L.We start with two bookcases.
Both consist of simple, robust jaws that are conveniently connected to each other. One thing will probably be known: it is the primary unit of the Ivar shelving system, which has been manufactured by Swedish mega-brand IKEA since the late 1960s. His name rhymes with the name of the company’s founder Ingvar Kamprad, who died in 2018. It costs $ 69.
The other shelf, characterized by its diagonal brackets, is part of the Autoprogettazione Furniture system developed by the Italian designer Enzo Mari. It’s a word that is difficult to translate (“self-project” isn’t particularly grammatical, but comes close), but easy to explain. Mari wanted to bring the means of production back to where he believed they belong: in the hands of the people. So he devised a family of shapes that could be made by anyone from cheap lengths of pine and a few nails using the simplest of joints.
If the similarity between these two bookshelves is striking, then the ideological inequality between them is far greater. Kamprad had been a Nazi sympathizer as a young man and began his close association with the Swedish fascists in 1942 when he was 16 years old. After the war he remained a politically conservative man, and of course the company he founded is now considered the friendly face of consumer capitalism. In contrast, Mari was a committed Marxist. When he passed away last October, he was widely hailed as the conscience of design, someone who had spent his life chastising his fellow product designers for their relentless submission to the profit motive. “What producers do today is shit,” he said in a 2015 interview, “because they eat shit…. I have worked half my life to ensure that the world is not what it is today. ”
How is it possible that two bookshelves that are nearly identical in appearance and construction can exemplify both left-wing critical design and the world’s most successful capitalist furniture-making strategy? This question becomes even more provocative when looking at both the Ivar and the Autoprogettazione as manifestations of modernity, the movement that emerged in the 1920s with a program of egalitarian functionalism. Kamprad’s famous “A Furniture Dealer’s Testament” (1976, published just two years after Mari’s DIY plans) epitomizes these themes: creating a better life for many; achieve more with less; Simplicity is a virtue. Mari also stood up for these values. He created hundreds of designs that were always easy to conceptualize, practical to use and affordable in price – children’s games, plastic vases, pen holders – and made by big brands like Danese, Artemide and Zanotta. Even Italians who don’t know his name know his work. It’s the stuff of everyday life.
Mari’s death was particularly cruel in its timing. A large exhibition of his work, orchestrated by international superstar curator Hans Ulrich Obrist, had opened just two days earlier at the Milan Triennale while Italy was rocked by the coronavirus pandemic. Apparently, Covid-19 killed Mari at the age of 88 along with his wife, critic and curator Lea Vergine, who died the next day at the age of 82. A tragedy so significant will make you ponder. If even the most respected critical project of the most respected critical designer is indistinguishable from an IKEA product, then how credible is the overall prospect of politically engaged design? It was perhaps this dilemma that artist Rirkrit Tiravanija thought of in 2004 when he created a version of the Autoprogettazione Dining table and chairs made of beautifully polished stainless steel. Apart from the material, Tiravanija faithfully followed Mari’s instructions. However, in the end, he had something that resembled Jeff Koons’ hypercommodity sculptures.
Design is so closely linked to the value creation process that even the most idealistic project can be claimed by the market. At the moment one of the few Autoprogettazione Tables built under Mari’s own supervision were available on 1stDibs for $ 22,500. If Mari’s experiment still has a bite, this seems to be mainly observed in the injury. Paola Antonelli, curator at the Museum of Modern Art, explained: “Since this was such a rigorous project, any interpretation that deviated from the principle became a way of showing the weakness of the system.”
Of course, some might say that Mari was wrong and Kamprad was right: that designers practically have to dance to the music of capitalism in order for them to learn to like it as well. There are certainly differences in the discipline. Graphic design, in particular, lends itself to protest gestures, from punk album covers to handcrafted banners. But architecture and product design, where the big money lies, have always been service companies. And what they serve is profitability. Mari herself was supported by orders from Danish and other companies. He tried to add humanistic values to each of his products and make them affordable. But he was still making goods, and it hurt him. In the interview quoted above, he reflected: “My wife, who is an intelligent woman, totally despises all design. Even what I did. “But what other option did he have?
