Alena Halmes crafting a new design language

Alena Halmes, based in Basel, Switzerland, is a product designer and photographer interested in making the invisible more tangible. She creates objects that are based on the experiences of those living with disabilities, in order to open up new perspectives on their everyday challenges. This approach is notably illustrated in Augen zu. Eine unsichtbare Designsprache, (Eyes closed. An invisible design language), a work created for her Bachelor degree in 2019 at the Institute of Industrial Design, Hochschule für Gestaltung und Kunst, Basel, Switzerland, and which was shown at this year’s Swiss Design Awards. This piece consists of a series of five glass containers, each of which represents a formal reinterpretation of the way visually impaired people she collaborated with described different states of water. In addition to being aesthetically and technically remarkable, this series offers the promise of a design that unveils multiple subjectivities and ways of being and understanding the world. In the following interview, Alena talks with SuperGlue about her groundbreaking project and the way she uses design to create a more inclusive, environmentally-friendly and joyful world. 

Alena Halmes, Augen zu. Eine unsichtbare Designsprache, 2019. Courtesy of the artist.

SuperGlue: Thank you for taking the time to talk to us. To begin with, could you introduce yourself as a designer and tell us a little bit about your journey to becoming the designer you are today?

Alena Halmes: I first started my journey in the field of art and design when I did propaedeutic studies in Lucerne, Switzerland. From there, I decided to study industrial design at the Academy of Art and Design (FHNW) in Basel, Switzerland. The studies were really cool, because we were given topics, and we had the freedom to choose in which way we wanted to respond and create in relation to them. This provided an opportunity to develop our own interests, which is not always the case in every art school; we could also use all the workshops available in order to experiment with all the materials and techniques we wanted. As developing new techniques is really what interests me, I’m really grateful to have learnt the base of different skills. However, the studies were still conservative in terms of the approach of object production. We were really taught to develop an object which is functional and aesthetic, and that’s it. I think there is a lot of potential to grow and develop everything we are learning in a more conceptual and experimental way. 

Alena Halmes, Augen zu. Eine unsichtbare Designsprache, 2019. Courtesy of the artist.

SG: I discovered your work at the Swiss Design Awards during Art Basel last September, where you presented your piece Augen zu. Eine unsichtbare Designsprache, (Eyes closed. An invisible design language). I was fascinated by the poetry and ingenuity of this project, which consists of five glass containers, each of which represents a formal reinterpretation of the way blind people describe water. How did you come up with this project? Could you tell us more about it? 

A.H: I was interested to go somewhere where design had not gone yet, or to discover something new with the methods of design. I chose the topic of blindness, after I had gone to the blindekuh, which is a restaurant in the dark. When I was there, I started asking myself: “how do you design for people who cannot see?”, “what is beautiful, if you cannot see?”. I decided to work on this theme for my bachelor diploma project. For the theoretical part, I interviewed blind people, seeing people, and strongly visually impaired people. At first, I gave them some words, for example “kitchen work”, “freetime”, and so on, and then asked them to bring an object, which they found beautiful, and I wanted them to talk about it. I also gave them three objects so that they could describe them to me. In this manner, I tried to do a field study in the field of design, where I could compare different impressions, and ways of describing or perceiving objects. But I realized that it was really difficult to compare the different testimonies, as the way of describing really changes according to personality and individual perception. However, it was really interesting to have these insights for me, as a designer, and also for my practical project later on. 

When I talked to the blind and visually impaired people, two really interesting themes arose. One, is that they perceive with their hands. So when they follow objects with their hands, they get kind of fragments, which they put together to form one picture. So they perceive with much more detail than we do. It was really interesting for me to have that comparison with seeing people, who just look at an object briefly. Second was acoustics, which is what I explored through my bachelor diploma project. With this part, I wanted to see what is the potential of acoustics within design. This question is actually really underrated in design, it’s only considered in car design, but it’s not so much used in other disciplines. 

