Jun 24, 2008

Design-Art: Coding and Recoding Design

While no one today would dare define good design, there are, as I suggested in my recent series Signs of Design, some quite specific objects that design museums and collectors collect, and that regularly fill design magazines, glossy coffeetable books and design websites, suggesting an implicit consensus on good design. These objects, which I’ve referred to as design-art, deserve further analysis as they have come to occupy greater importance in the popular discourse of design in recent years. Despite the fact that some design critics and certainly many designers have tired of the term already, design-art is a useful term that can differentiate a certain group of objects and practices from other uses of the word design that might explain processes and practices beyond the creation of a unique masterpiece. In this sense, design-art and its current ubiquity represent a narrowing of the commonsense understanding of the word design, restricting its application to a small range of rarefied objects destined for life in a white cube.

Design-art, as I discussed in an earlier post, is commonly discussed in terms of either aesthetic or technological progress, or both. A “contemporary masterpiece” of design-art will combine the two seamlessly, preferrably including either a historical or pop cultural reference as well. A single exemplary example will serve here to illustrate how design-art operates: young Dutch designer Jeroen Verhoeven’s 2005 Cinderella Table (image below). The Cinderella Table featured in a 2006 exhibition at MoMA called Digitally Mastered, an exhibition built on the twin themes of innovative technology (“Digitally”) plus a high aesthetic value (“Mastered”). Combining CAD (Computer Aided Design) with CAM (Computer Aided Manufacture), the Cinderella Table is technologically innovative in its use of the latest digitally-aided production techniques – in this case, the CNC (Computer Numerical Control) manufacture of a limited edition plywood table. Verhoeven has created a singular object by firstly designing it on a computer, then cutting the material via a computer-guided machine tool, before finally finishing each table by hand. With its historical references to the Baroque, specifically finely crafted Dutch furniture of the 17th century, the Cinderella Table might be described as digitally-driven neo-Baroque furniture. With its emphasis on a continuous surface, manages to maintain exclusivity not via applied ornament or rare materials but via advanced technological design and manufacturing methods (although the fact that it was hand-finished helps retain the aura of fine craftsmanship).

Jeroen Verhoeven, Cinderella Table, 2005: don't touch the design-art

Although we might marvel at the innovative use of technology here, the fact that the Cinderella Table is presented on a raised dais at MoMA underscores our appreciation of it as an aesthetic object as well as a technological object. Despite reference to an earlier historical period, its fluid forms and lines fit into a contemporary design industry-authenticated “digital aesthetic”. Free of applied ornament, its curvilinear forms and smooth surfaces would look equally at home next to the blobjects of Karim Rashid, Marc Newson or Greg Lynn. Formally, the audience understands the table’s connection to 21st century digital aesthetics. And adding to its significance as a cultural object, it is, importantly, a rare commodity. With only 20 tables produced, and one already in the collection of MoMA and one in the V&A in London, it may be no surprise that another Cinderella Table was recently submitted for auction with an estimate of $180 000. Given yet another Cinderella Table was sold at auction in 2006 for $42 000, design-art has certainly emerged in the last few years as a highly profitable market for musuems, collectors (speculators?) and designers to be involved in.

Design-Art at the Cutting Edge of Capitalism

As well as the combination of aesthetic and technological innovation, the three attributes of rarity, authenticity and ubiquity (via media reproduction) round out an initial definition of design-art. Design-Art debuted at the turn of the 21st century as an ideal synthesis of the contradictory forces of global capitalism – in an increasingly homogenized and mass-produced world, rarity and authenticity become valuable commodities, their value increased via the dissemination of images and the cult of designer celebrity. That is, while there are many images of the Cinderella Table circulating in design magazines and books, there are only twenty “originals” authenticated by the creative genius/designer. This is why it is important that design-art is coded as culture in a very restricted sense and continues to operate within a particular luxury market. The restrictive economy of design-art seeks to repress relationships between design and the broader world, focusing solely on aesthetics and technological innovation. However, that is not to say design-art cannot be recoded – imagine, for example, a Cinderella Table as a curious experiment in a science and technology museum. Or better still, like using a Rembrandt for an ironing board, imagine someone eating their breakfast on one.

