Charting Individualism

Charting Individualism

Deeply influenced by modernist canons, Emre Yunus Uzun, an emerging designer, looks to the future of production through material integrity.

Beauty and usefulness were long considered to be two separate qualities. William Morris (1834-1896) – a pre-eminent figure in textile design – perhaps promoted this thought with the infamous quote: “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.” This idiom sparked a wealth of new ideals surrounding the home, presupposing that our possessions should be one or the other, or indeed, could simply appeal to our own sense of aesthetics.

However, underpinning recent global attitudes is the need for both, and, by extension, a new attraction and respect for materials. Perhaps what designers should now be considering is Morris’s less-circulated idea: “The true secret of happiness lies in taking a genuine interest in all the details of daily life.” Having been featured in magazines such as Vogue Turkey and Sight Unseen, as well as speciality websites like Design Milk, Emre Yunus Uzun – a product and interior designer – has been widely praised. With pieces that take consumer needs into account, he honours the importance of the artisan through elegant objects that let the materials speak for themselves.

Whilst Morris’s 19th century Arts and Crafts Movement originated in England, it’s easy to see how some of the ideas are now being revived, worldwide, through a desire for bespoke items. Uzun lives and works in Izmir – the third largest city in Turkey after Istanbul and Ankara. Having graduated from the city’s University of Economics in 2014, he specialised in Interior Architecture and Environmental Design. The two practices, he notes, are “different in terms of scale, yet by understanding how structures work and how objects relate to different geographies helps the development of ideas.” This knowledge base – one that accounts for multiple forms – provides the crux of Uzun’s methodology, one which relies on flexibility between media. Ultimately, he notes: “My curiosity directs my creative process.” This appetite promotes finding joy in materials. Spontaneity – a technique that encourages one-off products – is informed by a fascination with the smaller, building blocks of design: traditions and techniques. “Material integrity is all about returning to the origins,” he says, adding that this stance is a means of showing “respect for the world we live in.” Focusing on glass, wood, stone and metal, a spectrum of raw, organic matter combines intuitively with traditional craftsmanship. Uzun’s unvarnished approach is an attempt to “reduce the materials to their very essence.” This aspiration is also linked to sustainability by asserting a premium on high-quality products that people can enjoy for years. The hope is that, in the future, instead of relying on mass production, “designers can combine innovative technologies and traditional crafting techniques.”

Favouring timeless forms over disposable objects is also forming part of a new wave of consciousness in the 21st century. Following the ethos that products should be emotionally responsive to humanity’s needs – creating solutions whilst inspiring ideas – Uzun, amongst other emerging visionaries, is offering more than contemporary furniture: he provides a way out, back into tangible experiences. Citing an article entitled The Return of “Raw” Materials in Home Design (by Trish Lorenz, Financial Times, 2016), “what makes today’s approach different is that it goes beyond aesthetics: it is instead a lifestyle choice, a rejection of the faux and the virtual, and a celebration of the real. This engages the senses beyond the visual: textured stone demands to be touched, wood has a lingering scent and patented brass has a warmth that comes from age.”

The New York Times piece notes how pervasive this philosophy has become: restaurants have swapped formal interiors for a lived-in feel, and cosmetics company Aesop has implemented reclaimed wood shelving and metal display counters in storefronts. Brands are listening to the customers; people want – despite the rise in VR and augmented reality – to feel something with their fingertips. The feature also mentions a wide range of product designers who epitomise this school of thought: Norwegian duo Torbjørn Anderssen and Espen Voll (who make cast iron candleholders), Lithuanian designer Evelina Kudabaitė (who has used tree bark for a series of bowls), and Irish duo Superfolk (who fashion trivets from oak and beech). Uzun could easily fit in this list.

Balancing longstanding artisanal methods and innovative perspectives, however, requires a number of complex techniques, especially if the designer is to create something truly unique, not just adhering to tradition. Uzun defines his minimalist style as making “classic pieces with a modernist approach”, aspiring to make objects that go beyond the scope of current fashions, and remain not only relevant but attractive “50 years from now” (more than double the metric French designer Philippe Starck suggests.) How does one maintain a sense of freshness that stretches for half a century? Uzun adheres to Dieter Rams’ Ten Commandments of Design – a set of guidelines that define success as a mix of innovation, usefulness, intelligibility, honesty, durability, environmental friendliness, and restraint, amongst other key notions.

