We need to turn design inside out, like a glove

Based on his participation in the seminar Less is Next held on World Food Day, Paolo Deganello uses the crisis as a starting point to reflect upon the kind of role architects and designers should play in organising a fairer professional practice, rooted in the defence of new, ethical values. 


My paper to the Less is Next (2) conference began with a comparison of two images: the juicer for Alessi, by Starck, and a water-lifting wheel I took from the catalogue of the Design for the Other 90% exhibition, held at the Smithsonian's Cooper-Hewitt, New York, in September 2007. To put it briefly, my contention was that the type of design we’ve been doing and teaching until now, exemplified in Starck’s citrus squeezer, no longer makes any sense, now that we are faced with economic crisis and the ever more dramatic destruction of the planet's resources. My proposal, which I had already been advocating for some years, was that we must change all our schools of design into schools of socially responsible and/or sustainable design. I also argued that all the disciplines of design, all those disciplines that play a strategic role in making our planet liveable (product design, architecture, urban planning, landscape design, and communication design) must be called into question, beginning from something we all know: that the planet's resources are increasingly insufficient, and that as the WWF says, if we still go on like this, in order to survive, by 2050 humanity –that is, our children– will need not one planet earth, but two. So I agree with François Burkhardt’s proposal for an interdisciplinary global project that rediscovers the ethical dimension of design, and a theory of the project that gets away from the obsessive, uncritical conformity to a merely economics-based concept.

This article incorporates many of the issues I proposed in that report, and takes discussion further by giving greater attention to issues raised by other speakers, particularly Giuseppe Furlanis, who promoted the conference, and Emilio Novati, a physicist who is also interested in economics and the problem of affluence; both searching for a post-crisis type of design, what Rifkin and many others call the Third Industrial Revolution. To the incredulity and irritation of most of those present, I dared to put forward my hypothesis that the affluent society has now reached the end of the line, and that the current global economic crisis requires a new type of design: the kind of global project to which I was referring, with product design as part of it. Novati used the term "sobriety” to define this new approach, which must address a new trend in consumption patterns towards what Giuseppe De Rita has prophesied will take the form of "affluent temperance”, or as I call it "happy parsimony”. Consumer product design in the modern era represented the affluent society very well: it ignored all sense of restraint, always thinking in terms of limitless, inexhaustible resources. Fixated on large-scale mass production, it saw its great dream coming true: the mass distribution of aesthetic values, via consumer goods. And via consumer goods, an International Style of design has contributed to the westernisation of the world, spreading everywhere as new markets were conquered, helping to subjugate many new territories to the hegemony of the West, espousing the strategy of pillaged resources and raw materials, destroying all possibility for those regions of autonomous, self-sufficient local production and cultural self-sufficiency.

We should begin by changing forward as entrepreneur-designers promoting ethical design by only producing goods of public utility, even when these address personal needs.

Our planet is being looted of its increasingly inadequate resources, and the hunger of the many makes our Western privileges disgust us. What should we be doing about it?

Trying to resist the massification of aesthetics brought about by modernism, the elitist art world –the realm of privilege for a powerful few– has incorporated the new mass art forms: cinema, photography, video, music, and design. The museums have been reorganised as hybrid places part supermarket, part art gallery, part amusement park, offering endless surprises and unexpected, incredible visual experiences, yet doing so in an incredibly banal way. Seeing great art has become just another coach trip destination for all-inclusive package tours; people are willing to stand in line in Florence to see Michelangelo’s David, simply because it has been ordained that the whole of humanity, or at least the affluent part of it, must join the queue in Via dell’Accademia, and at least once in their lives, wait to see David. In the affluent parts of the planet, many museums now also exhibiting good design products, and these same people will also stand in line, another day, to see an exhibition of motorcycles at the Guggenheim in Bilbao. The original, noble mission of design was to massify aesthetics by aestheticising consumer goods, and in that sense we can say it has succeeded. But the general distribution of these privileges from the elite to the masses coincides today with a tragic re-emergence of the political right, camouflaged as usual in populism, efficiency, and hiding behind the so-called crisis. This brings with it a tendency to reinstate aesthetic elitism as a return to artisan design work, one-off collectibles sold through art galleries. Certainly, the art object –the search for form in a prototype model as a single, unique piece– is an integral part of product design; but permitting a slow, creeping return to Mother Art, in a way that risks producing nothing better than a pseudo-artistic cheap copy of a simple tool, brings with it the serious risk of a disparity within the discipline of design, between designer-artists and designer-engineers. The fascination of product design is its ability to combine technological innovation with social and aesthetic innovation to make mass-produced goods, and in its ability to divulge aesthetic values to the masses(3). 