Jeroen Verhoeven, Cinderella Table, 2005

Coded as a technological and aesthetic object of the highest value, the object of design-art is destined primarily for visual conusmption – in the private realm of the collector, it functions as an object of conspicious consumption, while in the public realm of the museum, infotainment may well be design-art’s ultimate function. Importantly, the design-art object slips easily into the ideology of contemporary capitalism, similarly founded on technological and aesthetic progress as the means by which to create new markets and extract higher profits. In this way, the “cutting edge” of design advances the interests of a consumer culture founded on continual novelty, built-in obsolescence and technological innovation. Modernist ideas about improving the quality of our lives through design seem so last century in this context, and design-art rise to prominence in the 21st century image-world of distraction is at least partly due to its absence of political or social engagement.

Finally, is significant that design-art is a global phenomenon, although global is used in a restricted sense here, anchored firmly to the North America- Western Europe axis. Not conincidently, New York and London are both key centers of global capital flows and key centers of design-art – form follows finance. What is important here is not only the cosmopolitan class of collectors that consume culture in these cities, but the type of design-art that is likely to appeal to them. Spectacular surfaces and technological innovation travel easily; complex local cultural references do not. Thus design-art cannot be too specifically tied to a particular geographical site or culture, as it needs to be accessible in New York, London, Paris or Tokyo. In this light, design-art may potentially suppress local design as global design celebrities and their objects grab all the attention, focusing design discourse on limited editions produced and collected in New York and a handful of European cities.

Decontextualized in the white cube: MoMA's modern design collection

From Art to Design-Art and Back Again

While thinking about this topic over the past month or so, I picked up a couple of books from the library: the catalogue for the 2004 Cooper-Hewitt exhibition, Design ≠ Art, and a collection of essays, Design and Art, edited by Alex Cole (Whitechapel and the MIT Press, London and Cambridge, Mass., 2007). Both seemed to display a continuing anxiety about maintaining the boundaries between the disciplines art and design, and both seemed to be located firmly on the “art” side of the fence. Design and Art contained some classic essays and interviews by both designers and artists, as well as some excellent new ones. Most of the designers and artists featured in the book still hinge their work on the issues of function and intent – design has a practical function and art doesn’t, and the intention of the artist/designer in determining the trajectory of the work also seemed crucial to its reception as either art or design. Artists such as Jorge Pardo or Andrea Zittel for example, working with industrial design, interior design or architecture, claim their work is art, not design. There still seems to be a lingering sense among practictioners that art is somehow more significant than design.

Unfortunately there is no commentary in the book on design-art from contemporary designers – it would have been interesting to include essays on say, Marc Newson or Philippe Starck to contrast with Zittel and Pardo. But I wonder if function and the intention of the artist/designer are overstated and beside the point. Perhaps a sliding scale between “design” and “art” might be better than a strict boundary, with design-art sliding into the art end of the scale. Ultimately, the context in which your art or design is displayed and reproduced, and how it functions in the world may be the most important issues, regardless of the artist/designer’s intentions, including the intended function of the object. That is, what was once design might be recoded as design-art, as is the case in the images from MoMA above and below – modernism as design-art. The question is, once an object has been coded as design-art, can it be recoded as something else, opening up our definition of design as something more than just rarefied objects in a white cube?

Decontextualized in the white cube: MoMA's modern design collection

Further note

My earlier posts on Jean ProuvĂ©’s Maison Tropicale are a case in this issue of recoding design as design-art (part one and part two). ProuvĂ© saw himself as a designer-engineer and his intention in designing the Maison Tropicale was to produce an absolutely functional house appropriate for the climatic conditions of the French colonies in central Africa. However, despite his intention and the Maison’s functionality, the Maison has been recently recoded as design-art with an emphasis on its innovative technology and aesthetics. The question is, can the Maison be recoded once again in order to re-attach it to its particular historical context, as a colonial object?

