Thursday, October 07, 2004

Design for living

I wanted to write something about the current vogue for industrial design, for products whose utility is allegedly complemented by design so flamboyant that its unmistakable even to the untrained consumer's eye, making them think something like, Wow, that toilet brush is "cool" (or, perhaps, if it's a woman thinking, "cute" -- wait, is that sexist?). Mass-market retailer Target specializes in these products, of course, adopting what IKEA perhaps began, and now they even brand their products with the industrial designers' names, hoping to give them the cultural capital of clothes designers' names, the kind of value that adds on $50 to the price of a T-shirt.

No one seems particularly bothered by this phenomenon, and conservative critic Virgina Postrel's book The Substance of Style celebrating it as a species of democracy made a bit of a splash a year ago. But isn't only serving to make our lives collectively more superficial, and to allow the constricting codes of competitive, conspicuous consumerism to colonize even more of our everyday lives. If the design nazis had their way, we wouldn't even be able to carry a coffee mug without wondering if it cool enough to be seen walking down the street with. We would be obliged to be ashamed of our toilet paper holder, our spatula, our ice cube trays. Nothing is to be free from the expectation of being able to someone mutter, "cool."

It once was thought that what would eternall y be held to be impressive was the aura of not giving a shit. Italian courtiers during the renaissance called is sprezzatura. This was the paradoxical art of seeming like you pay no attention to the impression you're making while somehow simultaneously giving the impression that you've thought of everything and have it all under total control. Castiglione's Book of the Courtier is devoted to simultaneously explaining and mythologizing/mystifying this process, thus, in a sense, exemplfying it.

That ethos seems no longer to apply to contemporary culture: effort and expenditure, a potlatch of consumptive waste, seems to be the surest way to secure cultural capital. The Martha Stewart ethos: effort revealed everywhere, all things fretted over with an anal-retentative furor. The prison-house of design, all things with their superficial qualities cannibalizing their functionality. Sure, you might protest that the ingenuity of these items is that they are functional and designy. But at some point the designedness interferes, distracts from the activity the item is supposed to be helping you do. The activity becomes subordinate to the tools. You become the tool.

Postrel, from what I gathered, argued that these new design options allowed poor folks to better express themselves through commodities, giving them pretty baubles, letting them eat cake. This is a corollary to the notion that democracy is a matter of equal access to goods, not equal opportunities or equal rights or equal respect in civic society; a harshly corrosive notion to the idea of civic society itself. It posits a society where all individuals need to have for themselves, making all shared things irrelevant trash -- just look at the crudeness of America's public space. Why not apply the ingenuity of modern design there?

Modern design isn't out to improve quality of life, it's out to create differentiation and to manufacture competitive advantage and profit potential out of then air, out of the insecurities of consumers without a civic society to buoy their esteem.

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