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This page is a part of Jan Michl's design research website
The following polemical text,
here with minor stylistic reformulations,
was presented as a keynote speech at the Conference of CUMULUS
(International Association of Universities and Colleges of Art, Design, and Media)
in Bratislava, Slovakia, on October 12, 2007
An expanded version of the text below, with extensive footnotes & bibliographical references, can be found here.
Am I just seeing things - or is
still in place?
By Jan MICHL
design sofas There is no doubt that the modernist visual idiom in architecture and design has been a spectacular success - so much so in fact, that the very word design has become a style word. Design sofas, design fireplaces, design apartments, design boutiques, and many other design-branded things, obviously refer to a definite style. This definite style is the minimalist aesthetic the public has come to associate with modernism. But the identification of the word design with a particular stylistic idiom is not only a sign of the success of this idiom, but also, at least to my understanding, a sign of a major problem. And I see the problem located at design schools.
3D north Let me add that this talk relates mainly to the world of three-dimensional design, and not so much to graphic design or textile design where the situation has always been different. And: although I have in mind European design schools in general, I am aware I may be speaking from a limited North European perspective. So please judge for yourself the validity of what follows, in your own context.
not able - not willing Now the magisterial position of the modernist visual idiom, and the mentioned identification of the term design with a definite style, are obviously related to another fact, hardly ever mentioned in explaining the present modernist dominance. It is a fact that in the past 50 years or so design schools have produced almost exclusively designers trained in only the modernist idiom. Training students in one idiom only has led to practicing one idiom only as well. So the omnipresence of the modernist aesthetic should be explained not only by reference to the fact that it is simply an aesthetic fit for many contexts. A lot is explained also by the fact that the absolute majority of schooled designers and architects that graduated from the modernist design schools in the past 50 years has been neither able nor willing to design in any of the other stylistic idiom, practiced during the same period.
other approaches in demand What am I saying? Other stylistic idioms? I suppose you would object that things like present day versions of stylistic historicisms, anthropomorphic, zoomorphic, and other kinds of figurative design, as well as various decorative and ornamental schemes, are no more than fringe phenomena, not worth taking seriously. And you would probably also say why they are not worth taking seriously: because the modernist aesthetic simply represents the proper aesthetic idiom of the modern age, the authentic style pertaining to the modern epoch. Therefore - you might continue - it is supremely right to teach only this one proper idiom. Such answers would at any rate express the unspoken understanding of the status of the modernist idiom at design schools today.
yes: pluralism Nevertheless, whether we like it or not, we have been living at least since the beginning of the 19th century in a situation of stylistic pluralism. Many products around us can remind us that things dressed in non-modernists styles are still very popular and that they never really disappeared. In the 20th century these non-modernist styles have existed alongside the modernist aesthetic for one simple reason: there has always been demand for them. And they have always been in demand because they have given pleasure to many people. We may deplore the fact, but that does not make it go away.
inferior vs. superior But even if some of you would acknowledge the fact of demand and popularity of various non-modernist stylistic idioms, you would probably point out that examples of those idioms, as embodied in concrete products, are mostly much worse than the majority of modernist objects. And it is true. This has to be conceded. But does it mean that it is a sign of inferiority of these non-modernist idioms as such? Why are we surprised by the often low aesthetic quality of these examples, when hardly any school offers instructions to those who would like to meet that kind of demand and design in any of these idioms? As a consequence, those who practice the non-modernist visual design are usually not schooled designers, and this mostly shows. Educated designers come as a rule out of schools without practical knowledge of any non-modernist visual idioms, armed in addition with strong bias against practicing that kind of design. Extremely few of them are able to overcome the prejudice, knowing they would have to risk subsequent ostracism of the designer community.
