Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The Role of the Handicraft in Mass-Production

Can pieces that are mass-produced ever hold the same value as something of which only one exists? Consumer culture has long played upon the notion that the fewer the number of a product available, the higher the perceived value of that product. For this reason, many manufacturers will only roll a small number of their goods off of the assembly lines, to keep the demand high and to sell them at a premium price. This commonly agreed-upon theory treks into unsure territory when the product at hand is a piece of art. The following three artists put their hands to the test to challenge this very idea – Charlotte Perriand, Cipe Pineles, and Hella Jongerius. The three each lived in separate eras, practiced in different media, and yet all grappled with the inherently oppositional issues of mass-production and consumerism in their daily practice.

Upon her graduation from the Ecole de l’Union Centrale des Arts Decoratifs, Perriand was dead-set in her intentions to create her own furniture, playing by her own rules. When she realized that none of the artesanal furniture shops in her French hometown were willing to break the mold of traditional furniture-making techniques, Perriand threatened to cast aside furniture design as a profession completely and began to study agriculture instead. She eventually finding solace in the architecture firm led by famed architect Le Corbusier. Le Corbusier had already established a hardened set of objectives that he demanded from the furniture he allowed to grace his building designs, but Perriand refused to conform completely to these ideas. She felt that furniture deserved a stronger role in the life of a building. It wasn’t merely a placeholder to clarify how a room is to be used, as Le Corbusier’s furniture had been used in the past. To Perriand, the furniture could, and perhaps should, be a focal point in its own right. And, thus, she went on to design several lines of tables and seating that utilized the materials of the machine age aesthetic – mostly chromium-plated tubular steel, leather and glass – and merged them with her own deep understanding of how humans would interact with the furniture. She raised the expectations of furniture as an element of forward-thinking design, and, as a result, was heralded by Europeans as the well-to-do bought up her pieces.

Ironically, Perriand’s furniture was almost always photographed for advertising purposes in the singular. The singularity of the furniture in the advertising pieces allowed the viewer to take in the delicate features of the piece and to revel in its intricate attention to detail. In practice, however, most of Perriand’s furniture was used in large groupings, as in a set of eight chairs at a dining room table, or a row of multiple barstools in a café. This was the truth of how her pieces were used, typically in bulk arrangements, and it naturally took away from the intimate relationship that the owners had with each individual piece. There is a strong dichotomy in the way that Perriand designed her furniture – to be reveled in its uniqueness as a singular piece – versus the reality that her furniture was mass-produced and used in large quantities.

Custom furniture, it could be argued, is inherently designed to be prepared in small quantities, and may well raise an eyebrow when it is sold en masse. In mediums that are intended for mass production, such as postage stamp design or textile design, there are separate challenges that must be addressed. Take the case of graphic designer and magazine editor Cipe Pineles, for example. She can be credited with creating the format for the modern magazine layout as we know it today. She took women’s magazines produced during the 1930s and -40s and transformed them into cohesive, multi-page works of art that told a story through a marriage of text and image – generally one of the woman’s world outside of the home.

Pineles never intended for her work to be framed and hung on the wall. It was designed from the forefront to be printed by the hundreds, maybe thousands, spit through the presses and shipped off to bookstores and check-out lanes across the country, where young women of all walks of life could pick up a copy of Glamour or Vogue or Seventeen magazine and be inspired.
The fact that her work was reproduced in numerous quantities here does not change its value in the same was as in the Perriand case, based solely on the nature of the media. Magazine design is quite different from furniture design. While a once-popular magazine may become a collectors’ item once only a handful are left, a magazine that only affords to print a few issues is sometimes also deemed relatively worthless. From Pineles’s example, it becomes clear that the basic nature of the medium must be considered in determining the value based on its quantity of reproduction.

A closer look into Pineles’s past, however, reveals that she began her artistic training as a highly skilled watercolorist. During her studies at Pratt, she was revered as one of the best watercolorists the school had ever turned out. She went on to participate in painting residencies and to host several exhibitions of her watercolor works. But when it came time to get a ‘real career’, she gave in to the demands of consumer culture and found her niche in an industry that catered to art that could be rapidly reproduced. She more or less abandoned her watercolor talents, inserting them into her works only infrequently, and instead adopted the cut-and-paste techniques using photographs and mechanically-reproduced typeface. While Pineles’s skillful eye is clearly at work in her magazine layouts, her skillful hand is reduced to a rare appearance.

Lastly, let us consider the work of Hella Jongerius. Jongerius is a designer who is difficult to categorize neatly, for she is constantly adopting a new medium. She’s been proven successful in ceramics, textiles, furniture, etc., generally staying true to her theme of producing items for the home.

Jongerius began by designing home furnishings and art installations with the intention that they be mere singular pieces, never to be reproduced. They were made to be displayed temporarily in a museum or two, at which point she would then go on to create her next round. By now, however, Jongerius has been practicing on her own and with her self-directed team for several years, and she too is beginning to consider the role of her pieces in the mass market. Unlike Pineles’s magazine layout design, and perhaps to a lesser extent, also unlike Perriand’s furniture, Jongerius’s installations were intended to be singular, highly detailed works. They were designed to challenge the viewer or user on an intimate level, leading them to think twice about the nature of the materials being used. Jongerius would be the first to admit that her work is perverse. One minute she is reinforcing expectations, only to pull the rug from under our feet the next. These conflicting impulses reflect her ambivalent attitude toward the design world and what she calls “this whole marketing shit.”

But even Jongerius has found herself trying to find her own place in the world of consumerism. She recently has been teaming up with companies that manufacture popular lines of art pieces to create her own works that will be mass-produced through their companies. In interviews, she has said that she’s never entirely sure if her pieces will survive on the mass-market. “I want to explore whether my ideas will stay alive if I’m designing for a larger market. Maybe people will be disappointed, or maybe I’ll have to accept that I can’t change the world but, for now, that’s what’s triggering me.” In each piece, she struggles to incorporate the quality of the handmade artifact with a design that can be created in large numbers with relative ease and efficiency. Says Jongerius, “The craftmanship comes from the romantic, down-to-earth farm girl in me, and the industrialisation from the metropolitan power woman.”

Jongerius’s work is intentionally meant to question presupposed notions of how things work. She makes vases with holes in them. She designs dinnerware that has large ceramic figurines in the center of the dishes where one’s food would typically go. She’s even made a line of ceramic dishes connected by a string handle. The natural thought is to be able to pick the grouping up by the string, but, hopefully, the viewer will realize before doing this that the dishes will crack or shatter if they collide with each other when the string is raised.

So far, Jongerius has proven to be a success on the mass-market. Her lines of vases for IKEA, as well as her animal-inspired line of dishware for Nymphenburg Porzellan, are both widely popular, catering to consumers on opposite ends of the consumer market. Indeed, Jongerius has proven that her designs can conform to production costs of both the penny-pinching and exorbitant budgets.

