International design biennials ask a lot of their curators—bring us your best designers, but introduce us to new faces. Tell us what’s happening in your part of the world—but don’t show us projects we’ve already seen. Say something profound about your national identity—but no clichés, please. When the event is the fourth Saint-Etienne International Design Biennale, the pressure’s even greater since it’s billed as the youngest and most experimental of the lot. So when Laetitia Wolff and Aric Chen (a Metropolis contributor) were invited to curate the biennale’s United States exhibit this year, they skipped the roundup and commissioned work on a theme: “Something that would be specifically American but also interpretative,” Wolff says of their contribution, titled Value Meal: Design and (over)Eating. Their inspiration was the relationship between design and food—particularly the obesity problem in this country. “The design community has not spent much time addressing this problem, from either a communication or a product-design standpoint,” Wolff says. “We thought it would be sort of a tongue-in-cheek response to the American section of the biennale.”
To give the theme weight, the curators selected designers who were comfortable with conceptual thinking—from emerging talents such as Tobias Wong, Dan Harper of Elseware, and the “idea foundry” Superhappybunny to established names including David Rockwell, John Maeda of MIT, and the IDEO team. With their brief—develop an intervention to make people aware of what, how, or how much they eat—Wolff and Chen encouraged speculative thinking and boundary pushing.
The designers took them up on it—with relish. Steve Sandstrom, whose branding and packaging for Tazo tea have brought tasteful typography to supermarkets nationwide, surprised Wolff and Chen with a humorous entry. To comment on the alarming ubiquity of high-fructose corn syrup, he designed a bulk package for it, so that Americans could purchase their average annual dose—8 gallons, or 70 pounds, per person—in one handy Costco-ready steel drum. Food stylist Nir Adar took a break from making food look gorgeous to create a series of photographs of iconic fast foods smashed between two panes of glass. “I call them ‘disgustingly delicious,’” Wolff says of the images. “It looks so beautiful—and it’s a horror!” The paradox is a fitting comment on our ambivalence about ice cream, donuts, hotdogs, and fries—foods we simultaneously adore and avoid.
“What I was surprised by is all the futuristic scenarios,” Wolff says of the submissions, “like Superhappybunny’s mad idea of this object they call the BWIP. You connect it to your body, and while you eat you transform your fat into products. Or IDEO’s Crave Aid patch,” a health aid that works like a nicotine patch to prevent you from overeating. The point is not to bash fast food but to raise questions about how we relate to it. “McDonald’s is not going to disappear,” Wolff concedes, “so how can we deal with it rather than attack it?”