This is the complex legacy of modernity. To understand how it can animate Mari and Kamprad alike, it is worth taking a step back into the moment of conception, when it was in step with radical politics. The Russian constructivists advocated abstraction because it was free from the traps of the class hierarchy. They viewed design as the source code for a brave new world by making functional, uniform clothing and uncompromisingly strict ceramics – material culture as a tool of radical egalitarianism. In Germany, the designers of the legendary Bauhaus imbued the functionalism of the machine age with a similar urgency. Their famous proclamation that “less is more” was not a mere aesthetic preference. It was a rational defense against conspicuous use, a strategy to ensure everyone’s participation.
At birth, modernity was an equal opportunity movement that sought to meet its public on an equal footing. The repeal by reactionary regimes – Stalinism in the Soviet Union, National Socialism in Germany – only strengthened its credibility as a politically progressive style. As early as the 1930s, however, this association got lost in translation. As historian Kristina Wilson explains in her book Livable modernityIn the 1930s, American industrial designers introduced tubular steel and machine-time design and marketed it, albeit hesitantly, to local consumers. Wilson describes how the modern first came into the kitchen and bathroom and was only gradually adopted in the living room and bedroom.
B.But it wasn’t until the post-war period that modernity began its confusing double life. The basic principles of modernity, which are still regarded as the lingua franca of the avant-garde, were taught in schools for advanced art and architecture from Cambridge and Cairo to Tel Aviv and Tokyo. The Bauhaus was reborn in Chicago, where the faculty of the original school had gathered – a design world paralleling the expulsion of the Frankfurt School’s intellectuals to California and New York. However, modernity also became the language of authority, widely used across the political spectrum. As early as 1932, the Museum of Modern Art had declared modernism an “international style”. In the post-war years, this prediction came true. Hardly any country on earth, regardless of its political system, was without its repetitive housing projects made of concrete and glass – which were recommended not least because of their cheapness.
This was never the intention of the first generation of modernists. According to Walter Gropius, the founding director of the Bauhaus, a standardization of the architecture was desirable, but above all because it left the necessary resources for the adaptation. “The suppression of individuality is always short-sighted and unwise,” he wrote in 1924. Post-war architects have not received this memo. The result was that an originally developed program to improve the life of the working class was thoughtlessly and dehumanized.
To confuse matters even further, modernism also became the recognized corporate style of the post-war decades, exemplified by companies such as IBM (whose main design consultant Eliot Noyes studied at Gropius at Harvard). Furniture companies such as Herman Miller and Knoll have made the dreams of the Bauhaus builders a reality and finally implemented designs that had originally only been realized as hand-made prototypes into commercial production. In those days before IKEA, however, such modern objects remained relatively expensive status symbols, which opened an obvious line of attack. In his 1981 book From the Bauhaus to our houseTom Wolfe mocked the progressive beliefs of modernity. In a hilarious passage, he ridiculed the persistent pretext of avant-gardism surrounding the Barcelona chair, which was designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Lilly Reich at the Bauhaus and produced by Knoll from 1947:
The platonic ideal of the chair was pure worker housing leather and stainless steel, the most perfect piece of furniture in the 20th century…. When you saw the sacred object on the sisal carpet, you knew that you were in a household where a young architect and his young wife had sacrificed everything to bring the symbol of the divine mission into their home. Five hundred and fifty dollars!
As so often in his career, Wolfe had his finger on the pulse, because 1981 saw a fundamental change in the history of design. It was the year MTV and the DeLorean and Boy George hit the market for the first time Top of the Pops. Obviously, strict rationalism should be pushed aside. In design, the main event was the inaugural presentation by Memphis, a Milan-based collective named after an ancient city after a Bob Dylan song “Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again”. Memphis designs were the opposite of Mari’s serious objects. In addition to being merchandise, they were hyper-convenience – luscious, camera-ready props for an outrageous lifestyle. They even borrowed names from luxury hotels: the Plaza Vanity, the Hilton Trolley, the Bel Air chair.
