A modest new year: is it design, or is it me?

January 8, 2010 by
Filed under: Education Matters 

I’m puzzled by Design Week’s Sounding Off column, which opens by asking, “with its iconic landmarks, transport design heritage and the Olympics, London is crying out for branding”. Crying out for branding? What exactly is this supposed to mean? That London has no identity, is obscure, presents no image in the global mind? I don’t think so. Or that London simply has so much identity that it would be a shame not to pack it all up into one magnificent hyper-cipher? This headline seriously made me wonder if branding has run its contempoary semantic course.

I was recently asked to contribute to a journal with the theme of modesty. It immediately struck me as ironic that the clichés of design are all about modesty. The notions that less is more, that ornament is crime and that the designer is properly attired in clerical black and unflattering spectacles, all speak of restraint; of denying the base allure of decoration, functional superfluity and symbolic freight. Suddenly I began to see modesty and its counterpoints all around.

 First Sebastian Bergne told me that his years at the Royal College in the 1980s represented a contest between anonymous, “modest” service to industry – represented by the then Professor – and the overt personalities of younger practitioners. Welding ready-mades into new industrial bastards, Ron Arad and Tom Dixon now entered the design scene with stories of their own. They were not the first – Tapio Wirkkala is said to have cultivated a man-of-the-woods-look and feel, palpable in his designs as well as persona, in the 1950s – but design’s power to express individual rather than corporate ideas, its subjective immodesty, came full bloom in the design-art phase of recent years and is not over. Bergne fears that today’s students may be confused by competing agendas of personal recognition and collective good, and has invited me to join a conversation on the subject of designers’ proper “motivation” at the Royal College of Art in a couple of weeks, which I look forward to.  

Next a famous designer in his 70s, dismayed by contemporary design’s media circus of celebrity and meretricious formal brinkmanship, told me that everyone’s own work was just a bid for personal recognition, with my own Design & Society programme a particularly vain and “political” example (thanks a lot). As well as being fundamentally misanthropic, his insight struck me as truistic, for how do we distinguish between the common human need to accomplish a task well and an ego-trip? Any designer, any creative person, is asked to risk contributing what they uniquely have to a task, rather than to execute some established procedural moves. Modesty in design might be construed as a convincing attempt to put the advancement of design before the advancement of a personal reputation; convincing rather than measurably successful, perhaps.

Obviously that’s what I think I’ve been up to, but let us rather consider Konstantin Grcic’s Design Real exhibition at the Serpentine. He has striven with the utmost rigour and austerity to produce a statement not about himself but about design, with a simple and optimistic ambition “to evoke the fascinating complexity of today’s world”. In doing so, at least one person said he’s produced a portrait of himself.