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Essey in

Magazine SISU—LINE #5 

2019 interior architecture symposium SISU_“Tegelik /Actual
Publishers: Estonian Academy of Arts,
Faculty of Architecture and Estonian Association of Interior Architects

Sensory Experience Design Workshop at Põhjala Factory

-to cope with invisible matters

by MasayoAve

       It is only with the heart that one can see rightly;

       what is essential is invisible to the eye.


                                      – Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince, 1943.


For more than three decades I have been active in the field of design as a product designer focusing on sensory-based design. I seek to expose the emotional value hidden within materials in order to reconcile handicraft traditions with advanced technology that spans various disciplines and cultural fields.


For me, design is a process of continuous discovery and the multi-sensory experience of both the natural and artificial materials found in everyday life environments. Learning the fundamentals of design means getting a comprehensive understanding of the living environment through sensory perception and emotional response to envisage the future of living.


For the last two decades, I have been engaging myself in developing new design-education programmes that encompass a vast range of sensory-based experiences, expanding my design activities to include experimental research in the realm of sensory experience design pedagogy.


One of the latest sensory experience design workshops I conducted was called MAKE-DO Põhjala Factory HAPTIC. It took place within the framework of the 2019 SISU Symposium of Interior Architecture and Spatial Use, concentrating on materials through the lens of interior architecture and included 13 participants. 


Põhjala tehas (‘Nordic factory’ in English) is the former centre of Estonia’s production of rubber items, yet was originally built for ships about 100 years ago. In the 1990s, after accumulating histories from a vast range of industrial activities over seven decades, Põhjala was entirely abandoned and has remained partially empty and untouched for almost three decades.


The complex is a holistic interplay of human activities, space, and time fused into one through a long period of uncertainty. The soul of Põhjala Factory is still in the details. I found it an ideal venue for an exercise in sensory experience design.


The first exercise began with a sensory exploration into the vast emptiness of the decaying complex. That emptiness, however, did not mean a total void. It meant the possibility to perceive the invisible power of time and narratives encapsulated in the multi-layered crumbling details of the space. 


My first request to the participants was to unlock the power of intuition and to activate the five-plus-one senses in full. It is fundamental to approach invisible matters in material both physically and emotionally. For me, it is the only way to be receptive to the identities of invisible matters hidden within the multi-layered bricolage of aging elements in the complex. 


The complex is a fantastic wonderland. Driven by an inborn sense of wonder, the participants explored with eyes, ears, nostrils, fingertips, palms, and feet, opening freely up the disused sensory channels. It was a game of identifying something overlooked and invisible. They identified many unseeing fragments of human activities in the power of light, colour, sound, texture, scent, and the thrill of touch. 


The discoveries were highlighted carefully with white wooden frames at the end of the sensory exploration. They captured something deeper, something lasting and significant to envisage invisible narratives of the space in the mind. In this way, the Põhjala complex was converted into a pop-up haptic gallery as part of SISU 2019.


The second phase of the workshop was a one-day intensive exercise held in the space. The task was to align all the discoveries, extract invisible narratives, and turn them into a prototype for new sensible elements that would be applicable to the factory space in the future.


Each participant engaged in an inner dialogue with white paper, scissors and glue in hand. Cutting, tearing, folding, bending, curling, gluing – they wove together the web of the fragmented identities discovered in the simple act of design, allowing them to branch out from one discovery to the next following the relationships of human activity, space and time as it passed in Põhjala.


By pushing the boundaries of the physical structures and sensations in our minds, the invisible narratives crystallised gradually on 15´30cm panels, which were given as the template to shape the depth of our sensory impressions.


The exercise was summed up in a unique collection of HAPTIC panels and exhibited to provide decisive impressions of the invisible narratives of Põhjala to the hearts of the visitors through the haptic sensation they felt in their palms.


To cope with the invisible matters

The final output – a variety of haptic surfaces that express the invisible narratives of Põhjala Factory – could be surface prototypes to apply and to incubate the creative industries. They could involve interior or exterior elements of the renovated space that reincarnate the invisible narratives of Põhjala Factory in a future form. 


However, the deeper aim of the workshop was not just to realise material results. It was more to breed essential competencies in architects and designers to perceive the invisible details of the living environment and to construct new narratives for future lives, which need to cope with the global environmental crisis.


All humankind on the earth has already plunged into the era of a chronic state of alarm. I firmly recognise that architects and designers are requested to handle more invisible matters hidden in the materials because what brings the crisis to our everyday life are all invisible. Global warming. PM2.5 pollution. Radioactive contamination. Microplastic pollution. And many new viruses, including the latest COVID-19. These invisible materials exist in the air, in the water, in the food. They live so silently and invisibly with all the material around us and become the very elements of our lives.


One of the biggest questions of this era is how we can cope with these innumerable invisible matters to sustain our everyday life in good health in the future. The fundamental task of design is about to shift and reply to the question by inventing new tools and methods, which turn invisible crisis into the sensible (visible, audible, olfactory, or tactile) narratives of future living.


I believe that the essential competencies of sensory experience design can be beneficial in the new era. First, the competence to tune the flexibility of perspective, telescopic and microscopic, sweepingly panoramic, and then down to invisible levels. Then another competence to expand the imaginative power to another series of invisible outgrowths of the crisis such as uncertainties, fears, and doubts, which breed in each person’s mind, which threaten everyday social life.


The industrial revolution and information society shifted much of the designer’s task from our muscles to our heads. The act of sensory experience design can forward its mission from our heads to our minds using the channel of the senses in full.


The sensory experience was never considered so fundamental in the design process. For a long time, it has been a kind of extra cream to add on top of the concrete surface of the functional structure at the very end of the design process as a kind of luxury, a treat, good living in the past. But in the new era, sensory comforts will be essential in our future lives, the primary key to addressing the invisible threats in the mind.


In traditional Chinese medicine, which has evolved over thousands of years, practitioners use various tools and methods to treat the mind and body as an interconnected whole to address health problems. 


The vital forces of human minds play a considerable role in coping with invisible issues; it might be interesting to study more closely Chinese medicine and apply its approach to design in order to create new tools and methods to address the health problems of our future lives. 


How about perceiving invisible details as an interconnected whole in our complex everyday lives, instead of tackling them with the methods of typical and topical problem-solving? 


The way the workshop participants explored the Põhjala Factory complex can be a useful reference.


Just by considering environmental crisis as a living organism animated by dynamic forces of physical functions and minds, not as a mechanical construct of functional elements, all senses may wake up in a vastly different way. And this will be a new starting point for capturing invisible matter to construct essential narratives for humans living in the future, and to cope smartly with the invisible crisis. 

video document of Sensory Experience Design Workshop at Põhjala Factory

Masayo Ave, a Japanese designer who has been settling in Europe for almost three decades, is an embodiment of both cultural and disciplinary synthesis. She brings her expertise not only in her sensory-based innovative design works but also in the field of design education. In 2017, Masayo Ave founded SED.Lab – a sensory experience design laboratory in Berlin, a cross-disciplinary research project platform that interconnects design R&D projects, the human senses and sensory experiences. In her workshop for SISU, the participants were invited to practice a series of sensory experience design exercises to activate the sense of wonder to the visible/invisible power of natural aging within the Põhjala Factory.

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