Nov 28, 2010

Pattern Recognition

The art of costume design lies at the intersection of design, dance, film, and television. The junction of these industries puts an immense responsibility upon design to visually augment intricate dance movements, bring film and television characters to life, and support complex storylines and plots. 

For someone such as myself who is passionate about all of these fields, the Costume Design Panel at the Design Exchange held a fair bit of allure. Speakers on the panel included the wardrobe supervisor of the National Ballet of Canada Marjory Fielding, film and television costume designer Monique Prudhomme (Academy Award nominee for Juno), and Dawna Pym, Toronto-based fashion educator at the ROM and Seneca College. 

Marjory Fielding began the evening with a focus on dance. “Our bodies simply need to move when we feel joyful. People have been dancing forever. Dance is common across cultures of the world and has transcended the eras of time. It is an expression of emotions through our bodies and is a means to celebrate victories and express sorries.”

If dancers play a role in the story of a culture, then costumes signify the existence of those dancers in a world outside the boundaries of everyday life. Along with other visual aids such as set design, costumes help narrate the story the dancer is telling with their facial expressions, physical gestures, and choreography.

One of western dance’s most iconic costumes is the ballet tutu. “The tutu started as a dress,” explained Marjory. “And there is history behind the tights.” Louis XIV of France used dance as a political and social tool in his courts. Dance pleasurably dictated how his people moved and interacted. Quite a talented dancer himself, Louis XIV included tights as part of his own dance costumes.

Eventually, dance moved out of the palace and became an art form. Marie Taglioni, a famous ballerina of the Romantic era, was known for her ethereal fairy-like dance style. Her dance technique was supported by her floating dress-like costume, shortened in order to display her dance shoes.

Shortened skirts slowly began to influence the fashion of that era, and Marjory stepped through history, noting that by 1870, the tutu had been shortened further, bringing its design even closer to the short ballet costume of today.

Monique Prudhomme shone light on costume design within the film and television industries. “It is our job to ensure that costumes contribute to an actor’s ability to bring a story to life. We play with fabrics, textures, and richness to paint a character’s reality within a film.”

“The process,” she explained, “involves first reading the script to understand the arcs of the story, its characters, and extras. We take a story apart and determine how we can help tell it. Discussions take place with the director, and together we find angles for costumes.”

Monique described through example how a costume designer uses clothing to support the emotions of a character. In an upcoming film starring Owen Wilson, Steve Martin, and Jack Black, Monique is using colours and patterns to help bring out each character’s personality on screen. 

The technical and relational details involved are also manifold. “We do whatever it takes to create history through costume,” stated an animated Monique. “There is a lot that goes into building an entire life of aging and transformation.” Technical preparation can sometimes include blood packs, fireproof fabric, and wet suits, depending on the story, and all are limited by a tight budget.

Relationship management also forms a significant part of a costume designer’s role on set. Monique described the importance of building trust and confidence with the actors. “The costume should disappear on the body of the actor; they should feel at one with the costume. And they should feel both comfortable and confident wearing it. That’s the only way a viewer will believe the performance.” 

In addition to playing an important role in the enactment of stories on stage and on screen, costume design forms an important topic in the study of fashion and cultural history. Educator Dawna Pym described how fashion provides a tangible link to the past.

“Learning from real fashion of the past is critical to understanding culture. Pictures don’t give you an accurate idea. You need to see and feel the construction of clothing and students need to explore its tactile elements.”

The ROM provides students a fashion laboratory where they can learn hands on. Inquisitive hands feel out details like texture, surface definitions, drapery, tailoring, scale, and weight. Pleating, decoration, embroidery, beading, and feather work is analyzed and measured. “A tactile experience helps learn abstract thoughts in a concrete way.”

A sense of age can be perceived when a clothing item is studied in person. Was the garment altered or adapted? Was it handmade or machine stitched? What is its historical and social context? “The evolution of a garment tells us an entire story. It allows us to make a connection between the present and the past.”

Even a just a brief glimpse at the history of fashion and the current art of costume design brings to light numerous design patterns that transcend cultural, periodic, and geographical boundaries. If there exists a responsibility to visually bind together storytelling with the storyteller, then the existence, recognition, and study of patterns are indicative of a responsibility carried out well by both costume designers and design itself.

[Costume photograph courtesy of the National Ballet of Canada and Design Exchange]


Nov 9, 2010

Bruce & Bruce: Big Thinking

In this day and age of blazing online information exchange, why would the U of T Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape, and Design team up with the Design Exchange to produce a series of face-to-face moderated debates? The answer was stated quite simply by Daniels Dean Richard Sommer. “There are so many incredible public talks, thinkers, and designers, yet waning interest and support for them due to a preference of the online space. We wanted to create an engagement that couldn’t be found online.”

