The exhibition “Domus: Patterns of Living” at the Pacific Design Center in Los Angeles (PDC) by Atelier Manferdini presents the studio’s research undertaken at different scales, both architectural and bodily, around the notion of domesticity and the space of the home. In this conversation with curator Helen Varola and architect Elena Manferdini we discuss the relationship between the studio’s research on the domestic sphere, in between physical and digital entity, and the larger ambitions of enquiry of PDC as a centre which is focused on interior design. Ultimately, we are brought into Atelier Manferdini’s research and reflections on how “ubiquitous digital technologies and global capital have altered the notion of identity as we knew it within the boundaries of our homes” and the role that we as designers can play in the shaping of these.
"Domus: Patterns of Living" by Atelier Manferdini, at the Pacific Design Center Design Gallery, Los Angeles, CA. Photo: Joshua White.
KOOZ to HV For those who are not familiar with the Pacific Design Centre, it would be great if you could briefly share an overview on the Centre and its ambitions.
HV The Pacific Design Center (PDC) is a part of Charles S. Cohen’s vision of a curated lifestyle, a luxury umbrella that covers the totality of his business endeavours including four design centres coast to coast, a hotel, a winery, men’s clothing companies, and film-related projects. All pertain to design and a certain quality of life that flows through all these undertakings.
What Frank Gehry did for Bilbao in 1997, Cesar Pelli did for West Hollywood in 1975. The development of the PDC, located north of Los Angeles in West Hollywood, spanned four decades (from 1975 to 2012) and its distinctive architectural exuberance and whimsy became a cultural icon, instantly taking centre stage in a city known for spotlight. The PDC is a showcase for global design with over 50 showrooms that debut the latest luxury furnishings and interior resources by foremost designers and architects. Visitors from all over the world come to the Pacific Design Center for screenings, exhibitions, and industry events.
The PDC Design Gallery, also designed by Cesar Pelli, is a separate building on the PDC campus located on a large Plaza with fountains, palm trees and lush green space. It was formerly known as MOCA PDC, which hosted rotating exhibitions on design, fashion, architecture from 2001 to 2019. The building opened as the PDC Design Gallery in 2020 with programming dedicated to exhibitions that focus on design as an extension of artistic practice.
Atelier Manferdini’s work with constantly shifting states of emotional, analogue and digital realms offered exciting possibility for the decorative arts tradition. - Helen Varola
KOOZ to HV What drew you to the work of Atelier Manferdini and the idea of hosting a solo exhibition on the work undertaken by the studio?
HV The Pacific Design Center Design Gallery exhibits draw upon the collective intelligence and creativity of global design culture with particular support of Los Angeles based artists and designers. As the director of the PDC Design Gallery, I thought it was interesting to host an exhibition that examined human emotion as a technological driver in interior design. Atelier Manferdini’s work with constantly shifting states of emotional, analogue and digital realms offered exciting possibility for the decorative arts tradition.
The idea behind this exhibition was to give an overview of my practice at large and, specifically, the research undertaken at different scales, both architectural and bodily, around the notion of domesticity. - Elena Manferdini
KOOZ to EM What prompted this line of investigation and the intent of exploring the cultural and aesthetic implications of domesticity as vehicles for new emotional states?
EM The idea behind this exhibition was to give an overview of my practice at large and, specifically, the research undertaken at different scales, both architectural and bodily, around the notion of domesticity. The house thus becomes the focus of the installation, resonating with the larger ambitions and line of enquiry of PDC as a centre which is focused on interior design.
For too long domesticity has been a word with a negative connotation, especially when coming from the theory of architecture. However, I believe that there is a great potential for experimentation and exploration of this scale of design, especially in relation to our contemporary notion of identity.
From the body to the interior to the façade, Atelier Manferdini has always been concerned with the relationship between audience and architecture. The experience of how things are perceived and embodied is central to our explorations, which are driven by a dose of digital creativity - whether this lies in their conception, production, or interaction with the user.
The works of Atelier Manferdini strive for a response, whether this is achieved through materials, digital tools, or social media; from very traditional ways of understanding interactivity, such as through tactile elements as a carpet or a textile, to smart rings that are able to open doors, or purchase objects, transforming the body into a tool for other digital transactions.
Atelier Manferdini has always been concerned with the relationship between audience and architecture. The experience of how things are perceived and embodied is central to our explorations. - Elena Manferdini
KOOZ to EM Through this selection of objects which range from rugs to wallpaper to tables, amongst many others, Atelier Manferdini re-interprets traditional domesticity in contemporary society. How would you define the state of domesticity today? In what ways has it transformed from its traditional connotations?
EM Ubiquitous digital technologies and global capital have altered certain notions of consumption, emulation, property, and comfort. In short, the notion of identity as we knew it within the boundaries of our homes. The digital world allows us to experience two modes of time simultaneously. We could be bored waiting for the water to boil and at the same time engaged in a conversation on twitter. This has split our attention and presence into two. One virtual and one real. Designers are asked to redefine our existence in real and virtual environments. We are questioning who we are today, what we look at, how we interact and the possibility of being reimagined, while speculating on what happens to architecture because of these digital alternatives.
We are questioning who we are today, what we look at, how we interact and the possibility of being reimagined, while speculating on what happens to architecture with digital alternatives. - Elena Manferdini
KOOZ to EM How do your designs operate within the framework of this dual identity in between virtual and analogue reality?
EM Some of the projects explore the role of social media and how social media has been shifting our identity online. The textiles exhibited at PDC have been designed to work with an embedded app which allows a customer to bring the textile into three-dimensional space by activating and animating the patterns. This engagement with the app and subsequent sharing and/or livestream on social channels plays with feelings of vanity and relationship with our self-image. The show will also feature 12 smart rings titled “Not a Formality”, these accessories venture beyond the idea of a ring as an aesthetically pleasing object but, rather, through the implementation of software and hardware the ring becomes a medium for interaction.
