Review: Human touch, tech coalesce in inspiring Laarman design show

With a remarkable style that combines cutting-edge technology and allusions to Gothic cathedrals, art nouveau and the movement of starlings and clouds and other natural phenomena, Dutch designer Joris Laarman shows the power of design to, quite literally, build a bridge between the past and future.

There is a sense of hopefulness, delight and also an implication in this High Museum focus on the inventive designer’s work, that the future is in our hands, to make of it, hopefully, something beautiful. Outside of the Netherlands, the High boasts the largest public holdings of the Dutch artist’s work, an indication of the museum’s commitment to supporting innovation in that field. Balanced with the Rotterdam-based Laarman’s creation of high-design luxury items — like his exquisite “Bone” furniture, which uses a digital algorithm to mimic the structure of human bone — is an investment in a design philosophy tied up in a more humble and democratic maker community, and shared, downloadable design that opens his field up to all.

Among the many projects on display in this traveling exhibition organized by the Netherlands' Groninger Museum, "Joris Laarman Lab: Design in the Digital Age," is a remarkable bridge in process, MX3D Bridge. The bridge designed to span an Amsterdam canal is created using a custom 3-D metal printing system pioneered by Laarman that allows robots to print not in a fixed 3-D box, but in midair using molten metal, in a joyous marriage of new technology and gorgeously retro filigreed metalwork that shows how Laarman's lab often creates technological innovation in order to achieve its design vision.

What comes through time and time again in this visually engrossing exhibition is the wit and sense of delight in Laarman’s designs that he somehow balances with technological innovation, from early works like the rococo curlicues and flourishes of “Heatwave” (2004), a radiator Laarman created while a student at the Design Academy Eindhoven, Holland, that reads like a decorative scrawl of highbrow graffiti. Equally smart and sly is Laarman’s take on the climbing wall, “Ivy,” a series of undulating forms in polymer concrete that combine lyricism and functionality.

No better illustration of that interest in past, present and future exists than an inventive, very amusing and at times existential timeline created by Laarman on a gallery wall that identifies the most significant (or just personally impactful) events on his radar, from the invention of vulcanized rubber and celluloid and the Bauhaus movement to David Bowie’s “Space Oddity,” the fidget spinner and Furby. An element of humor collides with something more dire in the timeline, including scientists’ prediction circa 2050 of the disappearance of the polar ice caps. It is clear that along with a designer’s hopeful, even Utopian sense of design’s potential to change life for the better, Laarman possesses something in his generational DNA that also sees the dark side of humankind’s influence on the planet.

Contemplating Laarman's transportive design, it's hard not to think of another recent High design show beholden to both technology and art history, in Dutch fashion designer Iris van Herpen's futuristic garments. As with van Herpen, there is an at times modern-Gothic strain to Laarman's designs that can suggest a marriage of the aesthetics of heavy metal, David Cronenberg and H.R. Giger. His "Bone Rocker" and "Bone Armchair" look like a throne for a Middle-earth king and his "Vortex Console," inspired by a University of Michigan aerospace professor's study of vortexes rightly commanding its own room in the High exhibition, is a dark, kinetic fantasy object that suggests a vision not of the present, but a seductive window into the future.


“Joris Laarman Lab: Design in the Digital Age”

Through May 13. 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays and Saturdays; 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Fridays; noon- 5 p.m. Sundays. $14.50, ages 6 and above; free for children 5 and younger and members. High Museum of Art, 1280 Peachtree St. NE, Atlanta. 404-733-4444,

Bottom line: Balancing technology, art history and a delightful human touch, this focus on innovative Dutch designer Joris Laarman offers endless inspiration.

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