Strange Harvest
Architecture / Design / Art
StrangeHarvest is written and collated by Sam Jacob.


Douglas Coupland: Design and Fiction



coupland.jpg
William Shatner acts and sings. Sting sings and acts. Sometimes one medium just isn't enough. Sometimes an artist, swelling with creativity, bursts the walls of their discipline.

Coinciding with the UK publication of his new novel 'Eleanor Rigby', Douglas Coupland has an exhibition at Canada House in London entitled 'Canada House'.

Originally trained as a sculptor, he turned into a novelist by converting a journalistic lifestyle guide commission into 'Generation X' - the book which marked territory explored through later novels: lives lacking traditional narratives: drifting McJob non-careers, overwhelmed by disaster, or here fragmented by teenage pregnancy and adoption, warped by disease. They are books that describe the strange sense of awe and disappointment of modern life. Now, he writes, sculpts and designs furniture.

Douglas Couplands novels are the best descriptions of the sensation of modern design. Perhaps it's the economy in his prose - the way a few words can generate giant cosmic enormity as well as the numbing comfort of the modern world. It's probably not exactly what Mies meant by 'less is more', but that's because it's all seen through a pop artists eye. That way of looking described by Denise Scott Brown in Learning from Las Vegas as 'with-holding judgment'.

It's that eye which finely observes the 21st century habitat. His novels render the world as lucidly as Vermeer ever did. Sensations of vast profundity amongst things which seem so lightweight. Hysterical and dead calm. Magic realism in the parking lot of a video rental store.

Dialogue flits between wisecracks and homilies. It's a hammy, stagey, sentimental, and kitsch place where people speak in Jenny Holzer-isms.
It feels like flipping between the Wonder Years, Star Trek and the Discovery Channel.

But being real isn't what fiction is about. Novels aren't necessarily about narrative either. A novel tells a story about a fictional world. It uses the story to tell you about the real world. In the same way chairs aren't about sitting down.

Chairs can't really be about function. There are already hundreds and thousands of perfectly good chairs on the market: padded, stacking, swivel or whatever variation you might need. The motivation to produce new chairs must be something else.

What kinds of things can you say with a chair that you can't say with a novel? What can art communicate that design can't? Could a chair be as eloquent about loneliness as 'Eleanor Rigby'?

In 'Generation X' one character uses the phrase 'I turned into furniture' to describe being on the point of crashing out. Perhaps chairs are personality turned into furniture. Perhaps they are also frozen situations. 'Two Solitudes Sofa' arrange its sitters on either side, facing away from each other. 'Treaty', another sofa, splits its seat into two parts - one a slither that's too thin to sit in, the other is a one and a half person size. Perhaps chairs are really poetry cloaked in function.

His sculptures are often odes to plastic - human sized toy soldiers, frozen in grimaces of action or melted together like innocent carnage of the toybox. There is a series of detergent bottles made solid and anonymous, their handles forming holes in mass like Henry Moore. They look pristine - a shape rather than a container becoming idealized visions of the mundane. The symbolic figure on the cover of 'Hey Nostradamus' was also an installation: Toilet man fallen to his knees and preying - that generic symbol of suddenly discovering spirituality.

The main character in 'Eleanor Rigby' has a cosmic experience involving a fragment of a Soviet space stations nuclear fuel cell that has fallen back to earth. Thinking it a meteorite as it crashes into the ground in front of her, she feels chosen as a witness to something cosmic. She carries it around as a lucky mascot. Eventually, it's discovered in transit at Frankfurt Airport. A little piece of space junk in junk space.

Confused between the natural and the man made, the episode recalls Billy Bragg: 'Is it wrong to wish on space hardware?'. How about other objects? A classic Eames chair? Conran cookware?

Can things carry hopes? or desires? or dreams? High Continental European Modernism meant objects in the cause of progress - fragments of future socialist utopias. Design once symbolized progress. Design was certain that it was a way of bringing a better world. People believed in san serif fonts. Helvetica was going to make a better world.

Baroque chairs dreamt hysterical dreams in which they grew birds feet. Rococo chairs dreamt they were metallic foliage. What does furniture dream of now? What do Ikeas Billy, Klippan, and Glimma see when Ingvar Kampra turns out the light?

