The Professor’s 1st Foray Into Design Philosophy: “Chaos, Clarity, Post-Credibility and The New International Style”

[from the denver art museum's exhibition u.s. design 1975-2000: constantin boym's "searsstyle" chair (left) and the pool chair (right) by tucker viemeister and The Professor]

[from the denver art museum’s exhibition u.s. design 1975-2000: constantin boym’s “searstyle” chair (left) and the pool chair (right) by tucker viemeister and The Professor]

Believing that a design philosophy was increasingly a necessity—and not a luxury as seemed to be the prevailing viewpoint at the time—The Professor decided to set down some of his key tenets in the late 1980s. That effort led to the publication of a 4-page article “Chaos, Clarity, Post-Credibility and The New International Style” in Innovation [The Industrial Designers Society of America’s magazine], Fall 1988, p.4-7.

 The editor at Innovation asked The Professor to write about what he was thinking about in his work and what he was teaching at Parsons School of Design [where he was working with Richard Yelle to run the school’s Product Design program]. Given this kind of a wide-open marching order, The Professor seized upon a strategy. Sometimes, he recalls feeling, you have to take matters into your own hands to make something that matters. Sometimes you have to aim for “seminal” and not worry about what you hit [or miss]. Sometimes, as it turned out, you just have to interview yourself because no one else in the near-term has done so. And that’s what transpired back in 1988: The Professor queried himself as no one had queried him before. In doing so, he sought to introduce new and alternative ways of thinking about design philosophy—via a different kind of criticism and a different type of awareness—to the professional community. What follows below is a faithful transcription of the original text, with the appropriate artwork as well; a PDF of the original article is here: Innovation_magazine_1988

Begin:

What is your design philosophy?
 My design philosophy is to design philosophically. I am a writer who designs, a designer who writes. What else would you expect?

How does one design philosophically?
 By favoring questions over answers, even occasionally dumb questions over apparently smart answers. One favors richness of meaning over singularity of style. One starts with an idea—and then develops it into an object through a process typified by both rigor and spontaneity, by both seriousness and humor. Design philosophies, like the people who carry them around, can be both business-like and fun.

Aren’t you mixing opposites here, apples and oranges so to speak? The pairing of opposites is crucial, not incidental [or accidental]. Opposing qualities are often not found in the same object, or, on another level, even in the same building. Architect Robert Venturi recognized this years ago and called for a both-and approach to architecture [in Complexity and Contradiction in Modern Architecture, 1966], an approach that invited the inclusion of heretofore unrelated elements.  I favor this approach. I favor a design philosophy that within itself is diverse. I favor a design philosophy that, outside of itself, nurtures further diversity. I favor a design philosophy that includes the possibility of a great number of fashions or surface variations existing at any given moment. I favor a design philosophy that includes the possibility of a great number of philosophies or deep differences existing at any given moment. Our nation, the United States of America, was founded to represent a polyglot culture. If anything, our nation is even more diverse and fragmented today. The mass-market that designers once made their living selling to no longer exists, having evolved into a series of occasionally overlapping specialty markets. I believe that the design philosophy that is most congruent with this view of contemporary America is necessarily a hybrid, contradictory and recombinant one. Not a formalist philosophy. Not a rationalist philosophy. Not Modernism, not Post-Modernism. But instead a vital, searching design philosophy that is democratic at its most fundamental level. A design philosophy that is joyful and spontaneous, irreverent and participatory.

So, like Venturi, you favor a design of “complexity and contradiction,” except this time for product design?
 No. Venturi offered complexity and contradiction as the necessary factors of an aware, contemporary architecture. What I am interested in is something different. I am interested in simplicity and contradiction as they relate to contemporary project design. Put another way, I’m interested in recognizing complexity and consistency in the objects that surround us. Ultimately, a world of simplicity and consistency would be a bore, and a world of complexity and contradiction would be anarchically at war. This means that I look to a design philosophy that concurrently embraces chaos and clarity, very often in the same object. A number of designers already practice in this manner. Ron Arad in London; Alex Locadia and Dan Friedman in New York; and Alessandro Mendini in London, to name but a few. In these designers’ work, and in my design philosophy, the aim is to balance qualities that are at odds with each other. The lessons of art are [meant to be studied and] incorporated; creative tension is produced. A given product design can be both direct in its message yet be beguilingly ambiguous in its meaning. A given product design can be both ornate in the manner in which it communicates yet be internally and externally coherent in its logic. Here—in the [but] partially illuminated space where opponents collide—is where the chance for an alchemy of contemporary product design exists. Here is where a domestic object can be at once scientific and magical; here is where an office object can be at once pastoral and electronic.