And so they have done. Their series of debates is titled FORA. The Daniels/DX FORA are focused on new ideas, design practices, designers, and researchers who are working at the intersection of Architecture, Media, Science, Politics, and Urbanism in numerous international arenas. The first of the two FORA was titled “The Ends of Design” and featured presentations and vigorous debate by architect Bruce Kuwabara and designer Bruce Mau.

Kuwabara is a founding partner of KPMB Architects and the design architect of numerous Toronto landmarks including the TIFF Bell Lightbox and the Gardiner Museum. What were the beginnings of his incredibly successful career? “I started building aquariums as a child,” says Kuwabara. “When the power went out, it would be my challenge to find a way to keep the system functioning.” In his own words, sound design means first considering how a solution will work, whether it will work well, and then finally how it will look and feel. Sound function comes before aesthetic, but neither one lives without the other.

During his presentation, Kuwabara touched on the various principles behind his design. He stressed on the importance of mutual accommodation - how does a design maintain its own identity while preserving the identities of surrounding elements? He explained the “space between” - every function that lies between the primary function of a design. And he used architecture to describe why designs need to be hybrid. “Architecture needs an infusion of thinking and ideas upon a cultural platform. It can’t stand on its own.” An example of his own hybrid design? The TIFF Bell Lightbox - both a private sector development and a cultural centre. Last but not least, Kuwabara’s thrill? “The fusion of design and aesthetics. And seeing a design truly complete. A design is only complete when real people take the stage and breathe life into it.”

Bruce Mau set the stage with his very humble beginnings as well. “I couldn’t get into art school, and then when I finally did, I couldn’t graduate. I learned that 99% of the world’s population has no university education and thought – wow, I’ve just shared an experience with 99% of the world!”

Bruce Mau is the founder and creative director of Bruce Mau Design. He is a leading visionary, innovator, designer, and author, and is committed to creative, healthy, ecological, and economic design. Armed with 25 years of experience in design innovation, Bruce Mau has made the simple but deep-rooted commitment to connect his life and work to education and human development.

Mau discussed the importance of both intelligence and beauty. “You need to design both smart and sexy. You can’t just do one.” He discussed his experiences with Frank Gehry, a mentor, and touched on some of the current work they are engaged in together. Last but not least, Bruce Mau got into the social thinking that he is so known for. What are his goals as a design thinker? “Solving economical, social, and environmental problems through design. To take action using design. And to design inclusively, not exclusively. Why not leverage the existing global network of action driven designers?”

Dean Sommer moderated the debate between the Bruces, and a vigorous one it was. His questions stemmed from the theme of the FORA. If design is a means to an end, what is the end? What are the goals of our work as designers? What are the boundaries of our fields?

One specific question that Sommer asked resulted in a very enthused Kuwabara and Mau. What is the difference between ideation and craft? Kuwabara stressed on the importance of innovating something new in a world where so many things have already been defined. He shared the Buddhist metaphor of waves past versus waves forming to convey his image of integrated thinking. “What really is the difference between innovation and mastery? We’ll always be developing our craft and changing our knowledge base.”

Mau felt similarly. “Ideation IS craft. I’m still working on something I started 27 years ago.” He explained that a designer can obtain mastery over the years, but can never master everything. What can one master? Values, actions, and ways of thinking. Mau also emphasized that design is an allocation of resources – just like anything else – and that another way to distinguish between ideation and craft is to maintain a distinction between the financial beneficiaries of a design and its ultimate users.

The night following the Daniels/DX FORA was another “massive” one (pun fully intended) for Bruce Mau. This year’s Design Exchange Black and White Fundraising Gala was dedicated to honouring Mau’s accomplishments and featured the unveiling of a retrospective of his works titled 25 Years of Big Thinking.

The opportunity to speak to Mau was both humbling and inspiring. When asked what his advice would be for young designers aspiring to be big thinkers like himself, his thoughts were extremely grounded and down to earth. “The relationship a designer’s excitement has to the problem at hand is inversely proportional. The greater and more challenging the problem, the greater the thrill. Don’t be afraid of big problems.” He candidly shared that his path through the design world involved challenging himself to always think big. “Design the system, not the object. Always.”

When asked about his project Massive Change, Mau expressed that this was one of his favourite initiatives. “Design has incredible influence. It is one of the world’s most powerful forces. We need to harness this force and wrap our heads around what is happening to the world through design.”

And last but not least, what about mobile design? What are Bruce Mau’s thoughts on Research In Motion? “Well, you should understand quite well what Massive Change is,” exclaimed Bruce. “That’s exactly what you designers at RIM are bringing to the world.”

The weekend’s emphasis on global scale social thinking was bound to inspire any design mind. We indeed should be confronting problems of success, not failure. And yes it’s true that the power to affect change has been distributed to individual citizens. The words of Mau and Kuwabara will stay with many budding designers for years to come. As Kuwabara very fittingly concluded his piece at the FORA, “The purpose of art is not the release of a momentary ejection of adrenalin but is, rather, the gradual, lifelong construction of a state of wonder and serenity.” [Glenn Gould]