Jongerius, as well as any artist moving her pieces to the masses, must consider the possibility that a level of hand-detail may be lost when a machine, especially in the cases where the original piece was hand-made to exactitude, pumps the pieces out. Manufacturing technology has undoubtedly come a long way in the last century or two, but the debate on whether the machine will ever equal the artist is one steeped in ages-old controversy. The Arts and Crafts movement rallied against the social and artistic consequences of ill-considered machine use. They valued hand skills because they expressed the individuality of the worker, the same individuality that the machine would naturally obliterate.

Artists like William Morris, commonly accepted as one of the leading voices of the Arts and Crafts movement, faced a similar battle as those of the aforementioned artists with his own furniture design. Morris’s furniture was based on traditional rural forms and he exemplified his ‘truth to materials’ by staying true to manufacturing his chairs using the rural traditional methods. According to Christopher Crouch in his text Modernism in Art, Design and Architecture, “This use of a pragmatic traditional solution to design, one that emphasized hand labour, sits awkwardly with the industrial world that existed around Morris. However, he was not unaware of this contradiction. . . . The Arts and Crafts designers wanted a mass market, and therein lay their dilemma, for their intention was not to design, as Morris put it, ‘for the swinish luxury of the rich’.” Many of the artists of the Arts and Crafts movement would go on to choose sides. Some accepted that their one-of-a-kind artwork was only to be marketable to the rich, while others accepted that the machine age was too strong a force to fight against and instead made concessions in their designs to accommodate the process of machine reproduction. As a compromise, Morris suggested that, “should the designer be engaged in designing for machine production, then the object should look as mechanical as possible” (2).

This debate has been going on for the past century at least (and much longer if you include Walter Benjamin’s argument that the ancient Greeks dealt with the first methods of reproduction via branding and stamping), and we as designers may have to accept that the debate may never be totally satisfied (1). As art students, our professors, our clients, and even our bosses constantly pull us in opposite directions – to maintain that traditional hand skill, but at the same time to remain abreast of the new technological advances in design software and machinery. Professors like Lorraine Wild, a graphic design professor at Cal Arts, are well-aware of these stresses in the classroom. It seems to be just as confusing to the professors to know what to teach as it is to the students to know what to pay the most attention to. She argues, “The knowledge gained through activities that can be described as tactical, everyday, or simply craft, is powerful and important, and it must form the foundation of a designer’s education and work – it is how we create ideas.” She goes on to explain that there’s a difference between ‘design’ and ‘craft’. According to Wild, ‘craft’ seems to be limited to the making of one-of-a-kind things, whereas ‘design’ is aimed at mass production. By this definition, perhaps the handicraft versus mass-production argument is rooted in a faulty decision to try to merge two contrary practices (3).

Walter Benjamin adds that works of art have always been reproducible. The key factor comes down to the method of reproduction being used. Replicas that are made by the artist or his pupils diffuse the original slightly by removing the element of its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be. Replicas that are made via technical reproduction, according to Benjamin, will always depreciate the actual work of art. Says Benjamin, “One might subsume the eliminated element in the term “aura” and go on to say: that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art” (1).

As a designer trying to find her niche in the art world, I’m tempted to say that one’s level of reliance upon mechanical processes for mass reproduction should be based, at least in part, on the skill of the artist. There are countless technologies available today to help aide the novice create a piece of ‘art’ that rivals the quality of other pieces he has seen. However, the limitations of that technology put up unnecessary barriers to the designer’s creativity. The designer finds him or herself conforming to the rules of the machine rather than working with the materials at hand to find the absolute best design to complete the piece in their imagination. I would say that the vast majority of designers will hold onto these crutch-like technologies to make up for the skills that they are lacking, with the tradeoff being the ability to mass-produce their mediocre designs into a more lucrative product that can reach a larger audience of potential customers. If a designer has enough skill to create singular pieces that can not only stand on their own but also create enough revenue through their intermittent sales, then I would strongly encourage that person to cast aside the technology and to remain true to their traditional skills.

I believe that in my work, I will remain hard-nosed and continue searching for a way to merge the machine with craft. It may be a fruitless search, a search of intrinsic opposites, but to find a solution that could solve this ages-old debate would be well worth the effort. I honestly don’t know if my work could stand on its own in a gallery and bring in a steady income, and so, out of a little uncertainty and a lot of desire for regularity, I will join the masses in relying on technology to make my art an attainable commodity. I will attempt to maintain the highest level of detail possible as well as the natural variation of human error. Perriand, Pineles, and Jongerius have all sought their own ways to grapple with these questions. While we can look at their struggles as they play out over the past century, even when coupled with the in-depth research conducted by Crouch, Wild, and Benjamin, a clear solution is yet to be found. Let the search continue.

[1] Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” 1935.

[2] Crouch, Christopher. Modernism in Art, Design and Architecture. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 1999.

[3] Wild, Lorraine. “The Macramé of Resistance.” Date unknown.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Interative Narrative

The Bidirectional Communication Art

-- The comparison of Interactive Narrative in Animation, Photography, Video Game and Theme Park.

Part One: Introduction:

“An interactive narrative is a time-based representation of character and action in which a reader can affect, choose, or change the plot. The first-, second-, or third- person characters may actually be the reader. Opinion and perspective are inherent. Image is not necessary, but likely.”
----- Brenda Laurel.

Interaction has been recognized for a long time, and widely used in many forms --novels, drama, music, photography, videos, software development, etc. The written novel is a very old interactive narrative, because there is an interaction between the word and the meaning, and between the author and the reader. The author can turn his meaning into words, while the reader translates these symbols into meaning. At the same time, through words, the author transfers his perspective to the reader, then the reader receives it as a new perspective according to his or her own particular world-view. During the process of translation-interpretation, the participation is greatly involved. Software development is also a kind of interactive narrative. A programmer writes code, while the user recognizes these symbols when using the program. Furthermore, the user could act as a secondary writer when inputting information to the system. Because the writer and user both add information to the database, their roles begin to blur. The level of interaction becomes deeper.

In a word, interactive narratives can be found in many fields for a long time. However, there are differences among them, such as in the aspect of plot structure, perspective, time, and participation level. How do writers take advantage of interactive narrative? In this paper I will take three artists (Brenda Laurel, Walt Disney, Man Ray) as research subjects to talk about these.

Part Two: Brenda Laurel

Brenda Laurel is a researcher, designer and entrepreneur in the fields of human-computer interaction. In 1996, she set up a company called “Purple Moon” to create video games and web activities for girls. In the process of producing the game Rockett’s New School, Laurel and her colleagues researched various plot structures for interactive narrative. What follows are three general models:

1. Nodal plot structure:

This plot structure is a series of events interrupted by points of interactivity. The advantage of this structure is that it allows a very strong back-story with a beginning/ending and clear character development. The disadvantage is that the user can’t change the development of the story but they can change some details of the story.

From Pause and Effect, by Mark Stephen Meadows

2, Modulated plot structure:

Compared with the Nodal structure, this structure also has a clear development of the characters, even though it has more participation from the users. The user has the freedom to choose a straight line to avoid interaction, or to make a more leisurely route and increase the participation level, but takes a risk being a lesser dramatic arc. Therefore, the decision making of the user can alternate the development of the story.

