Design as a functional activity ended with Philippe Starks Juicy Salif. This iconic lemon squeezer thrust its sharp tripod legs into the heart of Modernism. From this point on, designers would never be able to escape the inherent useless-ness of their activities. As bitter juice trickled down the sculpted chromed surface it dripped anywhere but where it was intended and it stung the profession with its painful lesson: Use is Useless.
Instead of helping us to do things, post-Salif design is a way of helping us understand things. Design helps us to navigate our relationship to contemporary context. It allows us to explore complexities through mute, wordless sensations of touch, texture and form – through materials and technologies of production. Design allows us to feel qualities of the contemporary before they are fully formed articulate ideas – like finding your way in the dark.
Design is a language of whose building blocks are how things are made what they are made out of as much as what they look like. Encoded within these choices are cultural attitudes and ideas to the mechanisms that shape society: to technology and its implications.
It is most obvious in the proto modernism of the arts and crafts movement. Designers such as William Morris played out a dramatic opposition to the cultural effects of the Industrial Revolution through the design of household furniture. Morris revived medieval manufacturing techniques that re-instated the role of the craftsman over the machine. To understand Morris, it is important to recognise that floral patterned wallpaper was actually a radical manifesto.
William Morris – Acanthus Leaf Wallpaper
Contemporary design and architecture are currently benefiting from new waves of digital fabrication techniques. Their impact can be categorised into three tendencies: The Graphic Cut; the Complex Surface; and Nu-Craft.
Klein Dythams Leaf Chapel
The ‘Graphic Cut’ takes advantage of the ability to computer control devices such as lasers and water jets and thus cut elaborate and intricate patterns into varied materials. The technique itself is two dimensional, and makes objects which are more like a branch of illustration or graphic design. The tendency within this field is to refer to a world of pre-existing objects which are used as quotations squashed flat: elks heads, elaborate baroque furniture, arts and crafts wallpaper. In this way, designers can easily reference history and tradition – though these references are rendered immediately contemporary by the precision of the cut and the flatness of the material. Sometimes the patterns created are wrapped around the overtly three dimensional spaces produced by complex surfaces. In order to create a doubly-complex surface. The CNC technology allows surface elaboration that has been impossible to mass-produce over the last 100 years or so due to labour costs. Though the graphic cut is often references history, it seems oblivious to its most recent forebear, Postmodernism which used historical reference, pattern and flatness as a polemical attack on Modernism. This lack of engagement with by sidestepping the polemics and politics of postmodernism, designers using these techniques. Its effect can be an overwhelmingly rich visual field, or a reduced abstraction close to a childs cartoon depending upon how it is deployed. It uses either richness or abstraction as a way of demonstrating it status as representational design – the too-muchness or not-enough-ness act as a kind of quotation mark – a break from the objects surroundings.
Greg Lynn – Tea & Coffee Tower, Alessi
The Complex Surface is a function of the ability new software provides to design and manufacture in three dimensions. This design approach often uses technologies of rapid prototyping – if not in the final manufacture, then in the design development. Typically designs of this type are non-representational, abstract and sculptural – like 1950s abstract expressionist sculpture except super accurate and highly engineered. They use the tropes that new technology can deliver as a way of symbolising the future. In this way it is an interpretation of a particular machine-loving Modernism, though it rejects any idea of functionalism in favour of a queasy, over-powering sublime effect of form. It finds critical legitimacy in a particular strand of American architectural academia, and is linked to the earlier critical project of figures such as Peter Eisenman. An example of its cutting edge technology is that production of Greg Lynns highly sculpted Tea and Coffee set for Alessi is apparently affected by resources required for the American military presence in Iraq. Though it thrills to the super-high tech in both the way it is made and its materials, it sometimes suggests an affinity for organic form that one might associate with Art Nouveau in its intense use of parabolic curvaciousness. It also shares Art Nouveaus interest and ability to be a kind of totalizing design. It has a scale-less-ness that is seemingly consistent between condiment sets, furniture, buildings and masterplans. The complexity of the surface is beguiling – it twists and turns as though formed in an erotic vortex, attempting to seduce you with endless fascination. The finish of the object becomes important such as seamlessness (which creates the sensation that it might have been born fully formed rather than constructed) and lustre (which accentuates the play of light across its body). These help create a sense of alien-ness – lacking signals of everyday manufacture and a sense of scale that material and making often introduce.
