Back to the Source


A project presented at the House of Switzerland as part of Milano Design Week 2024.

April 15 to 21, 2024

Casa degli Artisti
Corso Garibaldi 89/A
Via Tommaso da Cazzaniga
20121, Milano

Can miracles be a design project ?

mudac – Museum of Contemporary Design and Applied Arts in Lausanne, jumps headlong into a creative design research around Swiss miraculous springs together with the designer Felipe Ribon. The project explores the material and symbolic ties that these waters, charged with extraordinary properties, maintain with those who dare to place their trust in them. An initial phase of observation and photography of these ritual sites revealed that these interactions gave rise to a number of practices that are more or less codified and constantly evolving and have always involved objects with multiple meanings. These artefacts, defectors from their customary use and often pieced together or improvised, nevertheless help bridge the gap between mysterious physical phenomena and human and social bodies.

For mudac, Felipe Ribon has designed five objects to enhance our relationship with these springs, which we are exhibiting for the first time in Milan during design week at the House of Switzerland. Cultivating these encounters and making them effective contributes to ecological regeneration because those objects are mediators that allow us to enter into the depths of the earth, to connect or reconnect with these terrestrial powers and in so doing to accept our interdependence.

Designer : Felipe Ribon
Curator : Scott Longfellow

Graphic design : Notter & Vigne
Production : Luca Ladiana


Encounter with waters

Felipe Ribon invites us to sublimate our relationship with these waters through five objects of his own creation. He shapes their consistency through the precise use and proximity of natural springs. In this way, he works on their physicality, their substance, their resistance, their malleability and their reflections; it is through bodily substance that they respond to their respective dual functions: material and mediumistic. Of the five, we recognise two well-known typologies commonly used near these sources: a jug and a vase. Three others, rather more mysterious objects, are interaction devices resulting from the encounter with some of these waters.


Baden, Tuesday, the 13th of February, 2024. I meet Felipe Ribon on the station platform. We walk down to the thermal springs district and stroll across a square, as square as a square can be, the Kurplatz, where you have to touch an equally square stone. The stone is unusually warm and beneath it gushes the Aquae Helveticae spring, one of the eighteen that have made Baden a choice spa resort since Roman times. A small statue of Saint Verena nestles atop a building under construction, barely emerging from the plastic sheet covering the scaffolding. She gazes down at us lovingly with her jug and comb, reminding us that the benefits of these springs have produced any number of earthly representations over the centuries. An uninhibited worker joins us, also feeling the warm stone. Could this bring good luck?

We soon reach the banks of the Limmat, the river that crosses the city. Numerous more or less vintage hotels still bear witness to the city’s healing spa tradition. A recent architectural complex by Mario Botta comes into view. The uses of thermal water are still very much alive. More intriguingly, beneath a small urban kiosk we are treated to a display of plumbing work that could have come straight out of a Star Trek spaceship: in a transparent column, water gurgles with outsized bubbles, defying gravity as they rise to the surface.

On either side of the river, between the banks and the street, are baths accessible to all and free of charge: elegant concrete tubs and foot baths. The first fountain invites us, albeit in moderation, to drink the water from the local spring with a very high mineral content. One glass a day, no more. I comply. Ugh! The water, the most mineralized in Switzerland, is said to have been swilling underground for between 4,000 and 12,000 years. We finally settle down on the right bank, facing the sun. We take off our socks and shoes and dip our feet into these miraculous waters. It’s midday. By our side is a large bathtub. A cyclist arrives, puts his bike up against the wall, undresses and soaks in the water with other half-naked people he doesn’t seem to know. For me, an observer from out of town, this is – already – something of a miracle.


For more than 10 years now, Felipe Ribon has been practicing what might be called “encounterology through objects”, a form of design that rejects the utilitarian norm and goes beyond the material standard to take an interest in what eschews dualistic Western understanding and yet plays a major role in the well-being of the senses and mind. He creates objects that support, endorse and clarify practices that modernists would describe as irrational or supernatural. These practices – from spiritualism to hypnosis to miraculous waters – are scoffed at for “fear of being fooled”, and thus relegated to the status of rituals deemed occult or even devoid of culture. Yet they are still very much alive and well despite being dismissed by the world of science. With this project, we propose to take them seriously and show our support.

In 2012, at a time when the practice of hypnosis was becoming institutionalised and gradually taking root in hospitals as a means of treating pain, Felipe Ribon broke new ground as an “encounterologist” designer and unveiled his Mind the Gap project: objects (mats, bowls, tables…) that, through their shape, material and sound, are capable of triggering a state of trance and enhancing the therapeutic process of hypnosis. The approach is very much akin to design: taking a close look at usages in order to create mechanisms. A few years later, the Franco-Colombian designer went ahead and decidedly crossed the Rubicon of naturalist[1] design. He presented the “ae series” – medium-related objects whose main function is to facilitate contact with the beyond. He presented his project in two historical museums populated by ghosts[2]. With turntables, automatic writing tablets, ghostbusters and other mediumistic interfaces, Felipe Ribon enriched a typology that has remained unchanged since the 19th century, when spiritualism reached its peak. As Vinciane Despret so aptly put it: “If we don’t look after them, the dead die completely”[3]. Entering into a relationship with the invisible is neither simply real nor purely imaginary; rather, it’s a question of co-constructing a space for encounter, a relationship, a non-Euclidean dimension that Felipe Ribon’s objects produce.