From Pause and Effect, by Mark Stephen Meadows

3, Open plots structure:

In this structure, the story relies on the decision making of the readers. So the dramatic arc is abandoned for the interest of exploration and investment. There are no specific entry points and the reader can choose wherever he/she wants to end the story. In an open plot structure, what the reader really appreciates is not the ending, but the journey.

From Pause and Effect, by Mark Stephen Meadows

In regard to plot structure, the game Rockett’s New School of Purple Moon Company adopted the Modulated Structure. It has several alternative routes of nonlinear narrative with the same beginning and ending of the game. At the beginning, the main character Rockett begins her day meeting Jessie. The choices the player makes from here determine which story line is chosen. But all story lines end with the advice from her best friend Meg. This is a typical framework of Modulated structure. The whole structure has clear back-stories and characters developments. And player can partially alternate the development of the game by decision-making.

From the aspect of using points of view, this game not only provides a first-person’s camera like many others, but also a third-person view. The later one allows a sense of depth and background that is hard to achieve from a first-person camera.

Compared with traditional story, this game has different notion of time because of human decisions. User can carry his or her own sense of time. So they can determine speed, pacing, suspense and the order of sequential action by decision-making. In this kind of game, time can be seen as a spatial arrangement of decisions and that it can be jump back and forth along the line of the plot structure.

As for the participation level, the degree of interaction in this game is low, because the influences of the designer in this game are excessive. They “force” users to spend time doing things they may not otherwise choose. Such as, to get to the next level, you have to perform some simple function or you have to repeat a single function within a prescribed error margin. In other words, the designers of this game try to conduct the players onto the expected step at the expected time.

However, the goal of an interactive narrative is not to conduct the reader, but to provide a context, in which the narrative can be discovered and investigated by the readers. Therefore, “the designers and authors of interactive narrative are far more like architects rather than writers. The visitor is allowed to roam freely, explore, investigate, and make changes in the environment.” -- Mark Stephen Meadows.

As Doug Church, one of the most respected game designers in the US, puts it:
“Those of us doing immersive simulation strive to make the game the player’s not the designer’s. While we, as designers, are clearly creating the environment and rules, we hope to allow the player to act, plan, and decide.
There is nothing wrong with games which decide to place the designer center stage, and task the players with ‘discovering’ the will of the author. However, I believe that if we acquire the knowledge on how to effectively involve the players, we can create more satisfying experiences. A work in which the player must figure out how to turn the prewritten pages can be fun, but one which the player writes the pages seems far more likely to be transformative.”

Part Three: Walt Disney

1, Disney’s animation

As a film producer and animator, Walt Disney’s success greatly relies on public resonance. This is because Disney's stories came from the commoners, met the popular taste, and most importantly, his animations shaped the American cultures. Therefore, Disney’s animation might be thought of as a piece of a larger interactive narrative.

For instance, the Great Depression hit America in the 1930s, and during this period of time, Disney produced the animation Pinoccio(1940) with the idea of sentimental populism. This animation emphasizes the dignity of the little guy, and the nobility of his struggle for survival against powerful forces in a hostile world. This spirit was fully presented at the beginning of the animation. (The camera roams around Geppetto's shop "Once upon a time there lived- not a princess- not a prince-not a king-but a little old man named Geppetto.) This story greatly strikes a chord with general audiences who suffered from pressing social circumstances in the Great Depression. The same plot in their own life let them better understand the story, and let them blend their own emotion and personal experience into the animation. Therefore the audiences play an active role in constructing the story.

The second reason why the story appeals to the public is because the conflicts Disney usually chooses tend to be something universal, such as fear, struggle, love and desire. It is the relationship of the personal to the universal that makes such issues so touching for the audience. Snow White is a good example. For the audience, this charming story of virtue, kindness, and honest labor can let them forget wars, crime, and economic strife in a modern world. “It is a good experience for men to laugh together over something sweet and innocent and clean.”-- The Magic Kingdom, by Steven Watts.

2, Watching Eperience

The above quote by Steven Watts leads to another form of interactions represented in Disney’s animation. Watching Disney’s animations with many others provides a whole new experience than watching them alone. In a theater, audiences easily manipulated if the atmosphere is well developed. As the climax reaches in the animation, music or a cue from the animation will light up the theater. Even if you did not get an emotional response from the animation itself, the interactions of others sitting beside you will influence your mood and potentially make you excited as them.

Watching animations alone can be interactive as well. The viewer can control the pace and the action order by toggling back and forth, or he can turn the volume down. They can alter the interaction experience each time.

3, Theme Park

Disney’s management principles in Theme Parks successfully reflect the spirit of interactive narratives.

Firstly, through out the theme parks, there are Disney’s characters and references to Disney’s movies and television shows. The familiarity connects the viewer to the collective awareness and memories. This strengthens the interaction between the tourists and the parks. Furthermore, the parks resembled the back lot of movie studios. Traveling in the park is like a tribute to the Hollywood movie tradition as a whole. This permits people to investigate and explore places where only the camera had taken them before.

Secondly, Disney believes it is best to communicate with his guests using visual literacy. All of his parks are welled decorated environments like magical worlds, full with visual-magnets. For example, the modes of transportation, from horse-drawn trolleys to rockets, play an important role in establishing the atmosphere of the theme parks. By focusing on every detail, Disney makes his guests totally immersed in the environment.

Thirdly, the layout of Disney’s parks embodies open plot structure as mentioned in discussing Brenda Laurel. Disney’s team designs and arranges each individual facility in a systematic grouping based on different themes. Each of them is an interaction point. Tourists freely pick their own route to stroll around under the guidance of the park's layout. They plot themselves into their own stories. There is no standard entry point, ending, or dramatic arc. The story relies on decision making of the tourists. In other words, theme park presents a high level of interaction. The design team creates the environment and rules, and encourages the tourists to act, plan, and decide their own journey/story.

Part Three: Man Ray

In his explorations of many art forms, such as film, photography, and the readymade. Man Ray’s idea about “surprising” is well presented and introduced to us. Surprising work can cause logical contradiction and then stir inspiration of the audiences. Thus, even though most of his works do not contain any clear stories, they still provide viewers imagination and interpretation as their eyes trace the composition, the texture and the shape of the work. Based on the understandings and imagination, viewer can reorganize and build an emotional suspicion. Because there is no real answer regarding what Ray was presenting, viewers are free to express what Ray's works meant to them. Some may be reminded of a personal experience, and some may imagine a plot or a story.

For example, in his work New York 1971, Man Ray used pliers and painted wood to create a readymade. Stacked wood is placed on the oblique pliers. The audience in that period might connect this work with the phenomena of construction booming in New York during early 20th century. The readymade would be imagined to emit the skyscraper into the sky. The process of imagination and suspicion about Ray’s work turns the viewer into an investigator. This brings viewer one step closer to interactivity, as opposed to passively receiving the clear intention of artists.