Coupland might like to describe himself as a Futurist, but he's a long way from the wild eyed Marinetti. Reyner Banhams places those war-crazy Italians at the frantic heart of the Modern Movement. Their love of machines: faster, quicker bigger, noisier was the adrenaline thrill of harnessed power.

But there are other Modern traditions, and other kinds of Futurism. According to Nicolas Pevsner, William Morris was the epicenter of Modernism. And ironically, Morris was driven into the future by nostalgia as passionate and all consuming as Futurisms love of the future.
Couplands modernity is a nostalgic-futurism. It reaches out both forwards and backwards in time, grasping for things that the now seems to lack. Things like certainty and meaning.

We live in the future which was imagined by 20th century visionaries like Le Corbusier and Walt Disney. Surrounded by these failed futures, its impossible to have the faith that older generations had in progress. Progress now seems much more complicated and full of risk. Perhaps its that faith that boosts prices for mid century modern furniture. Maybe it's that faith which drives architecture to repeat modernist mantras long after the event. Things that once looked boldly into the future are now repeated as nostalgia.

Design finds the modern world problematic. It's because it confuses being modern with being slick, cool and right. Coupands work shows that being modern is really about feeling shattered into thousands of pieces, about loss and wonder. It's more likely to be the far off sound you hear when you are in a hospital waiting room than the products on the shop floor of SCP.

First published in Icon



Posted by anothersam at October 18, 2004 7:06 PM.

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Contents:

More Scenes In Cartoon Deserta

Eiffel X-Rays

Beyond: Values and Symptoms

Sub Plan

Shenzhen: Window of the World

White Power

Generic Powerpoint Template: Delivering Bad News

Duplicate Array

The Best New Building In London

Book Review: The Infrastructural City

A Balloon in the Pantheon

Letters From The Pantheon

Henry Moore in Motion

On My Steel Horse I Ride

The Michael Jackson Monument Design Competition

Now Showing: John Baldessari Sings Sol LeWitt

Obscure Design Typologies: Life Guard Chairs

Osama bin Laden Cigarette Lighter: Novelty Products as Congealed Culture

Absurd Car Crashes: A Eulogy for J.G. Ballard

Candy Pistol

Now Showing: Dan Grahams 'Rock My Religion'

This Concrete 'O': On Serotonin, the M25, and the Motorik Picturesque

Church of the Literal Narrative

Philadelphias Floating Architecture

Now Viewing: Married To The Eiffel Tower

Le Corbusiers Image Hoard: Poeme Electronique

Giant American Signs: Original Learning from Las Vegas Footage

Giant Soviet Signs Cut Into Forests

Bricks Melted Into Icicles: Napalm Decorative

C-Labs 'Unfriendly Skies' & 'Bootleg' Volume

2 The Lighthouse: Self Storage & Architectural Hallucinations

Ceci N'Est Pas Une Pipe: Infrastructure as Architectural Subconcious.

Viva Sectional Cinematography!

Now Showing: The Installation of an Irreversible Axis on a Dynamic Timeline

Plug: Junk Jet

Sim Seasons Greetings! The Rise of Neo-Winter

Geography in Bad, Festive Drag.

The Ruins of the Future

High Tech As Steampunk ...

On The Retro Infrastructural

Simulations of Industry: High Tech Architecture and Thatcherism

David Greene: The Big Nothing

From The Factory to the Allotment: Tony Wilson, Urbanist

Koolhaas HouseLife / Gan Eden: The Revenge of Architectural Media

Ruburb-ric: The Ecologies of the Farnsworth House

The Architecture of Divorce

Flagrant Delit: The Movie

Landscape as Clothing

Telly Savalas Looks At Birmingham Redux

Acts of Un-Building: Timelapse Demolitions

Yard Filth: Next Years Hot Look

Stonehenge: A Black Hole At The Heart Of British Architecture

The Popemobile: Mechanised Robes & Motorised Architecture

Tarmac Adam, Tarmac Eden

The Secret Language of Surface

Some Housekeeping

Information Fields: Agriculture as Media

My Bloody Valentine: Sound as Substance

A Cubist Copse: Gehrys Serpentine Pavilion

Olympic Model Protest

Spouting Off: Some Thoughts On The Fountainhead

Form Follows Dysfunction: Bad Construction & The Morality of Detail

Floating Homes

Vintage Tradeshow Surrealism: International Grune Woche

Moving Houses: Buildings In Motion

Desktop Study: The Strange World of Sports Studio Design

Married to the Eiffel Tower: More Objectum Sexuals

60 Years of The Crazy Horse Memorial

Married to the Berlin Wall: "The Best and Sexiest Wall Ever Existed!"