So in that noble mission, product design cannot simply rely on its own good intentions. We must not accept the marginalisation of aesthetics into the luxurious one-off piece. We must promote mass-produced consumer goods as the only ones that have any social effect, and the only way to drastically reduce the waste of resources, whilst restoring productive autonomy to so many regions that were dispossessed for the sake of Western affluence. Novati recalled that in Italy, the decoupling of GDP growth from the growth of affluence took place in the 1970s. From that point on, GDP continued to grow, but affluence increased less and less and eventually stopped. This is an interesting economic fact, and I want to understand what this decoupling has led to, by setting out some hypotheses and references, in the hope that others may take them further. One thing that seems important is that at that time, around the beginning of the 1970s, a social rebellion began to manifest itself, slowly but inexorably calling into question some fundamental assumptions of "modern product design”, notably in the work of Dieter Rams for Braun; today I note, with some distaste, an unwelcome tendency to rehabilitate that approach to design(4), partly with the excuse of the economic crisis.

At that time in the 1970s, the dream of mass-producing designer goods in large quantities, aimed at different tribes of consumers, was in crisis; with it, the idea that technological innovation and beautiful new shapes, of themselves, were automatically synonymous with social progress, was also in crisis. The limits of functionalism –a functional-looking, mass-producible type of beauty– were acknowledged, and a new search began for a different approach to product design, able to express something more than merely functional efficiency; there was now a desire for products that could seduce, and the world of dreams and poetry became part of defining the quality of a product. At the aesthetic level, this rebellion against functional modernism took the form of a refusal of the geometric abstraction that had been so useful for mass production because it simplified everything. But this was no longer necessary with the arrival of numerically controlled machines, and the effect was a rediscovery of figuration, decoration, colour, the organic, and an image of the domestic utensil that was no longer only utilitarian and technical; I think of the Olivetti Valentine and the Rosa mirror, both by Sottsass, or Superonda and Safari, by Archizoom, and many other pieces. The most important aspect of the products of the Italian radical design movement was as typological innovations, which suggested that these objects would be regarded in a different way by their users. Absolutely not abstract, figuratively dense with meaning, using new non-natural synthetic materials, they stood for complexification and hybridisation of the figurative within the social conflict(5). Using popular languages such as Pop Art, the radical design groups arrogantly forced their way into domestic product design. Dismissing the rigorously simple, rational hospital-like tools of functional modernism as sad, anti-sensual, and lifeless, they were unconcerned about vulgarity, which they used as a way of keeping elitist respectability at bay (but which has recently come back as minimalism) aiming for large-scale production and public acceptance in a mass market. Alas, these innovations delighted the media, but had almost no market success at all. 

Allow me to illustrate this by referring to my own AeO armchair for Cassina  (Deganello/Archizoom). Designed in 1972-73 and put into production in 1974, AeO was a formal and typological innovation that in fact marked the end of Italian radical design. It was intentionally designed as a poor object; indeed, the art critic Germano Celant bought one, because he saw it as part of the Arte Povera movement. It was assembled from components that were easily removable and interchangeable, and shipped in a flat pack measuring 100x70x17 containing these components, which the user had to assemble. Depending on the fabric used for the back-rest, which the user could easily slip on to the frame, the chair could change colour, finish, and image. This contrasted with another piece of the time, also designed for Cassina: Tobia Scarpa’s opulent, puffed-up, obese Soriana lounge chair and ottoman, stuffed with padding, which won the Compasso d’Oro award. AeO, on the other hand, stood for Arte Povera and was against such opulence. It was designed as a modular piece without arm-rests and an organic, sensual, ironic plastic base like a duck’s foot, with shelves at the sides for putting things in. The back-rest was dry, i.e. not padded, made of raw canvas that took on the shape of whoever leaned back on it. At the time it cost just over 100,000 Lire, and 35 years later it is still in production, though in a more conventional version, with arm-rests. It has been published in all the magazines, and there are copies in many museums, but in these 35 years only 3000 have been sold as the price became less and less poor and more and more exorbitant. The most recent 2000 or so copies were even delivered ready-assembled. But comparing AeO to Soriana today, in the dramatic scenario of waste and show-off luxury, and the arrogance of those SUVs that for me are the emblematic product of Berlusconi era, this chair can be seen as an anticipation of that happy parsimony I suggest could be our response to today’s crisis –on condition that it does mean a nostalgic return to a past that cannot be brought back to life. 

