Friday, December 30, 2016


Alfredo Triff

Within the last ten years the phenomenon of design has exploded1. First, there is “the Bilbao effect” and its conspicuous byproduct, the “starchitect” (with brand names, such as Gehry, Koolhaas, de Meuron, Hadid, Libeskind et. al.). They are a galvanizing force behind de$$ign’s vicious cycle of manufacture, distribution and consumption. Articles like Newsweek’s “The Design Dozen” and Time Magazine’s “Design 100” with a list of “virtuosos,” have further legitimized de$$ign’s new stars.

De$ign is presented as business news in Design Week, or as avant-garde cultural activity in Wallpaper. Magazines like Casabella, Dwell, Interior Design and Experimenta, display hundreds of color-saturated photos of the most-up-to-date artifacts and gadgets positioned in sumptuous settings. There is a plethora of TV home-improvement shows representing design as a process of decision-making and implementation. To boot, there are design fairs and car and boat shows, advertising the technological miracles of global post-capitalism.

Few professions in the post-industrialized world have grown in terms of economic presence and cultural import as de$$ign has in the past decade. De$$ign has moved into academia, with scholastic journals and conference circuits, and has shaped interdisciplinary areas where art, anthropology, ethnography and technology converge.2

Let’s put aside de$$ign’s undeniable clout and global mystique. Let’s forget the extraordinary seduction of its cultural rituals and its libidinal enchantment. Why not see de$$ign for what it is: a corporate strategy to plan and execute urban environments, profitable use of technologies and the proliferation of communication information?


* De$$ign has become surface, its products immaterial, informational and entertaining; a key spectacle to post-capitalist consumption.3

* De$$ign expresses not need but desire = Advertising.4

* We’re living through a de$$ign impasse.5

* De$$ign keeps morphing from “metaphysical” to “symbolic” to “artistic” to “functional” to “spectacle.” 6

* De$$ign’s policy of “planned obsolescence” is obsolete.7

* De$$ign must move away from short-termism.8

* De$$ign discourse -and practice- is viciously circular.9

* De$$ign lives in a constant state of aesthetic fetishism.10

* De$$ign keeps promising what cannot deliver.11 12


* De$$ign can transform itself by piecemeal increments.13

* Design manufactures cleaner, energy-efficient, quieter, safe, lasting, and aesthetically-appealing products.14

* Design has to be sustainable by applying lessons from the biology of natural systems to the design of environments for the people.15

