Tuesday, December 9, 2008

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.

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