only then was I ready to tackle design.”
To get there Fiona turned to the stage, and specifically Henrik Ibsen’s ‘A Doll House’.  No other drama captures the tension of the social condition more.
“I took this approach because if I look at society as an observer, I see a stage,” Fiona explains, “with players, costumes and props.  Also I think playing helps us to understand things better.  A child recreates their surroundings in a dolls house.  They work out the different parts by role playing with characters.”

Adults too use tools to engage with social dynamics and to identify with others. We stage ourselves, and judge and connect to others based on the roles that they are playing.
So as an analogy or a metaphor for society, Fiona developed a design methodology to go with it.  Practically she could not restage the whole of society so she focused on the very normal.  “Ultimately my aim was to challenge or question our perception of the ordinary,” she says, “because the deepest norms are the ones we do not think about – they are so ordinary that they become the standard.”

Fiona began with a series of everyday objects like a curtain or a staircase – a reference to Gerorges Perec’s essay on the ordinary.  She then took these objects out of context. “In this way there was the possibility to play with fiction and reality, and to create a new space,” she says.

Next Fiona made a series of molds based on questioning shapes and why they are as they are.  With these she produced a series of actual props – everyday objects, albeit made with completely unexpected but familiar materials such as sugar and soap.  “I didn’t adhere to any of the usual constraints,” she says.  “I just combined two common practicalities - shape and materials – and the result was this series of unstable, curious and speculative props.  It was a way to challenge what is considered normal and to leave space for the imagination.”

But perhaps most intriguingly Fiona wrote an entire script from the perspective of design as an attitude, an awareness machine, and a critical and political tool, thus combining it with the historical and critical function of theatre. “My results re-script, re-stage and re-act the spectacle of our everyday in a disruptive way,” explains Fiona.

Here starts the representation. The lights fade on the audience. The curtains open on a domestic stage: door, window, staircase and props… Another dollhouse. 

If her play was to be performed, (designed) objects would serve as the script to reinvent social norms.  “I think individual performances can be called social representations that build on a global scale to create the social order as we know it, as well as our cultural identity,” Fiona explains.

After presenting this work during Dutch Design Week Fiona thinks the biggest reminder the project offers to designers is to take risks – to dare to be absurd.

“A lot of designers take risks already in other ways,” she says,  “but distorting the familiar makes us better able to create new perspectives on what we experience everyday, even if it’s not a very functional form of design.
“As a social designer,” she continues, “my part in this play is to question this script on its different scales and to undermine the norms.  A designer can be the scriptwriter and stage director of everyday life, a role that demands real imagination.  I really believe that we need to be more imaginative about how design is used and therefore performed.”

Published: 30-Oct-2015 13:53
  • Design as a Prop

    Fiona du Mesnildot - Domestic Theatre

  • Design as a Prop

    Fiona du Mesnildot - Domestic Theatre

  • Design as a Prop

    Fiona du Mesnildot - Domestic Theatre

  • Design as a Prop

    Fiona du Mesnildot - Domestic Theatre

  • Design as a Prop

    Fiona du Mesnildot - Domestic Theatre

  • Design as a Prop

    Fiona du Mesnildot - Domestic Theatre

  • Design as a Prop

    Fiona du Mesnildot - Domestic Theatre

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