A flower vase fashioned from the sludge of an oil spill; a lightweight stool shaped like the lower half of a male nude; multipurpose “guerilla” containers, hand-sewn to resemble sandbags used in combat. These are among the objects in “Bravos: Groundbreaking Spanish Design,” an exhibition of works by young Spanish designers now showing at the Katzen Arts Center at American University. The exhibition features 21 diverse artists — signifying that we are, after all, in the 21st century — to embody all the trends in contemporary Spanish design.
The curator, Juli Capella, a 50-year-old architect, is well-regarded in Spain for his holistic, witty and sometimes subversive approach to design.
Capella says he approached curating the exhibit the same way he would building a hotel. First, by seeking a strong concept, here young Spanish talent on the leading edge. Then, by defining it, here by selecting 21 designers. And finally, by executing the concept through the exhibit, constructing a small “chapel” for each object, placing each of them in front of a larger-than-life-size photograph of its creator, each image suspended on a spider-like, collapsible, metallic frame.
Capella has worked across the disciplines of interior design, graphic design, industrial design and town planning. As a young phenom, in 1984, he founded and edited De Diseno, the first specialty design journal in Spain. He has curated exhibitions including “Barcelona Design in the 20th Century: From Gaudi to the Olympic Games,” shown in Washington in 1997.
In conversations and e-mails, he described the aims behind the exhibit:
“I tried not to be repetitive — not all were chairs and lamps, but I think we do them best in Spain. I wanted there to be real-world objects, but also some experimental, some prototypical — such as the chair of unbreakable Tyvek — others more poetic, even some political, such as the flower vase made from tar as commentary on oil spills.
“They also had to be large objects, so the public could be very close and touch them, without the risk of them being stolen. I did not want to put anything under glass — that’s for traditional museums.
“The functionality of the objects is relative: I think that every user (not consumer!) decides that subjectively. Ettore Sottsass [a preeminent figure in postmodern design] taught us that it may be more practical and comfortable to sit on a rock five hours if you are happy waiting for your girlfriend, than to sit in an ergonomic chair, if you’re working in an office and bitter with disappointment.
“All the Bravos designers are trying to say something new and ingenious; they do not conform to make commercial goods; they seek a more experimental and, therefore, more risky goal. Some have two faces like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Two contrasting styles in the same person.
“The first obligation of a creator is ‘killing the father.’ Tradition is something to disobey, but actually what is done is to continue. Whether you hate [Catalan architect Antoni] Gaudi’s work or love it, if you’re a Spanish designer you cannot escape his influence, even if you’re trying to contradict him.
“The Bravos are the generation born in the heat of Internet; they know that their field is the world, and they like to exchange and mix disciplines, architecture, graphic design, fashion. . . . They are great communicators in the communication era. So the evolution of Spanish design is similar to that of any other civilized country.
“Unfortunately, we all read the same magazines, go to the same art fairs, and we have similar training. One hypothesis of this exhibition is that although there is a Spanish design with its own personality, what we do is becoming more generic. Within a few decades, it will be difficult to identify the design of a particular country. But I hope not. As was stated by Spanish writer Josep Pla, ‘the most local is most international.’ ”
Leiby is a freelance writer.
at the Katzen Arts Center at American University, 4400 Massachusetts Ave. NW, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday to Sunday, through May 15. 202-885-1300 or email@example.com.