Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Purpose beneath the surface
ARCHITECTURE AND DESIGN
Two brilliant partnerships, 60 years apart, show that design should be about more than toys of convenience, writes ELIZABETH FARRELLY.
Design, these days, is pretty much synonymous with slick. It’s as though the more out of control the world starts to feel, the more anal design becomes in its urge to deny; as though last century’s “form follows function” battle cry had been tacitly replaced with a new slogan: “Order over entropy, form over content!” On the face of it, all this is market-driven. Well, what isn’t?
But whereas design in the modern era was buoyed by a socialistic desire to discover beauty in the commonplace and spread it to the common folk, now it’s neither commonality nor beauty that matters but the presumption of citizen consumer’s ever-greater yearning for new toys of convenience.
Compare two high points of the design festival Sydney Design 05: the Eames films (901: After 45 Years of Working and the famous Powers of Ten) showing daily at the Powerhouse Museum, and the Electrolux Global Design Lab at the same venue. You might expect Charles and Ray Eames, as moderns, to be the serious, agenda-driven ones while contemporary design wallows in the postmodern, self-indulgence sandpit. In fact, though, it’s the Eameses who seem to be having all the first-rate, first-principles fun, while current design devotes itself to the serious job of caressing a gimmick-hungry market.
The Design Lab is an annual, international student competition. And the entries – from Brazil, Portugal, Sweden, China, Slovakia, Britain and the US – are, on the whole, the slicked-up whiteware for airheads we’ve come to expect from contemporary design; like we need ever-smoother convenience gadgets to save the time we have to spend in traffic jams on the way to the mind-numbing jobs we need in order to pay for the gadgets, right?
All of which only makes it the more delightful, now and then, to find contemporary design that excels in both form and content. Especially when it’s Australian – like the latest Design Lab winner, a waterless dishwasher called Rockpool.
But first, the Eameses. As devoted world-improvers they were serious, but in a way that allowed them to play most of the time. The 1990 film 901 shows the posthumous dismantling of their office, a converted garage at 901 Washington Boulevard in the industrial part of Venice, California, well before the place was cool. From there, they presided over four decades of burgeoning American empire, surfing a rare wave of government-business design collaboration to become two of the most influential designers of all time.
Charles Eames was born in St Louis, Missouri, in 1907; Bernice Alexandra (Ray) Kaiser was born in Sacramento, California, in 1912. He studied architecture at Washington University, working for engineers and manufacturers, while she studied painting in the heady atmosphere of New York’s modern art movement. They met at Michigan’s fabled Cranbrook Academy of Art in 1940, where Ray studied under Charles for a few months, helping him and Eero Saarinen prepare their winning designs for the Museum of Modern Art’s Organic Furniture Competition that year.
The collaboration became one of those gathering points in design history; Harry Bertoia (of wire-chair fame) designed their wedding ring, Lee Krasner was a friend, as were Billy Wilder and Buckminster Fuller; Saul Steinberg painted silly things on the plywood prototypes littering the workshop; John Entenza, editor of the influential Arts and Architecture magazine, was a friend and long-term client; Herman Miller took over the plywood factory that shared the garage and so a great partnership began, producing such classics as the Plywood Chair (1945), the Lounge Chair (1956) and the Aluminium Chair (1958), which retails now for about $1700.
Over four decades, the Eameses designed and made not only furniture but films, toys, books, puzzles, exhibitions, slide shows and houses – most notably their house in Pacific Palisades, Los Angeles, in 1949. The eighth in the famous Case Study Houses series sponsored by Arts and Architecture, the two-storey steel-and-glass shoebox was constructed from off-the-shelf industrial componentry, built in 48 hours and home for 39 years. Even now, it sustains cult status as a true exemplar of the impossible; architecture that combines rapidity, economy, comfort and breathtaking chic. The components may be standard, but the house is a one-off.
Powers of Ten starts with a close-up on a Chicago lakeside picnic, increasing the distance by a power of 10 every 10 seconds, up to 1024 metres, where galaxies are dots in the infinite nothing. Then it zooms back in, closer, by a power of 10 every two seconds, to 10-16 metres, when the super-dense carbon nucleus fills the screen. The point? That in a mere 1040 metres we reach – in fact, let’s face it, surpass – the limits of human understanding in both directions. Not bad, especially with 1968 technology.
Powers (shown in two versions) is narrated by physicist Philip Morrison, one of the youngest scientists to work on the Manhattan Project. On July 12, 1945, Morrison travelled to the first-ever atom-bomb test at Trinity, California, in the back seat of a Dodge. Beside him was the plutonium core of Fat Man, the bomb that would devastate Nagasaki three days after Little Boy and Hiroshima. Morrison, sent to evaluate the bombs’ effects, swore off war, flirted with communism and spent the rest of his life hunting extraterrestrial intelligence and being hounded by the House Un-American Activities Committee.
Zooming back to the present, Electrolux’s Rockpool was designed by University of NSW students Ross Nichols, Doug Nash and Oystin Lie, and it’s a honey, with a hint of the primitive, a moral purpose and a sense of fun that would make the Eameses chuckle. The idea was twofold: to make an extremely sexy object, visually and operationally, and to do something eco-friendly. It’s an enchanting mix.
The object is sexy. No doubt about that. What you see, gleaming in the worktop, are two glass-covered holes: “rockpools”. Beneath the glass, in a shallow bowl, glows a small, egg-shaped pseudo-rock. As you reach for the rock, first the glass then the bowl slide away magically to reveal the top-loading vessel that awaits your dirty dishes. This brings us to the process. The year is 2015. The cleaning agent is supercritical carbon dioxide (scCO2), carbon dioxide warmed and pressurised into liquefaction. Having little or no surface tension, the liquid CO2 films around the dishes, dissolving grease. Then, as the pressure drops and the gas revaporises, the grease falls out into the grey-water system that all houses (we trust) will have by then, and the CO2 is reused. No water, no detergent and it all takes about 12 minutes.
Fabulous idea. Can it be done? Well, yes, the technology exists; and no, not really in a domestic environment. Not yet. It’s still space-shuttle stuff because of the pressure equipment required. Electrolux has no plans to go commercial.
But it’s more than just a nice idea. Rockpool stands head and shoulders above its competitors, and most other contemporary design, precisely because its pretty face and tempting touchability are underpinned by real moral purpose.
“I’m no tree-hugging greenie,” a young designer might feel impelled to protest. But I say: if not, why not? You can bet your life this is the kind of stuff the Eameses would be playing with today. Tree-hugging greenie? I figure it’s verging on irresponsible, these days, to be anything else.
The Eames films are showing at the Powerhouse Museum weekdays at 2pm during Sydney Design 05, until August 21. The Electrolux Global Design Laboratory is also showing at the museum until August 21.
THREE PHOTOS: Awash with ideas … (from far left) the “devoted world-improvers” Charles and Ray Eames in 1959; the living room, adorned with tatami mats, in the couple’s Los Angeles home; and the Rockpool waterless dishwasher designed by three University of NSW students.