Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
Poor judgment turns design to dross
Do not be fooled by the slimmed-down name. The modest serving that was Sydney Design Week has swollen into the jumbo-meal that is Sydney Design – a vast design fest spanning 15 days, dozens of venues, a score of disciplines from film to engineering and an estimated 100,000 viewers.
Those are its vital statistics – the lifeblood of the funders, advertisers, bureaucrats and bean counters and therefore of the festival itself. Since, in bean counter land, quantity equals quality, this must surely represent a vast flowering of design culture, making Sydney some kind of latter-day South Pacific Florence. Or, more saltily, Venice. But does it? Are we?
It’s sad to say, but now is not a high point in design culture – here or anywhere (here being increasingly indistinguishable from anywhere). A single glance across the gleaming white acreage of shiny plastic flotsam that is the boat show, for example, each vessel precision moulded to wipe any trace of authenticity from the maritime experience, reveals the nadir to which we’ve come.
In part, this is down to post modernism. Not that design is still doing that daft, jokey high-chroma stuff that heralded post modernism in the early ’80s. The garlic crusher that looks like a sex-toy – or is it a sex toy that looks like a garlic crusher? That’s gone, thank God. But the thinking remains – if thinking is not too strong a word.
Essentially what happened in the fine arts 20 years ago still has design culture by the throat. Just as every second cafe you go into has its windows too wide and its music too loud because that’s how the staff like it, so the world of design – especially design exhibitions – now revolves around the curator. High modernism’s “star designer” culture is out. As critic Robert Nussbaum recently told his students, “designers suck”. Now instead we have star curators. Curators are the new elite, the new exclusive priesthood.
This mightn’t matter, were it still about fine design; were curators still applying the kind of honed, judicious eye applied by Arthur Drexler, say, during his MoMA decades. But the reverse is now the case. Post modernism’s burning of the modernist bra deprived the visual arts of both clear direction and accepted criteria. It deprived them, that is, of anything resembling theoretical backbone.
Curators, more interested in the “conversation” than the product and unwilling – absent consensus – to risk exercising judgment, substitute multiplicity for excellence, stuffing the theory gap with a soupy mix of pluralism and political correctness.
The result, in design festivals generally, is an exhausting plethora of dross, flecked by random moments of delight. The dross veers drunkenly between the exuberantly functionless (the unwearable suits, the unsittable chairs) and the ploddingly utilitarian. The delight occurs when, almost by accident, true design welds these together, creating something that is supremely adapted, sublimely appealing and entirely unforeseeable.
These objects alone should receive the awards, grace the shows or be published as “classics”, since this welding is what design does. Bring back elitism. All is forgiven. But if, as they say, obsolescence is now obsolete, and if the race is now on to produce the object that the pouting, foot-stamping breath-holding consumer will want to keep, what should be our criteria?
In a world where design authority regularly undermines itself by refusal to judge, and where new materials and digitised production relentlessly unravel any remaining constraint – in a world, that is, where design can do virtually anything – what should it do? What should we prize?
The answer is simple. As Nussbaum told his students, “the broad new paradigm for design – the paradigm you will all work within for the rest of your lives – is sustainability”. It’s true, although it’s not enough. Like that old “how many psychiatrists does it take to change a light bulb joke” (just one, but the bulb has to want to change), the race for sustainability implies a race for wantability and keepability. A race to design the object that isn’t just green, but is green and gorgeous.
This might sound easy. It’s not. It’s very, very difficult, partly because it’s not about pleasing the curators, or the editors, or the peers. It’s about pleasing an already hyper-indulged public: pleasing them so much, and so consistently that (in the absence of government leadership) they choose to keep the car, computer or can-opener, rather than renew.
That’s big. We are hardwired to novelty, so the shift away is as much spiritual as material. As Alvin Toffler pointed out all those years ago, our relationship with the world of stuff has become promiscuous, with myriad forces – from speculative development to pandemic affluenza to hot-desking – conspiring to loosen our grip. The more stuff we have, the less well we connect.
The job of design, then, is major. We all need to get interested and get picky – really downright mean and pernickety – about what is worth buying and worth having in our lives.
Scattergun promiscuity has its temptations but a self-thing relationship that is sustaining, as well as sustainable, demands more enduring qualities like warmth, texture, authenticity, the nameless quality that is “improves with age” and even, dare we speak its name, beauty.