Connectedness, Digitality, Circularity: MIKE MEIRÉ in Residence at the House of BMW Milan
How do we build new structures without just recreating the institutions we’re trying to get away from?
There’s a considerable 032c faction right now at the 2022 Salone del Mobile – the first Milan design week we’ve seen on this IRL scale since 2019 – including our art director Mike Meiré and executive editor Victoria Camblin. The two met off the printed page for the first time in literally years at the House of BMW, where Meiré is in residence as curator of Tales From a Neo-Collective Future, a special project conceived around BMW Group Design’s three-part tenet of CONNECTNESS, DIGITALITY, and CIRCULARITY, channeled in works by BOTTER, Claudia Rafael, and Anna Deller Yee.
After several years helming various divisions within BMW, including BMW i (the company’s plug-in electric vehicles) and BMW M (their high-performance vehicles), designer Domagoj Dukec now heads the Bavarian automotive giant’s BMW brand design team, overseeing a big picture approach to the future of mobility. According to Dukec, this translates as a mandate for radical evolution—an ethos of transformation on multiple fronts, from how cars look and feel to what they do to the planet. “We believe that only the combination of human centric, intelligent reduction, and tech magic makes the customer experience valuable,” the German-Croatian designer tells 032c. “With our products and technology, we want to appeal to all human senses.”
Sustainability has long been a key tenet of BMW’s philosophy, but now the company is additionally focusing on circularity, or a cradle-to-cradle understanding of the ecological impact of their products, from the very beginning of development to afterlife. “The most radical evolution is our circular approach to product design,” he asserts. Circularity is an overarching outlook for Dukec, but the designer also argues for the importance of more granular perspectives—both of the market and the world at large. “Talking about evolutions we need to understand the change of values within the society first,” he explains. “We have established a process where we start with the experience by looking at the key values of different target groups first – instead of designing one product for all customers. We believe this is the only way to create meaningful products that fit different needs.”
As important as the process is how it’s telegraphed to the public – and creating multiple points of access for engagement. To do this, BMW Group Design is looking beyond both product and company roster. Collaboration is a crucial tenet for the company’s stated mission, and Dukec and team are advancing initiatives across disciplines, engaging creative practitioners for projects that expand and nuance their message, and building intergenerational networks of practitioners for sustainable dialogue. “They’re a source of inspiration and they help us to challenge each other with new topics, different perspectives, and to think new.”
One such collaborator is Mike Meiré, the iconoclastic graphic designer – and of course, creative director of 032c Magazine. This week at this year’s Salone del Mobile, Meiré is “in-residence” at House of BMW, the company’s project space in the heart of Milan. His Tales from a Neo Collective Future project is an exhibition-cum-experience – think real time data renderings, tactile displays, and live talks ¬– based on the core themes of “connectedness, digitalization, and circularity,” which echoes BMW’s keyword cluster and philosophy for approaching imminent, frankly extant, change. Responding to these three terms are a corresponding number of artistic practitioners. BOTTER is Lisi Herrebrugh and Rushemy Botter, a (more than )fashion designer duo exploring sustainability through the lens of Caribbean culture. Claudia Rafael is a Berlin-based digital artist whose work navigates technologically-extended realities, giving visual form to hard to grasp data sets. Anna Deller-Yee is a Milan-based designer who operates of intersection of fashion and painting to reflect on sense experience and social norms. These artistic entities – alongside disruptive friends and family from the BMW/Meiré creative mash-up – make up Tales from a Neo-Collective Future, on view at House of BMW through Sunday June 12, 2022. 032c’s executive editor, Victoria Camblin, stopped by for a walkthrough a few hours before the project opened. Predictably, the two got galaxy-brained talking about what such collaborations mean for creative practice and for the future – and what “future” really means.
VC: Let’s start with the title of the project, Tales From a Neo Collective Future.
MM: When BMW approached me, I immediately thought of the venue: it‘s called the House of BMW and, as I have realized over the years, a house is not necessarily a home. So I thought, let's make it a home. And if I’m going to make a home, I don't want to live there by myself. I'd rather be there with some people. That’s how we got to the idea of the collective.
VC: How did you get to “neo” collective?
