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


The Mardas Touch



For a week or so the Milan Furniture Fair is the focus of the design world. Products are launched, designers reputations are forged, and journalists drink in the hope of seeing something new.

I've never been - I start feeling strange at design expos. I'm the same flicking through a design magazine, or browsing the shelves of a designer shop. The closest I came to a nervous breakdown was in the cutlery department of a Conran Shop seeing my face multiplied and distorted on the back of spoons. These nodes of highly concentrated design radiate something odd. Quite frankly, it's unnatural to be completely surrounded by things that are more confident of their place in the world than you.

I do wonder why people go to Milan. What are they really going to see?

Unlike art, music or poetry, Design does not claim to illuminate the human condition. Its excuse is that it does something useful: providing something to sit on, something to sleep in, something to eat off. Designers will often quote 19th century Chicago architect HH Richardson: 'Form follows function'. They use this phrase to justify the shape they give things. It's a way the designer can abdicate responsibility, suggesting, somewhat fatalistically, that the product is an inevitable consequence of the brief - and certainly not a personal and subjective choice made by the designer.

But the odd thing is that design isn't really about function either. If it was, we wouldn't need any new designs for chairs - its not as if all those millions of existing chair designs have suddenly become redundant.

There was a time when design believed it could change the world: emancipate the working class; bring hygiene and democracy to the dirty and oppressed. Design had a morality and a higher purpose. Modernist design: white villas in Parisian suburbs, Helvetica, Square, chromed teapots, had a faith not just their own modest function, but in the grand purpose of design: to make the world a better place.

But figuring out what design believes in now is tricky.

If you really want to know about design, you should turn to Brett Easton Ellis and Douglas Coupland. Between them, they have a lucid understanding of the world of objects that surround us.

That these North American novelists might have such a keen eye design could be explained by the last great design critic, Reyner Banham. He argued the Wild West was won by industrial designers:

'The quintessential gadgetry of the pioneering frontiersman had to be carried across trackless country, set down in a wild place, and left to transform that hostile environment without skilled attention. Its function was to bring instant order or human comfort into a situation which had previously been an undifferentiated mess, and for this reason it is so deeply involved with the American mythology of wilderness'

Fast forward 120 years to the frontiersmen great great grandsons, and eavesdrop dialogue from American Psycho where Manhattan yuppies are comparing business cards:

''Cool colouring' Van Patten says, studying the card closely.
'That's bone' I point out 'And the lettering is something called Silian Rail'

The absolute importance of these useless design decisions is played out through one-upmanship. First 'Eggshell with Roamilan type'. Then 'Raised lettering, pale nimbus white'.

Banham was writing about simple products that forged nations. He understood design as tool and machines, which extended the reach, and strength of the human being. A kind of Futurist Modernism.

Couplands novels contain strangely magical descriptions of blank and provisional IKEA furnished landscapes - altogether less heroic, but certainly more modern. Coupland and Ellis are exploring the uselessness of design in its wonderful and horrific redundancy. They are Pop Art soliliquies, which recognise the gloriously schizophrenic nature of contemporary design.

Looking back, there is a particular moment that defined the cultural shift in the purpose of design. Design changed one day in 1990 with the production of Philippe Starks 'Juicy Salif' - that ribbed, chrome teardrop on spidery legs. It was striking, beautiful : it looked like different to all that other prosaic kitchen stuff. It looked more like sculpture than sculptures. Its been called 'the most controversial citrus fruit squeezer of the 20th century' - an American Psycho-ism if ever there was one.

It was the culmination of the previous decades idea of design. In the 80s, product design was what you said about yourself to other people. It was an era which re-made the whole of the history of objects. Lucky Strike cigarettes, Rietvelts Red and Blue Chair, Levis Red Tab 501s, Mackintosh's Glasgow School of Art. Objects were plucked out of historical context `and canonised in the pages of style magazines. It created a different story about design: depoliticising Modernism, cutting loose from all that tedious 1930s rhetoric. It fetishised certain utilitarian products, turning them into sought after commodities. Lifestyle replaced ideology as the driving force of design.

