The role of design as an autonomous expression of personality is a quickly diminishing one. While we cannot ignore nor downplay the part design plays in the successful launch of a product, design plays a secondary if not tertiary role to marketing strategies and advertising brand hype. Whether this is due to a general shift in society to corporate bleakness and uniformity or the overload of information producing not education but apathy, it can mostly be attributed to a cult like pressure of teamwork. Why did the need to remain informed and influential individuals making bold personal statements got traded in for reading our directions from a focus group pie chart?
It seems we are grid-locked in a perpetual search for something else, an age old quest eloquently described by Rousseau’s desperate call of Back to nature. In anything starting with “Back to …” lies a desire to fundamentally repurpose, restructure the current situation and with any such attempt the risk of misinterpretation is very high and all the good intentions in the world can do little to help. It is not really about 18th century aristocracy building rustic Disneyesque (dare we say Dubai-like) fantasy worlds – such actions can be frowned upon by history, yet a queen pretending to be a milk maiden is understandable, perhaps even charming and to be supported, for a (wo)man to indulge in her fantasies while resting on a pile of gold is the very individualism that is now being looked down upon.
It is a whole other problem to see the “Back to the good old days” actions of contemporary young designer reflecting the debasement of their holy profession down to a small part of the process. How does one cope with loss of status? It appears one has to soldier on, have strict work ethic, remove excesses and most importantly add a good dose of self blame. In such an environment co-working and crowd funding flourish. Focused on herd mentality, either as protective measures against wolves (working together against the problem of unemployment and low to none income) or relying on pub democracy of the public vote. All to perpetuate the myth of the sacred designer who is a problem solver, a shaman like holy person bringing fire to under privileged. It is not about pursuing your own expression but rather pursuing the status role of the designer as a self made genius. Highly successful and sought after individuals do exist in the design field, names like Karim Rashid, Phillipe Stark and so on, but they are of course not people, but brands. In many cases one might question their very physical existence (Versace) but certainly their spiritual existence, for they are caught in their own golden cage of perpetuating a signature look in infinity. None of these activities can be regarded as building individuality, they the very opposite of such endeavors.
While it necessary to restart the design story and reinstate the designer as a free thinking individual it seems a lot has been mixed up. Back to basics has become, well just back. Back to the happy times of 50s and 60s economical boom and design principles that reigned in those time, but honestly how many scandinavian design can one handle? How many true to material wooden salad spoons do we really need? It seems strange that uniformity is now gushing not from the corporate world (though individuality is not present there either), but from the very people that should be working against such problems. Normality is a highly sought after commodity these days. How that is going to help design is lost on us.
John Ruskin once wrote a wonderful chapter on chimneys in architecture. In it he describes the many shapes and styles observed in Victorian England and compares them with their counterparts abroad. He notices a common trait in badly designed chimneys, that they are heavily ornamented. Now Ruskin is no minimalist, ornament is the norm for him (as should be for us), his conclusion however simple is far-reaching: ugly functional items should not be ornamented at all, to not draw attention to themselves. It is a simple conclusion, one that functionalists and formalist alike could agree on, but the devil is in the details. Ruskin of course equals ornamentation with design itself, architecture is akin to poetry for him, but following his advice could prove to be challenging. What should we design (ornament) in a contemporary world, where everything is ugly and functional?
The good answer, one prevailing today, is to design with the function in mind, leaving out ornamentation, subduing humanism to engineering. Prince Aziz al Saud of Saudi Arabia and the governor of the Hail province could not agree more. In charge of bringing prosperity to his domain he eloquently answers the BBC journalist asking him about his plans to construct a plethora of IT, technological and engineering universities, but leaving out arts and humanities thusly: “We don’t have the luxury to do that”. Ignoring the obvious irony of an aristocrat saying he has no money for something, it would be hypocritical to laugh at his boorish manner (judged from a supposedly superior western standpoint). It is hard to notice any real interest in arts or humanities in the west as well. In fact favoring technology over humanities (and we are not talking about robots stealing jobs here) has become the new paradigm. Everything has to be useful, else it is unnecessary. And so a good answer to the Ruskin chimney problem is to design with function in mind, in fact design is merely meant to useful, just as anything in the corporate society is. User experience dominates over user education. Well, a good answer perhaps, but maybe we can find a better one: let’s not design anything at all.
Dealing on a completely conceptual realm, design does more harm than good. Stockpiling gadgets and uniforming the human experience, it has become highly questionable if it can still be considered an endeavor beneficial to society in a manner a sewer worker does a worthwhile service. But let’s delay the idea of retreating to a more peaceful and simple existence instead of designing in a time where one can buy 100 designer toasters and ask ourselves what exactly is still designed? In fact quite little. It is essential to treat every offspring of the arts, including a bastard such as design is, as a highly individual activity, self-expressive and unique, work of humans, with a soul if you so wish. But such romantic notions have long been abandoned. Design is a product of long evaluation between focus groups, Facebook likes and compromises made by endless rows of economists. Template design has risen from the bottom of human creativity where it served as a quick fix for laziness and incompetence to the very essence of the design process. User friendly, DIY design – one only needs to set up the framework, the content is added afterwords.