What then is the origin of your design philosophy? The world! Current events have influenced my design philosophy a great deal. For example, a growing awareness of design approaches or languages outside the European-American power axis, The visual cultures of the Caribbean, of the Japanese, of the Ndebele [people] in Africa, are only three examples that come readily to mind; our exponentially-magnified communications abilities bring many, many more. If there is a danger, it is the risk of only consuming these [as] visual cultures. If there is a benefit, It is that the richness of global design expression suggests something I call The New International Style. The old [original] International Style, as we all know, was postulated in the 1930s by Henry-Russell Hitchcock and Philip Johnson. It said that certain formal and philosophical similarities exist in the design of objects and buildings in certain areas of Europe and in the United States. [Note that what is only a portion of the Western world is given a world-wide name.] The New International Style, conversely, draws upon the Eastern world as well as the Western world, the Southern as well as the Northern. The New International Style draws on African, Indian and South American visual cultures. While it recognizes the triad of Japan, Europe and America, it aims to move beyond it toward something [much] greater in scope. The New International Style is even beginning design glasnost, drawing on the powerful lessons of Soviet design.

So you see your design philosophy as tied to the beginnings of a new international movement? No. I simply see a potential that I am interested in exploring. Besides, I am largely inspired by our American design heritage, particularly on the local, tribal or folk level. Arthur Pulos, in his two volumes on American design, has shown convincingly that, with respect to our “colonial” design, we do not have to feel inferior to our European brethren. I believe that both our dramatically democratic cultural past and our complex, contradictory present [moment] provide compelling object lessons as to what product design could be today. As a designer—and simply as a caring, aware person—I cannot escape everyday life. Nor do I wish to. We live in interesting times. High-school students proudly tote Uzis. Microbiologists create “better” vegetables. Farmers in the heartland snap in real-life and kill three generations of their family, and then themselves. Human-powered aircraft fly for hours. Porn queens become rock stars. Rock stars perform benefit concerts and donate huge sums of money to needy peoples. This is the reality of our time, and my design philosophy aims to reflect that.

[the pool chair was a one-off foray into metaphorical form; designed by tucker viemeister and The Professor, 1986]

[the pool chair was a one-off foray into metaphorical form; designed by tucker viemeister and The Professor, 1986]

is there a word or a phrase that you use to describe this reality? Glen O’Brien, in a recent column for Artforum, used the expression ‘Post-Credible‘ to describe, among other things, certain political developments, Isuzu television commercials and Ollie North. By this, [I believe] O’Brien meant a series of phenomena that are, literally, ‘beyond belief.’ O’Brien didn’t take the idea further than this, but he didn’t have to; it’s a great thought already. As Ralph Caplan pointed out in the May-June ID magazine, there are no claims that a consumer-products company can make that the average consumer will believe. As an entire nation, on at least one level, we all know better. Intuitively, without the benefit of formal education, we are learning the lessons of a Post-Credible society. Post-Credibility succinctly sums up our times, and for this reason, it is an interesting point of departure for contemporary design. Frankly, I don’t know what the promise of Post-Credible objects might yield, but their intrinsic appeal to me is enormous. Post-Credible design suggests that we create products appropriate for our times, and perhaps even products that anticipate our future in their form, function or meaning.  Nonetheless, it is an incredible challenge to process Post-Credible information, to somehow make it real. Author Philip Roth once said that one of the best things that he ever realized was that the most imaginative minds of our generation couldn’t compete with the newspaper and its daily renditions of reality. Current events are that strange, that wonderful. Our world, at the same time that it has shrunk due to communication and transportation advances, has somehow become less familiar and more perverse.

What about the specific sources of your inspiration for your Post-Credible design philosophy? 
Currently I am inspired by many product designs and product designers of both today and yesteryear. It is crucial to me that I know the history of our profession; both past history and current history. There is no way around it. From Peter Behrens to Daniel Weil, from Dansk to Studio 80, Rodchenko to Ronco, Raymond Loewy to Ross Lovegrove, The Shakers to the Streamliners, from Alessi to Aeropostale, I believe it’s necessary to keep up. Design history thus has tremendous importance to the formation of any design philosophy, no less so because it is a Post-Credible one. But cultural history is even more important to me [than design history]. I am interested in design philosophy that enjoys its connections to culture and celebrates its connections to life. I am interested in a product design that isn’t just about product design, but is about something more, something outside of the standard range of references and sources. Ettore Sottsass wrote in the Design Since 1945 exhibition catalogue that, to him, design was “a way of discussing life.” No more, no less. What a beautiful thought! A beautiful thought that, in a sense, raises the stakes for every designer. George Nelson put it similarly. For Nelson, every design could be reduced to a single question. Does the design enhance or diminish the quality of our life? That’s what I want—a design philosophy based on life. For this reason, I favor a design philosophy that expands potential rather than circumscribes it. For this reason, I favor a design philosophy that does not just solve problems but aims to enrich them as well, a design philosophy that aims to make the postulation and the resolution of the problem a meaningful event in itself.