All photographs by D.J. Huppatz

Jun 2, 2008

Signs of Design III

Undesign: from Wal-Mart to the 99 Cent Store

While there is not likely to be any controversy in referring to the objects of my previous two categories,
Design-Art and Design For All as design, the products found in a suburban Wal-Mart or corner 99 Cent Store in any American city may stretch the definition of design for some. Indeed, the gallons of print and myriad pixels devoted every day to Design-Art effectively drowns out any focus on the anonymous objects consumed and utilized by most Americans on a daily basis. My focus here is a brief look at the generic urban 99 Cent Store (as I know such places better than Wal-Mart or other discount retailers). Outside of the image world of Design-Art and the designer branding of Design For All, the world of everyday objects at the 99 Cent Store generally falls well below the attention of the designer, design critic or design historian.

“Undesign” is the realm of anonymous design: functional, generic, and above all, low-cost. The typical 99 Cent Store features wire racks crammed with clothes, brooms and kitchen items, clothes and accessories, towels, bedding, stationary, toys and electronic goods (including toasters, blenders and stereos), pots and pans and small furniture items. A kind of generic department store, the 99 Cent Store is a cornucopia of surplus commodities dumped together for high-turnover sales. What all of these commodities share are a particular generic, un-designer nature, poor quality, and the absence of labels. Instead of designer brand names, the 99 Cent Store emphasizes the lowest possible price and largest turnover of volume – this is the lowest base of American consumerism – a mass of cheap and disposable products that are neither environmentally nor socially sustainable.

From a design perspective, is a generic 99 Cent Store toaster without added-value, a brand name and an associated lifestyle experience, still considered an object of “design”? Without brand equity, without a sense of cultural identity, without mythologies or narratives to associate with, a 99 Cent Store toaster seems a long way from a Marc Newson Lockheed Lounge or even a Michael Graves toaster. Do such generic objects, clearly standardized, anonymous and homogeneous, thus seem somehow “inauthentic”? Do we read such industrially produced objects as simply remainders that have not yet caught up with the post-industrial image world? One thing is clear: modes of social distinction enter the picture at this point. The 99 Cent Store, at least in its New York context (the one I know best), is associated with poverty.

In thinking about the 99 Cent Store as the realm of the inauthentic, a single example springs to mind that may challenge the absence of branding point raised above: the Yankees cap. At $3.99, a fake Yankees cap from the 99 Cent Store is certainly cheaper than the authentic, MLB-licensed version, which retails for anywhere from around $25-$30 for a standard design to $50 or more for rare or special editions. The design of Yankees caps and their global ubiquity is worthy of another study. But for my purposes here, even street fashion operates in terms of designer distinctions – the expensive authentic caps are authenticated by silver holographic stickers on the brims (proudly worn on the streets rather than removed, presumably to highlight their authenticity), while the inauthentic versions at the 99 Cent Store have fake stickers (similarly silver but without the holograms). Here is design operating beyond function and clearly in the realm of branding and cultural identity, even at the 99 Cent Store. But this example is a rare exception to the absence of branding rule.

Finally, I imagine a conventional reading of design in the 99 Cent Store (if there were such a reading) would be to analyse the 99 Cent Store in terms of a “trickle-down” theory of design. In this reading, design begins at the top with Design-Art, then trickles down in diluted form to the mass department stores as Design For All, and finally, diluted almost beyond recognition, ends up in the bargain bins of the 99 Cent Store. This “trickle-down” narrative operates on three levels of differentiation: aesthetic (art, good design, utilitarian object), economic (price differentials) and historical (last year’s Design-Art is next year’s Design For All, while the 99 Cent Store is just “so last century”). While designers, design critics and historians are generally focused on the discourses surrounding Design-Art and, to a lesser extent, Design For All, design at the lowest level of consumerism is ignored. Beyond “trickle-down” theories of design, it may well be time to start rethinking design from the bottom up.

Photos of 99 Cent Stores, Brooklyn, NYC, by D.J. Huppatz