Ballo was the first photographer to turn objects into icons, to grant them a value that, through his expert eye, would make them meaningful representatives of their time.
His lesson has been learnt and taken several steps beyond by the youngest generations of creatives. In a world that feeds on images more than on anything else, and that feeds very fast indeed, communication has become one of the most important issues in top design schools and academies.
Students select institutions also according to the quality of the visibility that they are able to guarantee: the Design Academy in Eindhoven and the Royal College of Art in London, for instance, are among the first to guarantee a presence at the Milan Fuori Salone, as well as a state-of-the-art graduation show, attended by the press and companies alike. A lot of other schools have followed their example.
But competition is so fierce today that the Ballo recipe (product = star per se in a shot) is no longer sufficient to guarantee attention. The new trend seems to be focused on turning objects into elements in an overall story, narrated through a very well thought out styling exercise.
One only has to look at the amazing photos of some of the Moooi collection pieces taken by Erwin Olaf a while back to figure out that empathy with the potential customer is now developed by alluring them with a story. In that particular case, contemporary pieces by Marcel Wanders had been used as part of an overall set design conceived to imitate Golden Age still-life paintings.
Lisa Klappe, a very young photographer from Eindhoven, is one of the rising stars of this new trend. She is doing most of the photos of young graduates from the Design Academy, and also covering most new upcoming talents from the Netherlands from Jo Meesters to Kiki van Eijk and Maarten Baas.
“I do not function in a commissioned way. I’d rather work closely together with the designer, and my photos are always the result of a joint concept.”
For the Pulp series by Jo Meesters, a collection of vases, furniture and lamps made of paper and a gluing element, Klappe and the designer decided to go for an Amish look: authentic, serene, organic and a little mystic.
“Jo introduced models he had worked with before and had an idea for music,” Klappe recalls. “I took care of the light, background and props. It was really loads of work: we ended up carrying more than 80 bags of sand into his studio.” The result is a series of shots that have nothing to envy of an old master’s painting.
Examples of such photography, in which the object becomes an excuse to provide a feeling, a sentiment or a story, are nowadays becoming increasingly common. One of the most successful concepts proposed by the French VIA this year in Milan was Gaëlle Gabillet and Stéphane Villard’s Objets Trou Noir: a series of objects made of a black material that is issued from the remains of recycled rubbish.
The images that accompany the project, though, do not so much focus on explaining the innovative value of the idea (which is indeed very interesting) but create a series of small stories developed in ironic sets with unexpected characters.
When looking at all of these beautiful images, one is often either moved by the beauty of it all, or feels intrigued by the narrative that they suggest. Is the attention for objects actually fading away?
And when, after careful analysis, it turns out that the item should be the focus of the communication, the product is actually less interesting than the story that surrounds it (which may not be the case in the examples given but it often is), isn’t it normal to wonder whether the focus on communication has actually gone a little too far and turned into a way to hide a lack of honest innovation?
“At the end, it all comes down to marketing and publicity,” says Klappe. Which is very true. One is only left to wonder whether this all goes to help design as a profession or whether it simply supports the already gigantic public relations hype that surrounds it.