T. Though Memphis was certainly an international and cross-generational group company, its recognized leader was Ettore Sottsass Jr., a creative genius a generation older than Mari and just as passionate, if more or less in the opposite direction. Sottsass wasn’t particularly ideological, except in that he was a counterculture man. “I always thought,” he once said, “that design begins where rational processes end and magic begins.”
Sottsass most famous design for Memphis, the Carlton bookcase, is an educational contrast to Maris Autoprogettazione. One of Memphis’ key donors was Abet Laminati, the Italian equivalent of Formica, and the company’s colorful, boldly patterned plastic laminates were featured on almost every piece of furniture. (Talk about product placement!) The Carlton is like a sales brochure magically placed inside a serviceable item – though not as useful as its diagonal shelves mock modernist utilitarianism. (Sottsass joked that books were more likely to fall over anyway.) If Mari had sought a bottom-up design revolution carried out with public participation, Memphis was targeting the mass media directly: the real function of objects was to get attention – which they did made brilliant thanks to the power of reproduction.
Despite its sleek appearance, Memphis’ furniture was actually built in traditional craft workshops. But that didn’t matter because the pieces had their impact through magazines, not in person. Peter Shire from California, designer of the Bel Air chair, once told me, “Memphis was in the media. There were never any problems with color separations – it always rendered correctly because we were primarily using synthetic colors. The priority was to choose the picture. ”
If Memphis was only skin deep, however, it wasn’t necessarily superficial. By emphasizing the surface so fully, Sottsass and the company implied a new theoretical position for design, suggesting that it now had to operate primarily in the realm of images. This way of thinking (a philosophical tendency that now flows through a billion Instagram accounts) was called “postmodernism”, a term that caused a lot of confusion, but also clearly signaled modernism – at least as a viable avant-garde – was now firmly over. In its place came a somewhat paradoxical combination of liberation and self-criticism. The most frequently cited one-liners of the postmodern era were “less is boring” (the answer of architect Robert Venturi to the functionalist creed) and “the death of the author”. Add these up and what do you get? Maximalism unrestricted by seriousness. The wildest parody of the era – a book that makes Wolfe seem tame by comparison – was Bret Easton Ellis’ 1991 novel American psychowith a serial killer antihero obsessed with brand names and apparently with no inner workings at all. (He does have a Sottsass phone, however.)
T.The term “postmodernism” first spread to architecture circles and was also freely applied to fashion, graphic design, and even music. (The emphasis on the conveyed image is also evident in the names of bands and magazines of the time: television, visage, talking heads, The face, I would.) When the 1980s boomed and returned into the 90s, modernity returned with a vengeance. It again became the lingua franca of architecture and product design. The difference was that now everyone clearly saw what it was: just a different style, not naturally more progressive than anyone else.
If modernity had once presented itself as a truth machine, a transparent window into a better future, postmodernism would be more like a broken mirror that could inspire self-reflection but offer no hope of a single coherent worldview. To his critics, this mindset seemed not only apolitical but positively amoral – a denial of the fundamental responsibility of designers to create a better world. But the postmodern generation had a convincing reply: Who are we to create a better world? The whole idea of the designer as a savior or a seer, someone who knows what people need even when they don’t. Ultimately, the legacy of postmodern adventure would be ubiquitous doubt.
It took a while, but this internal review has proven to be exactly what design needs. As the dizzying, relativistic vortex of the 1980s came to an end, a native truth was accepted: when something is designed, it is usually too late to determine its political impact. Commodities are mainly the result of power relations, not the cause.
