May 8, 2008

Signs of Design II

Design for All: Value-Added Lifestyles

In 1999, the retail chain Target began a partnership with architect and designer Michael Graves in an attempt to mass-market “high” design to American consumers. At the time, Graves was best known for his historicist postmodern architecture (exemplified by his 1980 Portland Building in Oregon), as well as his iconic 1985 Bird Whistle Kettle for Alessi. While one path from 1980s sculptural homewares such as the Alessi Kettle was the one towards increasingly rarefied design-art objects outlined in my previous post, Graves took another path with his designs for Target. His whimsical and colorful household objects such as toasters, jugs, blenders and mixers for Target are certainly affordable and reach a mass audience. However, while Graves’ designs may be (arguably) aesthetically pleasing, they seem unlikely candidates for life in a white cube. However subtly sculpted, a plastic toaster for $24.99 is unlikely to set the contemporary art market on fire (see image below) – it is mass produced, widely available and has thus far failed to generate the avalanche of publicity or celebrity cache of a design-art object.

In 2000, Target expanded their designer range, with a line of clothing by fashion designer Issac Mizrahi, followed by products designed by Philippe Starck (since discontinued) and other less well known designers. The fully-fledged commitment to design became Target’s Design For All campaign in 2005, with a series of catchy TV advertisements aimed at heightening awareness about both design and Target’s stable of designers. Minimal biographies and images of the designers help aid a clear association between the formerly discount retailer and “high culture” – an association that even includes Target sponsoring Free Friday Nights at MoMA (although ironically, it is hard to see the Graves toaster ever making it into that hallowed white cube). What’s referred to by the retailer as the “halo effect” of Graves’ reputation as a well-known designer has improved Target’s reputation as a designer destination, or at least more designer than just your average mass market retailer. For Target, design means competitive advantage. However, it is important to note that Target designers like Graves rarely invent new products or new concepts but simply restyle old ones – in this light, Target’s Design For All can be seen as a kind of Streamline design for the 21st century, with Graves' sculpted plastic forms and colourful knobs replacing speed lines and metallic teardrop shapes of the 1930s. Indeed, this is a marketing lesson that designers such as Raymond Loewy practically invented – design, as styling, can improve the bottom line.

However, another more recent Target design example might prove more innovative and suggest an alternative definition of design in the mass marketplace – design as creative problem solving. As part of her 2002 thesis project, Deborah Adler created a new concept for a prescription medicine packaging system when she realized how easy it was for her elderly grandparents to confuse their medication bottles. Adler’s repackaging, which was developed into Target’s ClearRX system in 2005, is more than simply restyling an existing product to effect the bottom line (though it may affect the latter too). The ClearRX medicine bottle has a flat side with easily legible graphics and a simple colored ring coding system to ensure that medicine bottles and their contents are not confused (see image below). While for Target, the ClearRx design may aid in their market strategy of differentiation via design, it is also possible to see design here as a practical and innovative solution to an everyday problem. In this example, design seems to be a long way from the design-art on display in a white cube discussed below.

K-Martha and Shaping Designer Lifestyles

Target’s Design For All has been successful both as a commercial enterprise and in raising consumer awareness about design. Target’s version of design has effectively become a brand associated with an accompanied lifestyle that is distinguished, by design, from anonymous discount objects of a regular mass retailer. An even more successful example of building lifestyle branding through design is Martha Stewart. While Stewart herself may not actually design any material objects, she is a master designer of American lifestyles. And of course, attaining a contemporary lifestyle inevitably requires consuming objects – from Stewart’s books and magazines to her Everyday line of household goods from K-Mart and, most recently, Martha Stewart homes.

If Target’s Design For All suggests an accessible designer lifestyle, Martha Stewart invented the mass market designer lifestyle in the late 20th century. Using her media image as the prototype, Martha’s lifestyle is an incredibly successful design. The image of mom at home cooking, cleaning, entertaining and decorating may well be a Victorian-era image of woman as domestic servant, but it sure sells Everyday cookware at K Mart. Value-added design here means regular pots and pans are imbued, via the Martha Stewart brand, with an associated lifestyle and its inherent values.

