Slouching Towards Detroit

Originally published in Design Institute’s Knowledge Circuit, April 2004

DETROIT, MICHIGAN. Self-contempt may drive the engine; self-content may keep it humming. Design Engine, the colloquium of loosely-knit exhibitions and symposia held between October of last year and March this year in the wider Detroit area, promised to examine “the relationship among design, cultural objects, commerce, technology, social values while posing questions about the power of the industry.” Various Detroit-based arts and education institutions, such as the Detroit Institute of the Arts, Cranbrook Academy of Arts, and College for Creative Studies (CCS) organized events which revealed both their geographical and ideological biases. Cranbrook, which has a long-established tradition for propagating radical and reflective work, hosted an exhibition of Elliott Earls, its 2D Designer in Residence, as well as the symposium “Forbidden Futures: Polemic Design and the Public Imagination.” CCS, meanwhile, which serves as a breeding ground of designers for the car industry (in convenient proximity), hosted the symposium “Cars and Desire.”

“Forbidden Futures: Polemic Design and Public Imagination,” organized by Cranbrook’s 3D Design Department head Scott Klinker, began with the proposition that “design serves as one of the few public forums for discussing our collective technological future,” and must challenge “the same old status quo with a new wrapper.” Klinker’s opening salvos served to both align himself with his speakers and distance himself from the large bulk of the design profession. The symposium set out to showcase three polemic design activities, by graphic designer Andrew Blauvelt, industrial designer Anthony Dunne, and artist/architect Joep van Lieshout, and demonstrate their works and ideas for critical reflection on the practice of design. Klinker argued that these three designers, through autonomy and transgression, have challenged “dominant social order,” or more aptly, popular notions of what constitutes design and its role.

Blauvelt, who was replacing a last minute cancellation by science fiction writer and eco-polemicist Bruce Sterling, provided a general survey on the theme of autonomous design activity, one that is divorced from the context and constraints of commercial design. As design director of the Walker Art Center, Andrew curated the show “Strangely Familiar: Design and Everyday Life,” which Klinker proclaimed was the best design show he had been to. “Strangely Familiar” offers works which have a “strong conceptual basis and a desire to rethink certain assumptions about design by offering us imaginative and often strange solutions” according to Blauvelt. Projects included in the show celebrate a peripheral relationship to the monolithic domain of commercial design. Italian group Nucleo’s “Terra: The Grass Armchair,” for example, typifies the mixture of irreverence and originality that are the prevailing characteristics of the works presented in the exhibition; it is essentially a plantable chair frame that requires some sodding or seeding to transform into a chia-chair. Meanwhile, “Insipid,” Elephant Design’s formal abstraction of household appliances, offers a “counterpoint to the pop sensibility of much contemporary Japanese design”. Their stark white minimal products, as if cut from a white cube, provide respite from the visual onslaught of Bright Lights, Big (Hello) Kitty.

Prominently featured in the Walker exhibition were the works of Anthony Dunne and partner Fiona Raby who have applied the phrase “critical design” to their work. Dunne and Raby’s social and technological polemics are couched in the vehicle of scientism and conceptual art: they are interested in the psychological and behavioral aspects that a design object can elicit or explore. In the case of the Faraday Chair, which appears to be a table with a glass top, evoking an allusion to Sleeping Beauty’s chamber, the utopian technological ideal is brought into question. In their Placebo furniture project, applicants were allowed to “adopt” pieces of furniture — ranging from an “electricity dissipation chair” to a GPS-enabled table — and document their relationship with them. Their use of design for instigating debate will be taking a more topical turn as their current work (as Design Institute fellows, see URL) surrounds issues of Bioethics, for which they are conceiving a supermarket to service all walks and stations of life, including cultivating a relationship with your surrogate organ donor pig.

If Blauvelt and Dunne were able to articulate an alternative design with a probing, unusually reserved approach, then for Joep van Lieshout it was achieved through celebratory transgression. The spiritual leader, rock star, and rebel of the Atelier Van Lieshout (AVL), Joep van Lieshout extols the virtue of vice, stamped with a peculiarly Dutch sense of pragmatism and libertinism. With works ranging from the purely hedonistic to scatological and autarchic extremes, AVL has secured a degree of infamy, represented in galleries worldwide. The work is exemplified by AVL-ville, a “free state” where “everything is possible within a country that is over-regulated to an increasingly oppressive degree.” Created in the harbors of Rotterdam, AVL-ville, which was open to the public through 2001, boasted its own currency, flag, constitution, and provided the facilities of a power plant, mobile farms, water purification system, compost toilets, functional hospital, restaurant, distillery, and working and living units. The transformation of human waste into consumable products is a theme straining through the works at AVL, from the “Total Faecal Solution” to the “Bonnefantopia”. In the latter, another self-sustaining living unit constructed out of readily available materials looks more like a child’s play set, replete with sadomasochism entertainment center.