This change in thinking has led to a reorientation of the discipline away from objects towards a so-called design culture (La Cultura del Progetto(in Italian) the social matrix in which objects are conceived, executed and distributed. The question originally asked in the spirit of relativism: who should we create a better world? – has now been reformulated with regard to identity politics: And who exactly is this “we” anyway?
It will not have escaped the reader’s notice that every work discussed so far in this essay has been designed by a white man. But the narrative can be designed in a different way than as a contrast between Kamprad and Mari, right versus left. If you look back and look again you will find a more complex, nonlinear history. In this revisionist report, which is itself shaped by postmodern pluralism – a look through the fragmentary rear-view mirror – the global spread of the international style is nuanced at every turn by local concerns. His fascinating scenes include: Turkish metalworkers in Istanbul’s Kare Metal Atelier in the 1950s who painstakingly transform plumbing pipes and rebars into modernist furniture; the potters Maria and Julian Martinez in the American Southwest, who developed their signature black-on-black pottery based on archaeological findings; Indian weavers making white khaddar (homemade cotton cloth) with the encouragement of Mahatma Gandhi. The focus is shifting away from men like Gropius, Mari and Sottsass towards women who wanted to combine modernist rationalism with local handicrafts like Clara Porset in Mexico. Lina Bo Bardi, an Italian expatriate in Brazil (and a staunch communist herself); and Charlotte Perriand, a native of Paris who has conducted extensive research in Brazil, Korea, and Japan.
However, rewriting history will only get us so far as the central political question about design is only just being asked: Who is allowed to become a designer anyway? When Venturi received the Pritzker Prize in 1991, his partner Denise Scott Brown was not recognized. In 2013, a high-profile petition was circulated calling for reparations with Venturi’s own support. In 2018, the #MeToo movement came to architecture, with allegations of sexual misconduct against Richard Meier, the neo-modernist who designed the Atlanta High Museum and the Getty Center in Los Angeles. Stella Lee, one of Meier’s accusers, wrote in a New York Times It found that the way the discipline does business has an even deeper problem: the low salary, the sleepless nights, the pervasive gender discrimination. “To really bring about change,” she wrote, “we need to focus on culture and where it is entrenched.”
S.So far, this change seems to be slow. The Pritzker jury rejected Scott Brown’s petition, arguably doing more harm to the award than to the cause of feminism. (Shelley McNamara and Yvonne Farrell of Grafton Architects won the Pritzker last year, making them the fourth and fifth women to be on the list of winners in over four decades.) Meier’s company seemed shockingly unresponsive to his actions that enable him to remain as the majority shareholder. Recent surveys show that women only hold 17 percent of management positions in architecture firms and only 11 percent in design studios.
When it comes to ethnic diversity, things are even worse. The professional representation of African Americans is only about 3 percent (compared to about 13 percent of the US population). A group called Where Are the Black Designers? was formed to advocate change and to draw attention to practitioners in the field. This year I put together a series of interviews with Stephen Burks entitled “Design in Dialogue”, which is presented by the Friedman Benda gallery in New York. One of our goals is to bring the voices of women and people of color to the fore. Burks is the ideal partner, one of the few African Americans who play a prominent role in furniture and product design. When I asked about his pioneering experience, he focused on the problem of tokenism: “When a person breaks through, it doesn’t necessarily make room for a variety of voices.” He also described a tendency to view ethnic groups as monocultures, as if there was a single black voice or point of view. When it comes to diversity, design doesn’t just need a few positive role models. it takes a total change. The mirror may be broken, but the glass ceiling is barely cracked.
However, given the state of the environment, perhaps we should just do this. Stop. Design. Completely. Or when we absolutely have to move on – and this comes close to Mari’s position towards the end of his life – we focus our efforts on damage control.
But here’s the thing: that won’t happen. I remember when Joris Laarman, a young Dutch designer whose magic and sophistication with digital tools is unparalleled, was asked how he could possibly justify making another chair. Laarman’s answer was simple: “That means there are already a lot of songs. So why do we have to compose another one?” It wasn’t an entirely convincing answer as songs don’t end up in landfills. But as an observation of human behavior, it was certainly true. There will always be an appetite for new culture, including objects. It’s just how people are built and there is no redesign.
