Imagine, if you will, a world where “food culture” didn’t involve artfully plated meals photographed from above. Where everyone finally stopped harping on about sourdough starters. Where hashtags related to “avo” were no longer compatible with any browser, anywhere. Where food was celebrated, cherished, and taken seriously—but in a way that was actually interesting, and politically engaged, to boot.
Okay, back in the room. Stop imagining and instead look to MOLD, a platform that sees the future of food through the lens of design and technology. Since 2013, MOLD has gone beyond its online editorial publication to create design exhibitions, a pop-up cafe (with menu items like cricket summer rolls), a one-off newspaper, and a multi-purpose glass jug. The ante has just been upped: MOLD is going into big, glossy print, and boy does it look great.
The magazine tackles the same themes as MOLD’s online presence, aiming to “address how design can make an impact on the future of food,” in the words of founder and editor LinYee Yuan, who made the very wise choice of commissioning designer Eric Hu for the art direction.
Hu, who is currently working in Montreal as the design director for Ssense, seems so totally engaged with issues around the political, sociological, and emotional resonances of food that we’re surprised he let that invitation languish in his inbox for three weeks before saying yes to the job (in fairness, he was mid-relocation from New York). But when he’s in, he’s in. “I was so excited about the premise. Food is something I’m really passionate about,” says Hu. “It’s a sort of proxy for a lot of social interactions between people and it’s inherently very political.
“I feel like our generation cares a lot more about food than people did ten years ago, or at least in the expression of it. But with more discussion comes more bullshit, and a lot of food culture has become ‘foodie’ culture: it’s more about the lifestyle of restaurants and food trends than critically examining what you eat, where food comes from, and how you engage with it.”
MOLD’s rigorous examination of food is achieved largely by aligning it with the other big things that help us understand the world, like design and technology. Features in the first issue of the forthcoming magazine, themed Designing for the Human Microbiome, include a look at a “Digestive Car” powered by cow-generated methane gas, an ingestible dye that makes your poop change color to indicate illness, fermentation sculptures, and a look at the science around “eating for mental health.” As Hu puts it, “the magazine fulfills a very real desire for people who want to think about food, but not on a twee platform.”
It also fulfills a very direct placement of design as analogous to food. On a perfunctory level, both are created to be “consumed;” whether by the mouth or the eyes, both a dinner and a poster should appeal to and satisfy those they’re made for. But when food or design are really crafted and considered, they have the capacity to bring about something more profound.
“You can eat just to survive, and you can design to only accomplish communication, but there’s something inherently wrong with that,” says Hu.
“There’s potential to enrich your life and add to that experience in some way; good design goes into memory and experience. Food takes it to a new level—so much work goes into something that’s destroyed, but at the same time something new is created. When you eat the work of a really great chef, you gain something from it. A good meal is something you’ll remember years from now. Food is a really powerful communication tool: it’s how parents communicate love to you on a very basic level, it’s how families or villages comes together.”
Hu brought in his Sense colleague, Matthew Tsang, to work with him on the designs, which veer about as far away from a crisp bird’s-eye-view of local ramp and fresh caught lobster mac ’n cheese as you can imagine. So far, in fact, that the cover doesn’t really indicate that MOLD is about food at all. Instead, it uses a psychedelic mix of pink and green tones reminiscent of an oil spill projected on a wall at a ’60s Happening. But why?
“To a lot of people, the way this magazine treats food is going to seem weird,” says Hu.
“It’s about eating bugs and eating dirt—the subject matter is strange and we wanted to create a design that was equally as strange. We also wanted to avoid the tropes of the word ‘future.’ A few years ago it was the highly geometric sans serif, all clean slick lines; but when you think ‘future’ now, a lot of designers try to make it all very dark, or use a bunch of evil corporate logos. We wanted to hold a mirror up to the fetishization of food with its emphasis on happiness and tweeness.”
Hu’s abhorrence of twee and nostalgia led him to his typeface choice, Gyrator, a strange twisting series of characters that somehow feels so retro, but so “the future” (yes we’re paraphrasing Dig! here). Hu explains that he found the type through a process of “looking for the source of twee, whether that’s Americana or Victorian England. If we go past the 20th century, we can go way beyond nostalgia. It’s taking twee to its most logical conclusion—what do you do when you run out of reference points?”
Apparently what you do is mix it up with a slick Swiss sans serif; bold, popping colors; full-bleed images; and kern the shit out of your letters so they they morph into strange new structures that Hu compares to stalagmites.
As we chat, Hu veers from scientific and outdoorsy references like those letterform stalagmites, to lamenting unrecognized 20th century Swiss designers, to Chinese school kids’ packed lunches, to Robocop, to the first time he saw someone take a selfie. Somehow, all of those things are relevant, but I can’t help thinking it must be utterly exhausting being Eric’s Brain.
He’s incredibly aware of the inherently problematic nature of food consumption, and the political and cultural connotations of eating culture. He attributes this heightened sensitivity to his own heritage. “As a person of color my identity itself is politicized, as an Asian American. It’s interesting that the three people I’m working with on MOLD are Asian North American, too, and we do talk about the lack of representation, not just in sport or in Hollywood, but that we’re really typecast both in the media and in society.
“Food has been the best ambassador for our culture, so Asian restaurant culture is inherently political. Chinese restaurants are the backbone for the Asian community, but now their food is popular because white chefs appropriated it and put it on small square plates. Everyone has the right to talk about food, of course, but it shows that food is another place where power is displayed, and we have to think about who’s benefiting from certain things.”
“Just like design has a vocabulary within each culture, it also have a language for the culinary arts. When you think of Taiwanese cuisine you think of coriander and crushed peanuts; with Mexico it’s coriander and avocados. It’s just a combination of two basic ingredients, but they create very semiotic parts of understanding, like shorthand communication.
“And just like with design, the production of food says a lot: are your materials sustainable? Are you using water-based ink? Where does your meat come from? Are your grains free-trade? That’s the politics of it—you have people who believe in ethical consumption because they think eating a chicken sourced from a certain place means they’re doing their bit, or if they use sustainable packaging they’re making the world a better place. But if you want to go deeper there’s really no such thing as ethical consumption. It infantilizes the designer: you have the power to try and influence change systemically.
“Everybody eats, but there’s so much more to food than what’s put on a plate.”