Through the above analysis and comparison among the three designers, we can draw such conclusion:

Through the study of these three designers, I find an interesting place where animation and interactive narrative cross. Theoretically, any traditional stories can be evolved into interactive narrative—the former one is just one of a number of possible ways to interpret and present the world-view, while the later one tries to imagine all perspective and makes them accessible for the reader. A real interactive story does not simply refer to a story with interactive function, but with various perspectives, such as a story with several different tracks of time, or with the different time order in non-linear fashion, or with several effects/results. I want to study this direction in my impending independent study course. Brenda Laurel, Walt Disney and Man Ray have some useful methodologies for this.


Pause and Effect, by Mark Stephen Meadows
The Magic Kingdom, by Steven Watts
The art of Walt Disney, by Christopher Finch
The Idea of Nature in Disney Animation, by David whitley.
Disney and his world by Alan Bryman
Utopian Entrepreneur, by Brenda Laurel
Design Research, by Brenda Laurel
Computers as Theatre, by Brenda Laurel
The art of human-computer interface design, by Brenda Laurel
Narrative intelligence, by Brenda Laurel
Interaction: the New Images, by Brenda Laurel

Authorship and the Everyday

Can design affect our perception of everyday things? How are we influenced by the way something is presented? To what degree does authorship play a role in the success of a project? After researching the work of Charles and Ray Eames, George Maciunas, and Irma Boom, I have found each of their design methodologies to differ in terms of authorship. However, all three designers share an interest in studying the everyday. This essay explores the ideas challenged by each designer, their unique approach to design, and my own design strategies.

Married in 1941, Charles and Ray Eames designed architecture, books, films, furniture, graphics, museum exhibitions, photography, textiles, and toys. In order to understand some of their work, it is important to note how the historical context influenced some of their designs. For example, the Eames’ were commissioned to design leg splints and airplane parts for the military during the war. This provided them with the access to military technology and manufacturing facilities. During the Great Depression there was a shortage of housing and construction materials. So, the California Arts and Architecture magazine sponsored Case Study Houses to find solutions to these problems. The Eames' designed Case Study #8 in Pacific Palisades, California in 1949. They used industrial materials such as, factory sash windows, commercial doors, and corrugated steel roofing. Characteristic of postwar modern architecture, the design had a flexible plan with multi purpose spaces and a double height living room. These examples demonstrate the connection between the Eames’ design and their historical context.

Charles and Ray Eames had a straightforward attitude towards design. For them design was about recognizing a need and then addressing that need (1). They prioritized process and experimentation with the knowledge that some work may have commercial potential. Most famous for their furniture design, the Eames’ challenged the limits of wood as a flexible material. They discovered a way to create compound curves using a handmade machine to mold plywood. Sketching and studying form was an important part of their design process. The gentle curves of their chairs are ergonomic and comfortable for the human body (2). Because of their rigorous experimentation, the Eames’ were able to understand the nature of the material and use it in unexpected ways. They developed their ideas and improved their work through trial and error and continuously working on new iterations of their designs (3). When asked about designing for mass consumption, Charles Eames replied, “The fact of the matter is that we’re a hell of a lot more like each other than we are different…What you try to do is satisfy your real gut instincts and work your way through your idiosyncrasies…” (4). His view of authorship in design separates personal style in favor of solving a problem.

In the 1950’s the Eames’ started a collection of photography and began creating films. Their work studied new ways of seeing the ordinary. They documented various elements in their home, including the table setting and the food they ate. Despite the humble nature of the subjects, the photography is experimental and explores composition and color. The film Blacktop, 1952, is a video demonstrating the abstract beauty of water washing down the asphalt of a schoolyard (5). The patterns of soapy water change in tune with the music of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. The Eames’ took ownership of the beauty that exists in everyday objects and events and captured it in their photography and filmmaking.

Presenting found objects in an artistic manner brought attention to the everyday. Early in the twentieth century, ideas of modern art were being challenged in many ways. When Marcel Duchamp displayed a urinal titled, Fountain, he suggested connections between readymade and art. Fluxus was influenced by Duchamp’s ideas and the Dadaist movement (6).

George Maciunas was a founding member of Fluxus in the 1960’s and 1970’s. Fluxus was an international community of interdisciplinary artists, who challenged what constitutes art and what makes an artist. Fluxus questioned the categories of music, art, and theatre. They were interested in the subjects between the fields. These questions were important in deterring the institutions from limiting the work that was created. In other words, art did not need to be in a gallery, nor did music need to be played in a concert hall. Dick Higgins of Fluxus coined the term “intermedia” which blurred the distinction between art and life (7). According to Fluxus’ ideals, art should not be special or commercial. Fluxus emphasized appreciating things for their own sake. It also blurred the distinctions between art, artist, and audience.

In 1965 Shigeko Kubota performed a piece titled, Vagina Painting. This piece challenged the idea of authorship because the author gives the illusion of using her own body to create the art. Kubota fastened a paintbrush to her underpants, dipped the brush in red paint, and moved over the paper. The performance used female anatomy to redefine action painting. “This reference to the menstrual cycle and procreation of women was a rejection of the female as a muse. She demonstrated woman as the source of her own artistic inspiration.” (8) These ideas also illustrate that there does not need to be a separation between art and life. Life can be art.

Another way Fluxus challenged authorship is by changing the relationship between artist and audience. Rather than the artist producing a work of art to be received by an audience, the art is only completed by the participation of the audience. For example, Yoko Ono introduced the idea that others could complete her work in, Painting to Be Stepped On. At the time, this idea of the role of the artist was radically different. Alison Knowles, also of Fluxus, had similar ideas. Her work consisted of simple directions using found objects involving sound. These works were participatory and performative. According to Fluxus’ methodology, everyday experiences are actually performances (9).

As technology evolved, new media provided more opportunities for designers. In an interview for Dwell magazine in 2006 designer Irma Boom optimistically stated, “I always say, when I’m asked whether the internet means the end of the book, that it really means the beginning of the new book. More books are produced now than ever before, but people use them in a different way. After all, you can read plenty of information on the internet now. Print, however, still looks like the truth.” (10)

Boom is known for her creative reinterpretation of book form, in which aesthetic value is more important than legibility. To understand her work you have to hold it, feel it, and flip through the pages. By focusing her work on book design, she transforms an everyday object into an experience. She insists on shaping content rather than servicing the clients’ needs. Boom’s ownership of her work has been both sought after and ill received.

When working on a book for fellow designer Otto Treumann, Boom clearly executed the design as her interpretation of his work. She showed images she liked best larger, and those she did not like were printed as thumbnails. She said, “He hated it. He told me that it was more my book than his book. And I said, ‘That’s fine. I don’t care. That’s the way it goes.’ I’m not a servant.” (11) Boom disregarded her client’s opinions and worked with unconventional methods of book design.

