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« Richard Gregory | Main | Marginal Revolution »

December 04, 2003


Dear Friedrich --

A confession of ignorance and bewilderment: Are you as puzzled by the existence of this thing called "Design" as I am? And by "Design" I don't mean the fact that there's a guy or gal somewhere who's in charge of making the product look good. I mean "Design" in a kind of abstract sense. In a "Hey, let's go to the museum store and buy some Design!" sense.

When you buy Design, you aren't buying a functional something that has some aesthetic appeal. No, you're buying aesthetics, with some vestigial function attached. Usually, of course, what winds up getting purchased is a carrot-peeler with a big, sleek translucent handle; or a big, sleek, translucent wall clock that's hard to read; or an umbrella decorated in big, sleek, color-theory 101 colors. You'll never actually use any of them.

"Design," in other words, seems to mean -- 90% of the time, anyway -- the kind of genteel, cautious modernism that's what's typically featured in the Home or Living sections of many newspapers.

So, can we conclude that "Design" is another arm of the Great Modernist Conspiracy to Shove a Lot of Awful Stuff Down Everyone's Throats? (And after all these years of being excessively polite to modernism, I've decided that I'm happy viewing modernism as a conspiracy if you are.) If so, I want to know more about it. When and where did this "Design" thing start? Who can we complain to about it? How has it managed to survive at all? And what can be done to hasten its demise?

Here's the website for -- shudder! -- the Museum of Modern Art's Design Store, where many sleek, translucent, almost-functional things can be bought.



posted by Michael at December 4, 2003


Isn't it amazing how quickly people scarf up the latest design? They look at the things that were popular a decade earlier and think, "how tacky! I can't believe I ever liked that," and apparently it never occurs to them that the stuff they're buying now will be tacky a few years from now. Or maybe they just don't care. You can always buy new stuff. I guess that's what keeps the economy going.

Posted by: Lynn S on December 4, 2003 5:54 PM

Great Modernist Conspiracy to Shove a Lot of Awful Stuff Down Everyone's Throats

This is a tangential point, but am I the only one who gets annoyed by the phrase "shoved down our throats"? It's okay if applied to, say, a tax, but generally it could be replaced with something like "caused us to look at", or "gave us access to". It always pops up in the debates about people putting their religious beliefs in the public square, or people displaying offensive artwork. Why go to such a fevered extreme in using a metaphor for it?

Whenever I hear that phrase I immediately stop paying attention to the person's opinion, kind of like "jackbooted thugs", or "self-styled elites".

Posted by: Cryptic Ned on December 4, 2003 7:06 PM

Hey I wouldn't worry about it too much. In the classic words of Stewart Brand, it's good for people to "try stuff" even if a lot of it doesn't work. The sort of personal, private objects sold by the MOMAS Store seem harmless if frivolous.

Of course as soon as I wrote the paragraph above I also realized that MOMA is in a position of tremendous authority and for it to further mindless Muschampian frivolity at a time when the world needs people to focus on "what works" -- well. I can understand why your post would have a touch of what-shall-one-call-it? "fevered enthusiasm"?

Indeed, when I look through the books sold on-line by the MOMA Store, I have to blanche. I look in the section about which I pretend to have some knowledge: "Architecture and Design." And do I find even one token book by a solid thinker like Jane Jacobs or Duany/Plater-Zyberk? Not quite. I find books which won't last a year, books with blurbs like "This title presents six series of highly inventive drawings created between 1972 and 1988 by Rem Koolhaas and Elia Zenghelis, Peter Eisenman, Bernard Tschumi, Daniel Libeskind, and Thom Mayne-young architects who went on to establish major international reputations. In the early 1970s, a sluggish world economy had all but curtailed new building, moving the most talented architects into an academic environment. Encountering a turbulent intellectual scene there, they used graphic experimentation as a primary means of researching the connections between architecture, philosophy, film, and contemporary culture. The stage was thus set for an eruption of "paper architecture" of incomparable beauty, brilliance, and depth."


Posted by: David Sucher on December 4, 2003 10:54 PM

I'm certainly willing to consider modernism a conspiracy, at least after around 1920 or so when it began to be institutionalized. Maybe that's the real key to modernism's (ultimate) success: it fits in so well with the institutional mind.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on December 5, 2003 1:09 AM

In my opinion the best use of modernism is in commercials poking fun at it. As in a commercial for a travel site where a young lady fantasises about her parents staying at a modernist hotel.:)

Posted by: Alan Kellogg on December 5, 2003 8:36 AM

The new emphasis on "Design" in culture (see Virginia Postrel's book about it, in which she defends the position that "If I like it, it's good") came about, I think, with the rise of advertising and marketing culture in the 1920s -- around the same time as modernism, perhaps associated with it, but not the same thing. It is instead a triumph of appearance over reality, of form over function, style over substance, for it's easier to look than to think. And, in a materialist world and from a materialist mindset, what greater good than owning some material that we are told is groundbreaking, earthshattering, innovative? Even though (perhaps especially if) it's uncomfortable, shabby, unworkable.

Posted by: George Hunka on December 5, 2003 11:51 AM

Lynn -- So true. I know someone in the fashion biz who tells me that people in that world don't consider stuff at the Gap or Banana Republic (where I do 90% of my clothes shopping) to be "fashion." Apparently once a design has proven its worth and become a useful and count-upon-able standard, it stops being "fashion" and is henceforward a mere "commodity." I guess I prefer commodities to fashion, at least where my own rags are concerned.

Cryptic Ned -- So my underhanded, slyly ironic use of a stale phrase didn't charm you?

