image of the historic cite du design building with a wrought iron gate
ESADSE, founded in the 1800s as a school of applied arts to serve, along with the Saint-Étienne’s Museum of Art and Industry, the region’s manufacturing sector, occupied in the late 1900s the historic Royal Arms Manufacture, renamed the Cité du Design, or Design City, in 2009. COURTESY F. ROURE

Students Lead the Way to A Post-Industrial Future at the Saint-Étienne Biennale

Exploring everything from automobiles to the COVID-19 lockdowns, the biennale explores the post-industrial possibilities through the theme of “Bifurcation.”

The industrial history of Saint-Étienne, a city in the coal-mining region of eastern-central France dates to the founding of the Royal Arms Manufacture in 1764. During the two centuries that followed, the city experienced a boom of industrial development and was known throughout France for producing armaments, bicycles, and ribbons. But in the final years of the 20th century, as mining and manufacturing jobs were moved overseas, Saint- Étienne—like former industrial hubs around Europe and North America—found itself searching for a new identity. That’s when students and faculty at the city’s Higher School of Art and Design (ESADSE) organized the first Saint-Étienne international design biennale, in 1998, aiming to expand the school’s mission to educate students and enlighten visitors about design by addressing its post-industrial, late-capitalist, multidisciplinary complexity.

installation with two small cars and poster with images of cars
Autofiction—a biography of the car-object explores how designers, marketers, and the auto industry transformed transportation. COURTESY SEGHIR ZOUAOUI

Instead of comparative showcases of industrial prowess or consumer trends, the biennale’s editions have since approached both practice and its results from a particular theme or topic—from empathy to teleportation, beauty to the future of work. The biennale’s latest edition, its twelfth, takes Bifurcations as its theme. Olivier Peyricot, head of ESADSE’s research platform and the Biennale’s artistic director, calls the “bifurcating objects” presented in several exhibitions the results of choices made in lives radically affected by a global pandemic: from the body to the car, the home to the factory—and the design school.

Curated by Peyricot and Anne Chaniolleau, Autofiction—a biography of the car-object is a sprawling exploration of how designers, engineers, and marketeers have transformed transportation from collective effort to individual desire. In At Home—Panorama of our domestic lives, Kingston University–based curators Catharine Rossi, Jana Scholze, and Penny Sparke juxtapose consumer products with more rarefied, playful, or speculative designs. Apt historical examples include a French IKEA catalogue cover and Ugo La Pietra’s Casa Telematica, a postmodern concept house filled with TVs, computers, and cameras, both of which predicted our addiction to screens and cheap housewares 40 years ago.

interior of exhibition, students resting on a couch
Student life is central to the Saint Étienne biennale to a degree rarely seen. Students not only curate and produce exhibitions, but develop marketing and communications materials for the event. COURTESY SEGHIR ZOUAOUI

Maison soustraire, a posteriori shows the results of Mathilde Pellé’s eight-week radical experiment, in which she cut, broke, and shaped all the objects in her Saint-Étienne apartment to one third of their matter during the pandemic winter of 2020–21. A slow-paced video projection shows her handling delicate, fragile tools in increasingly precarious dwellings, while a room filled with all two-thirds left of Pelle’s stuff invites viewers to question their own material excess.

Franck Houndégla, set designer and teacher at the Bordeaux School of Art, begins Singulier Plurielles—In the contemporary Africas with an article published by the satirical news-site Le Gorafi in 2014, announcing that Philippe Starck—arguably France’s most renowned living designer—was invited by the African Union to redesign the continent’s national borders. This artifact sets the tone for an exhibition that presents Africa not as a problem to be fixed by experts of, to quote Teju Cole, “the white-savior industrial complex,” nor as a source of inspiration for post-industrial designers and consumers. Instead, it shows interfaces, plans, products, and other proposals developed by and for Africans in original, creative, and systematic ways.

people exploring an exhibition hall
At Home—Panorama of our domestic lives juxtaposes consumer home goods with high-design objects. COURTESY F. ROURE

Other exhibitions reaffirm the centrality of student life to this biennale. Together with his students, Cuban designer Ernesto Oroza, ESADSE’s head of postgraduate research, turns Inside production—Debates on Design into a positively anarchic, lived-in classroom for conversations, film screenings and critical readings. In Le Monde, sinon rien, Benjamin Graindorge, a teacher at ESADSE, and Sophie Pène, a professor at Paris University, gathers projects from students and researchers in an exhibition on individual and collective actions, which aims to create a network connecting ESADSE and other French design schools over the next 5­–10 years.

Student involvement is the most original feature and greatest strength of this design biennale. In others, such as the Ljubljana, Istanbul, London, or Porto biennales, instead of active participants they tend to be considered only a target audience. In addition to designing its communication materials, exhibiting their own work, curating exhibitions and events, ESADSE’s 350 students have the opportunity engage with researchers and practitioners from France and beyond. Such a unique privilege comes, however, with the responsibility of setting an agenda for the design world’s future which must both honor and extends beyond Saint-Étienne’s history and heritage.

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