Her attitude toward design has always been one of taking ownership of her work. She does not think about what people want, but rather she expresses her own ideas about the subject. In an article from I.D. Magazine regarding her audience for Thinkbook, Boom said, “I didn’t think of the audience at all. I thought if it’s good for me, it’s good for them.” (12) However, she fully investigated the subject by thoroughly researching the company. Thinkbook is a specific view on the history of the Dutch multinational SHV Holdings. Boom moved her office to be near their headquarters and had complete access to all of SHV’s files. Because there was no organized archive, Boom spent 3.5 years sorting through the records and researching in different cities. The book, like other books by Boom, is organized in reverse chronological order. Boom tries to convey the human factor as a method for storytelling by using reports, speeches, interviews, and more. The information is not exclusive; Boom made it a point to show the company’s successes and failures. The structure of the book contains no headings, large questions scattered throughout, and there is an alternation of text and image. There are no page numbers and no index exists. Boom wanted the book to be a voyage, “you find things you don’t want to find, and discoveries happen by coincidence.” (13) Boom has said that you navigate it more like a website than a traditional book, but also that it works like the memory does- the more recent information is in the front and is more complex and detailed. Then as you get further in time it is more filtered and simple. There are many layers to her design, which cannot be understood at first glance. Her work leaves room for interpretation.

Studying the details of the everyday is one way of approaching creative design. By taking ownership of existing beauty, the Eames’ introduce a new understanding of authorship. Fluxus challenged the role of the artist through participation and involvement of the audience. Although Boom chooses to deprioritize the consideration of the audience, she takes full control of her work by fully understanding the subject and allowing her ideas to drive the design. The research collected on these three designers has provided insight and inspiration for my own design methodology. I am interested in studying ways that meaning can be given to everyday objects. My current work explores the potential of recyclable materials as a means of bringing awareness to recycling. I would like to explore how authorship can influence the display of my work. In closing, a comparison of Charles and Ray Eames, Fluxus, and Irma Boom illustrates variations on the negotiation of authorship in design through the study of the everyday.

Works Cited

(1) Neuhart , John and Marilyn. Eames design: the office of Charles and Ray Eames, 1941-1978. (New York: H.N. Abrams, 1989) pp 14-15.

(2) Caplan, Ralph. Connections, the work of Charles and Ray Eames: Frederick S. Wight Art Gallery, University of California, Los Angeles, December 7, 1976-February 6, 1977 (Los Angeles: UCLA Art Council, 1976) p26.

(3) Eidelberg, Martin, et al. The Eames lounge chair: an icon of modern design (Grand Rapids, MI: Grand Rapids Art Museum ; London ; New York : In Association with Merrell, 2006) p48.

(4) Eames, Demetrios. An Eames primer. (New York : Universe Pub., 2001) p113.

(5) Kirkham, Pat. Charles and Ray Eames: designers of the twentieth century, Edition 1st (MIT Press pbk. ed. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1998) pp 336-337.

(6) “Fluxus”. Wikipedia. 12/2008 <>.

(7) Higgins, Hannah, 1964- Fluxus experience (Imprint Berkeley: University of California Press, c2002) pp 89-99.

(8) Anderson, Simon, et al. In the Spirit of Fluxus: published on the occasion of the exhibition .... Edition 1st ed. (Imprint Minneapolis: Walker Art Center, c1993) p82.

(9) The Misfits [videorecording] : 30 years of Fluxus / [produced] by Lars Movin, [for the The National Film Board of Denmark]. Added title 30 years of Fluxus Thirty years of Fluxus Fluxus Imprint New York, N.Y.: Electronic Arts Intermix [distributor], 1993.

(10) Szita, Jane, Cover Story, Dwell, vol.6 iss.9 (October 2006) p134-140

(11) Hall, Peter, Loose Canon, I.D. Magazine, 47.3 (May 2000) p75.

(12) Poynor, Rick, XXXL, I.D. Magazine, 43n6 (November 1996) p65.

(13) Bilak, P. An interview with Irma Boom, Abitare, no. 405 (April 2001) pp 219-23.

A Haiku to the Handicraft

Made by hand - unique.
Take a stab at mass market.
Can it work? Who knows.

Design Methodologies and the Creative Process


Industrial Design is a complicated profession. A designer can take multiple paths and approaches to a given problem. Since its conception, there has been a debate of what is most important in Industrial Design, and while the constant variables are form and function, there are also components that have been and keep being added to the equation as society and technology evolve. The profession has always been influenced by both art and engineering. Some designers tend to lean more to arts while others prefer the engineering aspect of design. This diversity in the Industrial Design industry is as extensive and complicated as the variety of products that can be created. The different methodology each designer acquires has a deep relationship with his creative process and with what drives his goals.

This semester I studied three designers: Bruno Munari, George Nelson and Victor Papanek. They had different responses to a problem that we’re still facing today – finite resources – and while being roughly contemporaneous industrial designers, each have quite different methodologies and design philosophies.

As mentioned above, this profession has multiple approaches and methodologies as it has been very diverse since its origins. After the Industrial Revolution, design was largely responsible for the design of aesthetic “treatments” for manufactured products, treatments that were highly indicative of its era, the Victorian age. Rejecting this use of unnecessary decoration, designers like William Morris were part of the Arts and Crafts movement. These designers saw the necessity for a new design that expressed the function of the thing itself and emphasized the materials and quality of construction. The Arts and Crafts movement suggested that each material incorporated its own value and the first principle of good design was to respect the properties of the materials used. The goal was to replace the machine mass-produced goods with well-made, well-designed products. The Arts and Crafts led to a series of movements, with different approaches to design, which set the path to modernism.

A movement known as “streamlining” was derived from the study of aerodynamics, the elimination of wind-resistance, during the 1920s. It had an enormous influence on industrial design in the 1930s. After the Wall Street crash in 1929, the market was nothing like the 1920s, the postwar period, when there was a boom of jobs, money and consumerism. The need for cheaply-made merchandise with public appeal grew as the Depression lengthened. It was a new movement emerging in the 1930s. Industrial designers applied styling to consumer products, to attract Depression buyers, and brought marketing skills to their profession. This new styling was temping and looked expensive, but it could be mass-produced by machines at lower cost. While some designers like Norman Bel Geddes, Walter Dorwin Teague and Raymond Loewy embraced it, others were against it, as it led sometimes to superficial changes in the design and to planned obsolescence.

The approaches of Victor Papanek, George Nelson and Bruno Munari were quite different, but they all had in common the rejection of styling and streamlining. George Nelson’s view was that for an object to be considered good design, it needed to be honest. Honesty of a product can be referred to the idea of the Arts and Crafts philosophy of being true to materials. The goal being to appreciate a material’s properties, leave it in sight and not to cover up structure or joints. This view can be appreciated in Nelson’s design of the Comprehensive Storage System for Herman Miller, where the poles that maintain the structure are exposed and the properties of the material, extruded aluminum, were embraced. The design was made in order to work with the material, not forcing the material to work with the design. For George Nelson, this was good design. He also designed to his own criteria and taste believing that marketing research was not necessary: as long as he liked the design, there was going to be market for it.

