On a sultry summer day in brussels the staff of Addict Creative Lab is wilting in its stifling, loft-like office. It's a hostile environment for humans and an impossible one for chocolates, which are just now the focus of much of Addict's attention: candies molded from tongues and puckered lips, a large chocolate ring scored into 60 sections for minute-by-minute enjoyment, and bars covered in lace filigree. We can't keep them here. Everything keeps melting, says Addict's founder and creative director, Jan Van Mol, an advertising executive turned branding guru. The roughly two dozen pieces need to remain intact at least long enough to be photographed because they are destined not for a candy dish, but for Addict's Chocolate Design Lab exhibition at this year's Interieur 06 design biennial in Kortrijk. The point is to explore and expand the meaning of chocolate beyond its reputation as a famously durable metaphor for sensuality and sex.
Chocolate in Belgium is an icon, like pasta in Italy, says Giovanna Massini, the Addict researcher who's spearheading the chocolate initiative. But why do we feel obliged by tradition? We must disturb the traditional shapes. We must create new combinations, new ingredients. Addict specializes in such big-picture reevaluations: It's a global think tank that encourages collaboration among the approximately 4,000 designers, artists, and other creative professionals it refers to as labbies. So when the Belgian chocolate maker Isis Luxury approached the group to brainstorm about branding and packaging its products, Addict, in typical fashion, advised its labbies to contemplate innovation in chocolate, however loopy the concepts. From there, marketability may follow.
Until recently, modification in the construction of chocolate has been largely limited to bigger bunnies and daintier bonbons. But the confection has seen rich, varied use in contemporary art: In the 80s, Karen Finley exploited chocolate's fetid associations by slathering it over her body, and more recently Vik Muniz and Kelley Walker have explored its painterly qualities. Chocolate has a rich and historical connotation from an erotic sense, a subversive sense, but also just a sensual sense, says Rachael Thomas, a senior curator at the Irish Museum of Modern Art who exhibited Muniz's work in 2004. Its multiple uses show just how flexible it is. It goes across nations, cultures, and creeds.
Many of the Addict exhibition pieces build on those expectations, undermining them in some cases, embracing them in others, and occasionally dismissing them entirely. Brazilian designer Rodrigo Almeido's picture frames molded in chocolate set up a playfully antagonistic relationship with the viewer: Their beautiful details would be quickly erased by warm, careless hands. Enrico Azzimonti and Jordi Pigem, Italian and Spanish respectively, take some of the romance out of Valentine's Day candies with a daisy-like chocolate imprinted with the words Mama non mama (She loves me, she loves me not); chocolate petals are provided for deliberative plucking. And with a project evoking the taking of communion, Laurent Moriceau, a French artist, cast his own body in chocolate and then invited his audience to eat from the mold at a performance at Paris's Palais de Tokyo. Massini is now deciding whether Addict will host a reprise production or present documentation from the original show.
Not surprisingly, given their country's veneration of chocolate as a national symbol, Belgian designers are abundantly represented in the exhibition. With more than 170,000 tons a year produced for export, according to the Belgian tourism office, the confection is big business, and Massini believes its commercial importance is why the Belgian proposals are less fantastical than other contributions to the show. Despite her urging of blue-sky concepts, the Belgians, Massini says, stuck a little bit more to the traditional shapes of pralines, probably because they're thinking about the possibility of industrial production of their designs.
But several projects do take a more conceptual route in evoking a particularly Belgian experience. Silke Fleischer, an Antwerp-based jewelry designer, imagined a functional accompaniment to the edible product in the spirit of forks that are packaged with the fries sold by street vendors. She proposed engraved silver or gold rings surrounding chocolate centers. You can eat the chocolate out of the ring, or you can give the ring and the chocolate with it, Fleischer says. It's a ritual. Ghent-based designer Bart Baccarne's Balls from Belgium are small spheres with protruding rods that are meant to resemble the Atomium, a wildly oversize model of iron crystal that's a relic of Brussels's 1958 World's Fair and is now one of the city's chief landmarks.
Not all Belgian contributors to the Addict show hugged their homeland. Damien Bihr, of NAos Design in Brussels, offered chocolate pasta. But Bihr can be excused his trespass of international borders because at the 2005 Milan furniture fair he collaborated with famed Belgian chocolatier Pierre Marcolini on a presentation of some of their country's stereotypical icons. Two types of potatoes were dipped into six of Marcolini's chocolates, including a white chocolate with salt, pepper, and rosemary, while beer was served in champagne glasses. When I was explaining what would happen in Milan, everyone said, Ugh, chocolate and potatoes but it was really a fantastic experiment, Bihr says. This fall, the pair presented a powdery white chocolate along with a rolled-up silver pipe called Snif Snaf Snouf at the Brussels furniture store Ligne. It was set up so that you could use the pipe to make a line, and because it was positioned near the window, a lot of people in the street wondered what we were doing, Bihr says. Some of my friends pretended to snort it, but only for the picture, he adds.
Bihr's goal was to replace or undermine associations with a common and addictive foodstuff. I'm a design teacher, and my first assignment to students is always to give a shape to a taste, he says. If I ask, What is the shape of paprika? everyone always says, It's sharp and red, but they're talking about the object, not the taste. Maybe it's cobalt blue.
His efforts line up neatly with Addict's. At the exhibition, we will involve all five senses we will find a way to involve the touch, the smell, says Massini. And what about the flavor? None of the designers interviewed for this article appeared to enjoy it very much. Bihr says it plainly: I am not fond of chocolate.
Diane Vadino is a Brooklyn-based writer who has covered fashion and design for Nylon, Surface, Interior Design, and others.