Reading For Leisure

Thorstein Veblen and the birth of Design Theory

Detail from “The Man of Taste”, William Hogarth, London, Baldwin Craddock and Joy, 1822, Engraving

The alacrity with which the Reading Design project has been taken up by readers is proof of many things: the durability of good writing; the simple pleasure there is to be gained from thinking clearly but in an abstract way about one’s field for a short moment in the day; the rightness of resurrecting, as the project’s director Ed Heathcote wrote in Icon, “texts that have been lost in libraries, in long defunct magazines or at the bottom of drawers”.

However, judging by the responses we have received through social media, it also highlights the need amongst practitioners and thinkers to consider influential design writing in terms of a canon even if that is only in order to argue against that canon. (e.g. a feminist academic might be interested in identifying a series of core texts which dominated design thinking during the 1950s which promoted a certain way of understanding design practice which may then be analysed and critiqued). Indeed the project’s Medium pages which you are now reading are a means of positing a way for the text to be used and debated.

Even in its early months, Reading Design has shown how diverse in origin the texts which constitute important, well-written design writing is: manifestos, articles, blogs, academic texts. One of the most interesting in this light is an extract from Thorstein Veblen’s book The Theory of the Leisure Class. Veblen, a second generation Norwegian immigrant to the USA, was trained as an economist but expanded the field of his inquiry to include anthropology, linguistics and elementary design criticism. A man who himself expanded the nascent field of economics makes for an interesting figure to consider within the field of design theory.

Veblen of course was responsible for the phrase “conspicuous consumption” — important in itself to explain the idea of ostentatiously designed work and a particular kind of retreat from that. But Veblen’s writing is about much more than that. His idea that design created its own specialist field of knowledge amongst the leisure classes threads its way through Deyan Sudjic’s The Language of Things. Bernhard E. Burdek, in his book Design: History, Theory and Practice of Product Design, suggests Veblen was in fact “one of the first to formulate the principles of design theory.”

And indeed Veblen has much to say about design. Not unlike Adolf Loos who in his essay Ornament and Crime bases his preference for the un-ornamented upon a consideration of the tattooed “Papuan”, Veblen arrives at a preference for the unadorned through a consideration of what is civilised and what is barbarian. “Amongst objects of use, the simple and unadorned article is the best,” he concludes. He wrote, not just about pre-industrialised society but also about pre-civilised society. It was a novel approach. The pre-civilised world was generally ignored not just by liberal economists but also by Marx.

In doing focusing on this world, Veblen though he could discern patterns of behaviour which explain economic relations in early 20th century USA. His anthropological turn suggests that man in a state of primitivism had no sense of personal possessions but when certain groups became nomadic or warlike and overcame other groups, at this point, the idea of personal property was introduced. (This is in opposition to Marx who largely believes that private property is a result of alienated labour.) From this historic juncture, leisure becomes a facility of men — and Veblen makes it clear it is men — who achieve status within the tribe. This is then transferred into industrial society. It helps Veblen to make some accurate projections around the increasing stratification of industrial society.

But there is more, in his extrapolation of Veblen’s works, Sujdic describes the work the furniture designer and maker Thomas Chippendale did for the Earl of Dumfries. The furniture maker creates a stunning collection of furniture which changed forever how we see the relationship between furniture and architecture. He also elevated the roll of the cabinet-maker from a position of occasionally respected artisan-producer to a figure who communicated the values of the age. To the Veblin-ite though, it is the proof of design as a process of “signalling”. As Sudjic puts it, “With certain kinds of object, you need to now a little about them to understand just how precious they really are.”

And here we must begin to question, Veblen’s popularity. After all he puts design theorists who come after him in a double bind. Theorits become extrapolators of this signalling process between an unproductive group of individuals and another group of individuals who may be productive but are only doing so by coding the values of their social superiors into aesthetic quirks. There is in Veblen very little sense that a worker might have a brain of his own. If in his poverty, he appreciates the delicate line of a dress or an architrave, he is only doing it because he’s emulating the values of the leisure class.

As if aware that his earliest ideas had traduced the values of the maker in The Theory of the Leisure Class, Veblen wrote another less well received text on the subject of craftsmanship The Instinct of Workmanship but as JP Diggins has written “Veblen’s theory of instincts brings a wince to the face of many scholars.” He goes on to say: “The terminological confusions of his hopelessly interchangeable terms — ‘propensity’, ‘bent’, ‘drive’, ‘habits’, ‘proclivity’, ‘sense’, ‘tropismatic attitude’ — have led some sociologists to dismiss his work as unsophisticated.”

For some reason Veblen dodges the idea of homo faber: the humanist extrapolation of man’s need to feed and defend himself into an idea that man his able to control his destiny and what is around him. It was re-asserted by Marx and others in the 19th and 20th century. As if trying to dodge the puritanism of his Norwegian background Veblen instead suggests man has an urge towards symbolic expression, a fact which Diggins points out is hugely influential on his most important acolyte Lewis Mumford. (Of course, man does have a need to symbolic expression, but historically it comes after his primary motivation to make.)

Even Mumford though was unable to follow Veblen into his final project which was the suggestion that because engineers were the practical organisers of the unprecedented system of wealth creation developed in the USA in the 1950s and 1960s, they rather than the capitalist should run the economy. Mumford like many found this all too elitist, even if he remained an ardent admirer of his thoughtful and concise writing and his terrifying breadth of knowledge.

There would be a certain irony to having Veblen form a corner stone of design theory. After all he referred to academics thus: “there is no class of the community that spends a larger proportion of its substance in conspicuous waste than these.” However, if we have been critical of Veblen, that is not to denigrate the value of reading him. It is through analysing and disputing that which is taken as sacrosanct that new ideas and new manifestos are created.

Tim Abrahams