In contrast to George Nelson’s idiosyncratic style, Bruno Munari’s unadorned design style made his products appear anonymous. He believed that to force the designer’s style in order to make it his own was wrong. Bruno Munari was more focused on the function of an object than its aesthetics. However, he believed that by achieving the right design for function, aesthetics would follow naturally as a consequence. Most of his products were made of unadorned materials and, like Victor Papanek, he tried to reduce design to its simplest form. I would say that he applied aesthetic functionalism to his designs while Victor Papanek applied extreme functionalism.

Victor Papanek believed that only a small part of the designer’s responsibility lies on the area of aesthetics; he was completely focused in finding the practical, most efficient solution for a given problem. He was harshly criticized for his design of a radio receiver developed for the Third World. Made of a used juice can, it used paraffin wax and a wick as a power source and cost only nine cents in 1966. It was a very well considered design, but it was ugly. Victor Papanek refused to paint it or make any aesthetic changes because, according to him, it would be unethical to impose his “taste” on people from a different culture. This action earned him the title of "Garbage Can Designer"(1), and yet he was an inspiration for other people to design ethical products. George Nelson and Bruno Munari were also an inspiration to other designers in their work, and it was interesting to learn how these designers came to be so creative and to discover what was the source of their inspiration.

George Nelson argued that we’ve been all conditioned from birth to believe that everything can be discovered by observing, measuring, analyzing, and thinking, but that we could not think our way into creative behavior. According to George Nelson the creative process has as a result a “Zap”, a glimpse of what a design could be, which consisted on a common collaboration between the left and the right lobes of the brain. According to Nelson, the left lobe resolves linear problems like language and analysis, while the right lobe deals with visual matters, synthesizing activities and non-linear situations.(2) He stated that what we call inspiration, seems to derive from the right lobe’s ability connect what seems irrelevant pieces of information to make sense. But for the right lobe to be able to pick these non-relevant pieces of information, the left lobe must do its homework of gathering and collecting data and taking the problem as far as it can. It is then when the right lobe mysteriously searches for things that can be fit together. Nelson gives tremendous importance to observation as the way of gathering and collecting data, the most information the left lobe collects, the more information the right lobe was to work with, therefore, the probabilities of being creative or getting inspired increases.

George Nelson’s creative process is reflected in his products as well, where this concept of switching through different information is also applied to his designs. When most designers show more interest in the getting to the final product or result, George Nelson was most interested in the initial conception of a product, where the idea or zap comes together, then switching along different solutions or to the next problem. Contrasting his friend and colleague Charles Eames’ method, which George Nelson described as “rigorous”, he described his own method as a “grass hopper sort of way”.(3) However, George Nelson and Charles Eames did share the same passion for good design and they both looked for different ways to experiment and use existing materials.

In contrast to George Nelson, Bruno Munari could also be described as rigorous. In his book “Da cosa nasce cosa” he describes the “metodologia progettuale” with a series of steps that, even when he mentions that these are flexible steps, are very well organized and seem to encourage you to “think your way into the creative behavior” (something that George Nelson stated you couldn’t do). This methodology has a strong contrast with the nationally recognized Bruno Munari’s Methodology, used for education and formation of the individual. This methodology is based on the affinity of children to express themselves freely without the interference of adults, which one could say means no steps or rules. This encourages them to become independent and to resolve problems by themselves. Bruno Munari developed a great interest in children’s education; he was concerned by lack of products available for the education of children and began to design his own. This of course was triggered by a personal motivation, the birth of his son Alberto, but even after his son got older, he continued to design for children. In 1977 he started the laboratories "Playing with Art", held at the Brera Art Gallery in Milan, to stimulate children’s creativity. This was Munari's very first workshop for children. Since then, he conducted children's workshops all over Italy, and worldwide in countries such as Venezuela, Israel, Spain, U.S., France, and Japan. These workshops are a great part of Bruno Munari’s legacy; according to him, these workshops were the most significant piece of work he ever did.(4)

Victor Papanek’s creative approach to design was not only of a commitment to children, but to mankind in general. He looked for solutions to the problems of people with “real needs”, meaning the handicapped, children, the medical profession, among other important fields he felt were neglected by most designers. His design ethics made him a constant critic of the car industry; he was highly concerned by the lack of safety at that time in the car industry, not only for drivers but also in the manufacturing process. Papanek’s inspiration was his constant concern about the environment and his desire to help people with real needs, but he also found inspiration by looking into different cultures’ vernacular designs. He focused his efforts on the simplification of design, minimal usage of natural resources and decentralization of society. According to Papanek, by decentralizing society towns and cities would be more independent, being able to apply vernacular materials to their constructions, consume local produce, and use sustainable energy.

While these three designers’ methodologies are different, they all follow a defined line on what they believe is important to design. For my personal methodology I applied the same defined principle. When designing a new product, Industrial designers must question what the goal of the product is and what need they will fulfill by making this product. Sometimes designers can get carried away by trends and meaningless “needs”, which lead them to design useless products with planned obsolescence destined for the landfill. Sometimes it is difficult to be creative in a world where everything we need seems to be already invented, and yet there is still a necessity to change the way we design. Designers need to understand the limited resources our planet has; we keep designing as if the earth was an endless source of materials with no limits or consequences. It seems that in the past 10 years we see the sight of a “greener path”, were society and governments are becoming more conscious about the use of resources and nature’s degradation, but we’re still far from a sustainable future.

My design approach to these environmental problems is to turn to nature for answers. Nature, imaginative by necessity, has adapted, changed, and solved most of the problems we are dealing with. The more our world looks and functions like the natural world the more likely we are to preserve this planet.(5) Industrial design can no longer be only about looks, function and marketing, and it doesn’t end at the purchase of the product. With this in mind, my proposed methodology is Biomimicry as a way to design environmentally friendly products. I find Victor Papanek, George Nelson and Bruno Munari’s methodologies interesting and appealing in different ways, and I’ll say that I can identify similarities between elements of my proposed methodology and elements of each of these designers’ methods. From Bruno Munari’s methodology I would like to apply the functionalist aesthetic idea. I will focus my products on the function of the object, but at the same time convey the consequential aesthetics that, according to Bruno Munari, follow with the right design for function. From George Nelson I would like to apply the experimentation of materials and encouraged observation to find inspiration (applied to observation of nature in particular). Finally, from Victor Papanek I will use his environmental ethics as guidelines when designing for the conservation of resources. These three designers have influenced my work in some way, and their philosophies and techniques in design have also helped to redefine my own.

(1) Papanek, Victor. Preface to Design for the real world: human ecology and social change. Chicago, Ill: Academy Chicago, 1985.
(2) Nelson, George. George Nelson on design. New York: Whitney Library of Design, 1979.
(3) Abercrombie, Stanley. George Nelson: The design of modern design. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2000.
(4) Bruno Munari teaches us about the great possibilities that lie within children." "Think Daily". (accessed December 4, 2008).
(5) Biomimicry Institute. (accessed December 4, 2008).