So beyond a certain limit, we can see that any further quantitative increase only leads to an exasperation of privilege; it does not increase prosperity or mass consumption; it merely generates overproduction.

When GDP became decoupled from affluence, modern functionalism, with its technicism and productionism, was unable to get away from the purely material concept of well-being on which it had based its legitimacy. Its primary objective had been to get people out of poverty, but today it is being wasted on formalisms of waste, opulence, and the arrogant rich; no longer interested in distributing affluence to all, it only reflects a GDP-driven wealth ever more concentrated in the hands of a few. So beyond a certain limit, we can see that any further quantitative increase only leads to an exasperation of privilege; it does not increase prosperity or mass consumption; it merely generates overproduction. And this, indeed, seems to be what the affluent society now wants, as it becomes bloated, gradually grows to an incredible size, and returns to opulence, obesity, and privileged unhappiness, just like the Soriana chair. And now that modernism’s hope for social change has gone, it must be significant that the political militancy that accompanied it in the 1960s, later on in the 1980s and 1990s took the form of voluntary work: a struggle to overcome social isolation, and a search for solidarity; values that cannot be satisfied by an affluence that only wants more and more things. There is a new Italian generation, stuffed with junk food, raised on Game Boy and Berlusconi’s Mediaset TV channels, that no longer sees any future and either totally identifies with the ideology of money, dreaming only of owning an SUV (the symbolic object of the affluent society), or leaves the market economy altogether, refusing Slumdog Millionaire and questioning the monstrous iniquities being perpetrated all over the planet, where the well-off 20% of the population claims entitlement to 80% of the available resources. 

Starck and his juicer, offspring of radical design, are what happened when radical design was taken over by commercialism. When it came out in 1989, Starck’s lemon squeezer cost 90.000 Lire. More than two million were sold, and it is still going strong today. At about 100 Euro, it’s a mass-produced domestic sculpture within the reach of anyone’s pocket: a cool thing to give as a present, and cool to have on show as an ornament; not only cool to have, but something to tell the world about. So it would be wrong to write it off because Starck failed to deal with the seeds, which get mixed up with the juice. This is not seriously meant to be a useful utensil, it’s a fake tool that looks like a sculpture, with animalistic/natural allusions and an organic shape; it could be a spider. Its function is not as a utensil but as a gift object, an original idea for a present that anyone in the affluent society can afford: a mass-produced work of art for a very reasonable 100 Euro, which you will be gratified to see in all the museums of design. Just as Botticelli’s Birth of Venus is always on the front of those encyclopaedias of art you can buy with Italian newspapers, Starck’s juicer features on the cover of key books on design by Jean Baudrillard or Fulvio Carmagnola. And now that there are new markets in the India of Slumdog Millionaire, Putin’s Russia, and the China of the new Expo, Starck will go on selling his juicer. At which point we can say that the great modern dream of well-being for all has terminated with Starck’s little masterpiece of affluent pointlessness.

Unlike many other economists, Giulio Sapelli (who describes himself as a conservative in politics and a liberal in economics) correctly argues that even without the financial crisis, there would have been a crisis in the real economy anyway: "We were facing a crisis of overproduction. The financial crisis overlapped with it; it wasn’t the cause. And I am not convinced that a proliferation of new legislation can solve the problems that crisis has bequeathed to us. I think it would be far more important to return to ethical business”(6). 
If there is indeed such a thing, then Burkhardt also asks for an ethical businessman; designers would thus have ethical clients commissioning ethical products. But in the total absence of any such client, we should nevertheless be able to propose an ethical form of design while we’re waiting. We believe that the problem of product design today has nothing to do with thinking up more functional, less exhibitionistic, more technically efficient juicers that can deal with the problem of the seeds. Nor does it have anything to do with rediscovering functional tools, in the way proposed by Morrison and Fukasawa in their Supernormal proposal(7). Certainly, we should be getting away from the virtual, doped-up economy of the financial markets, and back to functional values in product design, but it would be a mistake simply to go back to the mystique of the simple, useful utensil. Not only are there already too many useless products around; there are also too many utensils. Faced with overproduction and limited resources, we have to find a different meaning and legitimacy for our industrial products.