Another answer could however be: let’s design everything, decorate the ugly functional elements of the world. Of course if Ruskin’s problem was the proverbial ugly chimney, ours is the Nike running shoe, meaning the ugly functional elements of the world have long been subjected to cosmetic treatments. It is a very schizophrenic situation we have gotten ourselves into, not only on account of multiple contradictory design concepts existing simultaneously but mainly for the fact everything is designed and not designed at the same time. This is leading us to creative impotence overwhelming our society and so our esthetic output is driven into overused design styles of bygone modernism with some added aluminum or whatever substance Jonathan Ive, the normcore bio-bot thinks of this time.
Living in the 21st century it is hard to take advice from a 19th century debate, but the underlaying problem framework is surprisingly the same. The intrusion of technology was then seen as intrusion of industry, the Victorian no rights capitalism is returning, gothic historicism is now modernistic historicism. If the problems are the same, perhaps some of the answers are the same as well. The Arts & Crafts followers retreated as far as medieval imagery to show disgust and disapproval of their industry ridden modernity and the contemporary hipster also welcomes the return to crafts. This approach could lead to the return of individuality but the present day ignorance of style usually leads only to another level of conformity to the modern corporate structure, albeit laced with self-denial of it. Yes, things are hand made, but still look as something the marketing department would think of.
But let’s not bury the romantic dream just yet, the problem has apparently always been the same, how to transcend ugliness in favor of beauty. While some indulge in usefulness and reject the beauty altogether, the romantic idea has always been to construct a fantasy world of ones own, to exit reality, to ignore the call for usefulness.
Ettore Sottsass once said: “We (Memphis) don’t pursue a metaphysic aesthetic idea or an absolute of any kind, much less eternity . . . Today everything one does is consumed. It is dedicated to life, not to eternity.” Sottsass nicely noticed that the designer savior debate is dead, it was killed many times, not only by Arthur Lasenby Liberty, the famous Art Nouveau department store owner, who used to subscribe to all the ideals of craftsmanship and artist/genius paradigm, yet secretly machine produced wallpapers and fabrics without ever citing the designer as author, all in favor of his own Liberty brand. Sottsass correctly understands that mass production and consumerism are a fact that will not be bothered with high flying ideals, and suggest a bit of fun along the way – escapism at its finest. A closer look at the Memphis movement and postmodernism in general also reveals they made their peace with the corporate structure of the 80s, but on their own terms, substituting the need to undermine it for the right to remain individuals. This is still frowned upon, criticized as a very shallow attitude, but for a brief time, before the 90s minimalism took over again, more humanity could be seen in design than ever before.
In the end it is not a question of decorating the chimney or not, but choosing how to decorate it.
One should not test ones sanity by in any way approving of the social, cultural and esthetic experiment taking place in Dubai or Shanghai. One should not do that at all but in a time where the avant-garde and alternative strive to the same level of corporate landscape, what other choices do we have? Choosing the lesser evil, we are faced with on one hand being cool, broke and corporate-like or being hated, rich and corporate. A Faustian deal if there ever was one. No, not really, it is better to have the money.
Dubai is interesting because it is a non-city, an imaginary construct, a brand instead of a name. It is hard to imagine Venice being anywhere else but where it is, Dubai however could be imagined anywhere, its geographical position merely a coincidence. It could and will be manufactured again and again. Dubai is of course in a material state, it is made of concrete, steel, glass and drywall, LED lights and carbon fibre, but does not really rely anymore on the physical connection cities used to have with the space they occupied. It is more of a concept, only temporarily in its current manifestation of high-rises and artificial islands. If Saint Petersburg is called the Venice of the North with its canals and italian architecture, Dubai built near the Arctic Circle will not be called the Dubai of the North, but simply Dubai 2 or 3 or any consecutive number. Dubai is a franchise and so based on a strict corporate platform.
Dubai much like a corporation is a modern construct, but its structure is deeply feudal. The caste system is divided into aristocracy (board of directors), the privileged upper class (shareholders) and an endless easily exchangeable mass of workers kept in line by a false promise of climbing the social ladder through hard work and self initiative (consumers). Much as corporations are merely a modern day mirage with no way of pinpointing the origin of their capital and easily relocatable head quarters, Dubai is fluid – manufacturing physical landscape and mental dreamscape. Yet what warrants Dubai the leadership position in setting the matrix for social and political future is not its current wealth, but the fact it is one of the first physical places to dematerialize, it feels more like a place in Second Life than a place IRL.
