Wednesday, July 18, 2007

The Last Seamstress

We sat in a café bar in that very Canberra version of a CBD called Civic. We sat at a table that tipped when leant upon, drinking from cups that were uncomfortable to hold. We talked, debated & gossiped through the problems of making, of living ethically, of finding a niche in which to sustain both practice & self.

Consider this I said. Simply as a metaphor for examining the practice of design as it exists. What if we were to view it as a hierarchical process, and take the language of the fashion industry & apply it to objects, to furniture & perhaps indeed the patriarch, architecture? Let me explain.

Haute couture represents the experimental, the outlandish, the breathtaking accomplishment of skill & technological mastery of materials. Displayed on the forms of the impossibly beautiful, they are staged as any curator could wish. Dazzling its audience with chutzpah, these are not clothes to be worn. They are art, directions, the next season’s whims that will appear as vague reference only on the prêt-a-porter racks. In fact many are impossible to wear, even if you are 6’2” & 35 kilos.

Design I argued has a very strong parallel existence. Studio furniture, as our American cousins call it; the one-off object meticulously made; the site specific installation; the design icon. In these spaces, the agendas of design and form are established, the iconic defined, the desirable fetishised.

Let us move onto prêt-a-porter. In clothing, here we see & acknowledge the echo of haute couture, in cloth & colour selection, cuts & falls, Patsy’s accessorising. And indeed some of the prêt-a-porter ranges can be & are fetishised but the haste of taste’s onward rush to next season will sweep many of the racks clear. In design of objects (& buildings) something rather odd seems to happen. Objects that began as either space or time specific things, can be reproduced, standardised and resold again and again, losing the specificity of their original design impetus, but remaining as icons, icons which you can buy & place in your own personal kingdom of minimalist home-as-gallery.

Then of course, there’s Wal Mart. Endless aisles of poly cotton leisure wear, roughly made garments that most of us wear most of the time. Furniture & objects fare no better, with mega centres full of imitations of its branded prêt-a-porter cousins, or imagined representations of the resort, colonial, Georgian, Victorian, moderne, funky or chunky. Every aberration of the smorgasbord of aesthetic can be bought on hire-purchase with no deposit. (That your non-deposit terms are actually paid for by the workers who made these things, paid for by the unsustainable plundering of resources, paid for by the huge ecological debt we shall leave behind, does not appear in your terms & conditions at the time of purchase)

The curious thing is the slippage that happens with objects, with furniture, where they begin as haute d’object, and over time, become mythologised as manufactured icons, revered as iconic, but having economically devolved to prêt-a-porter. For example, Ludwig Mies van de Rohe & the Barcelona chair. At ridiculous expense and with ridiculous difficulty, two were made for the Spanish Pavilion at the World Trade Fair in 1932. They had one role only - for the King & Queen of Spain to perch upon during their brief appearance opening the pavilion. Modernist thrones. They were upholstered in white leather, and the steel forms now so familiar, were much more strongly curved. They also fell apart. Ludwig, master businessman, was approached by manufacturers interested in reproducing them, and numerous firms attempted to do so, defeated by the technical difficulties of welding steel into a structure that did not fail, until Knoll, using techniques developed during war-time production , arrived at about the eight modification of the form and began to mass manufacture the chair in 1948. The upholstery was now black, & the seating platform sloped more aggressively to the back. Making the chair ridiculously uncomfortable for anyone who is not over 6’4” with disproportionately long legs.

None of which really matters if your aim is to frame & articulate the relevance of monarchy in modern Europe of the 1930s in a particular setting at a particular moment. A modern monarch needs a modern throne. And architects & designers need royal patrons. Ludwig was a very astute businessman (just ask Dr Farnsworth). But when that object is mass produced, mass marketed as an example of a new beast called a design icon, the specificity of its original role must be lost – selling a chair to the middle-classes of America who bear the proud mantle of enemies of despots & defenders of freedom is not going to be terribly successful if its origins as a resting place for royal tuberosities are not quietly forgotten.

Curious & curiouser is that the chair has become an exemplar of good design. If you mean by good design that it is a visual form that has established longevity in the aesthetic marketplace, and is still saleable to a consumer market at a very good return to the manufacturer & retailer, then obviously it is very very good. But if your understanding of good design encompasses postural health for the user, comfort, ease of egress & longevity of the structure & materials, it fails on all counts. The webbing sags, the cushions collapse, the leather splits, the welds break & its form reduces most of us to ungainly shuffling sideways out of a collapsed seating position which induces discomfort in most people after about fifteen minutes. If your notion of good design expects those issues to be addressed & resolved, then it is very very bad. So what on earth do we think is meant by good design?

