Utopian benches

An interview with designer Olivier Vadrot

Using the bench as a symbol of communal living, the exhibition Bancs d’utopie [Utopian Benches] - presented on the occasion of the Biennale de Saint Etienne 2017 - “unveils a series of communes that aim at reinventing the rules of a life in common, following a tradition that has it roots in the political avant garde of the 19th Century” [1].
Developed by Olivier Vadrot - artist, professor at the ENSBA and instigator of the project - in collaboration with British artist Francis Cape - who originally launched the project in the US in 2011 - and a team of fifteen students from the Master Design Exposition of the ENSBA (Lyon, France), the exhibition is the result of an ongoing documentary and field research across Europe.

We asked Vadrot to tell us more about the project.

How did you first meet Francis Cape? And how did the collaboration started?
The project started as a request from our students to investigate the theme of anonymous design objects. More than ever production processes in design are dictated by the notion of authorship and intellectual property, with both makers and galleries highlighting the name of the creators.
However, inspired by past researches - by both the Ulm School of Design (Germany), and the intentional artistic commune of Monte Vérità in Ascona (Italy) - our idea was to demonstrate to the students that this principle was avoidable. Our early researches of anonymous designs led us to many intentional communes - from Drop City in the US, and the familistère de Guise in France, to the kibbutz in Israel. It turned out that a lot of anonymous objects had been produced by intentional communes. After a few months, the idea of creating an exhibition that could bring together a series of objects as manifesto of a communal experience - such as a geodesic structure, a bench or a wood-burning stove - started to emerge.
That was when we came across the project Utopian Benches of Francis Cape - which overlapped, in many ways, our own researches. We therefore invited Francis to give a conference and a workshop in Lyon. I can still recall this much-vaunted lecture he gave about the carpenter’s nail! In the course of the discussions, it turned out that the American intentional communes he had studied during his project - such as Twin Oaks, Snow Hill Nunnery and Harmony Society - had their philosophical roots in Europe. This is how the idea of developing a European version of Utopian Benches took shape.

This project presents the bench as a symbol of communality and at the same time it underlines the global appeal of this object. Could you tell us more about it?
The bench is - as this project illustrates - one of the most recurrent objects that one can find in intentional communes. We find it systematically, without exceptions. When a group of people come together and attempts to reinvent the rules of communal living, it finds itself with the necessity of building objects - to eat, share and discuss - that are both economical and democratic. In this sense, the bench stands as an object-manifesto, an object-fondator.

In terms of design, the bench is particularly interesting. Generally absent from the domestic landscape, it is dedicated to collective use and in this sense it is opposed to chairs and other individual seats. It is often thought as a mobile tool that needs to be light, yet resistant enough to accommodate people of diverse weights. Often less complex than a chair - yet all type of assemblage can be used in its construction -, the bench is what we could refer to as a fundamental architectural element - like a beam. It is really a small-scale architecture.

How did you select this corpus of 12 benches and how was the “harvesting” of the original benches carried out?
The benches presented in this exhibition are replicas of the ones that could be found in the communes we chose. In order to reproduce them in our workshop, it was necessary to make very precise measurements and carefully study how they had been built. We also had to define a series of strict guidelines. For instance, each bench should be made of wood, but should not feature a backrest - as its presence automatically would give an indication of orientation to the user, thus a hierarchy. Whereas a bench without a back leaves the user the choice to sit in either ways. Exhibiting benches without a back enabled us to organise only informal talks rather than conferences or lectures - so to encourage everyone to take part to the discussion.

How did you select the 11 intentional communes presented in the exhibition? Some of these communes still exist today. How did their members react to this research?
Just like for the benches, we set certain criteria to select the intentional communes which were to be part of the research. They had to be run in a democratic way, they had to follow the principles of shared resources and wealths, and they had to be culturally and artistically engaged. As there is a large number of publications and online platforms dealing with the subject, it wasn’t difficult to identify these communes.