During the question and answer period, Peter Lynch, head of the architecture department at Cranbrook, attempted to provoke the speakers, demanding their reaction to the “bleak picture of the world” they presented in their work. Dunne and Blauvelt both dismissed the negativity implied in the critique, arguing that they offered an alternative to prevailing models. But what kind of alternative? As Klinker had earlier articulated, these designs “stand on the fault line between the socially-accepted ‘real’ and the imaginary.” Pregnant with possibilities rather than burgeoning with solutions, the projects at “Forbidden Futures” represented a watershed for a burgeoning alternative to global consumerist design. “Strangely Familiar” served more as a signpost to design’s potential than as an iterative exploration of product possibilities; devoid of a real-world context, conceptually-driven products, remarkably, tend to look the same.

Dunne and Raby’s books Hertzian Tales and Design Noir have popularized a conceptually-driven approach among designers and reinvigorated the practice with a tempered infusion of social science and cultural anchoring. Re-presenting the ideas in the books at “Forbidden Futures,” Dunne was able to capture a sense of impending change in industrial design while posing queries of his own. Teutonic and stoic, Dunne seems to have de-sexualized design and refashioned it as an offering to Apollo, while Joep van Lieshout seems to drink himself full of the Dionysian, in his relentless libertinism and forthright politics of life. Oddly, much of the banal form and construction of AVL’s output, as well as the activities it imposes upon the user, suggests that an absolute of vice leads not to enlightenment, but dullness. Perhaps the difference between Dunne and Lieshout is only a matter of degrees. They both occupy a front against the larger discipline of (commercial) design: even if their techniques and methodology differ, they share a strategy of oppositional design that aims to challenge and provoke.

By gearing the presentations to a graduate school audience, “Forbidden Futures” was able to elevate the tone and tenor the presentations. By contrast, the “Cars and Desires” symposium made its motives transparently clear in the title. Its promise of an indelicate parade of the conspicuous was reinforced by moderator Dutch Mandel’s gleeful introduction, which included the maxim “design is the sex of the car industry.” Mandel, who is editor of Autoweek, followed with a cursory glance at the role the car plays in culture and society; in its evolution from the machine of speed, to the instigator of urban change, to its potential role in a more fuel-efficient future and finally its place as an icon of status and style. Hollywood serves as both propagator and receptor of desire, noted Mandel, with movies like Bullitt and American Graffiti showcasing the car as character and accessory.

Freeman Thomas, the head of advance product design at DaimlerChrysler, picked up on the theme of the car as icon. As lead designer of both the Audi TT and the Volkswagen Beetle, Thomas has created cars that are both iconic and desirable. But aside from his introductory remarks, his talk made no reference to either of those two cars. Instead Thomas proposed the notion of a designer as “cultural architect,” whose idea of style is born out of concern for engineering considerations. A constant frame of reference was the European car designer, in the mold of Sir Alec Issigonis, designer of the Mini Cooper. Issigonis’s Mini was directed by the needs of the economic considerations (Suez Fuel Crisis), specifications (small yet full four seater car) and engineering criteria (use existing engine — which was eventually mounted transversely). BMW’s remake of the car has no doubt benefited from this legacy, though its popularity is more due to novelty than any actual similarity to the original. (The BMW Mini is larger and more than double the weight of Issigonis’s Mini.)

If Thomas framed his own car design practice in a more European light, then Camillo Pardo is an unabashedly American car designer. Designer of the Ford GT, Pardo revealed his interests and influences to be directly fashion-related; he is a highly prolific artist, whose open studio frees him to work on painting, sculpture, clothing, or cars. Pardo closed with a sultry promotional video of his Ford GT, which prompted moderator Dutch Mandel to remark that the audience was “ready to have a cigarette now.”

Bill Morden of BBDO picked up where Camilo had left off. As emissary of the desire machine, advertising, Morden presented some of the strategies that are employed to successfully launch and market a car: first identify and empathize with the consumer, based on market and demographic research, then prey on his or her insecurities and wants. As creator of the Dodge “That thing got a HEMI?” campaign, Morden is no doubt well-versed in the currency of advertising methodology: envy and inadequacy.

