NEW or NOVEL?

Over recent years I have been giving a talk called ‘Beauty Matters’ around the world. I am often asked if it is available in print, so now I am writing a short book version. For a taster, here is a précis extract of a key section.

As I see it, the design world today is dominated by the clever idea which too often becomes the witty or ironic joke, or more often the gimmick. Understandably, it is a desperate attempt to be seen in an overcrowded world, but sadly these shallow works illustrate just how unbalanced and off-course the design process has become.

Here are two very different works which I am going to compare, to illustrate my point:

On the left, ‘Bird in Space’ marble sculpture by Brancusi, 1923.

On the right a 1957 seat design by two well-known Italian brothers.

The Bird is utterly new and original, part of a body of work that changed the course of sculpture and design for the whole of the 20th century. Brancusi stripped back sculpture of all surface detail to reveal the essence within, like no-one had ever done before. The Bird is an expression of one man’s feeling for nature and for form. It drew on Brancusi’s Romanian craft tradition and feel for materials. It is a balance of artistic vision, design of form and intuitive feel for the stone — in effect of left and right hemispheres of the brain; and also of art, design and craft.

The Tractor Seat’s ‘newness’ — in fact novelty — lies purely in an intellectual idea, from only the left hemisphere. Advocates talk about how it affected the way we think about design, but this is just the idea. The actual seat has no intrinsic quality of its own; it is merely a utilitarian industrial artifact paired with what looks like an oversized tool handle.

The Bird had to be made to discover its form; materiality is critical.

The Seat did not need to be made to convey the idea; materiality is irrelevant.

The Bird was created by unconscious doing, by exploring form and material, by reaching out and connecting in all directions with the right hemisphere, to seek something which can only be known when found.

The Seat was created by conscious, abstracted, straight line thinking using the left hemisphere. The left knows nothing new, so it can only take what it is already there and create novelty by shuffling it in a clever, witty or ironic way.

The Seat was created as an act of WILL.

True creativity cannot be willed. Many creative people talk about how they can’t go seeking ‘the Muse’, they can only place themselves in the most conducive conditions and wait. Bob Dylan puts it perfectly here.

With the Seat, what you see is what you get.

The Bird requires you to participate with your imagination, to see in it what you can.

The Seat is CLEVER. We appreciate its idea.

The Bird is BEAUTIFUL. We feel it empathically.

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This illustrates the malaise of contemporary design, which appears to me as the limited product of conscious, left hemisphere thinking that is so dominant in our culture. There is no engaging with the art process of unconsciously exploring and playing for the sake of it, which uses the right hemisphere. It is only through the right that we understand and discover real newness; the left only recognises the familiar, what it thinks is the certain. So designers who do not engage in the art process to generate their own vision, and the vocabulary with which to express that vision, can only use what is already around them. They shuffle, they use an axe handle as a table leg or mix up historical styles, and say, look aren’t I clever? But you only laugh at a one-line joke once. It has no lasting intrinsic value or beauty of its own. It appeals only to the intellect, not the heart; it does not nourish our spirit like great creativity. Good design is more than clever, its beauty enriches us.

(I am aware that I can be criticised for comparing what are generally seen as art and design. But I do not differentiate because for me art and design are verbs not nouns, both are processes and crucially both are part of one creative process. It is this process which I am writing about, not the product — I am suggesting that the art process is too often ignored.)