why only one? Once you start thinking of it, it is certainly odd, that design schools have largely ignored the full scope of aesthetic demands in their societies and that only one particular type of aesthetic, to the exclusions of all others, is chosen to be imparted. Why this apartheid-like approach to design training? To limit the scope of instruction to one aesthetic idiom would be surely less surprising, and more understandable, in private design schools, which naturally follow aesthetic orientations of their owners. But our schools are state-run public institutions, financed via taxes exacted from all citizens - not only from modernist buffs. So one would expect that being state schools, they would feel obliged to cater not only for the style popular with designers and architects themselves, but also for other categories of existing stylistic and taste preferences that are popular with the people that do not happen to be designers or architects, or design historians or art critics. This is, however, not the case. I would therefore argue that design schools have for years failed to do their job properly. I believe we keep letting down vast numbers of ordinary people, who live outside our ghetto-like art world. And I believe that we should do something about this. But hardly anything can be done without first understanding the reasons for this strange situation.
new time insists on new style The dominant reason for this state of affairs is plainly ideological: majority of present day design schools still seem to be in the grip of a hundred years old modernist vision of one true, all-embracing, authentic, historically necessary, modern style. One hundred years ago modernists argued that in contrast to previous epochs where each epoch had produced its own typical stylistic idiom (Classicism and Gothic would be the chief examples), the present modern time, so enormously different from all previous epochs, has failed to bring about a modern style of its own. Instead, they argued, there is only a chaos of styles based on recycling either Western or exotic historical architecture and design. This was seen by modernists as a disruption which called for healing procedures. They took it upon themselves to bring about the absent aesthetic unity they argued the modern epoch was missing.
backward-looking nostalgia Now, please note how strikingly backward-looking this modernist vision is. Modernists demanded that the modern epoch has the same stylistic unity as the pre-industrial historical epochs - that is epochs, where the aesthetic wholeness was a result of narrow groups of rich and powerful people in the position of decision makers in things aesthetic. The modernist architects and designers were fascinated by forms and shapes of the brand new industrial means of production, but they seemed to have no eyes for the pluralist ends these new industrial constructions and new machines were devised to serve. For the really new, the really modern fact was that, mainly due to the rising standard of living, many more people than before, both the expanding bourgeoisie and the growing working classes - not only the rich and powerful - started now to have an aesthetic say in how things looked. Users themselves rejoiced, feeling this was simply wonderful. But a slowly growing number of architects, designers and art people considered this alarming. This eventually resulted in the designer-led efforts known as modernism, to put an end to the pluralist development. The backward-looking, nostalgic fascination with aesthetic unity of previous historical epochs caused the modernist proponents to miss completely the really new and truly modern in the Industrial Revolution - namely the dawn of a radical diversity of lifestyles and of pluralism of aesthetic styles, vogues and trends that was going with it.
no backsliding Let me mention two characteristic features of the new one-style-only design pedagogy, modeled on the 1920s' Bauhaus and instituted after the Second World War. The aim of these two features was to sustain and reinforce the belief in one, true, and only moral visual language of the modern epoch, and to prevent backsliding.
only one truth The first feature was that students, to begin with always open-minded about the stylistic pluralism around themselves, were gradually conditioned to respect only one taste culture. It was the culture identical with the less-is-more aesthetic preferences of their teachers, as this aesthetic allegedly represented the aesthetic truth of the epoch. At the same time, students were induced to see the current non-modernist styles in contemporary use as ridiculous and even morally repugnant.
subverted by market The second feature, which characterizes the atmosphere at design schools to the present day, is the so called critical attitude to the capitalist free market economy. Although many aspects of the market economy invite legitimate criticism, the wholesale modernist cultivation of a negative rather than positive aspects of the market seems to be mainly self-serving. Market economy - by empowering not only tastes of the richest and most powerful in a society, but practically all taste cultures, including those who do not share the minimalist orientation - kept undermining the modernist project of a single style of the epoch. The market can be seen as a ballot, or a referendum, about what is at any time in demand, based on consumer responses to the creative experiments of business. Modernists wanted to do away with this ballot system, because it kept providing mainly the non-modernist idioms, at the expense of their own, new, allegedly historically necessary less-is-more style. This negative view of the market mechanisms probably also explains why a great number of pre-World War II modernists were strongly attracted to socialism. As socialism promised to abolish the market forces, in the modernist eyes it represented high hopes for their vision of one all-embracing, authentic style of the epoch.