* The design profession needs more women designers.16

* Designers should be proactive and environmentally committed.17

* Design needs to become emotional, diverse and enhancing.18

* Designers can -and should- explore traditional materials intelligently.19

* Design can help consumers alter our present ecological imbalance.20

1 “De$$ign,” as opposed to “design,” the former a loaded term, which betrays the very principles on which it was founded by the pioneers of the Arts and Crafts Movement.
2 Only in Europe by the end of the 1990’s there were around 62,000 design students specializing in universities where over 900 courses were available. Netherland Design Institute, Design Across Europe (1998). China has seen a 23% increase in enrollment in art and design between 2001-2003.
3To consume: To make away with or destroy; to waste or squander; to use up. The First World consumes 3 times more and 10 times more energy than the Third World. Our appetite for wood and minerals is partially responsible for the clearing of the Amazon forest. Our processed fuel burns ¾ of the sulfur and nitrogen oxides that cause acid rain. Our countries’ factories generate most of the world’s hazardous chemical wastes and more than 96% of the world's radioactive waste. Our air conditioners, aerosol sprays, and factories release almost 90% of the chlorofluorocarbons that destroy the earth's protective ozone layer. Isn’t this post-industrial de$$ign program perverse?
4Advertising (i.e. graphic de$$ign) plays a crucial role in consumerism by mediating between manufacturers, retailers and the public. Advertisements provide goods with a context (usually mythical). Richard Bolton explains: “We’re inundated with a parade of spectacles (…) these do not merely distract us from crisis and conflict: they absorb the conflict.” Richard Bolton, “Architecture and Cognac” in Design After Modernism, 1989.
5In this sense (post) post-modernism differs from its predecessor only in that our present stage is (according to critic Jean Baudrillard) “more obscene.” Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci has a similar point: “The crisis consists in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.” Perry Anderson’s “Modernity and Revolution,” New Left Review, 144, London, 1984.
6According to Marshall Berman in All That is Solid Melts into Air, the problem with futuristic modernism is that brilliant machines and mechanical systems play all the leading roles so, there is little left to human agency.
7Designer George Nelson pronounced the principle in 1956: “What we need is more obsolescence.” Industrial Design, No. 6 (1956). Harley Earl, father of the “dream car” agreed. His motto: “Our job is to hasten obsolescence.”
8Professor Alisdair Fuad-Luke proposes that de$$ign should temporarily put economic factors to one side while reconsidering the contemporary role of design in meeting the real needs of people and the environment. Fuad-Luke defends “slow design” as a means to refocus on anthropocentric (individual + socio-cultural community) and environmental welfare. Alastair Fuad-Luke, ecoDesign: The Sourcebook (Chronicle Books, 2006).
9De$$ign has gotten so entangled with advertising that it advertises itself. What can be expected of the design practice when after a De$$ign show at MoMA, one can buy the same relic being exhibited at the museum’s de$$ign store? In addition, much of the history of modern design has been written and disseminated to support De$$ign. The heroes (mostly men) create products for a largely uninformed public. Nikolaus Pevsner’s Pioneers of the Modern Movement (1936) established the canon of the discipline. The superstar designers’ profiles we read about in magazines follow this sort of pevsnerist heroic rhetoric.
10In his Critique of Commodity Aesthetics (University of Minnesota, 1986), Wolfgang Fritz Haug argues that artifacts in the market “promise a use-value once they are sold,” i.e., they have to appear useful before they actually are. There is a deeper aesthetic anesthetization when use-value becomes beautiful. Take Philippe Stark’s Juicy Salif, a lemon squeezer, which sells for almost $80, which according to its designer, “is not such a good lemon squeezer, but that’s not its only function.” Juicy Salif’s other -and most important function- is aesthetic fetishism.
11“At present, most Asians see First World technology and consumerism as handmaidens of design and harbingers of modernity: They hope to implement this combination of their soils and achieve comparable results.” This is the impending problem of China’s development and the danger it poses (given its size) for the rest of the world. “Design, Development and Cultural Legacies,” Rajeshwari Ghose, in The Idea of Design, by Victor Margolin and Richard Buchanan, MIT, 1995.
12The major deception of de$$ign lies in the constant deferral of a serious political, ecological and historical investigation of its practice. Can the original idea of design as betterment -not as worsening- be reclaimed?    
13This manifesto sets a midway course between self-indulgence and radicalism. It follows professors Karl Popper and Hilary Putnam’s idea of “social engineering,” i.e., the gradual changing our socio-political landscape by trial-and-error. It seems a better method than Modernism’s grandiose sweeping measures.
14This is the general premise behind books such as E.F. Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful, Victor Papanek’s Design for the Real World and Citizen Designer: Perspectives on Design Responsibility by Steven Heller and Veronique Vienne.
15Sustainable design (which can be applied to any structure) should bring building design, energy efficiency, indoor environmental quality, material selection; site planning, resource efficiency, and water use to boost energy savings. Sustainable, low-impact materials: i.e., nontoxic, recycled and recyclable, renewable, local, standard sizes, durable, and long lasting. See Chapter 2 of Nigel Whiteley’s Design For Society (Reaktion Books, 1993).
16When women design products, they are sometimes radically different from those made by men. For instance, research done on women’s criteria for car design reveals emphasis on function, ergonomics and safety (this is at odds with the advertised status of the male ego). “The Forgotten Dimension: Women, Design and Manufacture,” Margaret Bruce, Feminist Art News, (December, 1985).
17We face the crime in urban neighborhoods and communities, the loss of biological diversity, the damage to fragile landscapes, urban sprawl, polluted air, acid rain, noise pollution, global warming, the destruction of an extensive national railway system, and distortion of American political life by an automobile lobby, the foreign policy consequences of dependence on imported oil.
18Design is seen here an opportunity to enhance the human spirit. Team ZOO/ Atelier ZÖ: Theories and Manifestos of Contemporary Architecture, edited by Carl Jencks and Karl Kropf (Academy Editions, 1999).
19Here are some examples: The LifeStraw, designed to turn any surface water into drinking water, used in Ghana, Nigeria, Pakistan and Uganda. 2- The Pot-in-Pot Cooler, a small earthenware pot nestling inside a larger one with wet sand filling the space in between, used in Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, Eritrea and Ethiopia. 3- One Laptop Per Child, a not-profit initiative led by Nicholas Negroponte of MIT Media Lab. Now being tested in Nigeria and Brazil, costing $150. 4- The Global Village Shelter, prefabricated in biodegradable material, shipped flat and requiring no tools to assemble. It has already provided emergency shelter for disaster victims in Afghanistan, Grenada, Pakistan, and for those of Hurricane Katrina in the US.
20200,000 hectares of what used to be the untouched cloud forest of the Peruvian Amazon (once home to a unique highland ecosystem roamed by jaguars and bears), now boasts the herbicide-poisoned heartland of the world’s cocaine industry. “Snorting Peru’s Rain Forest,” International Wildlife, May/June 1990.