SAINT-ÉTIENNE, France — It would likely dismay students of design to learn that, to those not trained to think about the field, it is largely invisible. No object is accidental, no system has fallen arbitrarily into place, yet most of us go about our lives without acknowledging the purpose-built nature of our society. Humans have existed for millennia within constructed environments, all of which are the product of directed thought and effort. This is, perhaps, a heartbreakingly meager revelation to take away from the 2017 Biennale Internationale Design Saint-Étienne — the show’s 10th edition — but it proved to be a major personal step in understanding the context of the work on display and the ideas being discussed.
The theme of this year’s biennial is “Working Promesse — Shifting Work Paradigms,” and as the newest UNESCO City of Design, plus a place with a turbulent labor history, Detroit is a featured guest. It shares with its host the challenge of redefining itself as industrial manufacturing wanes; Saint-Étienne was once a major mining and manufacturing hub of northern France. The future of work is of great concern to designers, tasked as they are with creating the systems that abet and define labor — from the objects moving down the assembly line to the payroll that tracks working hours, and from the ergonomic furniture in an office cubicle to the flak jacket that protects its wearer from gunfire, all the way up to the internal revenue systems that put a percentage of one’s compensation back into the regulatory governing body. All by design.