Presented in conjunction with the exhibition Hippie Modernism, the ongoing series Counter Currents invites a range of individuals and collectives—from artist-archivist Josh MacPhee and artist Dread Scott to Are.na and Experimental Jetset—to share how countercultural artists and designers of the 1960s and ’70s have influenced their work and thinking today. Here Thomas Lommée of the Brussels-based design studio Infrastructures weighs in on modular systems of the 1960s.
Being rooted in a context that offered easy access to both hallucinogens as well as pioneering new technologies, the works of the more “action-oriented” hippies produced perceptions, insights, and methodologies that have been guiding me in my daily practice as a designer ever since I’ve discovered them during my studies at the IwB (Institute without Boundaries) in Toronto, now almost a decade ago.
Buckminster Fuller’s lectures made me understand that things should be conceived within larger systems in order to support both the natural and technological cycles that produced them in the first place. Steward Brand’s observations pointed at the fact that constant iteration isn’t about correcting mistakes but rather about responding to an ever-evolving context. Victor Papanek’s books told me to measure success by impact rather than appearance, while Ken Isaacs’ manuals assured me not only to focus on the object but to also carefully consider the design of its surrounding services if I was to kickstart a co-creative design culture.
All these observations introduced me to a way of looking that somehow felt right. A perception that a certain point in time almost seemed to be forgotten but that is now being widely rediscovered by a whole new generation of people. Young, engaged, and (more than often self-) skilled citizens are building upon these very same principles while applying a completely new set of tools.
Today hippies write code rather than pamphlets, activists share 3D files rather than photocopied manuals, and protestors contribute to peer-produced texts rather than silkscreened manifestos. Though the content of what they are producing syncs up neatly with what was being produced 40 years ago.
Even though this contemporary movement is still largely operating within the margins of society, it has become globally interconnected and therefore holds the promise of pushing this thinking from the margins of society towards its very core. It is representing a movement that, in my view, is becoming increasingly important because it offers us a glimpse on a more human-oriented and value-driven networked environment, while at the same time reminding us about the initial ambitions of those who imagined the World Wide Web in the first place.
The OS (OpenStructures) project explores the possibility of a modular construction model where everyone designs for everyone on the basis of one shared geometrical grid. It initiates a kind of collaborative Meccano to which everybody can contribute parts, components, and structures. The ultimate goal is to initiate a universal, collaborative puzzle that allows the broadest range of people—from craftsmen to multinationals—to design, build, and exchange the broadest range of modular components, resulting in a more flexible and scalable built environment.
Thomas Lommée is the founder of Intrastructures, a pragmatic, utopian design studio, that applies product-, service- and system design as a tool for change. He is also the initiator of the OpenStructures project, a hands-on design experiment that explores the possibility of a modular construction model where everyone designs for everyone on the basis of one shared geometrical grid. Next to his activities as designer / design researcher Lommée has been teaching at the Social Design research program at Design Academy Eindhoven’s Master course and is the co-founder and mentor of the ENSCImatique at the ENSCI in Paris. He lives and works in Brussels.