I conducted research, during which I talked to blind people about how their perception and life is different from the ones of seeing people. I just talked to them about really random stuff, because I wanted to create a connection, because I really didn’t know anyone who was blind before that project. I went into a museum in canton Bern, which focuses on sensual experiences, and I did a lot of activities like that, to get into the field. I also experimented with a lot of different objects and activities, to see how the sound of different things actually are. After doing all of that, I decided to organize a dinner, which was particularly centered on sound. I made loud plates, and loud glasses, and made some prototypes, where I glued plates together, and added magnets, which make the movement and so one. And I made a blind diner with friends, so I could work out how it would go. And I found out that it doesn’t work, when it’s really loud, because it interrupts the diner, which is not really wanted. So I found out that the plates don’t really have a potential, but the glasses do. Because I transformed some wine glasses, which I deformed just with heat. And my friends really liked the different forms. I then chose the glass, because the sound is seemingly important and valuable to seeing and blind people. When you cheer, for example, the clinging sound really talks to everyone. So I thought that the glass really materialized a point where we would all be connected. 

SG: For the final result of the project, who did you interview? 

A.H: I interviewed two people who live in Basel and work at Irides, which is a foundation committed to the welfare of blind, visually impaired and hearing impaired people in Basel. I also talked with two other people on the phone. All the people I interviewed answered really differently to my questions, because the way you perceive your surroundings, or the way your imagination forms in your head, is really personal. For example, one person told me that when he hears boiling water, he just hears the sound and nothing else. So for him it really stops there. Then the other person described it more or less also how I would describe it, but with way more technical aspect, because he works in that field, and is really interested in it. And it showed me really how your interests also shift the way you perceive or imagine your world around you. The two other people I interviewed were really interesting, because they were not really sure of their descriptions, but they guessed. It was really interesting to hear them, because they described water really differently than how I would describe it. These conversations were really inspiring for me as a designer, because their words created a lot of forms in my head, which was also the aim of the project at the beginning. I really wanted to show the advantage of blindness, and not see it as a disadvantage. So through this experience, I could reach that. 

SG: Which part of the description did you choose, to then materialize within your pieces? Did you use one description, to then create one piece, or did you make a mash-up of the description to form these hybrid objects ? 

A.H: Actually, it was always one sentence, which inspired one glass. But I didn’t use the sentence 1 to 1, it was really the inspiration for me to create this form. So it should not exactly describe what they perceive. Which is also not possible, because it was already a translation from their translation. That was also the only thing I could do, because I cannot do the form exactly how they describe it, because I will never get that. So I really had to use it, so I could just take the sentence, and then make the form out of that sentence. 

SG: The five containers feature bubbles, protrusions, holes… This leads to the question of how you technically made this series. Did you have to invent techniques to be able to materialize your ideas, or did you use more traditional glass blowing techniques?

A.H: I didn’t produce the pieces myself, I worked with Rheinfelden-based glass blower Wilfried Markus. He has many years of experience and works a lot with artists and designers to produce new ideas and objects. It was really nice working with him, because he really understood from the beginning what I wanted, and then we had some sessions, where I went with my sketches, and then he translated them and made the objects. I really stood next to him when he produced them, and we kind of adjusted the objects as we were going. It was also an interesting experience for me because I couldn’t use my hands, I really had to say words to change the forms, which was challenging. I gave him some sketches and he used the flameworking technique to produce the objects. In the beginning, I was just observing his technique, and trying out different things, to see how it would look, and to find the technique which fitted my design. And like that we went through different sessions, where we could experiment and redo the objects. And it was a different approach than normally. Usually, you start with a lot of drawing, and then you start doing those paper objects, and in the end you build it a bit more precise or functional. Here it was really having the object from the beginning, where you just give a sketch, and half an hour later it’s already there, and it was really cool to work in this way, and have this form of design process. It was really a development of trying out different techniques, and in the end these objects were the outcome. 

