Interview with Alena Halmes
“Eyes shut. How does the following sounds look like?” reports the very beginning of the teaser of Augen Zu. «Eine unsichtbare Designsprache» / «Eyes closed. An invisible design language», the touching research about blindness which concluded in a multisensorial drinking experience and a dreamy collection.
The design project belongs to Alena Halmes, the Swiss-based designer and photographer interested in making inabilities more tangible. In her practice, she creates experiences consisting of designed objects which open up a new perspective on disability challenges, like blindness, in order to shed light on what often remains invisible at most.
Initially designed for her Bachelor’s degree in 2019 at the Institute of Industrial Design, Hochschule für Gestaltung und Kunst, Basel, Switzerland, the project came back in a new guise at this year’s Milano Design Week.
The glass collection consists of a series of five glasses, crafted as a formal reinterpretation of how visually impaired people imagine and describe different states of water.
V.A. Hi Alena, thank you for taking the time to answer my questions. The poetic behind your products is tangible. What experiences have influenced the way you approach the creation of a product or what inspires you on a daily basis as a designer?
A.H. I don’t see myself as a designer of functional products. Rather I would like to create narrative object experiences.
I aim to open up new perspectives on social matters like blindness and make the invisible tangible.
The project “Eyes closed. An invisible design language” is a translation of the movement and the shape of the sound of water. People who are blind from birth shared their imagination they have about the sound of water with me.
Their answers have been the inspiration for me as a designer in order to create a new form of language that is based on the perception and imagination of the blind. The aim is to see blindness as an advantage to integrate the non-visible into the design.
V.A. I discovered you at the MDW 2023, and Augen Zu truly left me speechless. How dId you come up with this idea?
A.H. What does "beautiful" mean, when you can't see? This was the initial question, the answer to which was sought in a theoretical field study.
It soon became clear that acoustics had a strong influence on the judgment of the three visually impaired or blind participants.
The sound of things is accompanied by an experience of perception, which the sighted often "overlook" in quite a literal sense. How do people blind from birth imagine movements when they hear sounds? Which world of forms is created by their minds?
Water falls on a hot cooktop; it hisses. This is how people blind from birth describe the movement of water sounds that they cannot see by touch. Their ideas are interpreted in terms of time and form, and a new language of form and experience emerges. The haptic, acoustic, and playful experience of this setting, which consists of five glasses, is based on a new design approach inspired by the perceptions of the blind.
V.A. Your products hide both a democratic and a playful soul. You've been able to give shape to thoughts and suggestions from blind people by making the invisible visible, who did you interview and what was the hook in their story that inspired you to take certain forms?
A.H. I have interviewed 4 people who are blind from birth because I was interested in their imagination of shapes and movement, having no visual memory at all. I have chosen to present to them the sound of water because it is something you can’t touch with your hands. Therefore the shape and movement have to be based truly on imagination. Their answers have been different.
One person has answered close to how I would have answered too, as a seeing person. The person mentioned, that she is really interested in technic phenomena and therefore talked a lot with people about the shapes and movements in the world. Another person answered that if the water is boiling, there is only the bubbling sound for him, no shape no movement is important to his imagination. What was really inspiring in order to create the new shape language of the 5 drinking vessels were the answers of two more participants.
They were not sure about their answers, but they shared their imaginations about shapes and movements with me. Their way of thinking, how they construct the shapes in their mind, and what they imagine were different from how seeing people would describe them.
It was exactly this different way of imagining which was so inspiring for me. An example: Description of a river: The water is going to flow according to how the stones are positioned. The water will flow around them.
These interviews also showed, that their perception is individual, based on their experience and interest in the visual, which is also not necessary for some.
V.A. Considering the production process, did you ever think to experiment with the Murano glass-blowing technique, here in Italy?
A.H. Yes, I have thought about this. I realized during this project that glass is a material blind people like to touch a lot because of the soft, freeform surface. Flowing with the hands around the objects they can experience fragments of the shape, and perceive the tension in it. Therefore glass has a lot of potential for further projects. This would be a great opportunity to work with the skilled craftsmen from Murano.
Currently, I am working at part-time as a designer at a glassblowing studio in Switzerland, developing further my know-how about the material and processes.
V.A. Finally, my ritual question: how would you summarize your creative process in keywords?
A.H. Research-based design, narratives, perception, the senses, sound, smell, stories, social design, integrative, observation, collaboration, make tangible through experiences, inclusive.
Augen Zu is a worthy project that definitively raised the bar of design language by shaping the invisible in the form of a multisensorial drinking experience. Hers is a new approach that sees the absence as a fixed point to go deeper, an opportunity to develop concepts or different perspectives to investigate the world.
Great job Alena.
Cover picture courtesy of Alena Halmes
Photos credits of André Hönicke, Raphaëlle Wettstein and Alena Halmes