Faced with overproduction and limited resources, we have to find a different meaning and legitimacy for our industrial products.

I propose that we should be designing products of unquestionable social usefulness, which incontrovertibly serve the public interest. Above all we should give product design the right to generate attention for products with a clearly recognisable public interest, i.e. an existence that is useful for the greatest number –which obviously excludes SUVs and thousands of other, similar products. A socially useful product does not pollute, requires very little energy to produce and use, does not waste resources, and promotes the conservation of energy, raw materials, land, water, and air. Its production process and costs are thoroughly and transparently communicated to the user; it is intended and designed to be durable; it is enjoyable to use, generating identification and affection; it does not immediately become garbage, and is designed to be easy to maintain and update, adaptable to changes in behaviour (Ezio Manzini), and recyclable– but only at the end of a long life. We designers have been used to redesign the same things over and over again, inventing new shapes to feed the continuous desire for possession. We should not be inventing new shapes for the Fiat Cinquecento, but designing another type of car of strong public benefit. 

We should ask to be commissioned only to design industrial products that are not detrimental to society: the ethical dimension. Just as it no longer makes sense to throw litter on the street, so it no longer makes sense to produce goods that do not take account of our limited resources. One possible practical suggestion would be to create a new type of client body, supported financially by tax breaks and grants from public authorities, working for the public good, for instance promoting the use of self-generated electricity, or privileging the use of particular products rather than others. But although such incentives can play a vital role, it is more fundamentally important to change the culture of consumption. 

We should begin by changing the design schools, and changing the design culture of teachers themselves, who should put themselves forward as entrepreneur-designers promoting ethical design by only producing goods of public utility, even when these address personal needs. One typical product could be the electric car powered by lithium batteries (and good for Evo Morales in Bolivia, who plans to exploit this resource)(8). The electric car must lead to generating electricity from renewable resources, and other virtuous processes. But we must be wary of innovation for innovation’s sake, and resist it with all our might; because as Burkhardt has wisely pointed out, there are whose who cynically see the new green awareness as just another opportunity to plan products that rapidly become obsolescent. 

A manifesto/proclamation Revolutionising architecture(9) signed by Eric Ruiz-Geli, José Luis Vallejo, Jan Jorgert, and Stefano Boeri, presented at the 11th. International Exhibition of Architecture at the Venice Biennale, has proposed the installation of small-scale photovoltaic generators on the roof of every building. The final part says "we appeal to our fellow-architects round the world to join us in revolutionising architecture, with the goal of enabling millions of people to produce their own clean renewable energy in their workplaces, their public institutions and their private homes, and to share the surplus with others via intelligent public distribution networks, helping to launch the Third Industrial Revolution and a new post-carbon dioxide age, dedicated to energy democratisation and sustainable economic development.” Whilst we wait for similar proclamations from the other design disciplines, I suggest that the organisers of the conference set up a small committee to rewrite that text, so that a similar proclamation can be added, clearly defining, in operational terms, what new products will be needed for the Third Industrial Revolution. Instead of a rather moralistic, defeatist abstinence, we will offer our children a happy parsimony that consists not of renunciation but new triumphs.

(1). Title of the course in design given by the Author (Academic Year 2008/2009), Faculty of Industrial Design, University of Sassari, Alghero campus (Italy).
(2). This text is an a posteriori reflection on the topics discussed at the Less is Next conference that took place in Florence as part of the Giornata Mondiale dell´Alimentazione [World Food Day] on October 16 2008.
(3). Letter to the Editor of Interni, published in issue no. 573
(4). In this regard, see the Super normal exhibition, published in Domus 894.
(5). In this regard, see Paolo Deganello, Domus 908.
(6). Interview with Giulio Sapelli, Il Manifesto, 26 March 2009.
(7). Ibid. Domus 894.
(8). See article published in Internazionale 789.
(9). Manifesto in Abitare 486.

 Article published in Experimenta 64.

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