Through a mesmerising travelling exhibition called North Meets South – Spazio Rossana Orlandi in Milan – curator Li Edelkoort explains why creativity can be considered a driving force towards peace.

At the root of creativity there is an “aesthetic norm” that trends forecaster and style guru Li Edelkoort defines as “an organic visual language of archaic clear simplicity”.

It was during her numerous travels through Africa that Li Edelkoort first started to notice that numerous wooden indigenous chairs reminded her of Verner Panton’s S chair; that an Ivory Coast vase had the same shape as an Ole Jensen Royal Copenhagen teapot; that it was difficult to say whether some Senegalese patterns were African or Finnish, so similar were they to some Marimekko prints.

Was this a question of Northern artists and designers looking at Africa for inspiration – as great maestros like Alberto Giacometti or Picasso, Derain and Matisse did at the dawn of the 20th century? Or have African and Scandinavian design grown on a parallel path, yet independently? And if this is the case, why did this happen?

A strong advocate of the value of crafts and heritage, Edelkoort decided to explore further. The result is an impressive collection of everyday objects that tell us about how, at least as far as design goes, north meets south.

This collection, which Edelkoort painstakingly continues to enrich and enlarge, has been shown in Saint-Étienne, Paris and Stockholm, and its present showing at the Spazio Rossana Orlandi adds leverage to Rossana Orlandi’s own ethnic and vintage design collection.

“Recent discoveries have clearly indicated that the African continent is the cradle of Mankind, and therefore of its cultures,” explains Edelkoort. “With our roots in red earth, we have migrated to other horizons, higher mountains, vaster seas, colder climates…losing colour along the way. Yet an aesthetic norm seems to be genetically embedded in our collective memory.”

It is what she likes to call a “common design DNA”, which is translated into iconic, straightforward organic forms that designers seem to share. Not all designers, though.

This “meeting of forms” actually occurs mainly between Scandinavian designs and African arts and crafts. So why don’t other ‘design nations’ share the same DNA? Scandinavian contemporary design ideals emerged in the 1950s and are still cherished by most Nordic designers.

They are at the basis of the simple, matter-of-fact, functional objects that we now tag as ‘Scandinavian’, mass-produced with a democratic ideal in mind: to make quality available to the masses.

A truly modernist approach found in the particular form of social democracy that emerged in Scandinavia in the 50s is very fertile ground for growth.

This, coupled with the region’s wealth of natural materials such as wood, and technological know-how exemplified by form-pressed wood, plastics, anodised and enamelled aluminium and pressed steel for mass production, has made it possible for this ideal to be convincingly pursued until the present day.

While other countries gave in to mass industrialisation – with very little regard for nature – Scandinavian countries have also always been very aware of the need to enforce a sustainable approach to design, manufacturing and production. Hence their focus on the use of sustainable materials and their passion for recycling.

Although recycling is now a hot, trendy topic for most designers worldwide, none can be said to recycle more than African designers. Browsing through the numerous objects that Edelkoort has clustered for the exhibition, one can admire beautiful stools made of car tyres, handbags built out of old tins, furniture created from reclaimed pieces of wood, iron and steel.

“Northern European designers do it out of choice,” says Edelkoort, “but in Africa they do it out of actual need.”

The results are astonishingly very similar. So, in a way, while the rest of Europe and the Western world are still stuck in an industrial, unsustainable rut, Scandinavian designers move towards a future that actually brings them very, very close to their African counterparts.

The value of this exhibition goes well beyond intellectual pleasure or the visual appeal of aesthetic couplings.

Its multifaceted message is clear: creativity binds us all together and can help the creation of a more equal world; our relationship with nature is the starting point for the creation of the aesthetic norm, which is simple (but not simplistic), straightforward (but not dull) and functional (yet also decorative); the future is about simplicity, honesty and sustainability, and about looking back, and inside ourselves and at each other, as much as it is about looking ahead.  

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