three measures All this, one-style-only pedagogy, the moral concept of design as truth, as well as rejection of the market, were measures devised to bring about the modernist aim: the unified style of the new epoch. Or, to put it from the skeptical perspective of this talk: to achieve a simulation of aesthetic unity, in face of the epoch's unredeemable stylistic diversity.
design theory or pep talk? We are now in a situation where the modernist aesthetic is firmly established. There is no doubt, that this new, fresh, non-historicist, matter-of-fact, naked-like stylistic idiom, developed in the 1920s on the achievements of post-cubist abstract painters and sculptors, has truly enriched the stylistic means at hand for the modern designer and architect. But the idiom has been successful not because it was a historically necessary style bound to replace all other styles. It has been a success because there was indeed a room for such an elementarist kind of aesthetic, until then largely missing among the earlier, established visual sign of status, prestige and wealth. Now that there is no longer any need to defend the survival of the modernist idiom, we ought to see the modernist ideology for what it was: a set of arguments, aimed, to begin with, at dynamiting the established historicist positions, and, later, at marketing the strikingly new visual idioms. As far as the nature of design is concerned, the key modernist claims that the new epochs demand its own historically predestined aesthetic expression or that functions contain their own preordained aesthetic solutions (as the form-follows-function slogan asserted), such claims can be said to be entirely empty. They were hardly more than a pep talk.
permanent attraction If the above diagnosis is correct, why is the majority of design schools still attached to their stylistic apartheid regime? This, paradoxically, has probably to do with the emptiness of those claims. The modernist designer, in embracing the modern epoch, received in exchange a carte blanche - a blank check, signed by History itself, but with nothing written on it. It was up to the designer to do the filling in. Thinking about design in terms of art epochs implicitly amounted to redefining the traditional notion of design. What was earlier considered a heteronomous activity was now seen as an autonomous one. What was earlier done for the sake of markets, clients, buyers, users, was now to be done for its own sake. In other words, modernism invited designers to act as autonomous artists. This historically unique invitation to the designer to do his own modernist things, undisturbed by the allegedly passé demands of the market, seems to be the lasting attraction of the modernist ideology.
maladapted The main reason for why it is important explicitly to give up idea of only one valid stylistic idiom, as well as with the notion of design as an autonomous activity, is simply that both ideas make design schools maladapted to the reality outside these institutions. And what is worse, they produce maladapted students. While we live in an increasingly rich, diverse and pluralist society, design schools keep offering only a one-size-fits-all visual idiom. Although highly refined as an aesthetic, to most people this idiom seems to be able to communicate our present day wealth - wealth in the broad sense of that term - in only one manner: through sophisticated signs of fictitious poverty. In addition, whenever the designer sees his idiom as truth, rather than as a stylistic convention, the result tends to be free for any traces of humor. As schools refuse to teach, cultivate, refine and fine-tune any non-modernist aesthetic strategies, in addition the modernist idiom, the monopoly of the modernist idiom seems to make only one kind of innovative steps legitimate, both for design students and practicing designers: to move further away from the heteronomy, towards more and more autonomy, i.e. further towards fine art, appealing more and more to art insiders only. If such a direction looks like a cul de sac to you, where else to put the blame than at the door of design schools? I believe strongly we do our students a great disservice by continuing to condition them to make light of the non-modernist stylistic idioms in use today, instead of teaching respect, appreciation and ability to tackle these other idioms as well.
possibilities I am convinced that we can fairly easily teach students to exchange the illusory moral gratification of pleasing History, for a non-modernist moral satisfaction of pleasing consumers and users through making their preferred aesthetic idioms richer, more refined, more inventive, more stylish, more up to date, i.e. more satisfactory. The possibilities are vast, but they are left almost entirely undiscovered, because hardly anybody has seriously given them a try.
