What Is Design?

An agent of change, from prehistory to today

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Willem Sandberg’s poster for the exhibition ‘Bart Van Der Leck’, 1949, at the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam. Courtesy: Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam

Willem Sandberg’s poster for the exhibition ‘Bart Van Der Leck’, 1949, at the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam. Courtesy: Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam

If any museum is equipped to interrogate contemporary design, it should be the Stedelijk in Amsterdam. The architectural débacle of its giant bathtub of an extension aside, its design credentials are impeccable. Not only is the Stedelijk blessed with one of Europe’s finest modern design collections, its intellectual commitment to design is rooted in the directorship of Willem Sandberg from 1945 until 1962. Originally a typography designer, Sandberg proved so productive a director that he makes Nicholas Serota seem slack: while establishing the Stedelijk as an avant-garde champion and one of the most influential art museums of the era, he somehow found time to design hundreds of posters and catalogues. Why then, when it came to choosing the subject of its first major design exhibition since reopening last year, did a museum with so rich a design history plump for Marcel Wanders?

Not that Wanders is inconsequential. He is among the most commercially successful designers of our time and a canny entrepreneur who has given sorely needed help to younger designers by manufacturing their work at Moooi, the furniture company he co-founded in Amsterdam. But Wanders is an old-fashioned showman, whose cartoonishly styled objects, often exaggerated in size or shape, and fondness for publicity stunts (from sporting a clownish red nose in photographs to throwing a party at the Milan Furniture Fair at which his barely dressed girlfriend topped up glasses and fed him grapes while suspended from a chandelier) have made him a natural successor to Philippe Starck as a paparazzi-friendly design stylist.

In other words, Wanders’s work has much to tell us about the consumerist frenzy that has prompted Beijing real-estate developers to use his bric-à-brac as marketing props to flog stratospherically priced condos, but does little to enlighten us about the more complex and challenging aspects of design culture that might be expected to concern a museum of the Stedelijk’s stature. Its choice is all the more baffling given the plethora of Dutch designers (Jurgen Bey, Irma Boom and Hella Jongerius, to name but three) whose work shares the intellectual dynamism of Steve McQueen, Paulina Olowska, Lawrence Weiner and other artists who have exhibited there since the bathtub’s construction.

So, why did the Stedelijk pick Wanders? The glum truth appears to be that, despite Sandberg’s legacy, the museum does not apply the same critical standards to design as to art. Sadly, there is no shortage of artists whose work is as showy, slick and commercially successful as his, but the Stedelijk has not championed them. Not that it is the only cultural institution to fail to treat design with due seriousness. But by doing so the Stedelijk has missed a valuable opportunity to critique design at a transformational time when it is poised to play an increasingly diverse and meaningful role in our lives: a process that any intellectually ambitious institution should relish the chance to explore. Had the Stedelijk risen to the challenge – as New York’s Museum of Modern Art, and z33 in the Belgian city of Hasselt have done thanks to the curatorial ingenuity of Paola Antonelli and Jan Boelen respectively, and the Victoria & Albert Museum in London promises to do courtesy of Kieran Long’s new contemporary design team – what exactly would it be exploring?

Design has, after all, donned so many different guises throughout history that it has forsaken any hope of clarity. Indeed, it has acquired so many different meanings at different times and in different contexts, often mutually contradictory ones, that it has emerged as a slippery and elusive phenomenon, prey to muddles and clichés.

The process of design existed long before a word was coined to describe it. Whenever human beings have tried to change any part of their lives – starting with prehistoric men and women moulding lumps of clay into drinking vessels, or sharpening the heads of spears to make them deadlier weapons – they engaged with design, instinctively and unknowingly. For centuries, design was practised in the same intuitive manner. Many military conquerors owed their triumphs to unsung design coups, like the insistence of Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor of China, that each of his archers be equipped with bows and arrows of identical dimensions in the 3rd century bce. Up until then, the size and shape of such weapons had varied so greatly that if an archer exhausted his own arrows he could not fire his comrades’ spares from his bow, or vice versa. Standardizing their design solved that problem, making Qin Shi Huang’s forces formidably efficient, far more so than their foes.

Unheralded design feats also fuelled economic success. By the late 15th century, Venice was the wealthiest and most sophisticated city in Europe with an empire stretching almost to Milan in the west, and across the sea to Cyprus in the east. Much of its power stemmed from the Arsenale, which was hailed as the world’s most efficient manufacturing complex, thanks to the visionary design of the system of prefabricating battleships and weaponry that the Venetians had been developing since the 10th century. Design was also an indispensable resource for people in peril, like the Catholic priests who tried to evade persecution in 16th century England by hiding in the ‘priests’ holes’ constructed inside paneled walls and chimney breasts by an unusually ingenious carpenter, Nicholas Owen. He also transformed pivoting floorboards into doors, and installed cunningly concealed trapdoors through which food and drink could be passed to the fugitives.

By the late 18th century, similar processes were being applied, knowingly and systematically, by pioneering industrialists, like the Staffordshire potter Josiah Wedgwood, to manufacture huge quantities of goods of consistent quality in newly built factories. From the early 19th century onwards, the practice of design was formalized and professionalized with the introduction of training programmes, specialist schools, classifications and methodologies. Not that the intuitive approach was forgotten entirely, at least not by radicals like László Moholy-Nagy, whose vision of design was crystalized in the title of a 1947 essay ‘Design is not a profession but an attitude’; or by the environmentalist R. Buckminster Fuller, who devoted much of the 1960s and ’70s to trying to mobilize a global movement of ‘comprehensive designers’ that, he hoped, would forsake commercialism to devote their skills to forging a sustainable and productive future for mankind.