The future is cyber and virtual, Dubai is presenting us with a transitional period, the time to get accustomed to the notion that nothing has fixed coordinates anymore and that concepts are as real as physical products. It is enough to be the first to blog about some exciting new product, one does not have to buy it to claim it. It is enough to own a franchise rather than start it. Funnily it has also become more rewarding since it it easier to decode the world through the corporate filter.
But what of the designer, that voice of individuality and originality, what of his role in all this? It is clear that problem solving has no place in the brave new world as problems and antagonism do not really exist anymore. Corporate social responsibility takes care of that. It is impossible to fight against the corporation in any other way than to become more corporate than the corporation itself, or at least accept the futility of the fight. But before we tackle the final problem of reaching a compromise between the individual caught in the caste system another very unpleasant topic must be addressed: how to ignore the moral implications of subscribing to the Dubai dream, it is in the end based on a slavery system? How to rationalize the corporate society, in which inequality is one of its foundations? It is alas impossible. One mans dream is another mans nightmare, and this is by no means meant as a joke or an excuse. One should fear the corporate future for none of our places in it are by no means set at the boards of directors table.
The problem of the individual vs collective will most likely echo into infinity, but it is nicely presented in Mephisto (1981), a German film, where the main character Hendrik Hoefgen portraits a talented theatre actor on the verge of a glorious career put in jeopardy by the rise of national socialism. Not that that is confining him in any way, and not that his ambitions and egomania could be bothered by the clearly unsettling set of circumstances he has found himself in by continuing his career in the new regime. Now Hendrik is apolitical, Hendrik is arguably a perfect conformist, but to be one, one has to crush his beliefs, and Hendrick is actually quite devoid of them. In a beautiful, yet somewhat sentimental finale he eventually sees the error of his ways, not through soul searching but more by his fragile mind snapping. But are such resolutions not gross oversimplification? If Hendrik/Mephisto is the eternal question on how an artist should react to the problems of society, is it really freedom when what we are choosing is not really a choice? Is it freedom then to not choose what is still not a choice?
It seems anachronistic to talk about beauty or esthetics, especially when it is nowadays only seen as veneer covering up the badly (de)composed content. In the case of estheticism and historical decadence it was a simple answer to a complex problem: avoid socio-political themes in favor of esthetic elements. Hendrik Hoefgen would agree. Style is merely a choice which esthetic elements to use, yet it is style that is still discussed and talked about nowadays, albeit it only in a spring/summer fall/winter context, while beauty falls even lower to the realm of cosmetic commercials. The original premise resides a lot deeper, hailing beauty as the purveyor of truth itself, but what truth? Is the search for beauty only a synonym for rejection of the present or in our case a way of preserving our sanity when faced with the unstoppable Dubai matrix?
It would be pointless to search for a definition of beauty, so let’s define what is not beautiful. For Ruskin it was simple: an over designed chimney. In fact any ornamented (and not ornamented for that matter) inherently banal useful thing and this definition should actually work quite well for us. Reality is boring and ugly, something becoming more and more apparent as we slip into the dematerialized cyber worlds, but why speak of beauty as a way of escaping reality, what is it we are so (should be) afraid of?
The contemporary world revolves around usefulness. An inherent trait of machines and objects has now been successfully projected onto the entire human experience, nowhere as noticeable as in the twisted desire for self improvement. Sport and recreation are not means to a healthier end, but to provide longevity, so that one can be useful longer. The new age renaissance serves much the same purpose, not to attain a higher level of consciousness, but to improve mental health so that one can be useful longer. It is not over reaching to say design serves much the same purpose. User experience is in no way meant to improve the user, not even to extend the usefulness of the product or service, but to extend the usefulness of the user. Functionalism speaks much in favor of this concept by glorification of the function over all other elements in a system, but the tyranny of use goes a step further, by ignoring all functions that are not inherently useful. Fashion or better said the clothing industry makes a good example. While the function of clothes is to keep us warm and perhaps safe, their function has long been primarily esthetic. Little notice is taken of this demand and so sweat pants are worn everywhere and anywhere. A banal observation but comfort and safety are useful, and thus preferred over esthetic considerations. Style is acceptable, but as styling only and so it has become the standard to produce endless differently styled iPad covers, since they increase sales. Beauty as truth all of the sudden no longer sounds so anachronistic.
This is better observed through utilitarian perspective, where happiness is to be the final objective, alongside with reducing the suffering. By this it is meant the happiness and suffering of majority, and so we have once again reached the problem of the public vote. However elusive, beauty and the quality of style cannot be valued by majority voting one way or another. Putting aside the notion that all things are styled (even the useful ones), style and beauty are inherently demanding for the user, they present us with choice, but one that only an educated and free person can make. This is in direct contrast with the franchise system proposed in the corporate paradigm, where the decision has been made for us, our (public) vote only counts which flavor will be served, but not much else.