market creativity We should go beyond ritualized critiques of the capitalist society, and conventionalized attacks on the consumer culture, and also beyond limiting the notion of creativity to the art world, and a private, personal, exclusively individual dimension. This may open for discovering, understanding and appreciating the enormous inventiveness of the free market organization, and the fact that creative designers are in reality riding on the back of a larger arrangement enabling their individual creative contributions to materialize. There is in other words a case for not only criticizing but also for admiring the capitalist organization of production, and the consumer society which gave birth to the design profession, without which it would hardly have come about, and without which visual design would be often considered an unnecessary waste of money - as it tended to be in the pre-1990 socialist alternatives to capitalism.
wasteless society? I believe that ditching the modernist ideology is central also for the all-important contemporary focus on the environmental impact of design. Modernists, just as many earlier utopists, seem to have gone in for the possibility of a wasteless society. This is suggested by their belief that there is an intrinsic aesthetic expression pertaining to the new epoch, and that there are innate forms reserved for every function. Choosing the foreordained, intrinsically right solutions, they would say, means avoiding mistakes, and avoiding mistakes means avoiding waste, including the wasteful irrationality of fashions. We should in my opinion start from an opposite thesis: that it is impossible to eliminate waste, and that the notion of a wasteless society is a dangerous delusion - but that it is all the same possible to limit the harmful effects of waste through clearer awareness of the unintended consequences of the solutions designers choose from among endless number of possibilities. The wealth of societies, both within and outside the Western culture, is all the time slowly on the rise, and there is no doubt that more and more goods will be produced, with potentially dire environmental consequences. Therefore a highly realistic, non-modernist, non-utopian view of waste is imperative.
kicking an open door? I admit that nobody really promotes the modernist ideology any longer. Two decades ago we had post-modernism - which even attempted to replace modernism altogether. Very many writes, critics and designers have in the past decades pointed out many problems with modernism. As a consequence, reality has made inroads into the practice of design schools. We speak about product semantics, emotional design and products telling stories, and we teach students the marketing aspects of design. All this can be seen as signs of a departure from the previous monopolist modernism. But still: design semantics is mostly limited to the modernist abstract aesthetic, as if the world of forms commenced with the Bauhaus. Emotional design is often discussed as if non-modern and pre-modern design never existed. Marketing courses run in parallel with standard platitudes about the consumer society still at home in other courses. The schools still largely keep to their one-style-fits-all modernist idea. And one still feels that those users who want new things, but prefer non-modernist or pre-modernist forms, still have the same status as homosexuals had 50 years ago: if not completely ignored they are considered queer, and probably in need of reeducation. The modernist design ideology, now fully internalized, is still quietly humming in the background.
modernism pre-modern Let me round up: Things will probably truly change only when we have understood that our inherited picture of modernism in general and of functionalism in particular is almost entirely wrong: that modernism was not about modernity, and functionalism was not about functioning. On the contrary: modernists rejected the very heart of modernity: its diversity, its individualism and its pluralism, while functionalists were consumed by their formalist desires. We should understand that in their thinking modernists and functionalists were distinctly pre-pluralist, pre-tolerant - and in many ways pre-modern.
historicist method We have to understand as well, that the claimed radical distinction between the historicist and modernist approach to the design process never really materialized. Modernists, for all their novel forms, never came with any new design method. In an important sense they worked exactly as their historicist predecessors before them did - always starting from yesterday's solutions.
embracing pluralism We should then see, and teach also our students to see, the modernist aesthetic for what it all the time has been: namely a strikingly novel, creative contribution to the stylistic pluralism of this age. It is the fact of this pluralism - not just its latest manifestation - that design schools should embrace. Embracing pluralism would abolish the only thing wrong with the modernist aesthetic - namely its apartheid ambition. This would finally open for modern - as against modernist - design schools.
to Trygve Ask; Kjetil Fallan; Carsten Loly; Regina Loukotová;
Ole Lund; Jiří Pelcl; Martin Roubík; Astrid Skjerven; and Artemis Yagou
for their valuable critical comments to the first draft of the manuscript,
provided on a very short notice.
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