In the Martha Stewart artifice, the values are wholesome and absolutely conventional – the celebration of traditional family values and the fantasy of a life of leisure, with ample time to complete complex craft and baking projects. From her country estate farmhouses with invented names such as Turkey Hill and Middlefield suggesting New England pedigree, to advice on polishing silver and restoring antiques, there is an aristocratic fantasy behind all of this too. In the context of her 1980s rise to fame, Stewart’s values coincide perfectly with the return to family values promoted by the Reagan administration (continued by Bush Senior). In this light, her traditional lifestyle can be seen as a reaction to the increasing divorce rate, the war on HIV/AIDS and promiscuity, and most importantly, a counter to the threat of 1970s feminism. And the artifice must be compelling – even the reality of Stewart as an ex-stock broker running a multi-million dollar lifestyle empire whose insider trading resulted in jail time has not unravelled the image world she has designed.

The suburban developments she is currently promoting are worthy of brief analysis. Coated with the veneer of convention, Stewart’s homes are Levittown-style suburban developments for the 21st century lifestyle generation. The white picket fences of the 1950s have been replaced by ranch-style fences to give the impression of a rural community, while development titles such as Hampton Oaks and Lily Pond continue the theme of country estate, despite their location in the suburbs of Atlanta or Los Angeles. Many of the homes are based on New England homes owned or formerly owned by Stewart herself – the Lily Pond series is based on Stewart's shingled Hamptons home, the Katonah series resembles her two colonial homes in Westport, Connecticut, and Katonah, New York. The bizarre sight of a whole suburb of colonial New England house styles in the suburbs of Atlanta, or in Florida or California, complete with the traditional hearth (particularly useful in Florida!) suggests that the Martha gestamkunstwerk places image above both function and context. In contrast to the badge of class distinction offered by contemporary design-art, Martha’s designer world is mass design for the American middle class in an age of insecurity – a safe, conventional artifice to consume. And consume. And consume.

IKEA: the Second Coming of Scandinavian Design

In the 1950s, the first wave of Scandinavian design invaded the United States. Though it began with organic forms and bent blonde wood chairs of Alvar Aalto and others before the war, by the 1950s, Hans Wegner and Bruno Mathesson chairs provided stylish comfort for the design-conscious while Arne Jacobsen’s minimal Ant Chairs began seeping into the mainstream. Through an economy of materials and means, as well as simple organic forms, Scandinavian design gained a reputation for being modern but not too modern, mass-produced and standardized yet maintaining a humanist resonance conveyed through its organic forms, warm wood and textiles. Initially revered by architects and designers in the United States, Scandinavian design did reach a mass market in the 1950s to some degree. But the second coming of Scandinavian design in the 1990s, the IKEA invasion, penetrated much further into mainstream American consciousness.

Scandinavian design already had a certain reputation in America, which IKEA certainly tapped, but it added a crucial ingredient: low cost. Like Target’s Design for All and Martha Stewart’s empire, IKEA came to mean affordability plus the added value of a designer lifestyle. However, while Scandinavian design has traditionally stood for durability and quality materials, IKEA have traded these for an essential ingredient of American consumerism: built-in obsolescence. IKEA’s vast range of blonde wood furniture and practical home accessories are designer yet disposable. A much larger market can now afford to value-add with Scandinavian style in their home and update their designer lifestyles with the changing seasons.

Other attributes which Scandinavian design became well known for in the 1950s – modularity, compactness and flexibility – were imported to America and mass distributed by IKEA on an increasingly larger scale. Their space saving solutions appealed to both city apartment dwellers and excessive consumers in big homes looking for practical ways to house all of their stuff. Designed in Scandinavia by a range of little-known designers, manufactured wherever the cheapest labor is, then flat packed across the globe to consumers everywhere, IKEA have built a global empire based as much on designing systems as products. While earlier Scandinavian designers are regulars in major museums – Aalto, Jacobsen and company – IKEA’s largely anonymous designers seem unlikely to make the cut. But, as with Target’s Design For All and Martha’s Everyday homeware, consumers at this end of the design market may experience a certain “trickle down effect” from the legacy of Aalto and previous generations of Scandinavian designers (now safely housed in white cubes). At Target, K-Mart and IKEA, are consumers ultimately consuming signs of design?

May 2, 2008

Signs of Design

Twenty-first century design seems impossible to define, not least because the word “design” covers such a wide variety of objects and practices. While the idea is daunting, I thought it worth attempting a preliminary mapping of twenty-first century design in an American context. What follows in an initial mapping of contemporary design via three loose categories: Design-Art, Design For All, and Undesign. For the purposes of brevity, I am focusing on product/industrial design objects – tangible, material objects that are created, consumed and understood to be design objects – although for my purposes, their image and context may be as important as their materiality. This brief survey is by no means intended to be comprehensive but is intended instead as a reconceptualization of contemporary design beyond conventional categorizations. As the entries were getting quite long, I will post this as three separate entries over the next few weeks rather than one long one. Comments are welcome.