Ford’s chief designer Larry Erickson then acknowledged both the functional and superficial necessities of the car: “it’s biggest thing you can wear,” as he put it. He went onto give a brief history of some of the counter currents to the car industry. The standards for both measuring performance and using a car have changed over time, as have the public’s needs and interests. Born out of a machine age desire for speed and performance, the car’s main focus became styling by the early Fifties. But the formal invention applied to differentiating and creating novel car forms and designs took place in the public sphere, outside of the industry, according to Erickson, who cited the hot-rod enthusiasts first documented in Southern California. These backyard enthusiasts would become a highly specialized subculture only later to seep back into the channels leading to the mainstream, to influence the industry. Counter culture legends like Von Dutch, Ed Roth, and later Boyd Kottington signaled the fusion of art and industry, in other words, design.

A more critical account of car culture and the issues surrounding it was offered by Dan Ross, editor of Intersection magazine, in association with Dazed and Confused magazine. Ross’s opening image, a screen shot from Sega’s video game hit Out Run, made the generation gap between himself and the previous presenters all the more obvious. As an industry outsider, Ross was able to navigate the waters of auto-adulation and criticism with a mixture of irreverence, intellectual aplomb, and hipster sensibility. His magazine covers a range of subjects: the vehicle design of prison transportation (a menacing specter of power and authority diametrically opposed to conventional notions of car design); the half-day long traffic jams that have rendered cars into boardrooms for executives holding meetings in Africa; and the Gumball 3000 Race, a “blind” trek through Eastern Europe where the participants are given instructions at the completion of each task. To the general surprise of attendees, Ross out-rightly condemned cars as being about “violence, tearing through geography faster than nature intended me to.” It was all the more satisfying given the love-in effect of the presentations so far.

Upstairs from the “Forbidden Futures” symposium, and miles and months away from “Cars and Desire,” Elliott Earls (dubbed Blueprint magazine’s “hottest graphic designer in America”) presented a new show, “Bull and Wounded Horse.” It offered a counterpoint to both symposia and their respective presenters, showcasing Earls’ DVD work, “Catfish,” a new set of large scale photo-posters and, most interestingly, purely non-computer-based work. Huge scratch-board panels and eggshell-based tempera painting, derived from Renaissance painter Cenninio d’Andrea Cennini’s Libro dell’Art (The Craftsmans Handbook) transform Earls’ poster works into an altogether more sumptuous medium, which for design, is usually limited by issues of reproduction. Earls’ large scale photo prints are a decided departure from his usual cryptomaniacal creations, in their directness of symbol and presentation — which seek to address and relate to the viewer in greater capacity than his previous works. Two separate prints caricatured black males gesticulating poses of epic Brechtian staging, one killing the other, simultaneously referring to contemporary hip hop culture while being endowed with certain religious significance. This directness of confrontation and total obfuscation of message has been a hallmark of Earls’ work, as he seeks the aura of Art through design. While designers Anthony Dunne and Andrew Blauvelt strive for resonance within the domain of design, Earls finds solace in sidestepping many of these distinctions.

The future of design seems to be left to the progressives of the discipline. The present call for autonomy, by Dunne and echoed by Blauvelt, seeks a degree of removal from the vocationalist mentality that has plagued design since early last century. Dunne and Blauvelt seek an instrumentality through design, be it critical or reflective, simply as a means of discursive thinking. Earls, on the other hand, takes recourse in the period of pre-commercialization, before the discipline was canonized, in his internal exploration and proclamation. As Dunne, Blauvelt, Earls and even Von Lieshout locate themselves in the discipline they seek to transform or rebel against, the discontent borders on self-contempt. It remains to be seen whether the efforts of either camp will have any lasting consequence for the everyday practioner, let alone the discipline. However, it is quite clearthat we are entering another highly polemicized time within design, when issues surrounding the basis of the discipline, and its role in relation to the public, are questioned.

In the end, it became clear that beyond the difference in priorities among the participants of Design Engine that a dualism of Manichean heights was present. While one symposium concentrated its efforts on challenging the commercial hegemony, the other strived to celebrate it. Design Engine promised a diverse engagement of views and ideas, and on that account it delivered. There is certain satisfaction in having attended both symposia, to know that one without the other would not have felt completed the dualistic picture.

Designer, writer, educator and hierophant. Creating communicative tissue.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store