What was truly challenging was to actually convince the communities to receive us and take part in the project. Communards are often very busy - you know, rethinking the world is not a simple task! Paradoxically, the fact that our research was part of an artist’s project didn’t help at all. Art and design being seen as the accomplices of capitalist systems - from which intentional communes precisely intend to escape -, it took us a while before one of the communities opened its doors.

What was your role as curator of this new edition of Utopian Benches?
The European version of Utopian Benches is an ongoing artistic project. The survey still goes on and the structure of each exhibition is only temporary, as it illustrates the state of the research at that given moment.

The American version of “Utopian Benches” was shown all across the US, so Francis has developed a successful, yet simple, exhibition protocol: the benches are presented together, in a way that invites the public to sit and participate to the various discussions organised during each event. At Saint-Etienne a list of the intentional European communes explored during our research is hanged on the wall to accompany the exhibition. Moreover a free booklet gives details of each commune - about its history, rules, location - and retraces the various communal experiments that took place in the region of Lyon in the past [many were inspired by French philosopher Charles Fourier who lived in the region for a while].

When one starts to take an interest in social utopias, some mythical experiments come to our mind straight away. But it is important to show that in each country and in each region one can find extremely interesting and diverse initiatives. Re-inventing the world is a tendency recurrent in the history of humanity - at least since the 19th century.

"Making society" is one of the primary functions of the bench. How do visitors react to the sobriety of the scenography and to the invitation to create a dialogue and a debate?
Being the bench such a familiar object, the exhibition is generally well received by the public. The fact that the pieces we show do not have a backrest is also essential, as it enables us to organise discussions and debates without distillating a sense of authority.

What is interesting is also that in almost every discussion we find out one person that has had a collective experience in the past. This shows that these experiences are far from being marginal, and seem to develop following random cycles. Today, as our list of intentional communes keeps growing, it is evident that we are witnessing a new era rich of communal experiments. Some of these initiatives will survive years, some others only few months. Nevertheless they demonstrate that issues such as ecology, division of labor and democratic organisation are, once again, at the centre of the debate.


[1] words by Olivier Vadrot for The Offbeats, 26th February, 2016;

1_Women sitting on a bench on the Monte Verità, around 1910. Archivio di stato del Cantone Ticino, Fondo Harald Szeemann. © Fondazione Monte Verità; 2_View of the Utopian Benches exhibition at Familistère de Guise (France). Photo: Xavier Renoux; 3_Installation view of the exhibition Utopian Benches, Francis Cape, 2011–2012 at the Walter and McBean Galleries, San Francisco. 17 benches made of poplar, dimensions variable. Courtesy of San Francisco Art Institute, Collection of Nion T. McEvoy, San Francisco. Photo © Shane O’Neill; 5_Student Mélissa Mariller working on the realisation of a bench’s replica with the help of a carpenter, at La Fabrique’s workshop (Francheville, France), 2015. Photo: Olivier Milis; 6_Plan of a bench from the intentional commune of Ardelaine (Ardèche, France) dating from 1973. Drawing by Jonathan Mahistre, 2014. © École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts de Lyon, 2015. 7_Image from the book We Sit Together / Utopian Benches - from the Shakers to the Separatists of Zoar, Francis Cape, 2013; 7_Community gathering, intentional commune of Boimondau, Valence, France, Christmas holidays 1945. Archives of the Boimondau commune, Médiathèque de Valence. Photo: all rights reserved; 8_View of the Utopian Benches exhibition at FRAC Franche-Comté, Besançon, France, 2015. Photo: Georges Adilon; 9_Installation view of the exhibition Utopian Benches, Francis Cape, 2011–2012 at the Walter and McBean Galleries, San Francisco. 17 benches made of poplar, dimensions variable. Courtesy of San Francisco Art Institute, Collection of Nion T. McEvoy, San Francisco. Photo © Shane O’Neill;

Published: 6 Mar. 2017

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