Monday, December 8, 2008

Reducing the Knowledge Gap with Design Methodology

“Assisted by urgent needs for a better understanding of complex problems in medical science and related research, and supported by a progressive manufacturer, it became possible to select themes and to design educational models of some of the more significant structures and processes of life that had been revealed by science in recent years. The primary value of such models - as well as graphic design work preceding and following them - is that they reduce the time necessary for the study and understanding of a science problem.”

Will Burtin in Design Responsibility in an Age of Science, typed manuscript pp. 12-13.

As problem-solvers and distillers of information, designers must now focus their attention on the issues created by easy access to endless information via the internet. The divide between the information rich and the information poor is increasing rapidly–a problem known as the knowledge gap. The theory is that the increase of information in society is not evenly acquired by every member of society: people with higher socioeconomic status tend to have better ability to acquire information (1). Without a practical methodology for creating and processing online content, those on the wrong side of the knowledge gap will be left behind. Making available more specialized information with a means to parse it reduces the time necessary for study of the material–therefore aiding progress in global learning.

Three designers studied this semester provide examples of varied responses to an increasingly information-rich society. Oskar Fischinger attempted to use experimental techniques to create a new art in film, but failed in terms of mass media. Will Burtin was a leader in translating emerging scientific theories to a larger public, using new technologies. And Lisa Strausfeld emphasized the importance of de-universalizing mass notions of “user-friendly” in the computer user interface. The works of these designers are useful to a discussion of mass media versus niche audience.

Emerging tools have always been integral to breakthroughs in design. Oskar Fischinger was a pioneer abstract filmmaker from Germany. After being introduced to the work of Walter Ruttmann by Bernhard Diebold, Fischinger began experimenting with a wax slicing machine, which synchronized a vertical slicer with a movie camera’s shutter and enabled recording of progressive cross sections (2). This and other early work designing special effects for film led to his later ground-breaking films that explored combining animation with sound, like in An Optical Poem (1937). His film Radio Dynamics (1942) was even more conceptually challenging when he used animation in place of sound, allowing pulsing colored shapes to convey rhythm and tone. Fischinger worked towards creating a new language in film with his experiments with the new medium.

Before this, and fleeing Nazi takeover in Germany, Fischinger found work at Paramount in Hollywood. Fischinger was unhappy at Paramount because they did not allow him to work in color and edited his work undesirably. This and Fischinger’s subsequent work with MGM and Disney is an excellent example of how mass media alienates both designer and audience. Due to MGM’s bookkeeping process, he received no profits when he created An Optical Poem. And at Disney, where he worked on the film “Tocatta and Fugue by Bach” for Fantasia, he quit because his designs were simplified and made more representational (3). This dumbing down of Fischinger’s attempt to create a new, high art demonstrates a serious flaw in mass media.

Information designer Will Burtin’s gun manuals for the US Army were painstakingly designed for a very specific target audience - potentially illiterate soldiers. The success of these manuals for the soldiers is important to note because thoughtful information design is integral down to the smallest of niches.

Burtin’s work at Scope Magazine presented new scientific and medical developments to physicians simply and clearly. Through unprecedented integration of type and image, Burtin was able to graphically communicate complex scientific phenomena and theory. By communicating to the niche audience of physicians, Burtin gave them the ability to better treat and communicate with their patients. This was only an early step in his career, as Burtin went on to distill complex body systems into exhibits the general public could understand.

Burtin’s use of new materials was a huge factor in the success of the Cell (1957), an exhibit/model of a human cell magnified one million times. Scientists were only able to see 2D images of cells through microscopes, and Burtin set out to figure out what a cell looked like in three dimensions. Implementing new materials like plexiglass and unique light fixtures, Burtin was able to more accurately communicate the cell abstraction, enabling many people to understand the previously murky emerging field of cytology (4).

His timing was impeccable, as researchers and doctors at the time believed that understanding the anatomy of living cells was key to discovering what ailed them, like cancer. Though no two scientists agreed on what a three dimensional cell might look like, Burtin’s resolution became wholly respected by the medical community.

Cytology was the “in” science of the time, and the public was fascinated with Burtin’s exhibit. His translation of scientific research into a real world model that clearly explained the idea of a cell using brand new materials was immensely successful and did great service to the field of medical research.

In 2005, Lisa Strausfeld and her team (Christian Marc Schmidt and Takaaki Okada) at design firm Pentagram designed a user interface (UI) for a new computer called the “XO”. The XO was the product of efforts by One Laptop Per Child (OLPC), a non-profit organization founded by Nicholas Negroponte.

One Laptop Per Child has a very specific target audience–those with low socioeconomic status. OLPC is not only directly confronting the digital divide with their equipment, but also aims to address the knowledge gap that persists once people have the technology available to them. Abandoning the desktop metaphor operating systems like Windows and Mac OS use, Strausfeld’s team developed a completely different type of interface that represents the physical world. Called Sugar, the UI centers around a stick-figure icon that represents the user (7).

The OLPC team used brand-new technologies to inform its decisions. By taking advantage of the laptop’s networking abilities, the design team was able to create a very community-centric, highly intuitive experience for the user. Strausfeld did not follow traditional western notions of what a user interface should be. Those traditions sprung from bureaucratic metaphors and terminology (file folders, desktops), which could be foreign to a child in a developing nation who had not witnessed the evolution of the personal computer in the business office. The interface Strausfeld’s team developed for OLPC was a niche-targeted interface that was designed around universal concepts of common sense.

Mass media is known to target those with higher socioeconomic status (1). As evidenced by Burtin and Strausfeld, by using the approach of targeting niche audiences, one can reach those passed over by mass media. Learning how to find these smaller audiences, talk to them, and participate in their community is a step toward making available the necessary information for them and the public as a whole.

Once these niche audiences are located, we can encourage the creation and concurrent processing (or tagging) of appropriate information. Dealing with information abundance is an approach to addressing the knowledge gap. We must create specialized information aimed at assisting people to overcome educational learning barriers online, and we must parse the information so that it is searchable and translatable.

Websites like Many Eyes (5) and Wikipedia are examples of current technologies encouraging the creation and processing of data. At Many Eyes, one can upload data sets and visualize them. But what is unique is that many eyes encourages all data to be looked at by as many people as possible. This group effort to create data and analyze it allows for potential informational breakthroughs that would previously be impossible before the network that is the internet. Wikipedia operates in a similar manner, allowing any user to upload content but then encouraging any other user to edit, categorize, and filter content. The community polices itself and produces an enormous wealth of reasonably accurate material (6).

Burtin took new progress in science and distilled it visually so more people could understand it. OLPC takes the abundance of information on the internet and presents it through an interface that should help users to gain more meaning from it. The use of emerging technologies by these designers exemplifies their importance. Online, there are several different emerging tools. Online video is quickly becoming one of the most engaging and lucrative mediums. Using new video workflows (like recording podcasts with a webcam), and production methods (like livestreaming), designers are working to make video more ubiquitous and easy to use, and therefore simpler to convey information to others.