The rise of Nu-Craft as design activity is an alternative response precipitated by the availability of technologies to designers. Rather than a Luddite rejection of technology, or a total inversion as with William Morris, it more often appears as a negotiation between high and low tech. Craft techniques or materials as a way of providing distance from the coalface of technologies novelty. They might include
What they suggest is a kind of authenticity which you could class as physical-ness – a way of manufacturing a ‘real-ness’ that attempts to form a fissure in the seamless quality of technological production. To do this it draws on sensations such as nostalgia and humour – moments of engagement which are not formal but cultural.
The idea of the ‘Joke’ as a design principle explores the difference between expectation we might have of a material, technique or object and the manner in which it is implemented. This gap is a means of recognising difference.
It also suggests a hybrid condition, sometimes embedding contradictions into objects – tradition becomes novelty, the mass produced becomes hand-crafted (or vice versa). Unlike the certainty of Complex Surface design this design mode works between established positions.
It is visible in the work of Hella Jongerius, Maarten Baas as well as aspects of Marcel Wanders and Jurgen Bey – and many other designers related to design collective Droog.
This design attitude is most closely related to fine art – indeed many of its tactics seem to have been lifted directly from a contemporary art primer to such an extent that it seems somehow too easy. It also echoes some postmodernist design concerns such as taste, value and multiple meanings.
Kieran Jones – Poang chair as Sledge
Nu-Craft includes the activities such as IKEA hacking – where the amateur culture of bedroom computer programming meets generic flatpack furniture. On websites such as Ikea Hacker posters swap tips and projects which “funked up klippan sofa, an ingenious idea for your pax wardrobe, a creative twist on your kitchen countertop, or even advice on how to finally stop forby stools from wobbling”. This creative DIY-ism is visible in phenomena such as Make magazine which includes projects from electronics to knitting. These phenomena are closely related to the rise of blogging and the cult of the amateur, and posit a position where everyone can become a designer (as opposed to the specialisms and arcania of high design culture). They also suggest an existence of objects outside the machinations of consumerism.
Unlike the first two categories, Nu-Craft does not try to overwhelm its user with sensation. It is not a stylistic approach or a totalising design vision. Instead it displays wit and ingenuity in specific instances – a kind of design intelligence.
These three categories dominate contemporary design practice. Each of these techniques relates to a way of seeing. They share a commitment to the object as a cultural lodestone – whose significance is a way of describing the contemporary condition (even if they don’t themselves admit it). Importantly, they do not propose design as a solution. After Starks Juicy Salif, it has been impossible to imagine design as an agent of progressive change in the old modernist sense. Designs driving aspiration is to improve the world through richness and relevance of its cultural presence. Contemporary design produces devices that are not intended to perform as advertised: as chair, table, lamp or whatever. They are devices whose function is a particular kind of cultural experience.
They do however offer different positions. The Graphic Cut and the Complex Surface – for all their intricacies exploit technology in a simplistic manner – that’s to say, they do what they do because they can. Technologies have liberated aspects of design that have, until recently, been un-drawable or unmakable. Their explorations of the design possibilities is a kind of release. In their intricacies of pattern or form they aspire to a kind of technological sublime, an overpowering encounter with digitally crafted complexity. Nu-Craft however has a cooler response to technology. It is selective of how and when technologies are used – a kind of editorial or curatorial attitude to available and appropriate ways and means. Technologies are used here as a more articulate language. The possibilities offered up are more open ended. The Complex Surface for example is a kind of dead-end – a baroque endpiece to a particular history of design as formal object. Nu-Craft steps out of these vectors of design history, instead forging unexpected links and hybridisations.
These differences could be categorised as an open-ness against completeness. If design can no longer be judged by its functional utility, the terms of reference for understanding the success of a design become more complex. Equally, form, composition and other aesthetic qualities are only the means by which an effect is manifested, not ends in themselves. Effect is how the design communicates cultural content and is therefore the primary attribute of contemporary design.
Designs apparent impracticality is not failure; it is the point from which it explores possibilities of contemporary culture (for those who find this a ridiculously pretentious position, there are plenty of products that work). This is why design chairs are almost always more uncomfortable than other kinds of chairs, why design tables are a challenge to use.