But we have to move away from using the terms good & bad – they are too morally loaded. Perhaps careful and careless design is clearer. Much of what sits in the design icon canon I would call careless design.

Ah, she said, but what about the seamstress? Where do we, who have no wish to pursue the chimera of designing for mass manufacture, who do not wish to make baubles of status for the rich, who have no wish to make site specific pastiches of contemporary design, but who instead wish to engage in a considered and thoughtful way with the needs of our communities, to make objects that speak of care, of addressing & resolving need in the most appropriate manner according to budget, according to use & according to our aesthetic – where are we?

Where indeed.

If economies of scale dictate that successful design is saleable design, or an object carries a status of exclusivity to allow the maker to achieve a reasonable return on a design & making process, is there still a place for those of us who do not have these aspirations? C.’s primary concern is about achieving what I would call careful design, about making objects that help the user perform their task in comfort, that pleases them visually, that delights them when touched or used, that will last longer than a couple of years before falling apart, that is about an equitable exchange between maker & user that speaks to them both about their shared humanity. It is about care.

Much of the modern design canon did originate as site-specific objects, designed as haute d’object, which have since been mass manufactured, often with significant compromises to aesthetic or structural solutions of the originals in order to maximise manufacturing ease & profit. They are, as an examined individual object, prêt-a-porter objects, bearing however the status & meaning of haute. And they have become the everyday understandings of that loaded dog – good design.

Yet much of it is not careful design. They tip over or are unstable, they cause discomfort, they may be difficult to clean or maintain, they perform their intended functions poorly, and they are often visually very out of place in the domestic environment. The rise and rise of the minimalist open space domestically much more successfully accommodates the design icon in its gallery-like sterility.

Objects bear cultural meanings, which can be easily manipulated by the market to affect consumer behaviour, and the rise of the design icon in the West after WWII would seem to have come more from successful campaigns by manufacturers such as Knoll or Herman Miller than out of a sudden flowering of design consciousness. Indeed, if people believe good design to be about iconic status, and not about careful design that resolves the issues of use aesthetics, this suggests a very low level of design consciousness.

But perhaps that misses the point as to why people buy these objects. The desire to own a van der Rohe chair or Arad bookshelf, or commissions a high status artist/maker is to engage with the dominant aesthetic & taste regime, and to, as a corollary, bask in the assumed shared status of taste, wealth & knowledge. A pair of Aalto’s Paimio chairs will succinctly transmit one’s wealth & taste much more successfully that a carefully considered and well made set of chairs from a maker in your locality. Assuming one’s only criteria for good design is iconic design.

There is that delicious moment in Raiders of the Lost Ark: III where our hero, Jones, Indiana Jones, must choose the cup used by Christ at the Last Supper. Choosing wrongly has been shown to be rather terminal. And Mr Jones, as a good archaeologist would, chooses the simple cup of a carpenter. Historical relativism is alive & well in Hollywood. But let’s play a parlour game of other choices – the fundamentalist Christian choosing a Richard Slee style McMansion cup emblazoned with ‘God Inc – Your Salvation Guaranteed – Insert Credit Card Here’; the princes of the established churches brawling among themselves over the appropriate depiction of a wedded couple & our design Mafiosos picking that rather gorgeous Philippe Stark piece that falls over when filled with liquid.

Appropriate design is, like beauty & humour, in the eyes of the beholder. Meaning & status are certainly codified by social & economic conditioning, but how in our consumerist world does an object stand up to the stresses of its competing meanings? This has been endlessly dissected, but to what effect? Peer-reviewed journals brim with lucid papers, conferences hum to the nuanced philosophising of object & meaning, corridors of Mr Casaubons echo to the furious tapping of keyboards, but still this curious definition of good design privileges the visual & intellectual, ignoring the careful, the known, the experienced, the vernacular, the bricolage of use.

In a society where the object has become so tied to its economic role, can the seamstress expect to have an audience, a clientele? Should she simply accept the irrelevance, the redundancy of her aspirations in the face of economic rationalism, market forces, the taste masters, and find another avenue for her expressed role of care? Should she join the club & spare us all the inconveniences of her ethics? But what will we have lost when the last seamstress sews no more?