Judith Seng Production on an Open Stage

Acting Things I
Acting Things I | © Judith Seng

Berliner Judith Seng’s projects have nothing in common with conventional concepts of design. Seng, 38, has objects come into being through dance and on theatrical stages. Or she works with defects – including intentional ones.

Acting Things I Acting Things I | © Judith Seng “Admission: 45 min. work” stood on the ticket for the Berlin theatre Hebbel am Ufer / HAU; it cost nothing. And then the explanation at the entrance: “This evening we’re building a dining table.” Or: “Find your place on the stage.” Everyone was handed a hammer or 80 nails, on the stage were a stack of spruce slats, a pair of pliers and an already-finished wooden coffin – and each participant met a partner assigned by chance, with whom he or she was to build the table. Then a storm of hammering began. “It was interesting to see how differently the people went about it,” says designer Judith Seng, who developed this experimental setup. “Some threw a table together fast because first and foremost they wanted to eat, others thought for a long time about the construction first, the way a designer would. But there were also some who declined and simply assembled the slats without nails, for instance.” As soon as a table was completed, it was set and food was served.

Performative design processes

Acting Things IV Acting Things IV | Photo: Rudi Schröder, © Studio Judith Seng Can performing arts such as theatre and dance be used to design furniture and objects? This is the question that Seng has been working with for some time now and that has led her far beyond the usual boundaries of her discipline. In Berlin, she transformed the theatrical stage into a manufacturing site where 27 tables were produced. But the results, no matter how differently they turned out, were not the primary issue. “The tables are rather traces of social interactions that tell about what actually happened, what decisions were made,” she says. An experiment that seems to contradict conventional design and production processes; aligned as they are towards efficiency and the perfect end-product, to the point of absurdity. Nonetheless, designers and manufacturers in the post-industrial age might well learn how users can be drawn into the design process as well.

Interplay of human beings and material

Acting Things I, finished tables Acting Things I, finished tables | © Judith Seng The table performance was the first part of a research project entitled “Acting Things“, which brought the designer a graduate stipend from the Berlin University of the Arts (Universität der Künste /UdK) and that she has continually developed in the course of time.

Judith Seng Judith Seng | Photo: Steven James Scott, © Studio Judith Seng In the experiments that followed, she gave her full attention to the interplay of human beings and material: dancers record their movements in forms made of modelling wax that are heated and only within a particular period of time are soft enough to be worked on. Most recently, Seng had “Acting Things IV” performed in June 2013 at the Design Miami Basel trade fair for eight hours each day over seven days. Complete production cycles were to be seen on the elongated stage, if only on an abstract level. Several phases were always underway at the same time: the mass of wax was melted and after the first cooling was kneaded out evenly with a spatula; the two dancers fell down onto it, pressing their bodies into the wax, elbows, knees, they formed the wax between their thighs and between each other; the finished, cooled forms were displayed on shelves – before everything started all over again from the beginning on the next day, and they were melted down again under a heat gun.

Acting Things IV Acting Things IV | Photo: Rudi Schröder, © Studio Judith Seng Here, too, Seng did not design the products themselves, but only the process through which the products arose. She left the shaping to the dancers, to their personalities, their physicality. And while the product is otherwise always the goal and completion of the design process to which everything else is subordinated, in Basel every end was also a beginning, every form only a momentary appearance within the process.

Experiments with production rejects

Trift Trift | Photo: Steven James Scott, © Studio Judith Seng The perfect end-product has never interested Seng all that much, anyway. Quite the contrary. Since starting her own studio in Berlin in 2005, she has been dealing specifically with production rejects over and over again. She found what she was looking for, for instance, where high amounts of rejects (over 70 percent) are destroyed to prevent a market for b-quality merchandise from developing: in Europe’s last remaining glass manufactures. Together with product designer Alex Valder, she assembled seconds of the Vienna manufacturer Lobmeyr into sculptural arrangements, held together with invisible UV adhesive. For another project, the combined air bubbles in glasses with similarly formed cuts, in order to valorise these classic production defects. And in 2009, when they went about having their best-known special-edition piece “Trift” produced for the first time, they had to do a lot of convincing to get skilled crafts people to do what to them was bad work: putting a log from a pine tree-trunk of this size into the drying kiln, since the cracks that result from drying cannot be controlled anymore. But this is exactly what Seng wanted. The orthogonal blocks that she has them saw out of the tree-trunk are given a high-gloss finish above and roughly brushed off with a steel brush below, to highlight the character of the wood even more – a contradiction brought together in one object.

What did Judith Seng say in conclusion? “These days, the most interesting works often arise on the boundaries of disciplines.” Where she likes to abide.