Inflatable Icebergs: Sublimated Guilt Has Never Been So Fun

The Cinderella Effect: Phantom Architectures of Illumination

Two Deaths and a Retirement: The Strange Shape of British Architecture

If London Were Like New York: Antique Schizo-Manhattanism

If London Were Like Venice: Antique Geo-Poetic Speculations and Hydro-Fantasy

41 Hours in an Elevator: The Movie

NASA: Mapping the Moon with Sport

Lemon Squeezy: Design Tendencies after the Juicy Salif

Stadium Seat Mosaics

The Nihilistic Beauty of Weapons Arranged in Patterns

Light Vessel Automata

Dogs: Britains Greatest Design Obsession

Madison Avenue Modern

Detroit Sucks: The Motor Shows Last Gasp

Mies' Grave: Cut Out Model

All You Can Eat

Valentine Machine

The Tools of Re-Geography

Floating in a New Town Sky

Authentic Replicas: Football and the Franchising of Place

Folk Football: Landscape, Space and Abstraction

Haystack House

A Wishing Well with a Fat Up Pipe

The Camoufluers and the Day-Glo Battleship

Pseudoccino: Instant Coffee Foam

Yesterdays Technology, Today

Blown Up: More Inflatable Military Stuff

On Christmas Trees, Folk Forests and Staples Office Supplies

Hampton Courts Shrouded Sculptures

Named Fabric: 20 Sponsored Pieces of Architecture at the New Museum

Form Follows Felony: The Secret Home of the Un-Dead Canoeist.

Architectural Magazines: Paranoid Beliefs, Public Autotheraphy - More on Clip/Stamp/Fold

Little Magazines Seen Today

James Bond Lives Next Door: Suburban Imagery as Industry

The Ghost of Christmas Futurism

Petrified War Machine

Military Deceptions

Chapters for an Imaginary Book About Architecture

Shrouded Plinth - Urban Striptease

In the Night Garden - Surreal Landscape of Nostalgia

Kim Jong II, The Great Architect

Pill Box Picturesque

Un Clear Monument

Place Faking: Instant Heritage for the Thames Gateway

The Marc Bolan Memorial Crash Barrier.

Warped Domesticity

The Nuclear Heritage Coast

Enjoy The Silence: Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones

The Story of O (2)

Telly Savalas Looks At Birmingham

X100: A Design Exercise

How to Plan A New Town

Carpet Bomber

In Search of Britains Vehicular History

Scenes in Cartoon Deserta

Scary Suburbanism: Why Horror is at Home in the Suburbs

Re-Make Re-Model

I Like Your Manifesto, Lets Put it to the Test-o

How to Become a Famous Architect

Northampton - Sci-fi Pop Planning Promotion

Advertising Central Milton Keynes

Baltic Exchanged

Festival of Nostalgia

The Clapham Trainwash

Airports as Music

Test Card Dummies

The Velvet Underground at the Glass House

Duplikate: Kate Moss on the Production Line of Individuality

The Museum that Ate Itself

Hollow Inside: Starbucks Foam and the Rise of Ambiguous Materials

Revisions to the Architecture of Hell

Crufts: Dogs, Design and Aesthetic Genetics

Eos Airlines: Executive Bubbles over the Atlantic

London's Ugliest Buildings

1.51 Miles Of String

Google Earths Vertiginous Mapping

Church of the Ascension and Descension

Reyner Banham Loves Los Angeles

Replica Bombs

The Invisible Bungalow

House / Boat

Reading Lines: Skateboarding and Public Space

Mountain Sculpting

Sint Lucas in BD

Bat House Competition

Old Walton Bridge

Kiruna: The Town That Moved

Spray On Magnetic Defense

Chris Cornish: Prototyping History

The Jubilee Gestalt Vase

The Most Visited Location in the UK

Anything to Feel Weightless Again: The Cargo Lifter and the Tropical Island Resort