Yet despite their efforts (Fuller delivered 42 hours of lectures at the Pennsylvania Bell Telephone Studios in Philadelphia during January 1975 to argue his case) design continued to be seen predominantly in its industrial guise as a commercial discipline, practised by trained professionals acting under instruction, typically from their clients or employers. This stereotype was reinforced by much of the late 20th century critical discourse on design. The essays of Reyner Banham, Roland Barthes and Jean Baudrillard were chiefly concerned with its relationship to commerce and consumerism, as were the most thoughtful artist critiques, such as the works of Richard Hamilton, currently included in his Tate Modern retrospective.

For many, design’s impact on society was summed up by the ibm executive Thomas J. Watson Jnr. in a 1973 lecture with the axiom: ‘good design is good business’. At its best, say in Charles and Ray Eames’ educational films for ibm, the Castiglioni brothers’ lighting for Flos and (Hamilton’s favourites) Dieter Rams’s electronic products for Braun, the commercial approach to design was not only ‘good business’ but enhanced millions of people’s lives. Weaker design projects achieved nothing of the sort, and bear much of the blame for the popular misconception that design is principally a styling tool, something that Wanders’s exhibition at the Stedelijk does little to dispel.

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Promotional image for the exhibition ‘Marcel Wanders: Pinned Up’ at the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, 2014. Courtesy: Marcel Wanders

Promotional image for the exhibition ‘Marcel Wanders: Pinned Up’ at the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, 2014. Courtesy: Marcel Wanders

Yet in all of its multiplicitous guises, design has had one unwavering role as an agent of change that can help to ensure that developments of any sort – scientific, technological, cultural, political, economic or environmental – are interpreted in ways that will be benevolent, not damaging. This was as true of the prehistoric approach to design, as it was of Qin Shi Huang’s, Wedgwood’s, Moholy-Nagy’s, the Eameses’ or Wanders’s. And it is thanks to design’s ability to turn perplexing, potentially destructive changes to our advantage that it is now becoming a more potent and expansive force.

The crux of design’s transformation is the resurgence of its original incarnation as an instinctive process of resourcefulness and ingenuity that can be applied to such diverse situations as devising more effective, less expensive systems of delivering social services or cleaner, safer ways of managing a city’s waste, as well as fulfilling its traditional functions, such as ensuring that advances in technology are given constructive applications, rather than being used to produce, say, unregulated and undetectable 3d-printed guns.

Take the rapidly expanding field of social design. Once, a designer’s role in tackling intractable problems like unemployment, homelessness and the ageing crisis was limited to producing leaflets or websites explaining what social scientists, economists, psychologists and other specialists had decided to do about them. Now, social designers in groups like Participle in the uk and Project H in the us are working alongside them by applying their research, visualization and communication skills to help to shape the decisions.

Humanitarian designers are adopting a similar approach to repairing the damage caused by natural and manmade disasters, and enabling the underprivileged majority of the global population to escape poverty. Sustainable designers are developing new ways of arresting the environmental crisis, and helping us to live more responsibly. Conceptual designers – like Julia Lohmann, Christien Meindertsma and Studio Formafantasma – are deploying the design process as a medium of research and intellectual enquiry, thereby helping us to make sense of the world, as artists have traditionally done, from Hamilton’s studies of late 20th century material culture, to recent works by Ed Atkins, Omer Fast, Camille Henrot, Helen Marten and Wolfgang Tillmans.

Designers are now able to work so diversely partly because digital technology has given them the necessary tools to do so. By financing projects through crowdfunding and using social media to raise awareness of them, they have liberated themselves from their commercial roles to pursue their political, environmental, ethical and cultural concerns on an entrepreneurial basis. They have also benefited from the readiness of other disciplines to experiment with design, partly because many of the 20th-century methods of dealing with complex social and economic challenges are now deemed unfit for purpose.

Not that all of the new design endeavours have been successful. Humanitarian design is proving to be as much of an ideological minefield as every other area of economic development, with projects imploding amid accusations of incompetence, corruption and misguided do-goodery. Sustainable design is equally contentious; and even some of the most productive exercises in social design have been bedeviled by sudden political changes, like the uk’s public funding cuts, which have had a devastating effect on the ability of local authorities to deliver even the most adroitly designed services. As for conceptual design, it would benefit from rigorous critique, as would the work of artists exploring similar concerns.

Museums can make a useful contribution to this process by challenging, analyzing and contextualizing design in its old incarnations, and the new. It is in all of our interests that they do so at a time of daunting changes, unprecedented in speed and scale: from the deepening environmental crisis and the need to replace dysfunctional social and political systems, to the struggle to make sense of a world of remote-controlled warfare, driverless cars and digital invasions of personal privacy from which many once-familiar things are disappearing. Design is not a panacea for any of these issues, but it is a powerful tool with which to address them, if it is applied wisely: which is why there are so many more important aspects of design for an institution like the Stedelijk to address than Marcel Wanders’s knick-knacks.

Issue 162

First published in Issue 162

April 2014

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