Not Serious Design

I’ve been thinking about design and design journals. In the interests of full disclosure, allow me to first say that I regularly write for the Australian design magazine Artichoke, which is the Journal of the Design Institute of Australia. Fortunately for the members of the Design Institute and I, Artichoke routinely avoids falling into the category of journal that I discuss in this post. I like writing for Artichoke because my colleagues on the editorial staff seem happiest when I am speculating about what design might be, as understood through various projects, and not merely what it is. I try to regard the design process as exactly that, an interesting process that has had results, and not a closed or stable system that periodically gives birth to polished gems.

It is a subtle distinction, perhaps, but I am old-fashioned enough to believe that good journalism should expose and explore subtle distinctions. ‘What might design be?’ is a question. Describing and sharing what design is has value in encouraging people to discover new wrinkles of this fascinating pursuit, but it is not a question: it is the provision of an answer. I boldly suggest that questions are far more interesting than answers.

It seems to me that if we approach this particular question with an open mind then the situation is very different to that closed, rather self-congratulatory impression you get from many design journals. This impression is painfully apparent to the uninitiated, who in my experience are more likely to be respectfully intimidated than skeptical and disdainful, as perhaps they should be.

Reading much of the design press, you can also get the impression that the producers have forgotten that ‘cool’ and ‘good’ are not the same thing. ‘Cool’ and ‘good’ are not the same thing. If the overwhelming impression an intelligent non-designer gains from a magazine is 'hey, isn't this cool, and aren't we cool, you and I, for knowing it', then something is amiss. The moment's best furniture, clothes, objects, bars and restaurants - most design-related organs are more of a latter day 'gentleman's outfitters' updated so that the bloodless, androgynous urban dandy, he or she, has all they need for an aesthetically better life. A better German bike courier's messenger bag, better Spanish shoes, better Japanese stationery: artfully generic and label-free, or crafted from industrial discards and finished with fine details? Take your pick.

This might offer all the high-calorie comfort and entertainment of shopping, but those non-mail-order catalogues (can you tell me the trade price on the B&B Italia sofa on page 85?) rarely stoop to posing uncomfortable questions, or airing awkward truths. The first among these must surely be the relationship between wealth and design. It's not good, it's not bad, and it's not discussed.

The 'Andy' sofa, 370 cm long, 3-seat with a chaise lounge upholstered in a mid-range fabric, costs $AUD27,325.00. That is $US25,374 by today's exchange rate. What does it mean to spend more than $25,000 on a sofa? Is there any way that can be a reasonable thing to do? The Federal minimum wage decision for 2009 in Australia is an income of $AUD543.78 per week. So the sofa is worth just over 50 weeks of the minimum wage, virtually a year of person hours. You may think I am mounting some socialist argument about the distribution of wealth by pointing this out; I confess to such a bias, but that is not really my point. My point is one of perspective and relativity, and the conditions that provide insight to the designer. By pushing design into such stratospheric heights, we disconnect our focus as designers from the experience of the vast majority of people in our society. Is that ok?

Certainly, in order to do so, we must avoid uncomfortable questions about wealth and privilege, and the bearing these things might have on aesthetics. However, I am less interested in the moral implications of that than in the fact that we are excising from the ‘world’ of design much of those things which quite simply make up the world. Worse crime still: it’s boring. Boring to avoid straying from the ‘best of the best’, to censor what constitutes ‘serious’ design.

Forget about the morality of it for a moment, this isn’t just about morals or even ethics. What are you buying when you spend so much? An argument can be made that quality takes time and costs money, and that a brilliantly crafted designer piece will last far longer, and perform better, than the cheaper alternative. That is almost certainly true, and I also wouldn’t like to see the working designer unable to reap the rewards of their creativity, knowledge and training.

But again, it is a question or relativity. Let’s be honest here, there has to be a point where this argument fails to hold water, and become mere cover for privileged indulgence. Where does the line fall? Three times the cost of a functional alternative? Ten? Twenty? Someone tell me: is a bona fide B&B Italia sofa worth 50 weeks of the minimum wage? Am I the only one who thinks this is all a bit distorted?

I have in my apartment a very awkward object. It certainly does not constitute, and would not ever be considered, ‘serious’ design. I suggest that it hasn’t been designed at all, at least not in the conventional sense. It is a timber easel, hand-carved, standing six feet high. What I like about this easel, on loan from a friend who couldn't bear its lack of Scandinavian minimalism, is that it would never appear in a design journal. Never. It doesn't even manage kitsch, although it might manage to figure in a social realist photograph, perhaps one taken in Kentucky or Miami.

This makes it a fascinating object to me, and while I won’t defend its aesthetic qualities (should I have to?) I will say that I like having it around. The reasons for this have a lot to do with what it evokes for me, and the pleasure I get from the design-canon-violating aesthetics of hand-carved timber. The thing even has flowers carved into it, and part of it appears to be shaped like a pair of spectacles, or breasts. (The easel pictured here is not the actual one, but you get the idea.)

Does this damage my credentials as a ‘serious’ designer? Probably. What a relief that is.