'Its beauty will know no season'

2000 Years of Non Stop Nostalgia. Or How Half Timbering Made Me Whole Again.

Inside-out Aldwych

Backpeddling into the Future: The Historical-Futurism of British Architecture

Miss Selfridges' Feeling for Fake Snow. The Oxford St. Lights and Why We Need Artificial Winter

Nelsons Cavern

Foam Gargoyle

New Tory Logo: A Hazy Shade of Politics

Jeff Koons, Rem Koolhaas, Hans Ulrich Obrist at the Serpentine

Souvenir Empire

Celebrity Scents: The Bittersweet Smell of Success

Imperfect Pitch - Football, Space and Landscape

Product Placement: Making the Impossible Possible

Suburban Growth: Matthew Moores Field of Dreams

Perfect Sound Forever: The Secret Function of High End Stereos

Picture of the Week 1

A Little Light Product Placement

Some Advice To A Young Designer

London and on and on

In the Gallery of Ice Creams

Useless Proclamations for a Beautiful City

Mini Mies Chair

Topsy Turvy VSBA: Inverted Heros of an Upside Down Avant Guard

Harvest III: Buried Things

The Harvest II

The Harvest I

Estuary Urbanism

The Royal Families Trees

Everything Flows: ideological cartography

How Geostationary Was My Valley?

The Psychotic Utopia of the Suburbs and the Suburbanisation of War.

LegoLand London Cluster

In a Lonely Place - Under Construction

Design Will Eat Itself

Mach 3 Nitro Gel - Design that's foaming at the mouth.

Marchitecture. Architectural things to do in London this March

Metallic Jet Powered Cloud

"When we got married I had no idea he would do something like this, he just said he was going to do some decorating."

The Electric Cenotaph

Russian Rok

Commitment ...

Dinner in the Iguanadon

Trace

What happens when you cross a pen with a car?

Leg Table Leg

Florentine Building Sites

Good Morning Britain

Football Pitch: Best of British

The Sad Photographer

The First Cut is the Cheapest - Blenheim Palace: pop architecture that goes for the jugular

Book Now For Christmas

Requiem for a Toilet Seat

Architecture that Destroys

TomTom Mobile 5 / GO 700

Winning Design

Another Croydon

Holiday Snap II : Giant Glowing French Balls

Holiday Snap: Canadian War Memorial, Vimy, France

Pecha Kucha London

Anatomy of an Architectural News Story

Big Bens

First Cut - Case Closed

The Texas Tower

Its All About the Big Benjamins

G8 Security Tower

White Cubed Blues

Poundbury, unexpectedly, in the rain

The Exploding Concrete Inevitable. Lou Reed and the Casa da Musica

Swingball

Untitled (Plastic Sack and Timber)

Berlin 1945 - The Obscene Picturesque

Pizza Planet

Goal Sculptures

Interview: Jeremy Deller & Alan Kane

Previewing Cedric Price

The Mardas Touch

Building a Lionel Richie Head

Ornament is Grime 2

An Incredible Smell of Roasting Coffee

Flatpack Frenzy at New IKEA

Langlands & Bell - The House of Osama Bin Laden

Labour is kind of working

Happy Death Men

Build to Let

Architectural Criticism gets Sharp

Niagara Falls

Ornament is Grime

FA(ke) Cup

Q&A: Wouter Vanstiphout

X-treme urinals

Unigate Cowscape

Spray-on Snow

From the Baffler ...

One in a Taxi

The Queen Machine

The Knork

Venturi, Scott Brown and my love that dare not speak its name.

Polictical Placards

The Ketchup Conumdrum

Douglas Coupland: Design and Fiction

It's a Small World

Images de Parfums

Soft Carcass

Christopher Dresser at the V&A

Blow up Pub

Municipal Mummification

The Matt and Ron Show

Semi - detached

Half Timbered Van

Feltham Future

Favorite Things

Fugitives and Refugees' - Chuck Palahniuk

The Pop Vernacular

Design by Chefs

Just What is it That Makes Yesterdays Homes So Different, So Appealing?

Archigrams Pastoral Futurism

Sorry Mies

The Flaming Lips - Live.

Everything Counts - The Sound of Geography Collapsing.

Carlton Terrace Extension

Other:

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