Every designer is a conductor of the human senses. Through sight and touch, designers strive to create objects that are a pleasure to look at, or functional to feel. Nevertheless, there is one sense that has been often overlooked in the realm of design — what we hear. Now the Sound and Matter in Design exhibition, showing at the Design Museum Holon in Tel Aviv, attempts to redress this balance. As the museum’s chief curator Maya Dvash explains, we should not forget that “sound is one of the most significant raw materials in the designer’s toolbox”.
Wherever we go we are constantly experiencing sound — not least in the ‘Non-Stop City’ of Tel Aviv, where a cacophony of traffic and humming air-conditioning units is ever-present. Our language reveals that we often make unconscious links between what we hear and our other senses. We can describe sound as textured, smooth, light or dark. Yet we rarely actually stop to think about how all this noise interacts with our designed environment, from the clothes we wear to the buildings we live in. This relationship is inescapable as you approach the Design Museum Holon. In fact the sensory experience begins before you have even entered.
The impressive Design Museum Holon was the brain-child of acclaimed industrial designer Ron Arad. Incorporating huge red ribbons of deliberately corroded steel, the building already has a beautiful, organic quality that has led some to describe it as “musical”. Away from the hubbub of Tel Aviv, the curved building seems to embody serene quietude. So it makes sense that the first piece in this exhibition literally fills this incredible architectural space with music. Speakers, which are attached to the steel walls with magnets, immerse visitors in soothing piano music as they approach the museum entrance.
Once inside the museum, the upper gallery showcases more than fifty objects in a curated piece called Seeing Sound. Covering stationary, mobile and interactive speakers and instruments from the 1960s up until present day, the collection shows how the relationship between sound and design has evolved over time.
All manner of beautiful and unusual designs for speakers are present, from retro wired devices to more recent portable, battery-powered designs. One highlight is a red radio phonograph from 1966; the first multi-media station to unite a radio, an amplifier and a turn-table in a single device. It’s a large, immaculate object, which appears to stand proud of all it managed to achieve. There are also interesting oddities, like a sweet potato transformed into an interactive transistor radio; an unusual reminder that noise can be created in many inventive ways. As you explore the objects a medley of music, from orchestral symphonies to The Human League’s "Don’t You Want Me", continues the immersive sound bath that began outside the museum.
As a passive listening experience gives way to interactive musical creation, visitors are reminded of a subtle shift in design philosophy. The earlier pieces in the exhibition are elegant examples of object design — the focus is almost entirely on aesthetic beauty. But the designers of the more modern objects are as equally interested in the user experience, and how people can interact with objects to either create or experience sound. The Seaboard RISE 49 is one such interactive object on display where aesthetics and user experience come together in harmony. Soft silicon keywaves give the Seaboard an organic, sleek and functional design which mimics the ribbons of the Design Museum Holon. Indeed, Roland Lamb, who invented the Seaboard, was mentored by the museum’s designer Ron Arad himself.
In the lower gallery of the museum, a piece named Sensing Sound invites you to go even further in the exploration of design and sound — it asks you what it would feel like to become sound. The gallery space contains loudspeakers operating on 16 separate sound channels, through which 8 different artists play their compositions. As you recline on a sofa in the middle of the space, immersive noises are released through the speakers below and above. A pixelated image of yourself is projected onto the ceiling. Both the image and the sounds react to any movements. In this gallery, the spatial, the visual and the audible are intricately linked, another reminder that sound is an inescapable component of everyday experience.
Sound is a sensation you can never see, but shapes all of our environments profoundly. Sound and Matter in Design might just inspire a new generation of designers to use sound as building blocks for the designs of the future. Now exhibiting until 28th October.