MM: Well the whole world likes “new” everything. They want the latest news, but look at the news cycle from the past few years. With the pandemic, with Fridays for Future, with Black Lives Matter, people started becoming more aware of themselves as social creatures, of the need for solidarity. We were thinking more about how we gather and how we care for each other. I have three kids and I see this with them and their friends: they’re expressing collectivity way more than my generation ever did. Mine is all about this big ego that wants everything to revolve around it.
VC: I have been referring to this as a move away from “auteurship.” A welcome one, honestly.
MM: Exactly. As an art director, you have access to a certain amount of content, and you have to find a nice shape for it. It has to somehow fit to each story – and to each brand, too, whether that’s the BMW brand or the participating artists’ brands. “Brand” is not a bad thing anymore, either. At some point you realize that you need a brand for something to become recognizable and be able to deliver a message.
VC: It's a touchstone – especially when your audience starts to diversify and diverge. You need multiple ways to unify and connect to people’s various experiences, across generations, across commercial and experimental realms, across disciplines.
MM: So of course, I asked BMW Group Design what their plan was for the brand – not only for the House of BMW now, but for the years to come. They are working on the Neue Klasse, a new vehicle program – so you have that idea of “new” again – and thinking about mobility and sustainability. And they are realizing that they have to talk to people who do not conform to a traditional car audience. These big, globally operating companies are faced with the challenge of finding ways to connect with new people, and at BMW this has been taken on by BMW Group Design. The program they have developed in response is based on “digitalization, connectedness, and circularity.” These three topics are the core of what we are doing at House of BMW. So on the wall here, we have these kind of typical marketing slogans.
VC: I love it, it's like my favorite hotel in Dubai! They have these slogans all over the room. “Don’t throw balls in the house.” “Home is where the pillow is.”
MM: I wanted to see how far we could push the format. Then you have the floor, which is a reference to Italian flooring in ancient times, when you had these broken marble pieces and they would integrate it into the tiling. For me, that was already kind of an idea of recycling. I thought, I'll take the same design idea, but I will replace it with future oriented material – with recycled steel, recycled plastic, recycled 3D prints. There is an elegance to it, but there is also a system of meaning, of signals. And it asks, how do we handle the future? The future doesn’t look like science fiction anymore. People easily open up to the idea of the future because we're curious, but the challenge is whether we are also able to let go of those habits we used to love.
VC: How do we build new structures without just recreating the institutions we’re trying to get away from?
MM: That's why I wanted to go back to ancient times. We have created a coffee table, for example, that's 3D printed using a biological material made of corn. The texture is brilliant because it is precise but also has flaws and rough edges. The shape is a play on an African pattern that has existed for a very long time, but it’s made from very new technologies. The future started somewhere in the past. We can shape it for tomorrow, but the future is not something that is radically new. The future happens every day. And it happens in things that we are familiar with even if these objects are reinterpreted by a completely new technology. The future is fresh but it is also familiar.
For the exhibition itself, we kept the original carpet and walls in the storefront so that it’s still familiar and recognizable as BMW. The space is like a garage. Normally they have a car downstairs in the window. I wanted to keep that feeling. You don’t want to pretend we are somewhere else. It was also important for me that the first thing you see when you walk in is actually beautiful. You are confronted with Anna Deller-Yee’s tapestry. It’s crafted and it's beautiful. It’s romantic, it’s delicate, but at the same time, you have this apocalyptic background – fire and industry and storms. The embroidery goes over the edge of the painting, so that it becomes so immersive that you can step into it. The delicate work shows the fragility of the material, the destruction of the material, and it also shows the fragility of our climate and planet. The future is not one-dimensional – it has scents, it has taste, and it’s organic. It’s not just scary like these images we’re so used to. It can be scary, but it’s also soft, it’s even welcoming. We have to embrace this diversity of textures, of styles, of disciplines.
VC: So the future is not some type of thing that comes in with a bang or a cataclysmic moment. I’m actually over the linear structure we use to talk about history and the future and time entirely. It’s not this horizontal thing.
MM: It’s vertical! And it’s a stream.
VC: Which is what you are doing with these strata or textures: with these layers you see in the 3D printed objects, with the ancient design and the new materials on the flooring, with the data renders that use these incredibly high-powered machines but still produce what looks like a landscape painting, or a textile that is centuries old. Thinking vertically might still be too Cartesian, but maybe these layers are cozier and more hospitable than that linear vision. There's also a sense of humor when you use the term “neo,” right? Like you are acknowledging that there is an emptiness to how we express newness specifically, but also accepting and welcoming that.
