by David Crowley
Marc Augé, the French anthropologist, once wrote a book which argued that modern airports were designed to be non-places. They all look the same not only because we find the familiar easier to negotiate but also because these environments should propel us on our journeys. Nothing should so distinct or interesting, Augé argued, that it would hold the traveller back. This ‘rule’ was broken in 2008 when British Airways commissioned Troika, a London-based design group, to design a digital sculpture for its new Heathrow terminal. Cloud – a five-metre long 3-d lozenge clad in double-sided flip-dots – hovers between vertiginous escalators in the Richard Rogers Partnership-designed building. Its surface ripples at great speed, as the flip-dots turn on the instruction of a computer. They form innumerable patterns – sometimes the cloud is dark embellished with little more than a tendril of silver before instantly becoming a shining jewel etched with dark lines. The visual effect – and the sound of the rippling flip-dots - is mesmerising. The Cloud seems strangely alive.
Troika stretch the definition of what it is to be a designer. Formed by product designer and engineer Sebastien Noel, graphic designers Conny Freyer and Eva Rucki in 2003, this small London consultancy have rapidly become an much admired practice known for the inventiveness of their ideas and, increasingly, the ambition of their projects. ‘We are lucky’ acknowledges Noel, ‘we don’t have clients coming to ask us for what they already want: they come to us and say this is the issue, can you do something?’ Their public artworks draw on considerable design invention, not least in the generation of letterforms and in the ‘solutions’ to thorny technical challenges that they set themselves. Not only do they straddle the art and design divide but also they write and design books, most recently Digital by Design (Thames and Hudson, 2008). Alongside commissioned works for clients, they have also have authored products including Newton, a ‘non-destructive virus’ for Apple computers which introduces the effects of gravity onto a laptop screen. Icons tumble downward as if they have suddenly acquired mass.
In an age where designers ought to do much more than style products, Troika seem to provide a valuable model of what thoughtful, articulate and creative designers can be. Not that this is necessarily new phenomenon. Rucki points to the long history of the inventive designer: ‘I gave a talk in Munich this summer. The organisers wanted to explore parallels between Bauhaus and the present. And there are obvious parallels which show that what we do is not that new or so different to what they did at the Bauhaus. Moholy Nagy, in particular, authored books, made photographs and films, produced the ‘Licht-Raum-Modulator’ (Light-Space Modulator)’.
It seems characteristic of their thinking that Rucki should invoke the Hungarian visionary artist and designer, Moholy Nagy. Working in the space between art, design and technology, Troika have an unusually awareness of the past. Their designs frequently draw on the reserves of knowledge which can be found in seemingly redundant technologies and overlooked materials. ‘Cloud’ draws on the flip-dot systems which used to serve information display boards at airports and railway stations. But of course it is updated too. Rucki notes ‘these displays used to update every thirty seconds and now they flip in real time’.
Commissioned to make the visual identity and installation for One-Dot-Zero new media festival in 2008 on the theme of the ‘Citystates’, Troika turned to the pre-history of the cinema to produce a ‘Digital Zoetrope’. The illusion of motion produced by the nineteenth century zoetrope in which spinning and looped images can be viewed through an aperture was updated by using rapidly blinking LEDs. Troika’s device can deliver different patterns or letterforms depending on the speed of the flashing lights. At the right frequency, they merge into words and letters on the surface of the drum. Set the task of working with Wim Crouwel’s obdurate ‘Gridnik’ typeface by Onedotzero, Troika deconstructed the typeface into vertical, horizontal and diagonal elements. They cohere into words and magically dissolve back into buzzing patterns before the viewer’s eye. In this way the nineteenth century discovery of the stroboscopic effect known as ‘the persistence of vision’ is put to unexpected uses.
Asked what motivates their explorations into earlier visual and information technologies, Noel answers ‘Our friend Nick Roope says “technology always looks forwards and never backward. Why is that?” We systematically trash everything that was before, assuming that the next generation of things will be superior in quality but what kind quality are we talking about?’ This view is not unlike that of French philosopher Michel Serres. In arguing that ‘The past is not out-of-date’, Serres made the simple point that all ‘new’ inventions are ‘a disparate aggregate of scientific and technical solutions dating from different periods.’ Yet we live in an amnesiac age which makes a fetish of the new.
Reflecting on their interest in the intelligence contained in things, Rucki adds: ‘it is partly to do with the fact that we all were students when analogue processes were still around. When I studied graphic design, there was silkscreen printing workshop, there was woodblock printing. When Sebastien studied engineering, they had a foundry .. We watched all these technologies disappear’. For Troika, this is not a matter of lachrymose nostalgia: ‘we are interested in the different ways of thinking and the different languages which are locked in materials and technologies.’ In fact, their objects have a crispness of design and detailing which shuns the kind of retro aesthetic often found in works by in artists who salvage obsolete technologies.