The Juicy Salif was as much a part of the 1980s as Robert Palmers 'Addicted to Love' Video. Both were super slick, sexy and useless at squeezing lemons. Stark astutely recognised that usefulness wasn't the same as function.

The 1990s saw design culture turn on itself. It started to think all kinds of quirky, dark thoughts. Design had become so slick, perfect and commodified it suddenly felt wrong. Designers wanted to be real; they wanted to make real things again. They craved the kind of authenticity that had been erased by the 1980s.

The high watermark of this kind of anti-design was Do Create. A project produced by design company Droog, advertising agency KesselsKramer and a whole host of designers. Asking the user to smash, dent, stick and prop its furniture up showed that it wasn't about what it looked like, but about how you used it. This kind of wonky, vaguely serious, slightly ironic, partially political, quasi-fine art approach has seen design explore strange and perverse routes.

Design delights in its perversity. It blew up the traditional idea of function and messed with materials. Though it is often charming, I think it secretly wants you to be horrified at you relationship with the world.

Which might explain why furniture designers are blowtorching Pianos on the front cover of design magazines and selling the charred carcass to an 'influential trend-forecaster'. It's design as a quirky morality play.

Anti-design is the designers revenge for what Conran, Alessi and all those other 80s design characters did to design. Its revenge for making design separate from the real world.

Design has evolved from use to uselessness - but in a good way. Perhaps it should become even more useless - evolving into lumps of sensation - dense clumps of feeling. Flat packed feelings to distribute around our homes. A Tom Dixon lump, a Marcel Wanders pile, a Ron Arad slump. Design is still restrained by these old fashioned Modernist morality of function. Design is a bubble that preserves a sensation - a fleeting feeling made solid.

Think of Jonathan Ive, Apple computers product designer, somewhere in a studio on Infinite Loop, Cupertino immersed in a Californian zen-ness. His design for the iPod isn't the hardware - the internal electronics - it's the sensation. It's the feeling
of chilled smoothness. It makes the product feel like it isn't there. Touching it feels as though your hand is coated in something cold and wet. It's a feeling frozen into a plastic case.

Perhaps design is the physical manifestation of invisible stuff. A bit like the opposite of Marxs' description of effect of capital in the Communist Manifesto: 'all that is solid melts into air'. Product design does the opposite. It makes solid-ness out of the fleeting imaginary world of ghosts and shadows and dreams.

Design is culture batch produced in three dimensions. It casts us in the role of theoretical archaeologists, picking over examples of our own culture. The new products being launched in Milan will, for a while, make the familiar world slightly strange. This mild alienation affords a different view of our own world.

Design is perverse, riddled with contradictions. It's both inane and intensely serious. It's as much about idea as it is about a thing. Above all, design is usually a glorious failure - either to fulfil its ambition, to perform as intended, to look quite as good as it should or to sell as well as anyone wanted.

Perhaps because of the battle design has between reality and utopia, I've adopted a new favourite designer, 'Magic' Alex Mardas. He was a Greek TV repairman who, for some reason was hired by The Beatles to run Apple Corps electronics arm. He promised to build an artificial sun, a telephone you told who to call, wallpaper loudspeakers, a house which hovered supported by an invisible beam, a flying saucer, a solar powered electric guitar. They asked him to install their recording studio in Savile Row. Mardas promised miracles: EMI (Abbey Road) had only just expanded to eight-track recording, Apple would have 72- track. And there would be no need to use those awkward studio "baffles" around Ringo to prevent leakage of his drum sound into the other microphones. Magic Alex would install an invisible sonic force-field which would do the work unobtrusively.

He got as far as wandering around in a white coat, with a clipboard, muttering and trying to place box-loads of tiny loudspeakers around the studio, one for each track, and a mixing console cobbled from bits of wood and an old oscilloscope.

His grand ambition, utopian visions allied to their totally inadequate and pathetic manifestation is a kind of exaggeration of the feeling every designer has when the thing that has occupied their thoughts finally produced as a real thing. The gap between the idea of something and its production could be named the 'Mardas Gap'.



Posted by anothersam at March 5, 2005 11:37 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

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