Luigi Colani has designed everything from toilet seats to Hamburg police uniforms, from furniture to the revolutionary Canon T90 camera. And then there's the extraordinary conceptual work, which has had even greater influence, as a uniquely consistent body of work across numerous objects and projects. Formally, it's exemplified by sinuous muscular curves, drawn from nature in a process he calls biodesign.
"Whenever we talk about biodesign we should simply bear in mind just how amazingly superior a spider’s web is to any load-bearing structure man has made – and then derive from this insight that we should look to the superiority of nature for the solutions. If we want to tackle a new task in the studio, then it’s best to go outside first and look at what millenia-old answers there may already be to the problem." [Luigi Colani]
In his conceptual high-speed aircraft, trains and city cars we see the immediately recognisable shapes of dolphins, manta rays, water beetles, prehistoric creatures – and of course, though rarely referenced by the exhibition, the human form too. In Colani's biodesign, natural forms and solutions are the source of both consistency and endless invention. In this, there are echoes of the biomimicry thesis of Janine Benyus, though the American "nature nerd" science author and the cigar-chomping European speed freak seem unlikely collaborators, and standing amidst Colani's super-charged sexualised models, biomimicry seems rather ... neutered.
So this Colani exhibition is bloody great. Or rather, the work is bloody great - the exhibition itself is very poorly displayed. Design Museum exhibitions often can be, and they always feel a little small, but this got a particularly lame treatment that the work certainly doesn't deserve. A fairly predictable presentation might have been OK, if a little unimaginative, as the sheer presence of Colani's models would work in most settings. However, irritating sound installations seep throughout the space, video works on a tryptych of wall-mounted Panasonics add little if anything; and video projections spill over their intended targets.
Even all that might have been bearable, until a final terrible wall hosting 3 cheap Sony LCDs, with essentially imperceptible interviews with Tom Dixon, Jan Kaplicky and who I think was Ron Arad. I'd have loved to have heard what these three made of Colani's work, but a) the sound was poorly recorded and only coming from 2 of the 3 TVs; b) the visual presentation of their talking heads was badly shot against fuzzy white backgrounds (additionally, 1 of the 3 TVs wasn't tuned in correctly) and c) you stood no chance of hearing them anyway, due to the racket of the air conditioning units above. Really really bad. When we filmed Tom Dixon for Monocle, we got better AV and we were doing it with no prep, outside, in the middle of a rammed Salone del Mobile. How can these three designers - and Colani - not deserve a better job than this? The sound and vision elements emdedded within the space, the inherent components of the space itself, and the ongoing maintenance of both, throughout the run of the exhibition, are all fundamental to successful exhibition design. Obviously. I'm not suggesting that the exhibition design should necessarily be recessive and respectful – indeed, there is much in Colani's work that just makes you smile through its sheer audicity and verve, and some of it is so ludicrously muscular as to be funny (see also this unintentionally hilarious movie on the Colani website). Just ensure the exhibition is done with care, craft, and attention to detail, that's all.
Despite this, I hugely enjoyed seeing the work. It's completely brilliant. There was none of his BioCity stuff, and only a few production sketches, which might've added a further dimension. But life-size Colani Studio models are packed throughout the space, and they're just great to see in the flesh.
'In the flesh' feels like the right phrase – even though it's mostly fibreglass – due to the utterly sexy forms of Colani's work. It's unbelievably seductive. As conceptual work you wish was real, it sits alongside the larger concerns of Archigram, Superstudio and the Metabolists as utopian urban forms, and it's all too possible to imagine the cities of the latter set populated and connected by Colani planes, trains and automobiles. Apologies for the lack of photos from the exhibition, though the lighting would've rendered them useless anyway.
Fortunately, or perhaps unfortunately, having just devoured Pallasmaa's 'The Eyes of the Skin', I wanted to touch everything too. Of course, that was verboten, but I stole a few strokes of the lovely fibreglass bodies nonetheless. Pallasmaa had also reconfigured my peripheral vision, which was particularly attuned and heightened. Similarly, Michael Trudgeon had pointed out to me that Colani's work really deserves the photographic treatment that, say, Richard Serra's work gets, in terms of depicting the models sculpturally, giving a sense of their mass. This is work to see in person though. For instance, you can only really experience his extraordinary 1989 design for a high-speed train for the German state railway – which leaves even the Shinkansen looking pug-nosed and poorly endowed – by moving right over and around the model, performing an embodied, if inelegant, fly-over.
Above all, experiencing Colani provides a healthy rebuttal of our currently risk-averse culture. Risk is something he actively seems to seek out his designs and projects, something to be taken on and dealt with, rather than avoided. That in itself should be applauded.
So it's worth seeing despite the exhibition, just for the chance to get close to these designs. Until June 17th in London, and then let's hope it tours.