Douglas Coupland: Design and Fiction

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William Shatner acts and sings. Sting sings and acts. Sometimes one medium just isn’t enough. Sometimes an artist, swelling with creativity, bursts the walls of their discipline.

Coinciding with the UK publication of his new novel ‘Eleanor Rigby’, Douglas Coupland has an exhibition at Canada House in London entitled ‘Canada House’.

Originally trained as a sculptor, he turned into a novelist by converting a journalistic lifestyle guide commission into ‘Generation X’ – the book which marked territory explored through later novels: lives lacking traditional narratives: drifting McJob non-careers, overwhelmed by disaster, or here fragmented by teenage pregnancy and adoption, warped by disease. They are books that describe the strange sense of awe and disappointment of modern life. Now, he writes, sculpts and designs furniture.

Douglas Couplands novels are the best descriptions of the sensation of modern design. Perhaps it’s the economy in his prose – the way a few words can generate giant cosmic enormity as well as the numbing comfort of the modern world. It’s probably not exactly what Mies meant by ‘less is more’, but that’s because it’s all seen through a pop artists eye. That way of looking described by Denise Scott Brown in Learning from Las Vegas as ‘with-holding judgment’.

It’s that eye which finely observes the 21st century habitat. His novels render the world as lucidly as Vermeer ever did. Sensations of vast profundity amongst things which seem so lightweight. Hysterical and dead calm. Magic realism in the parking lot of a video rental store.

Dialogue flits between wisecracks and homilies. It’s a hammy, stagey, sentimental, and kitsch place where people speak in Jenny Holzer-isms.
It feels like flipping between the Wonder Years, Star Trek and the Discovery Channel.

But being real isn’t what fiction is about. Novels aren’t necessarily about narrative either. A novel tells a story about a fictional world. It uses the story to tell you about the real world. In the same way chairs aren’t about sitting down.

Chairs can’t really be about function. There are already hundreds and thousands of perfectly good chairs on the market: padded, stacking, swivel or whatever variation you might need. The motivation to produce new chairs must be something else.

What kinds of things can you say with a chair that you can’t say with a novel? What can art communicate that design can’t? Could a chair be as eloquent about loneliness as ‘Eleanor Rigby’?

In ‘Generation X’ one character uses the phrase ‘I turned into furniture’ to describe being on the point of crashing out. Perhaps chairs are personality turned into furniture. Perhaps they are also frozen situations. ‘Two Solitudes Sofa’ arrange its sitters on either side, facing away from each other. ‘Treaty’, another sofa, splits its seat into two parts – one a slither that’s too thin to sit in, the other is a one and a half person size. Perhaps chairs are really poetry cloaked in function.

His sculptures are often odes to plastic – human sized toy soldiers, frozen in grimaces of action or melted together like innocent carnage of the toybox. There is a series of detergent bottles made solid and anonymous, their handles forming holes in mass like Henry Moore. They look pristine – a shape rather than a container becoming idealized visions of the mundane. The symbolic figure on the cover of ‘Hey Nostradamus’ was also an installation: Toilet man fallen to his knees and preying – that generic symbol of suddenly discovering spirituality.

The main character in ‘Eleanor Rigby’ has a cosmic experience involving a fragment of a Soviet space stations nuclear fuel cell that has fallen back to earth. Thinking it a meteorite as it crashes into the ground in front of her, she feels chosen as a witness to something cosmic. She carries it around as a lucky mascot. Eventually, it’s discovered in transit at Frankfurt Airport. A little piece of space junk in junk space.

Confused between the natural and the man made, the episode recalls Billy Bragg: ‘Is it wrong to wish on space hardware?’. How about other objects? A classic Eames chair? Conran cookware?

Can things carry hopes? or desires? or dreams? High Continental European Modernism meant objects in the cause of progress – fragments of future socialist utopias. Design once symbolized progress. Design was certain that it was a way of bringing a better world. People believed in san serif fonts. Helvetica was going to make a better world.

Baroque chairs dreamt hysterical dreams in which they grew birds feet. Rococo chairs dreamt they were metallic foliage. What does furniture dream of now? What do Ikeas Billy, Klippan, and Glimma see when Ingvar Kampra turns out the light?

Coupland might like to describe himself as a Futurist, but he’s a long way from the wild eyed Marinetti. Reyner Banhams places those war-crazy Italians at the frantic heart of the Modern Movement. Their love of machines: faster, quicker bigger, noisier was the adrenaline thrill of harnessed power.

But there are other Modern traditions, and other kinds of Futurism. According to Nicolas Pevsner, William Morris was the epicenter of Modernism. And ironically, Morris was driven into the future by nostalgia as passionate and all consuming as Futurisms love of the future.
Couplands modernity is a nostalgic-futurism. It reaches out both forwards and backwards in time, grasping for things that the now seems to lack. Things like certainty and meaning.

We live in the future which was imagined by 20th century visionaries like Le Corbusier and Walt Disney. Surrounded by these failed futures, its impossible to have the faith that older generations had in progress. Progress now seems much more complicated and full of risk. Perhaps its that faith that boosts prices for mid century modern furniture. Maybe it’s that faith which drives architecture to repeat modernist mantras long after the event. Things that once looked boldly into the future are now repeated as nostalgia.

Design finds the modern world problematic. It’s because it confuses being modern with being slick, cool and right. Coupands work shows that being modern is really about feeling shattered into thousands of pieces, about loss and wonder. It’s more likely to be the far off sound you hear when you are in a hospital waiting room than the products on the shop floor of SCP.

First published in Icon

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