Design-Art: Destined For A White Cube

In recent years, the term design-art (with or without the hyphen) has been used to describe limited-edition design objects which are ultimately destined for life in a museum or gallery. Recently, rarefied, limited-edition pieces of furniture have started appearing in contemporary art galleries where they are exhibited in the same neutral spaces as paintings, sculptures and installation art. In his classic essay on the white cube, Brian O’Doherty characterised the modernist art gallery as a supposedly neutral space, without impediments or distractions, a space emptied of everything but the artwork itself (see O'Doherty, Inside the White Cube: the Ideology of the Gallery Space, expanded edition by Uni of California Press, 2000; read the original 1976 essay here). Perhaps more than art, design is decontextualised by placing it in such a white space – a chair is taken from its place at the table, in the office or café, and becomes an object of reflection. In 2007, for example, Marc Newson exhibited tables, chairs and shelving cut from single marble blocks at Gagosian Gallery in New York (image below), while in the same year at the Albion Gallery in London, Fernando and Humberto Campana had two exhibitions of their limited-edition furniture, one of which featured their plush toy-upholstered Cartoon Chairs. What effect does this contemporary art context have on our understanding of 21st century design?

Newson’s association with Gagosian is worth further examination. At Gagosian, Newson’s furniture (yes, it’s design not art, we are assured in the publicity) is shown in a context with artists such as Jeff Koons, Richard Serra, Julian Schnabel and Richard Artschwager. In the same space the following year, Artschwager’s Minimalism-meets-Memphis sculptures posed as functional tables (yes, it’s art not design, we are assured in the publicity). Unfortunately, such comparisons inevitably lead to dead-end clichés such as “these objects display the blurring of boundaries between art and design”. We need to go further.

While Alessi’s sculptural household objects of the 1980s can be seen as recent forerunners of such design-art, with Newson’s furniture, the context has shifted from high-end department stores to contemporary art galleries. Within the white cube, design is understood as the creation of discrete, autonomous objects intended for contemplation, whose ultimate destination is inevitably a museum or a wealthy collector’s loft. Furthermore, the designer is characterized as a singular creative genius whose inspired and singular vision transcends everyday reality and whose creative products are worthy of prolonged contemplation. Rare objects of design-art are instantly collectable, and for this reason, there seems no difference between Marc Newson’s marble chair and a limited edition table sculpture by Richard Artschwager.

When I hear the word design, I get out my checkbook

With the rapid expansion of the market in contemporary design-art in the last decade, the prices of the Newson chair and the Artschwager sculpture may well be similar. Marc Newson’s limited edition Lockheed Lounge (or LC1 Chaise Longue, image below) is a case in point. First exhibited in Rosyln Oxley’s art gallery in Sydney in 1986, a Lockheed Lounge (one of the limited edition of 10) sold at auction in 2000 for just $105 000. It was then sold again at Sotheby’s in 2006 for $968 000, while another Lounge was sold in October 2007 at Christie’s (via London’s Frieze Art Fair) for $1.5 million. While such figures continue to grab headlines, design-art’s image certainly affects our understanding of what contemporary design is.

While the rare object of design-art remains an object of differentiation for cosmopolitan, design-saavy and market-saavy collectors, authentication by prominent museums is required to first elevate, then maintain, its value. Museums and galleries, as the other major collectors of design-art, also have a vested interest in maintaining the value of their investments, primarily through exhibitions, image reproduction and publications. As limited-editions, design-art objects increase their value through media reproduction. Indeed, if modern designers in the early 20th century were concerned with mass production, contemporary design-artists of the 21st century are concerned with mass media reproduction – the image of the design object needs to be repeated endlessly in design journals, books, websites and advertising. In this process of collection and image circulation, design-art is effectively stripped of any relationship with society, politics, or sustainability, to become overwhelmingly associated with aesthetics and/or technological experimentation.

Further connections to the mass media are established by events such as Design Miami and its attendant celebrity circus. Design-art and the cult of celebrity go hand-in-hand, as evidenced by Newson’s Lockheed Lounge rocketing to fame under Madonna in the film clip for her 1993 hit, Rain (see the film clip here). Finally, design-art operates in the same image world as recent iconic buildings by globe-trotting starchitects – in this context, 21st design-art and starchitecture function primarily as a means of distiction for a particular cosmopolitan class. By means of the sheer volume of reproductions in journals and books, its legitimation and promotion by major museums, and its celebrity magnetism, design-art has the potential to drown out all other conceptions of what contemporary design is.