Web development is another new advancement designers can use to handle information. Advancements occur every day that allow easier online updates and a wider breadth of information that can be displayed. For example, Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) allows for information to be accessible to more people by separating style and content. Trends in web development are leading to the “semantic web”, which will be a huge leap in dealing with large amounts of information. “The Semantic Web is an evolving extension of the World Wide Web in which the semantics of information and services on the web is defined, making it possible for the web to understand and satisfy the requests of people and machines to use the web content” (8). This essentially means that the web will aid users in finding and using information more quickly and easily than ever before.

An integral element of web development taking shape right now is social media. Social media is a category of internet tools that encourages communication and sharing between creator and audience, and that allows the organic building of communities. The power of the web now lies in the people using it, and social media allows people to make connections with each other to share and filter information.

Emerging and novel uses of technologies available in a now networked world can be used to present and support various approaches to dealing with the knowledge gap. Combined with a focus on specific audiences and information processing, designers can focus on these areas when finding solutions to informational problems.

(1) “Knowledge Gap”. Universiteit Twente. 12/2008 <>.
(2) Moritz, William. Optical Poetry: The Life and Work of Oskar Fischinger. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004. p 195.
(3) Moritz, William. Optical Poetry: The Life and Work of Oskar Fischinger. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004.
(4) Remington, R. Roger and Robert S. P. Fripp. Design and Science: the Life and Work of Will Burtin. Burlington: Lund Humphries, 2007. pp 71-78.
(5) “Many Eyes”. IBM. 12/2008. <>.
(6) “Wikipedia survives research test“. BBC News. 12/2008. <>.
(7) “The Relentless Lisa Strausfeld”. Business Week. 12/2008. <>.
(8) “The Semantic Web”. Wikipedia. 12/2008. <>.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Hella Jongerius

Regarded as the leading woman designer of our time, Hella Jongerius' achievements have been likened to those of great women designers of the past such as Charlotte Perriand and Eileen Gray. Unusual in industrial design, Hella Jongerius' work has an emotional quality. Her unconventional combinations of materials and techniques ensure that objects such as her Giant Prince embroidered ceramic vase or the part-ceramic, part-glass Groove and Long Neck bottle not only fulfill a practical function, but express the contradictions of contemporary life.

Born in the Dutch town of De Meern in 1963, Jongerius studied industrial design at the prestigious Eindhoven Design Academy. She graduated from Eindhoven in 1993 and participated in the first Droog Design exhibition at the Milan Furniture Fair with Bath Mat. Her work with Droog Design continued with the 1994 design of the Soft Urn and Soft Vase series fo polyurethane vases.

She has quickly made a name for herself on the art scene with the work she exhibited in the Mutant Materials in Contemporary Design exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1995, the Self Manufacturing Designers exhibition at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam and the Thresholds in Contemporary Design from the Netherlands exhibition, also at MOMA, in 1996.

While continuing to work with industrial materials and processes, she began experimenting with traditional craft techniques in ceramics, textiles and glass. By fusing craftsmanship with advanced technology and celebrating the imperfection of found objects and used materials, she has explored the blurring of boundaries between the old and the new, and high-tech and low-tech. In 1998, she returned to the Eindhoven Design Academy, this time as a professor. At the same time, she developed the b-set collection of intentionally imperfect industrially produced tableware for the Royal Tichelaar Makkum. Since then, she has continued on with several more museum exhibitions, winning such awards the the Rotterdam Design Prize (for her piece Repeat).

In 2000, Jongerius founded her own firm in Rotterdam, named JongeriusLab, producing a unique wealth of textiles, crockery, and furniture. Her designs combine new technological achievements with the uniqueness and importance that only handmade historic objects possess. Says Jongerius, "I'm trying to make products that can be loved and that people want to own their whole lives to and then pass them on to the family."

Jongerius frequently joins up with manufacturers to create a new designer product for their line. One such company was Porzellan Manufaktur Nymphenburg, one of the oldest and most revered art and design manufacturers in the world. Founded in 1747 by Elector Max the III of Bavaria and located on the northern lane at the Nymphenburg Palace since 1761, they have now had over 250 years of uninterrupted porcelain production. They represent the highest standard in porcelain, hand-crafting every item and event producing their 'white gold' themselves in the Nymphenburg Mill.

For them she has created a series fo luxurious, but subtly seditious, bowls and plates called Nymphenburg Sketches. She was inspired while visiting Nymphenburg Porzellan and decided to produce dinnerware that was unique due to direct involvement of the porcelain artist with the final product. Obtaining inspiration from a number of possible images, the craftsperson decides on the end result - with the identities of the craftspeople noted in the letters and numbers on the side of bowls, plates, and cups. The bowls have animal figurines marooned surreally in the centre, and are spectacular examples of high-end kitsch, draped in opulent patterns spilling on to the base. They are all uniquely hand-painted but part of general production. The plates are adorned with exquisite hand-painted motifs, such as flowers and butterflies, cherry-picked from the company's historic pattern books. These images are juxtaposed with workaday markings, such as factory stamps and colour trials, which draw attention to the hidden processes behind Nymphenburg's otherwise immaculate products. She has brought animal and plant designs from four decades, from the Rococo period to the present day, together and applied them to simple plates, bowls and beakers. The sometimes incomplete painting illustrates the process of creation that a design goes through. Each plate is unique and highly collectible, with a random selection of fixed motifs per plate.

Hella Jongerius designed the Nymphenburg Sketches service as well as the Four Seasons collection - mirror, teapot, wine jug, and candlestick. Her Animal Bowls, however, are the most famous. From 700 animal figures that the archive at Nymphenburg holds, she chose five and place them in bowls. She has supplemented the naturalistic painting of the snail, bird, rhinoceros, deer and hare with a second pattern from Nymphenburg's design repertoire - irrespective of whether they were originally intended for a soup tureen or used for the plumage of a guinea fowl.

Jongerius's views are often controversial. She is against "the idea of making a traditional set in which each piece is the same shape", and believes that contemporary shoppers seek out individual pieces of dinnerware that can be mixed and matched on the table. Whether the critics out there agree or not, her work is stylish and covetable. She intentionally integrates wrong-footing in her designs to make us wonder if she's made a mistake. She delights in digging out old shape or patterns, detaching them from their original context and messing around with them.

Jongerius would be the first to admit that her work is perverse. One minute she is reinforcing expectations, and then the next minute she pulls the rug out from under our feet. These conflicting impulses reflect her ambivalent attitude toward the design world and what she calls "this whole marketing shit." She adds that, "I like to do things for aesthetic reasons, but not aesthetic reasons that we know from marketing. Design is a profession that I hate and like in equal measure. There's no reason to design anything, yet it's something that I like to do." And from what she's shown us so far, she's very, very good at it.

Schouwenberg, Louis. (2003). Hella Jongerius. London : Phaidon.

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