Design Biennial Theme

The following theme for the biennial was proposed by Deyan Sudjic (member of its Biennial advisory board and director of the Design Museum, London)


Imperfection is the theme of the first Istanbul Design Biennial. And there is nowhere better to explore it than in Istanbul, a city of infinite layers, charged with the vitality that comes from engaging with rapid urban, social and cultural change. Istanbul as a city, is far from perfect, yet it is one of the most exhilarating and dynamic centres in the world. Its special quality is that it makes so much from the imperfect, the inexact and the provisional. As a theme Imperfection will both celebrate Istanbul’s distinctive creative qualities, and encapsulate a wider discussion about the nature of design in the contemporary world. It will tell the world something about Istanbul, and offer the world a sharp insight into the nature of contemporary design.

Imperfection is a new take on old ideas. It gives the Japanese concept of Wabi, of impermanence, transience and imperfection a new expression. It is one that motivates an entire generation of young designers. It is to accept that we no longer believe in utopia, but find inspiration in working with the messy reality of everyday life. When the quality of machine production is a given, there is no need to pursue precision and repetition for their own sakes. It becomes possible to introduce the possibility of deviance from a perceived norm into the process. Imperfection is much harder to ork with than perfection. To try to make a perfect object is to know what to aim for, when you design every joint, create every seam, and shape every surface. But to look for the positive qualities in imperfection, you cannot blindly commit to a process or a conceptual framework and expect the outcome you would like simply through the exercise of skill or persistence or consistency. Every decision is a personal choice, not the result of a philosophy.

For a designer the tricky thing about looking for the qualities of imperfection is the demands it places on them to justify aesthetic decisions. Perfection is an aspect of an object that while it may not be easy to achieve, is conceptually straightforward. In the age of mass production, perfection has been taken to mean the ability to make hundreds, thousands or even millions of objects that are all exactly the same. The word itself suggests the existence of an original, with the special qualities that implies. Such objects are understood as perfect copies of something else, rather than objects that are to be understood as having their own individual qualities. Mass produced objects are the outcome of an era in which though there may be a prototype, or a model, there is no original. It is the mass produced nature of the object that is the point of the exercise. It means that every Volkswagen from a particular production run, is the same as every other Volkswagen. There is no single ideal object, with what Walter Benjamin called the ‘aura’ of art, creating a category of object to distinguish it in an age of mechanical reproduction. What there is by contrast is the promise of performance for the many. Each car has the same characteristics, the characteristics of the model. It is in some ways the very opposite of the human desire for the distinctive and the individual, the instinctive desire to make our possessions our own. The pursuit of the perfect is in part an understanding of one of the issues of the early days of mass production.

To explore the attractions of imperfection puts the designer in a much more exposed position. Every step of the design process demands making a decision, as it were, without a safety net. We now have the possibility of using industrial production with a new level of sophistication. Not to use a machine to make an object that looks as if it was made by hand—something that has been a subtext to manufacturing since the beginning of the 19th century. When the quality of machine production is a given, there is no purpose in pursuing precision or repetition for its own sake. It becomes possible to introduce the possibility of variation and individuality into the process. So shiny glossy surfaces can be replaced by lesser degrees of polish. Pure geometry is not the only possible formal language. Pure colour can give way to muddy mixes. Symmetry is not the only option. The motivation in attempting to exploit the possibility of imprecisions to find ways of tinkering with mass production methods to give objects the charisma of the individual, is to make it clear that your vase, glass or, even chair is not exactly the same as all the others, and in some sense is distinctively personal. It is to soften and domesticate the industrial.