This is where design comes into its own as a contemporary political instrument: It is our best instrument for achieving an intelligent balance between the competing pressures of sustainability and desire. Another prominent Dutch designer, Hella Jongerius, took up this topic with the pedagogue Louise Schouwenberg in her manifesto 2017 “Beyond the New”. The document confidently takes up the utopian declarations of the historical avant-garde. “Terms like” authenticity “and” sustainability “become empty words when the hidden agenda, as usual, is still economic returns,” they write. “Imagine a future in which shared ideals and moral values show the way!” Jongerius and Schouwenberg describe contemporary design as little more than “a depressing cornucopia of senseless products, commercial hype about suspected innovations and empty rhetoric”. (You can imagine Mari nodding once in agreement.) Finally, they are calling for a return to the – drum roll, please – modernity! “We have lost sight of the higher ideals that were so central to what was by far the most influential movement in industrial design. The Bauhaus ideals, which make the highest possible quality available to many people, were based on the close interweaving of cultural awareness, social commitment and economic returns. “Of course, Jongerius and Schouwenberg do not advocate a literal return to modernist design, but rather argue that economy is a necessary condition, not a goal, and that novelty for its own sake is worse than worthless.
T.Although “Beyond the New” was released three years ago, it is more compelling today than ever. Paola Antonelli of the Museum of Modern Art and critic Alice Rawsthorn initiated a project called Design Emergency to draw attention to the discipline’s attempts to respond to the intertwined crises of racism, climate change and pandemic. They point to epic projects like Boyan Slat’s controversial nonprofit Ocean Cleanup, which uses a giant floating boom to collect plastic waste at sea and finally achieved some success after years of costly failure, and the Great Green Wall, a 5,000 mile long. long tree line that is planted along the southern border of the Sahara. They also highlight smaller grassroots projects like the work of entrepreneur Roya Mahboob, who sponsored teenage girls in Herat, Afghanistan, to design and manufacture ventilators, and the attempt by 1,500 residents of Kamikatsu on the Japanese island of Shikoku to create one To become a “zero waste village”, to recycle or reuse everything they use. (They are reportedly 80 percent involved now and are still working on it.)
Antonelli and Rawsthorn are both great admirers of Mari, but they plan a vision for design that is different from his. Your recent guest-edited edition of backgrounddevoted to the Design Emergency concept, was also filled with the usual ads for Dior, Chanel, Rolex and other brands. It is clearly assumed here that a draft solution for climate change must take place in capitalism, at least for the foreseeable future. This is not a bet on the radical overhaul of our political and economic systems, but on the potential of human ingenuity to create a better world.
Whether or not you find this way of thinking persuasive probably says a lot about your own politics. If I only speak for myself, I will say that there is at least one reason to be optimistic: We have the advantage over previous generations of learning from their mistakes. Perhaps design can really reclaim the progressive vision of the early modernists while avoiding their guesswork about what people want and need, maintaining a healthy level of self-skepticism, and working to increase its diversity so that the sector becomes more similar to the general population.
In the meantime, designers continue to navigate this difficult terrain, creating human meaning in the process. When Martino Gamper, an Italian designer from London, heard that Mari and Vergine had died, he created a pair AutoprogettazioneCoffins. Like the furniture Mari designed, it is made of cheap wood and ordinary nails. It was a way, Gamper said, to pay tribute to two great characters and keep them in mind for a while. “Creating an object for someone you love and love could be an interesting process for all of us – sawing and hammering and remembering the person,” he explained. They say the personal is political and that is certainly true of design at all stages of its production and consumption. Gamper’s gesture is a powerful reminder that the opposite can also be true. Design is an intimate part of our whole life. We are connected with it, for good, for bad, for rich, for poor, in sickness and health until death do us part.