Today’s audiences are increasingly respectful of truthful, deliberate choices, forgoing mass production for something indelible. Uzun satisfies this – whilst considering ecological impact – by keeping to fundamental geometric forms and clean lines over unnecessary embellishments. The Arche Collection, for example, is characterised by sinuous U-shaped curves – a three-piece tabletop series consisting of a vase, a candle holder and a bowl. The three objects share elegantly undulating silhouettes, certainly worthy of the graceful name. Each item, anchored by slices of white and grey marble, is rendered in two ways: brushed aluminum or brushed brass.

Such refined examples, however, aren’t achieved without influence. Uzun frequently recalls the works of acclaimed visionaries. Notably this includes Alvar Aalto, Louis Kahn, Jean Prouvé and Ettore Sottsass. Nods to the latter can be seen in the Perforé Side Table (1959). With a marble top, a perforated copper magazine rack and powder-coated metal base, the product playfully switches between presence and absence: the sturdy flatness of the marble finds its opposite in the dip of the copper, the design equivalent of a dress with a surprising cut-out. The speckled resin-topped side table, with metal legs and available in three colours, feels like a modern-day cousin of Sottsass’s 1980s Casablanca Sideboard.

Contemporary comparisons include Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec – a successful duo whose practice follows not only a similar aesthetic but a similar approach to Uzun. The brand’s emphasis on materials was recently showcased for Danish textiles manufacturer Kvadrat, creating a showroom with “no colours, just materials,” to highlight the quality of fabrics produced by the brand, paired with natural materials such as oak and concrete flooring. The duo also follow Morris’s idiom – the joy of design is ultimately found in the detail.

Ronan Bouroullec got his big break in 1997 when his customisable Disintegrated Kitchen was spotted by Giulio Cappellini at the Paris Furniture Fair. Since then, they have won multiple awards, exhibited internationally and been included in many publications including 50 Designers You Should Know (Prestel, 2017) – a title previously featured in Aesthetica – alongside Starck and Rams.

It’s therefore important to note the ways in which practitioners now break into such a competitive industry. For some, like Bouroullec, it comes from large-scale fairs such as Design Shanghai or London Design Festival; the latter of which recently housed pieces by Flynn Talbot and Camille Walala – artists that are becoming increasingly popular for their attention to detail. Walala is renowned for bright, patterned environments, whilst Talbot created one of LDF’s most visited exhibitions: a neon space entitled Reflection Room.

These types of events are a huge contributor to artists’ success, and are prevalent internationally. Closer to Uzun is the Istanbul Biennial, which, having recently celebrated its 15th year, is one such example that proves the established presence of Turkey amongst other design-centric centres. Indeed, as Uzun notes, “there are some really impressive Turkish fashion designers that are making a mark on the international scene.” Textile, leather and clothing production has been in place for centuries, but Turkey’s reputation is still growing, encompassing visionaries with a Western aesthetic, including Hussein Chalayan, who was awarded an MBE in 2006. Whilst landscape and locality are certainly a contributor to achieving wide-spread acclaim, they are undeniably, not a conclusive or even measurable factor for success.

Practitioners can have their work seen by millions on digital platforms like Behance and Instagram, sites that not only enable the designer to share his various production phases, but promote the work beyond the borders of the country, reaching new customers (“clients with common values always find you to collaborate in new projects,” Uzun remarks). As Farhad Manjoo states in How the Internet Is Saving Culture, Not Killing It: “In just about every cultural medium, whether movies or music or books or the visual arts, digital technology is letting in new voices, creating new formats for exploration, and allowing fans and other creators to participate in a glorious remixing of the work” (The New York Times, March 2017). Such websites provide opportunities for showcasing ideas at an international level, which is crucial for those attempting to break into the industry. Commissions, wider circulation and e-commerce are rife within online communities. Uzun has had more visibility since connecting with London-based &Ratio – self-described as “a platform for creating a link between the creative market and design conscious individuals” (in fact, Aesthetica discovered the designer on this very site). There, Uzun’s works feature alongside those by Álvaro Díaz Hernández  (Spain), Sayar & Garibeh (Lebanon), Elena Xanthopoulou (Greece), Erickson Aesthetics (USA), MannMade (UK), and fellow Turkish DAY Studio. “There is a ‘maker’ movement growing all over the world,” Uzun confirms.

Ultimately, across a number of countries, the excitement and hardship of design remains the same: the métier requires wrestling with a lot of trial and error to achieve the “right” outcome, building pathways between emerging and established practices. For Uzun, that will always mean, instead of simply finding a balance between Morris’s aesthetic and function, he will continue to push boundaries.

Sarah Moroz