Science Fiction and Design Continue to Inform One Another

Numerous sci-fi films feature classic furniture that have shaped our image of the future. The Vitra Design Museum’s latest show reveals how history’s most notable designers seek inspiration within the genre—and continue to apply its learnings.

“Fantasy Landscape” by Verner Panton at the exhibition “Visiona 2” in Cologne, 1970. Image courtesy of Verner Panton Design AG, Basel

Filmmakers were imagining future fictional worlds soon after the medium’s advent at the dawn of the 20th century. Over the next few decades, science fiction not only saw a rapid ascent in film and literature, but crept closer to reality as satellites shot into space and aeronautical technology took off. Meanwhile, what we now call the Space Age was finding numerous expressions within design thanks to Gae Aulenti, Eero Aarnio, Luigi Colani, Joe Colombo, and Verner Panton dreaming up furnishings whose organic shapes and shiny plastic surfaces looked straight from the future. Furniture that reflected the technology of space travel was also landing on the silver screen, notably in Stanley Kubrick’s opus 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), in which Olivier Mourgue’s undulating Djinn loungers furnished the rotating Hilton.

Design’s relationship with science fiction informs “Science Fiction Design: From Space Age to Metaverse,” a newly opened show at the Vitra Design Museum, which pulled more than 100 objects from its expansive archives into a futuristic scenography devised by Spanish artist Andrés Reisinger. More examples from film abound: Aarnio’s Tomato Chair in Men in Black (1997), Marc Newson’s Orgone Chair in Prometheus (2012), and unexpected ones like Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s Argyle Chair in Blade Runner (1982). Beyond film, though, the show examines how that dialogue persists today. Besides continually applying new technology to help solve pressing social problems, designers are also imagining innovative solutions on platforms like the metaverse, which are mostly free from physical constraints.

“Living Center” (1970/71) by Joe Colombo. Photography by Rosenthal Einrichtung, courtesy of Ignazia Favata/Studio Joe Colombo

In that regard, the museum found an ideal collaborator in Reisinger, who devised the show’s scenography. The graphic designer by training first rose to stardom by rendering idyllic fictional wonderlands that reference the imagery of sci-fi films and sharing them on Instagram to much fanfare. (“I try to deform reality, but not too much,” he once said.) He’s also one of the earliest designers to experiment with NFTs before the market ran its course and staged auctions of virtual furniture long before the metaverse hype.

“As soon as I was invited by the Vitra Design Museum to work on this exhibition, I knew I wanted to incorporate the themes of Argentine fantasy writer Jorge Luis Borges, whom I’ve long admired,” Reisinger says. “A central motif in his work is mirrors, symbolic of portals to alternate realities. I resolved to make mirrors focal points, utilizing them to reflect and evoke multiple realities and timelines intertwining.” He’s also displaying two pieces, including the Hortensia Chair. The hydrangea-clad lounger was originally rendered in one of his dreamscapes, but he spent a year learning industrial design to bring it into reality after a follower put in a sales order for an object that didn’t physically exist yet—a sci-fi plot in and of itself.

Installation view of “Science Fiction Design: From Space Age to Metaverse” at Vitra Schaudepot. Photography by Mark Niedermann, courtesy of the Vitra Design Museum.

“Science Fiction Design: From Space Age to Metaverse” will be on view at Vitra Schaudepot until May 11, 2025.

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