For its seventh furniture series, MANIERA invited the American designer Jonathan Muecke to a residency in Belgium. The one-week stay was to take place in specific architectural surroundings with the aiming of being an inspiring source for the designer, as Henry Van de Velde’s Wolfers House was for Richard Venlet’s MANIERA 03. From a number of possibilities that MANIERA offered Muecke, the designer almost immediately chose the Van Wassenhove House by the Belgian architect Juliaan Lampens.
Lampens’ architecture is characterised as brutalism without compromise. Completed in 1974, the Van Wassenhove House is one of the best examples of the architect’s built oeuvre in the Ghent area. The house is planned for one inhabitant; it is built entirely in rough concrete except for a few functions that are defined in wooden boxes or niches scattered about on an open floor-plan. Three facades of the building, including the one facing the street, do not engage with the surroundings. The building opens up its interior only to the beautiful garden on one side. These features demonstrate the main characteristics of Lampens’ architecture: the bunker-like appearance to the outsider, nature entering the building through one side and the open plan of the interior, where no function is considered secondary. The open plan in Lampens’ buildings is not only an architectural idea on paper, but also a way of living. The architect seeks the equal presence of every function in the space, without any separation, including acoustics.
Jonathan Muecke became familiar with Lampens’ work through a monograph published in 2010. But until his stay in the house, Muecke knew the spaces more as images, as he had seen in the pictures the Belgian photographer Jan Kempenaers took for the book. These pictures show the spaces with the owner’s personal belongings. According to Muecke, the images show an architecture that is powerful, and this intrigued him prior to his one-week stay in the actual space of the house. Having himself trained and briefly worked as an architect, Muecke’s interest in Lampens’ architecture might not come as a surprise. Yet what engaged his attention in Lampens’ work goes beyond their shared architectural training. As a designer, Jonathan Muecke is interested in making universal objects that are conceived and made with great precision. If any parallel had to be drawn between the work of Lampens and Muecke, it would, rather, be the uncompromising attitude towards objects of different scales. In this approach, Muecke creates objects that are remote but still allow spaces outside of themselves. Lampens’ architecture functions similarly, also because of the rigid definitions he uses so as to leave an austere space free for the user to modify.
The ARC Series
In the surroundings of the Van Wassenhove House, Jonathan Muecke created five objects for MANIERA 07. In their definition, the pieces cover a spectrum from clear presence to the explicit absence of function. They could be brought together under the title ‘ARC Series’, and they share attributes of the arc. Muecke’s main interest lies in the ‘line’, which he extends into the third dimension. In the objects for the ‘ARC Series’ he explores how to stabilise the line structurally and arrives at the geometry of the arc.
(ARC – Single / Double)
In Muecke’s practice, the notion of drawing plays an important role, but the translation to the third dimension is the essential part of the work. In two lamps made for MANIERA 07, the idea of a drawn line becoming an object is reached through the introduction of a curve. This provides the structural stability for the object without losing the effect of a line. The piece is an elegant curve made with a C-shaped aluminium extrusion profile, which houses a LED strip inside and stands on three slender legs. The light is cast downwards onto the floor. In this way, the object inverts the concept of indirect lighting, which usually aims to maximise the illuminated area by the reflection off the ceiling or a wall. Muecke’s light objects, called Single ARC (30cm tall) and Double ARC (60cm tall), cast light onto the floor beneath them. They are light sources for the space rather than lamps with the clear function of illuminating another object. In some way, both these lamps are isolated objects. Yet as soon as they are given a place in architectural surroundings they create a space outside and around themselves. The colour of the LED light throws the same golden gleam on surfaces such as the aluminium profile it is housed in. The object and its effect become one.
(LWC – Low Wooden Chair)
In another object that is much clearer about its function, Muecke experiments with assembling two geometries that involve the line and the arc. The designer makes a low, wooden stool that refers to the furniture in the Van Wassenhove House as seen in the photographs by Jan Kempenaers. Very simple in its appearance, Muecke’s chair is a comfortable piece of furniture. It has a backrest and a slightly downward sloping seat, which are absent from Lampens’ spartan, right-angled furnishings. However, in its materiality and simplicity, the chair does relate to the other furniture in the house. Its appearance is ambiguous because of its solid though not heavy presence. The combination of two geometries, the line and the arc, is clearly visible in the front legs, which appear straight from the side but are convex towards the inside. The back legs are longer so as to carry the backrest. The line and the arc of the legs slightly change direction above the seat, so that the legs become slender and a lightness is granted to the furniture.
The fourth piece Muecke made in the series is a shelf, which is directly inspired by a rack brought into the house by Albert Van Wassenhove. This wooden rack was placed on the split level next to the curved wall defining the sleeping area, also made of wood. The shelf caught Jonathan Muecke’s attention in a photograph by Jan Kempenaers, which shows the furniture full of books. In his design, Muecke remakes this shelf in his own idiom, incorporating the line and the arc. He defines the horizontal surface of the piece of furniture by doubling the arc with two different curves that meet one another at their ends. Each arc-plate is borne by seven slender legs at equal distances from each other on the outer rim of the object. When four examples of this object are stacked on top of each other the rack ‘happens’, as with the wooden shelf in the Van Wassenhove interior. However, unlike the latter, Muecke’s rack is a very light object. The piece is made completely of waxed aluminium and the horizontal plate is only 5mm thick. Its presence in the space is closer to a line than a solid volume. Since the geometry derives from two different arcs on its upper surface, the furniture presents a different appearance depending on where we view it from.
(FTS – Flat Textile Shape)
The final component of the MANIERA 07 series is called Flat Textile Shape. It is a vertical textile piece that Muecke installs on the garden side of the Van Wassenhove House. The piece has no defined function, but takes Lampens’ architecture as a condition for its presence. It is fixed in the gap where two concrete floor slabs on the terrace join. The shape is composed of three different arcs that meet each other at the top and two outermost curves that meet the line at the bottom. The connection details on the light aluminium structure underneath the textile are not visible. When taken out of the context of the Van Wassenhove House, the Flat Textile Shape stands in front of us as a light, vertical textile piece that plays with our perceptions without claiming any function. The most obvious use of it would be as a room divider, yet Muecke prefers not to label it as such. However, as a design object, Flat Textile Shape awakens an expectation with its precise presence. This is where the attitudes of Juliaan Lampens and Jonathan Muecke meet: from furniture to building, designing universal objects with certain strengths.