[the musical chair where the crank turned the drum to produce sound, designed by michael pinkus and The Professor, 1987]

[the musical chair where the crank turned the drum to produce sound, designed by michael pinkus and The Professor, 1987]

So what does Post-Credible design philosophy draw upon, look like? It looks toward polychromatic color schemes, pattern-on-pattern [on pattern] decorative treatments and objects that incorporate 100%  visual saturation into their design. It is flexible, quality-driven, accepting of accidental misinterpretations, and nurturing of willful misinterpretation. Like the artisan or the painter, it accepts the misinterpretation or the mistake, incorporating it into a higher level of execution. My design philosophy deals in visual literacy and often incorporates narrative or figurative imagery into its appearance. It learns from language, to cite a specific source. It draws on the lessons of metaphor, simile and oxymoron, and it engages aspects of semantics and syntax in the conceptualization and realization of an object. It [product design] learns from craft, fashion design, folk art, graphic design and architecture to name a few other sources. It learns from advertising, art and video to name a few more. It learns from music. [The Italian design theorist Andrea Branzi has suggested that Pop music, rock-and-roll, is our new code, our first international language.] It learns from computers and the digital landscape. Designers often cite the technological marvels of their day as sources of inspiration and I am certainly no different in this respect. But I believe the words of Milton Glaser, who when asked about the subject of computers, said “The issue isn’t technology—it’s imagination.” My design philosophy is often purposefully eccentric and determinedly assertive. It aims to enhance the act of communication that takes place between object and user, and it acknowledges the fact that contemporary product design is one of the true public art forms of our time. It deals in actualities as well as aspirations, and it intuits that the act of designing is a path toward not just business success but toward personal awareness as well. Specifically, I’m interested in the juxtaposing, mingling, and merging of specific object qualities. For example, an 18th-century painted chest and a Formula 1 race car, the imagery of Navajo sand paintings and that of technical climbing equipment. I believe that we need to merge tools with dreams, the technological with the primitive, MTV with High Mass and so on. This, however, is a very sophisticated merging. It either has to take place on a completely intuitive level, or on a super-analytical level. When it is in-between—in the middle—it’s nowhere. One can’t just mix one thing with another; even our most wild fantasies are rule-governed structures. Post-Credible design is not for everyone, but it doesn’t aim or claim to be.

[a version of the real wall clock, designed by thomas bley and The Professor, 1988]

[a version of the real wall clock, designed by thomas bley and The Professor, 1988]

What are you applying this Post-Credible design philosophy toward right now? I have always thought that when I write, I design with words. Many of the same issues and methods are at stake. Both involve a stringent editing process, for example. Subsequently, I have been working toward writing that involves a Post-Credible position. With respect to design, I have collaborated on several projects over the past several years that reflect the beginnings of a Post-Credible design philosophy. With Tucker Viemeister, I designed The Pool Chair, a chair based on the simile of the swimming pool. With Michael Pinkus, I designed The Musical Chair, a hybrid seating form that combines a generic chair structure with an over-scaled music box. With Thomas Bley, I designed The Real Wall Clock, an inexpensive, mass-produced object that reexamines what it means to put time up on a wall. Currently, I want to fuse interests from earlier in my life with my current passions. For example, I am trying to bring my childhood fascination with ecology, the natural world, to bear on the production of objects for the home. I am just beginning to use rocks, bones, sticks, water and so on. Basic stuff. But [potentially] quite different when combined with plastics and [geometric] forms. Simple and contradictory. Quite Post-Credible. I stress the fact that this thing called a Post-Credible design philosophy has here been rendered during the process of its realization. This is a sketch in progress. It is not a definitive statement but rather a characterization of my current philosophy of design. Undoubtedly it will change, transform, mutate.

And that’s how The Professor ended his 1988 think-piece on personal design philosophy: by postulating the possibility of mutation. In retrospect, it was an unfortunately prescient statement, ironically anticipating his own body’s mutations that manifested some 16 years later throughout his body under the guise of various squamous cell cancers. On the far more positive side, “Chaos, Clarity, Post-Credibility and The New International Style” served as one of The Professor’s first attempts at committing [and communicating] his philosophy about design to someone outside of the voices in his head. The article was also written at the time when The Professor was starting to first think about leaving New York for graduate studies in design in California; he recalls the feeling that he needed to get his thoughts and his philosophy or metastory in order before he applied. To this day, The Professor continues to work at expressing those values and principles he holds most dear concerning inspiration, curiosity, notation and fabrication—in the classroom at CCA, and in his other writing, research and curatorial projects—and that’s why they call him The Professor.

 

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