‘Older technologies often have a kind of elegance’ says Noel, picking up Rucki’s thread, ‘because of the boundaries or limits that they set’. A world without limits is not quite the liberation it might seem at first to be. ‘I give you a screen with infinite resolution, infinite possibilities, infinite colour, and what do you produce? .. a screen saver.’ This is his preferred term to criticize the spectacular but ultimately hollow designs which digital designers often produce. Nothing proves his case more effectively than ‘All the Time in the World’, a 22m long electroluminescent wall, also for Terminal Five. An updated clock, it displays the current time in London alongside the names of sites around the world. Functional airport codes (WAW, BOS, CDG) are replaced by something much more poetic (Mount Fuji or the palace-memorial Taj Mahal). To realize the wall, Troika developed a new kind of display called 'Firefly' through which its custom-designed segmented typeface printed on thin panels can be animated. This was achieved by combining the new and the old: the letter segments were screen-printed by hand but, in use, are controlled by state-of-the-art electronic drivers. No less important is the fact that ‘All the Time in the World’ is far less energy-hungry than conventional plasma screens.
Troika’s work often looks simple. But of course simplicity it not easy to achieve. Currently the trio are about to oversee the installation of a public artwork in a new building in a urban regeneration scheme in Toronto. Invited to enter the competition, Troika reflected on the natural phenomena associated with the lake-side setting. These include impressive lightning storms which regularly discharge into Lake Ontario. They have designed a 30m high lightning bolt which will fill an atrium overlooking the lake. Light will animate – from within - the spectacular form of this massive sculpture.
Troika’s aim has been not only to provide a new landmark for the city but also to forge a better connection with Toronto’s beautiful but ignored lake. The form and the concept are powerfully simple: the technical challenges are considerable. Each segment of the angular structure is unique and the engineering requires complex compound angles. As the form tightens to produce the sharp forks which give lightning its splintered appearance, Troika faced the problem of how to hide the cables and controls on which the animation relies. Considerable work is folded into resolving such ‘small’ details.
Noel - an engineer by training – eschews describing such projects in terms of risk. ‘What is the perception of risk? Everything is intrinsically risky. What makes it less risky is to really look at the issue and to know this can fail and therefore we’ll do that. .. Risk seems like a negative thing. But I think it can be very positive. It can mean being willing to explore; having the curiosity to try something that has not been done ..’
Approaching every commission as if from first principles has its own price. Troika put considerable energy into making sure that their ideas work even at competition stage when others might be prepared to submit a sketch and cross their fingers. Disinclined to repeat ideas, they enjoy few opportunities to optimize their discoveries or to license their creativity in the form of products (‘a flip-dot disco ball’ as Freyer puts it, her tongue in her cheek). The small scale of the studio – currently nine people - has its disadvantages but also its benefits. Troika are evidently excited about everything that they do and they clearly are entirely at ease with one another. Their answers to my questions are peppered with laughter and trigger lively exchanges between the trio. They acknowledge the different skills that they bring to the studio, but as they note ‘We are constantly looking over each other’s shoulders and there is a lot of feedback and dynamic exchange. And that is why we keep Troika small. You don’t necessarily need to be big to tackle bigger projects. .. It does not follow that if you bring in more people, you’ll go faster. It is usually the contrary.’
In this spirit, Freyer describes one of their most important plans for 2010; to take a sabbatical. The month of April has been struck off Troika’s calendar ‘to travel, think and to consider what we’d like to do next’. Knowing that they could easily undertake a dozen more public art commissions is not a reason for doing so. Taking a cue from American graphic designer Stefan Sagmeister (who takes one year off in seven) Troika are announcing their intention to the world, not least to ensure that they stick to their plans.
Published in 2+3D Magazine, January 2010
David Crowley is Professor and Head of the department History of Design at the Royal College of Art. Prior to moving to the College, he taught as Senior Lecturer at the University of Brighton.
David is the author of 'The Power of Marginalia. The Art of Dan and Lia Perjovschi', 'Polish Designers of the Twentieth Century' and 'Pleasures in Socialism: Leisure and Luxury in the Eastern Bloc', which was co-edited with Susan Reid.
In 2008 David curated the much acclaimed ‘Cold War Modern’ exhibition at the V&A with fellow RCA-colleague Jane Pavitt. ‘Sounding the Body Electric’, an exhibition of experimental art and music in the 1960s, will open at the National Museum in Warsaw and Moravian Gallery in Brno in summer 2011, along with another exhibition on contemporary Polish art for the BOZAR in Brussels.