SG: In the popular understanding of design, its function is to make objects that combine beauty with practicality. Yet you seem to be interested in something else, in the non-visible, in the experience of people who are generally less represented in society. It’s a posture that seems to depart from the classical and traditional conception of the design field. Do you use design as a contestatory language in order to create a shift in the normative hegemony that governs design and the way of approaching everyday life? 

A.H: The design scene is, I hope, changing in this direction. As you say, it’s still very conservative, within the schools. And I have to say, I really had to fight during my project, because my project wasn’t really supported, as it focuses on feeling, impressions, and perception, and is not a straightforward problem/solution type of work. There were no straight lines within my project, it was really structured around exploration and it was a bit difficult to be mentored. However, I think it was good that I managed to do it, because it showed that you’re able to do projects like that in these kind of schools. 

Alena Halmes, Augen zu. Eine unsichtbare Designsprache, 2019. Courtesy of the artist.

It’s really important to cross those borders from conservative design, because it’s not about creating nice objects anymore, there are so many important things that we have to use design for to make a better world. For example, in social or environmental fields, there are so many aspects to change, that it’s not the time to make a nice chair anymore. In Switzerland, the design scene is still conservative. Maybe it’s because the schools are still very conservative, and the prices you can win are still about those objects, which are nice but don’t have a story or concept. I’m trying to go into another direction, more focused on social and environmental issues, but I’m not there yet. I’m also just establishing my own work, and it takes time to develop. But I think it’s really important to change. Changing the authorship system would also help in that way. I don’t want the project to stand there with my name, I just want people to see the work. It’s not about the author’s design, but more about the work, and not about the person behind the work. Now a lot of people are working in collectives, and I think that when you work together with people, and through conversation, you can reach so much more. Also, it’s important to work together, because everyone has different skills, perceptions, and together you can go so much further. I think that that’s also the future. To not only work by myself, but to team up with people. I hope that design is also going to develop in that way here in Switzerland.

SG: We have a ritual question for our guests: what does the word ‘superglue’ bring to your mind?

A.H: When I hear “superglue”, for me it’s a really strong glue, which puts things together, or different stories or people who meet through this superglue, so it really brings up this connecting aspect. 

SG: And finally, what are your future projects? Do you have anything else to share with us?

A.H: After my studies, I went to Rotterdam, where I did an internship at the Studio Makkink & Bey. It’s a really interesting studio, and they make a lot of curatorial projects and objects within the fields of architecture and design. They are very diverse, and invite a lot of designers, and it’s all about environment and social change. For example, they developed a new system for a school, or worked with an elderly home, and invited the people who live there to design with them. It was actually about making encounters between people from outside and inside of the home. So for example, they made an event when they painted the walls, and invited an artist to paint it with his feet, and there was a piano player supporting this scene, and a normal painter next to them… So it was a really fun way to make people come into the elderly house. They really use design in a more free interpretation, and go further than the objects. Then I came back during the pandemic. I always worked as a photographer during my studies, supporting the photographer of our school, alongside my boyfriend. And after our studies, we had friends who asked us to document events, or to make photoshoots of some objects. So we kind of developed that and we have our studio now. I also work in a glass blowing studio. I don’t want to establish myself right now, but I want to learn something, have some experience in different places. I thought it was a good way to learn more about this craftsman ship. I could also imagine doing other craftsmanship, because I really like to dive into a new world of work, and take things out for me as a designer, to develop my knowledge in all directions. That’s the plan behind this. And I also work besides that to develop my own projects, and I have my own atelier with two friends in Basel. This summer I was really busy working on the Swiss Design Awards exhibition. And now, with a friend, we want to develop a project in the same manner as my diploma project. This time, we are focusing on odor. 

Keep up to date with all of Alena Halmes’s work on her website and instagram.

Keeping it glued since 2021