So should we pursue beauty to change the world? Pursue it yes, but not to change the world, this would mean falling for the same catch much of the modernist designers have by putting themselves on a pedestal. It is not lonely at the top, the problem is one starts shoving everybody coming close back down to the bottom. The pursuit of beauty will inevitable lead to escapism, a construction of a personal, fantasy space, perhaps establishing itself in reality as a niche Dubai has not settled on or Google bought yet. There is nothing wrong with that, the opera has been functioning quite nicely in such a parallel existence. Escapism is only dangerous when it becomes self-delusional: if a designer seriously believes that he will change the corporate paradigm with a series of hand crafted wooden accessories upvoted to production by his friends.
David Karp, the CEO of tumblr actually said that tumblr will be more beautiful with ads, since their ads will be more creative. So when reality becomes insanity, it must be ignored for a person to stay sane long enough to make a defense and a quest for beauty could just do that.
So what are we to do with the once already mentioned Nike running shoe? By all accounts un ugly item, a pinnacle of banal use, produced to serve a specific function unrelated to anything esthetic or remotely beautiful. Yet by employing the over the top styling (ornamentation) done season after season to maintain high sales it seems to have become a parody of itself and crossed into cult and from there became an object where beauty (even if ironic) could make peace with the corporate and marketing legacy of such an object. Much more than a simple case of ugly esthetics, the running shoe is one of the first products to successfully merge the corporate paradigm with esthetic individuality. Not that the one wearing it could be called a person of style or to emanate individuality, one is still a corporate whore wearing any sort of an emphasized logo and one should always wear real leather shoes, but more and more objects are crossing the corporate line. It is not a case of beauty and esthetics changing the corporate paradigm, but finding esthetic qualities in the corporate paradigm itself and perhaps returning feedback to it in a redefined and redesigned state.
Ayn Rand wrote: “Contradictions do not exist. Whenever you think you are facing a contradiction, check your premises. You will find that one of them is wrong.” This being by far the scariest thing ever written one can not help but see the prophecy begin actualized, mostly by drones of out of work designers inventing new ways to conform to the majority vote by putting themselves consensually in the self-blame spiral. However frightening these words are and however they might elegantly try to silence opposition and criticism, perhaps some use for them can be found.
If we are headed to a Dubai future (and it seems that we are), is our opposition to it merely a defensive mechanism fired by fear of change? Would Oscar Wilde’s reaction when faced with the first skyscrapers of Louis Sullivan in Chicago, be any better than ours faced with the Palm Island? Are we just falling for the out of date euro-centric trap again? For better or worse (for worse or even worse probably) a compromise with the corporate social and esthetic system of Dubai, Shanghai and other nouveau riche metropolises will have to be made. But it has been made before, with great results. Art Deco successfully took the megalomania of early 20th century American capitalists and infused it with esthetic qualities in a short-lived but very influential design style not at all associated with conformity. The previously mentioned Memphis design movement was triumphant in merging both glorification and parody of consumerism, creating original, excessive and deliberately tacky products all in the middle of the 1980s, the birthplace of modern day corporate greed and uniformity.
Torelado di Francia of Superstudio wrote: “It is the designer who must attempt to re-evaluate his role in the nightmare he has helped to conceive.” Design (and more importantly the individual voice in general) is being downgraded, but all the fault does not lie on being helplessly drowned in the corporate structure, but more so the hyper inflation of template creativity and mindless subscription to the cult of usefulness. Returning back to guilds and crafts by establishing co-working spaces and updating that model with modern day social network public vote instead of rowing through the perils of corporate approval is hard to produce any other results than a slightly improved family of products already on the market.
It is not about Arts & Crafts anymore, but Arts & Craps. We must come to terms that photoshoped beauty is beauty nonetheless and that it cannot be restricted to its original, natural form. Studio Alcymia, another postmodern experiment, based their name on the whole philosophy that just as alchemy was trying to turn iron into gold so should we try to embrace banal and ugly everyday (corporate) objects into the realm of esthetics and design. The digital baroque of the running shoe is a precursor to a path where useful objects will have to be stripped of their usefulness to expose the esthetic qualities they posses and only then be returned back into production. Perhaps the real production lines are forever lost to us and we will have to rely on art to convey the the non-conformist spirit to a better time. Will this change the world? No such high flying ideas, please, remember we made this nightmare by trying to do just that. The trick is merely never to reject the present (or the future), but to make peace with it. Not by accepting its rules, but by refashioning them as much as possible.
It will not be easy to love Dubai, but if that is our future, we should at least infuse it with some individuality and excess (and have some fun along the way). If that is our future. For the future is not yet rendered.