KOOZ to EM The current pandemic has significantly impacted the way we approach and inhabit our homes, challenging these as more than “simple” dwellings but also as offices, gyms etc. First of all, to what extent has this paradigm shift redefined the very notion of domesticity? Secondly to what extent do you envision these conditions persisting as we ease back into normality?
EM Domesticity and the interior are more than ever determining factors in the formation of personal and collective identity. There is a line that connects a home with a series of public programs like offices, libraries, hospitals, stores, hotels, railways trains, gym, which to a greater or lesser extent depend on the language of domestic interior. All these spaces are hybrid interiors which contain vestiges of the domestic identity but perform other functions as well.
Contemporary domesticity is emerging from our digital behaviours; a reality-virtuality continuum, oscillating between a real environment and one that is virtual. Identity today is an in-between hybrid liminal condition; and it is here to stay, whether we like it or not.
Domesticity and the interior are more than ever determining factors in the formation of personal and collective identity. - Elena Manferdini
KOOZ to EM One of the conditions exacerbated by the pandemic is the use diffusion of technologies and robots within our homes and the subsequent data which they record and store on our behaviours and routines. How private are our homes? What role can we as designers play in ensuring our domestic sphere remains ours?
EM The biggest triumph of the digital age is the transfer of our identity to the digital space. This is not merely a mental transition, but our bodies are online too with our pictures, voices and locations all present through an interconnected set of shared data. At the same time, architecture is moving on-line under the term metaverse, where walls are made of pixels and where there is no body to shelter, gravity does not exist, nor do material constraints.
Once upon a time identity used to be tangible because it could not be meaningful without the acknowledgement of others. But today, with the hegemony of digital media, community is found online. We are at the edge of a paradigm shift in communication technology, where togetherness can be found virtually. In the time of internet, social media, face filters, masks, and gaming avatars, contemporary domesticity needs to construct simultaneously who we are as individuals, as on-line persona, as alter ego.
Within the metaverse creativity can be unleashed. I think the challenge lies in understanding what is architecture as a physical domain and what is architecture as a digital endeavor. - Elena Manferdini
KOOZ to EM What are for you the greatest challenges and opportunities faced by architects and designers within these new on-line new worlds?
EM I think the metaverse offers unprecedented opportunities as it frees the architect of the limits and preoccupations which one is confronted with daily, such as keeping the weather out to not having to worry about gravity. Within the metaverse creativity can be unleashed. I think the challenge lies in understanding what is architecture as a physical domain and what is architecture as a digital endeavor.
To this end, I believe that architects are very well positioned to design these online spaces which soon will be inhabited as assiduously as our analogue world. In parallel to the work at Atelier Manferdini, I am also Graduate Program Chair at SCI-Arc and teach within the master program curriculum. Recently some of my students have been hired to design branded digital worlds even before finalizing their degree as there is such a need for creative leadership when it comes to online experiences. Architects are called to embrace this paradigm shift, in all its nuances, both positive and negative, as this is indeed the process of progress.
As of now, probably, the most successful sector of the metaverse is entertainment. During the pandemic an online music concert in the metaverse has been proven to be as economically viable as its analogue counterpart, it is now clear that in terms of outreach and audience online venues are on the rise. It’s important to recognize that public space can happen virtually as well as in real life, and that there is a need for good spaces where we can come together as virtual identities and build strong communities.
KOOZ to HV As a curator, how important are institutions as PDC as sites for experimentation and research beyond the realm of the physical into the digital?
HV From a purely analogue perspective, the Pacific Design Center and the PDC Design Gallery engage directly with the notion of surprise in public space, an important asset for Los Angeles. The PDC’s bold unexpected architecture and the gallery’s experimental designer and artist-led projects are experienced directly within the public’s daily work and entertainment environment. One usually needs to travel to a commercial art gallery or museum to find such a surprise!
Recognizing the importance of both AI and AR technologies in our everyday lives and within cultural institutions, we are very much interested in pursuing this agenda also within the program at PDC. To this end, we are working on an upcoming project/exhibition which, through photography, analyses and traces the overarching presence of AI and AR within exhibition design, from the replacement of the didactics of a wall text with AR and beyond. By juxtaposing a series of what now seem extremely dated photographs of museum designs taken twenty-five years ago at the time that Bilbao became Bilbao because of Frank Gehry, to the same spaces shot now, we hope to explore and analyse the dramatic shift in how we are experiencing, culture, knowledge, people and subsequently our world.
Elena Manferdini, principal and owner of Atelier Manferdini, has over twenty years of professional experience in architecture, art, design, and education. She is a licensed engineer in Italy, and a licensed architect in Switzerland. She received a Professional Engineering Degree from the University of Civil Engineering (Bologna, Italy) and a Master of Architecture and Urban Design from the University of California in Los Angeles (UCLA). In 2019 she was honored with the ICON Award as part of the LA Design Festival. Elena currently teaches at the Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-Arc) and is the Graduate Programs Chair.
Helen Varola is an independent curator based in Milan who specializes in commissioned projects and art acquisitions, utilizing a hand picked team of artists, dealers and associates around the globe and the expertise of working with the cutting edge of recent contemporary art practice for 20 years. From 2009 to 2018, Varola conceived and directed "designLAb," for the Pacific Design Center, West Hollywood, in which she invited artists, architects, designers and galleries to create special projects. At PDC she currently advises on specially commissioned projects for the PDC Design Gallery located at the former MOCA branch.