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A day at the International Design Biennale Saint-Etienne – HISTORY OF DESIGN AND CURATORIAL STUDIES

A day at the International Design Biennale Saint-Etienne

Highlights of the 2017 Biennale

“Panorama des mutations du travail” – Parsons Paris students (far right) survey one of the main exhibition halls at the Biennale Internationale Design Saint-Etienne 2017.



The 2017 Biennale

This year’s theme was “Working Promesse – les mutations du travail” (“Working Promise – shifting work paradigms”).

The works presented dealt with this topic in a range of ways: some designers used labor-intensive production to highlight the act of working, others are interested in reinventing the objects we use to work; one pavilion was a reconstruction of a trendy new-age office space, while another featured a standard cubicle setup covered in plants and dirt. Here a few highlights from the Panorama of the Mutations of Work including “The household as a center of industry”, “Digital Labor”, and “The end of work”.

Punchcard Economy by Sam Meech, 2014, front and back view.

This banner was hand woven using patterns collected from data of working hours. Combining a domestic knitting machine with digital imaging software, the textile embodies a tactile representation of hours lost to work. The title is a reference to the old-school method of logging hours—the punch card. (The data is crowdsourced–you too can be a part of the next Punchcard Economy artwork.)


Wikikirc or La sonification de Wikipedia” by Labomedia, 2012.

Every time someone makes an edit to French Wikipedia, it triggers this piano to be played by another piece of a piano. It is intended to emphasize and make present the amount of user activity that is constantly shifting, expanding, and editing the participatory database.

From the series N*56 Worker’s Delight by BLESS, 2016.

The German design duo BLESS is interested in brining new life to the objects that surround us at work and reimagining the environments in which we spend working hours. Tasks such as typing and exercise are explored through the objects that aid or inhibit them. Why should working out be so menial? Why not spice it up with some marble and brass?


A biennale is a gathering of artists, museums, curators, and creators to explore the current activities in the art and design worlds. A well-known example is the Venice Biennale. Unlike art fairs, these are not commercial events. Works are presented for promotion, discussion, and critique, and not for sale. This format allows for artists, designers, academics, and curators to explore the contemporary production of objects and concepts and to get a feel for the current themes and interests of the design community at a distance from the business world of the art market. Biennales bring together those with similar interests, allowing for networking amongst professionals as well as discovery of new creations and connections. Of course, it is not a purely open and democratic format—the displays have been selected and curated, and there is often an overarching theme that has been determined by the organizing committee. These structures influence the end result, somewhat determining the possible conclusions that may be drawn. It is important to consider what has been left out as well as critically examining what is being presented, how, and by whom.


Home page for the program of the 10th Biennale Internationale Design.


The term biennale (or biennial) refers both to the event itself (a “biennale” compared to an “exhibition” or “fair”) as well as indicating the frequency of the event*. The St. Etienne biennale has occurred every two years, as the title designates, since its inception in 1998.

This year the event was held March 9th – April 9th.

*Not all such events are called biennales. For example, Documenta follows a similar format, but occurs every five years, hence its individual title. Unlike “art fair” for art market events or “exhibition” for museum and gallery events, there does not seem to be an umbrella term for non-commercial, non-museum events.


Saint-Etienne is a small town southwest of Lyon, in central France. The regional fine arts school located in Saint-Etienne is responsible for founding and managing its biennale.


Aerial view of the Cité du Design, featuring the new building by Lin architects as well as some of the original structures that were renovated to become exhibition spaces. Photo by Grégory Bret. Source: leprogres.fr

The main center for the displays is the Cité du design, an abandoned manufacturing facility reclaimed for exhibitions and expanded with contemporary structures in metal and glass.

Other sites throughout the city feature special installations, exhibitions, or events held in conjunction with the two-week biennale. The Musée d’Art Moderne et Contemporain of Saint-Etienne featured the show Popcorn: Art, design, et cinema, curated by Alexandra Midal. Here are a few highlights from the show.

Lunarama by LIsa Hartje-Moura, 2017.

Stage your own moon landing with this playful diorama. It’s always interesting to see how museums and artists are responding to the phenomena of selfies and social media. Note that the black box harkens back to a time when glass slides were used as negatives, with a front opening is sized for an iPhone.

The materials and aesthetics of the Space Age (c. 1950-1970) influenced the design of domestic objects, as displayed here in the exhibition “Popcorn”, curated by Alexandra Midal. The show highlights the intersections of design and cinema. This display includes designs by Verner Panton, Roger Talon, and Norman Bel Geddes, as well as a number of pieces whose author is unknown, emphasizing that this style was not exclusive to “designer” objects but permeated everyday life.