Catherine Geel

Acting on the complexity and fragility of our world

How can design solve environmental issues? This is the question that Catherine Geel wanted to address in the French section of the XXII Milan Design Triennial, which opened its doors on 1st March. Meet this historian, an editor and researcher from the Design Research Centre, who is curating the exhibition. 

Updated on 07/03/2019

5 min

The French section of the XXII Milan Design Triennial
The French section of the XXII Milan Design Triennial
© Gianluca Di Ioia

The French exhibit “From Thought to the Visible. Design as a large ring” brings together 9 projects by designers: David Bihanic and his NASA ‘Big Data’ visualizations, Samy Rio and his new approach to design using materials from invasive plants following a study on bamboo, or Astrid de la Chapelle, Sarah Garcin and Pauline Briand and their story around the history of Easter Island.


The XXII edition of the Milan Triennial is called “Broken Nature”. How do you interpret this theme?

Paola Antonelli, a curator at MoMa, who suggested this theme this year, wanted designers in the broadest sense – from city planners to architects – to explore what can still be recovered today of our ties to nature. This theme, apart from being intensely topical, has a second major appeal: it makes it possible to consider designers not only as producers of consumer objects but as philosophers and practitioners: they initiate and participate in complex projects on a larger scale, in this case environmental and societal issues for example.

Catherine Geel
© Charlotte Pierot
Catherine Geel

What story did you want to tell through the 9 projects presented?

The designer, who begins as a generalist, has always been obliged to embrace a large amount of data, facts and interactions with all kinds of different professions (craftspeople, engineers, political scientists, semioticians, scientists, sociologists, etc.). With the challenges of projects related to nature and ecology, this circle is becoming ever wider. The data points are even more numerous and much more complex.

The question behind the concept of a “large ring” is how designers can inspire themselves and find a renewing energy in this data. French designers are often engaged in processes that are too solitary, not sufficiently well-recognised, while the design project is also a social form which they implement. French designers work with scientists of all nationalities, local players, people from across continental France, the overseas territories, around the world and while considering the globe as a whole. They go back and forth between the field, the laboratory and their workshops; designers become intermediaries who enable understanding and organise the mediation of a certain amount of complex data which must be dealt with. This French section shows us how they interpret and act on the complexity and fragility of our world.


How are these projects innovative?

The drive for innovation is primarily economic: we are all forced to use this term, but it seems to me that it should be handled with caution in this context. An old recipe can be innovative! When Marie-Sarah Adenis, together with engineers, biologists and chemists, comes up with a cycle of bacteriological production that produces pigments and can revolutionise the textile industry by eliminating the use of petroleum derivatives, that is a great innovation and, additionally, creates economic value.

However, I believe that David Énon’s project, which seems to be the antithesis of this type of research, also works in terms of innovation. With modest resources, a low-tech technique and a very long process in coastal areas, he organises the production of elements thanks to the chemical phenomenon of accretion through which coral grows around steel skeletons.

The French Section, with the 9 projects also presented on the screens and in the books underneath.
© Gianluca Di Ioia
The French Section, with the 9 projects also presented on the screens and in the books underneath.

How is the French section presented?

I decided to call on Karl Nawrot, a graphic designer whose great skills include projecting his drawing and thinking in space. Sophie Breuil, a designer, and Block architects then built and developed this intuitive design and planned its path. It is a very large model extending over 45 m2 on which the designers’ projects are symbolically represented.

For each project a film was produced by the designers themselves, in order to recontextualise each project in reality. Using the English model of a “reader”, each project is accompanied by a theoretical extract of writing from a French thinker chosen from among texts we are also editing, such as Georges Bataille or Michel Serres. This section is a little still, quite poetic and contemplative. Here, we aren’t present an object, but rather a landscape.


What do you think the place of French design  is internationally today?

I say this all the time: in France, while there is no such broad tradition of design such as that which be found in many countries – particularly in the UK – there are, nevertheless, designers. Whether in the design of furniture or luxury crafts, France has a real tradition. However, on the research side, we are in a much lower position, perhaps even behind in terms of the development of technical resources and the resources allocated. Research, which recognises and follows the directions given to us by the state of the world, must question the heart of design not only when it comes to issues of form or of “design thinking”, but also regarding the unique modalities of designers’ methods or perspectives.

Research, which recognises and follows the directions given to us by the state of the world, must question the heart of design.

Can we say that this French section is a vision of the future?

It is more a reflection on the current state of affairs, which is a moment of great disruption in which many small modalities of action are taking shape. With these projects I am saying that there will be no overall solution. If it is of interest to us, then yes, we will find targeted and local means of action.


In the face of the climate emergency, what is the biggest challenge?

Changing our lifestyles is today’s biggest and grandest challenge.

The Institut français and the project

The XXII Milan Design Triennial runs from 1st March to 1st September 2019. The French section of the Triennial is implemented by the Institut français.

L'institut français, LAB