David -- Really? They weren't seeling even one potentially-useful housing-and-architecture book? That's amazing. What do you suppose the official-modernist world has against the idea of "utility"? Thanks for alerting me to the screwy link to the MOMA store, by the way. I've fixed it now.

FvB -- I wonder if you went thru the same cycle as I did where Tom Wolfe's art and archtiecture books are concerned. Early, naive response: "Wow, this is incredible, it's all so true." Been around a little response: "Oh, it's amusing, but it's a cartoon. He doesn't really get the subtleties." Been around too long response: "No, he's actually right on the money. He's being impish and provocative, but he's absolutely right about everythying."

Alan -- Modernism: good for a joke. I wish more people were unembarrassed about having that attitude. I like some art modernism (as opposed to political modernism) myself. But I can never believe that anyone would ever think of the taste for modernist things as anything but a little peculiar.

George -- Fascinating info, thanks. MOMA's ability to commodify itself is something I'm awed by. Again: the success of art-modernism, given how many people dislike it, is something to be reckoned with. I'd love to see more people try to make some sense of it.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on December 5, 2003 1:25 PM

For a lovely example, check out the sinks (sinks!) in today's (Friday) Wall Street Journal's weekend section. There are transparent aquarium- like sinks, bronze ones that have t be dried every time you use them, ones with flat tops embedded in them so you can't fill them, and more, and worse. One is described that changes color at different temperatures-- the designers say it is "therapeutic".

Posted by: Steve Bodio on December 5, 2003 7:39 PM

Color Changing Sinks

Those would be useful. Especially for people with infants and toddlers. Develop an eye for the shade associated with the right temperature to bathe the child and your chance of harming the kid would decrease. Maybe a tub or sink set to turn from one color to another when the right temperature is reached.

There's an old truism in the RPG community; no matter what you give the players, sooner or later they'll find a use for it.:)

Posted by: Alan Kellogg on December 5, 2003 10:27 PM

Just thought of something.

Take the flat sinks, give them a shallow slope and a drain capable of handling the flow. Could be used when cutting food to help clean off the cutting surface.

(Told you we're creative.:))

Posted by: Alan Kellogg on December 5, 2003 10:29 PM

I think I may be living in the past, but when I looked at the store for the MOMA website most of the stuff for sale looks like the stuff they sell at Target in the housewares section. Ugly and non-functional.

Posted by: Deb on December 6, 2003 11:03 AM

Alan, any mother of toddlers or infants will tell you that the last thing they need is another gadget to take care of when the old "elbow in the water" technique works fine every time.

Posted by: Deb on December 6, 2003 11:09 AM

Deb -- Or, as a friend of mine said when she looked at what was on sale at Armani's discount (ie, clothes for real people) store: "Why don't you just go to the Gap instead, and then give them twice as much money as they're asking for?"

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on December 6, 2003 11:40 AM

Deb, you've never been a harried mother, have you?

I can see some moms enjoying the convenience a color changing tub or sink provides them.

"Green is keen. Red means dead. Don't overheat the bathwater."

Posted by: Alan Kellogg on December 8, 2003 1:33 AM

Now that I remember it: What gadget?

The tub changes color. No gadget to consult, simply check the color of the tub.

"Green is keen. Red means dead. Don't overheat the bathwater."

Posted by: Alan Kellogg on December 8, 2003 1:35 AM

Alan Alan Alan,

You've never been a harried mother, have you? and you've never been a teeny bopper wearing a mood ring which stops showing your mood after a couple weeks and just stays one color.

I had two kids in 3 years while working a 70 hour a week job to support my husband who was getting a Masters in engineering while he renovated the old beater house we bought. Oh, and the first one had colic and rampant ear infections for 6 months which meant I didnt sleep a night thru the entire time. Harried isnt the word I'd use. Bone tired almost to the point of hallucinating was more like it.

You put towels down in the tub or sink to make sure the kid doesnt conk it's little noggin on the edges- precipitating a visit from the friendly social worker- if it does a flip and gets away from you while it's slippery with soap. Towels also give the kiddies bum a soft place to sit/lie upon. They also COVER the sink so you really dont know what color the thing is.

I will concede the gadget remark, however. ;o)

Posted by: Deb on December 8, 2003 9:17 AM

Wiggly little beasts, aint they?:)

In any case, you make the sink out of better material than those cheap ass mood rings. You also don't keep warm water in it all the time. Besides, if you're too frayed to catch the meaning of the color, why would you be collected enough to use the 'elbow in the water' trick?

Worst comes to worst, try a sponge bath.

Posted by: Alan Kellogg on December 9, 2003 12:05 AM

OkOkOkOk I will concede that it MAY be a good thing for frazzled mothers but only if it comes with a hose attachment like kitchen sinks do so if the kid really slimes it's diapers badly you can bend it's backside over the edge and hose it off. A built in disinfecting agent would be nice then too so you dont have to bleach the sink after.

And they are wiggle little critters. ;o)

Posted by: Deb on December 9, 2003 8:48 AM

Modern design is too formulated,too rational,too cold,too clinical,too UGLY,too angular,too sleek,too masculine,too bloody shiny.If anything it overides beauty in favour of innovation.Im a bit of an antiquary sometimes ,but I think modern design truly lacks soul.

Posted by: I came I Saw on April 6, 2004 6:54 AM

Now more than ever Im convinced Michael Stripe (and REM) is a very very smart and sensitive human being.

Posted by: FREE PORN on May 29, 2004 7:11 PM

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