MM: These terms just become redundant at a certain point. You know we are at Salone, and that people here want to showcase really new products. It's normal to want to express that. But the idea here is about showcasing a status quo, about reflecting on the transformation of our time in these branded terms. There are big time changes happening in the world, and these global companies have to confront that. Because they are working on such a huge scale, at some point they also have to find solutions. What’s very difficult is to identify the problems, to define the questions. Once we get the right questions, we can start working together to build something. How do you transform an organization? How do you transform something as big as the idea of mobility? I have realized that this also a question of how we transform ourselves. Are we open to letting go of habits that orient us? We can say we must rise together, build together, grow together, tata. But it doesn't mean anything if you don't put some action behind these things. Just because you write it down, doesn't mean it's right or real. You have to act. Think about it like this, and this wall of slogans actually functions like a mirror.
VC: With big companies, it’s often like the Titanic or something: the ship can't turn around fast enough. It’s going to hit the iceberg. You have to work on this insanely adaptable way if you are interested making new creative models across the board.
MM: It's really about finding a new mindset for a new society. Brands are starting to feel the need to respond to this, and at BMW they are asking what it means in terms of mobility. If you really want to believe that we are doing something really different, then you have to respect that it may look different, too – that it may take you out of your comfort zone. When you’re bridging the worlds of BMW and artistic voices from a younger generation, it comes down to context. You have to see what works in what context. I'm just a filter.
VC: That's why narrative is so important, right? The “tales” we tell about what we are doing?
MM: Sometimes you just feel it. You don't need to intellectualize it.
VC: There was a BMW statement that I thought was quite beautifully put, about bringing the massive scale BMW is operating on down to a human scale. I think scale is very interesting when you think about how brands today have to produce these total, immersive experiences to reach the people they want to reach.
MM: Everyone has to become an entertainment platform. You have to play it bold, but you also have to find a way of humanizing these technologies. It's really about awareness and reaching a lot of people. BMW, like all brands, has to become an entertainment platform, too. You want to have a lot of followers, you want to make a big statement, but you have to be careful that it doesn't become flat.
VC: That's why you need to create these multiple points of access, to get that broad appeal while also doing something challenging?
MM: I always think I love the idea of minimalism, but I always end up with complexity. You can’t just approach things from one dimension, no matter how simple they are. You can’t say, “this is the future.” Because that’s only ever one facet of a future possibility. There's always dialogue, an exchange of information, of data. Even very literally: downstairs, there are mirrored walls, so when you look at this painting you also see the screens reflected back on the surface behind it.
VC: We keep coming back to mirroring. Looking at the installation, these correspondences create an infinity mirror. And for me, it’s also creating a moment of reflection about what we do as creatives. We used to spend so much time worried about "corporate" versus "independent" or DIY. But, much like “ancient” versus “futuristic,” these distinctions don’t feel interesting anymore. In fact, they probably never were.
MM: It is an incredible situation to be in this kind of urban space, on this platform called BMW, being completely free to create something for that. This was essential for me that the artists have that freedom.
VC: The creatives are the gatekeepers for themselves now, basically. We're not relying on pure museum curators or galleries to do the arbitrage. I saw a tweet recently that said contemporary art—I think meaning the gallery framework and the institutions—is on the same level as classical music now.
MM: That’s quite a good one, and I think that’s totally right. It’s one less hustle, right? You don’t need to go to a museum or a fair to see art. You can if you want to, and maybe you will find an interesting position with the artworks, but you don't grow so much through those institutions anymore. At the beginning of this project I said that I didn’t want to do the whole space myself, that I just want to be an a curator and invite some people. Normally these projects have been done by single designers, and they have been great, but I wanted to see how it feels to work with a collage of aesthetics – and to work with the clashes. You can bring art into the BMW showroom now, you don’t need to go to the gallery. You can have the real thing here—or anywhere. And you can work with really new voices. If you’re talking about a new mindset, about speaking to the next generation, you actually need to do that.
Read more about Tales From a Neo-Collective Future at https://futuretales.space.