Miraculous waters, a viaticum for the crisis of sensitivities

Through their presence, “encounterology objects” are part of a vast network of exchanges between individuals, dead or alive, but also with other living people and other living forces. In the face of the political, health and ecological challenges we are now facing, this observation opens up compelling perspectives. It is in this exploratory undertaking that Mudac, at once closely attentive to the apprehensions of our day and age, absorbed by the complex intricacy between material culture and ecology, and ultimately seeking to multiply ways of being in this world, jumps headlong into this creative research around Swiss miraculous waters with Felipe Ribon.

Of the four elemental substances that go to make up the universe, water – associated in many cultures with life, purification and emotion – is today a critical geopolitical issue. We believe that the answer cannot lie solely in the rational management of a resource. We urgently need to respond to ecological issues by acknowledging the crisis of sensitivity. Whence the urgent need to connect with the forces that, although beyond the reach of mathematical equations and prediction models, are nonetheless very real. We urgently need to deepen our relationships with worlds in an approach that is not only transhistorical but also generative. It is exactly what this design research project sets out to do. It explores Swiss miraculous springs. There are many springs throughout the Confederation that are known, listed and much visited. For example, wells with votive objects dating back to the Bronze Age have been discovered in St. Moritz. They are accompanied by swords and needles, suggesting a place of worship dedicated to protection. The water from this particular spring was then exported throughout Europe for its healing virtues. Sacred to certain pious or pagan peoples, these miraculous waters were very often personified through female figures. Their virtues are attributed to redemption, healing, purification, fertility or simply the joy of being together and alive. There are also what are known as Swiss fortune wells. The most widely reported[4] are often consulted to predict the weather – known as “weather fountains” (Maibrunnen), as at Engstlenbrunnen in the Bernese Oberland – or crop harvests – known as “hunger fountains” (hungerbach), as at Seltenbach in Eglisau.

Back to the Source begins with a study of the material and symbolic ties that these waters, charged with extraordinary properties, maintain with those who dare to place their trust in them. These interactions between humans and natural springs give rise to a number of rituals that are more or less codified and constantly evolving. They are backed by objects with multiple meanings. These objects, defectors from their customary use and often pieced-together or improvised, nevertheless help bridge the gap between mysterious physical phenomena  and human and social bodies.


“Just as ecological interdependencies have no general definition, humans can make themselves capable of populating or repopulating areas of experience that modernity has left in ruins, and of creating attentive relationships with the other inhabitants of this earth.” [5]

It would be naive to think that this proposition is nothing more than an individualistic new-age delusion for lost contemporaries in search of a spiritual experience. It would be equally simplistic to think that miraculous waters are nothing more than waters with a high mineral content produced by subterranean geochemical phenomena. Felipe Ribon’s work helps to re-establish not only links but also trust and, in the end, consent to that trust.

The idea is actually about consenting to irrational but very real connections with living elements and accepting that these connections can be life-changing. Cultivating these encounters and making them effective through purpose-designed objects thus contributes to ecological regeneration. These objects of encounterology become vehicles that allow us to enter into the depths of the earth, to connect or reconnect with these terrestrial powers and in so doing to accept our interdependence. They could prove to be therapeutic devices for overcoming today’s addiction to the notion of “slimming down” injected by the materialistic dualism of modernity. Entering into a relationship with miraculous waters could be one source among others of bifurcation, providing the energy we need to break down the brick wall of aporias that are very much a part of the Anthropocene and into which we together seem to be running headlong.

Autor : Scott Longfellow

[1] We use this term here in reference to the naturalistic ontology defined by Philippe Descola in Par-delà nature et culture. This ontology has characterized the Western world since the Enlightenment. Following his study of the Achuar peoples of Amazonia, Philippe Descola shows that there are other ontological modes, other ways of organizing our relationship with the world.

[2] At the Musée Cognac-Jay in Paris as part of “D’Ddays en 2025”, then in Bordeaux the same year, at the Hôtel de Lalande, part of the Musée des Arts Décoratifs.

[3] Vinciane Despret, Au Bonheur des morts. Récit de ceux qui restent, La Découverte, 2015, p14.

[4] See the work of researcher Kurt Derungs, Magische quelle Heiliges Wasser, Amalia, 2009.

[5] DEBAISE Didier, STENGERS Isabelle, « Résister à l’amincissement du monde », Multitudes, 2021/4 (n° 85).