Design Will Eat Itself

Imagine a Faberge egg fertilized by a Monster truck and you've got the genetic pool that spawned Gillette's triple bladed M3 Power Razor, the world's first vibrating razor. The surfaces of the handle have been worked over completely. Rubberized nodules, a fine metallic grid, and faux titanium ribbed like a flight case tickle, grip, and graze my palm and fingers. It’s like an incredibly complicated handshake from a lecherous freemason. Sensation here is as important as performance—the action of holding the razor has been designed as an intricate, intimate experience. So much that it’s not quite clear if I am touching metal or plastic. Actually, it doesn’t feel like a material, more like warships, performance cars, and power tools within the stretch of my palm.

But my thrill at being on the bleeding edge of razor design has been somewhat dulled by the imminent launch of Fusion Power—a five bladed shaver. It will feature an on-board microchip and boasts a “Precision Trimmer” blade built into the back of the cartridge for shaping your designer facial hair features.

The ludicrous intricacy and density of razors increases incessantly, as though the desire to innovate, improve, and remake the shaving experience could never end. But perhaps Gillette’s need to innovate is less about improvement and more about shifting units, grabbing market share, and selling to a saturated market. Perhaps what they pass off as innovation is really creating obsolescence. Like all bathroom products, the M3 has a rhetoric couched in scientific/functionalist language, a modern kind of baroque. The initial problem becomes buried under Gaussian layers of solutions, improvements, and answers, which themselves become thrills and sensations. The tiny object bristles with curlicue technical promise. Its need to demonstrate improvement and functionality is purely symbolic.

Its not only razors that display this hyper-functionalist tendency. You can see it in products as diverse as moisturisers and mountain bikes, kitchenware and clothing. The traditional idea of functionalism is dissipating into a fog of features and add-ons, obscuring design’s sharp image of itself. Just as newspapers are published with roughly the same amount of content every day regardless of how much news has happened, design is iterated not because there is anything particularly new but because product cycles demand it. It’s a feedback loop that turns the Modernist mantra of ‘form following function’ into an ear-splitting, incoherent howl.

It’s the howl of a profession realising it has, accidentally, and without noticing, inverted its most cherished beliefs. A shriek of self-recognition that it has become a perverted version of itself.

How did it happen? How did honest, well-meaning, design end up twisted out of all recognition? My guess is that it was sometime in the 1980s, when design flipped from the socially worthwhile to the socially mobile. Workwear became haute couture, lemon squeezers became sculptures, advertising became art and warehouses became domestic houses. At the same time, the ‘high’ design canon became commercialised. The history of twentieth design was cherry picked. Plucked from its original context and placed in a Sade soundtracked, matt black, halogen lit room set.

In a sense, connoisseurship destroyed the things it loved most by separating the rhetoric of design from its objects. It taught us to look at design selectively and rewrote the history of design in its own image. Objects originally intended to translate industrial production into the liberation of the working class became fetishized as consumer products.
The foundations of the places such as the MoMA Design Store or the Conran Shop were laid in very different places, like the Bauhaus. Objects from the industrial age were recontextualised into an era of information, marketing and branding.

This process has left us rudderless. It has left a gap between the things we like, and the reasons we like them. Perhaps Conran has turned Corb and Mies into gimmicks. And if he has, then is it any different from the way Gillette use design?

Looking at the M3 Power Razor is like looking at the living end of the functionalist era. It is important to recognise that the context of design has changed. Out of this context we are beginning to see new kinds of design.

Over the last year, something small and green has been annoying Europeans. The Crazy Frog, best known as a ringtone was a promotion in search of a product. It treated medias like lily pads—hopping from one to another. Every hop saw it materialize into a different kind of product. It began life as an Internet meme, a sound post on a Swedish adolescent’s Web site, which was picked up by a TV show. The sound spread via file sharing and began to be attached to various animations and quizzes. Another Swede produced an animation of a frog-like animal pretending to drive a motorbike to accompany the sound. The animation and the sound were licensed by a ringtone company, Jamster, whose incessant promotion—May 2005 saw 73,716 advertisements across all UK television channels—led it to notoriety. From ringtone it became a chart-topping single that kept Coldplay off the number one spot. Then it shattered into a vast array of licensed merchandise: cakes, soft toys, computer games. An anatomy of Crazy Frog would reveal its Frankenstein-like nature: notable part Toad of Toad Hall, part Gremlin, part audio alert, with a pulse of 80s electro, software guts and a skin of pure marketing. Its design is a monstrous hybrid stitching the real to the virtual; the amateur to the corporate, bound together by a series of licensing deals. Cultural references are stuffed inside one another, and then squashed until they fuse. It’s ambiguous as to whether it’s an object or a logo, an advert or a product. Its use is not entirely clear either: solid function has become unexpectedly fluid like mercury. Perhaps it’s this ambiguity that is its most striking quality, the thing that makes it feel different.

Crazy Frog is a long way from the kinds of authenticities and truths that designers have traditionally craved. These are sentiments that, for better or worse, seem very distant to early 21st century culture. Traditionally, design came from within the object: function expressed into form. Now design comes into an object from the outside—because there are no insides anymore. Consequently, the cul-de-sac of form and function is unfolding into a broad horizon of possibility. There is a richness that is only just becoming visible.

A designer’s job used to involve the careful arrangement of mechanics into a coherent object. Increasingly, those machines are evaporating—leaving a concentrated residue of electronics and marketing in a box. The guts are miniaturizing, shrinking away from their wrapper, vanishing into discrete specializations. Design has become a kind of seamstress, patch working together technology and software licences. It’s the hooks, zips, and clips—the glue between box, hardware and software.

A Faberge egg is intricate beyond the expectation of this world. Shinier, more ornate, but always infertile. A Monster Truck is deformed like a steroid-riddled body builder whose abs, pecs and glutes exceed biology. They are polar opposites – extremes of function and non-function. They are the beginning and the end of a particular passage in design history.

. Objects are dematerializing into feelings and image: The click of an iPod scroll wheel, the clunk of a BMW door, and the sheen on an Alessi kettle – these are a kind of existential functionalism, closer to the feeling you get watching a movie or listening to a song. The traditional role of design has shrunk, but meanwhile, the spectrum of design has broadened. Contemporary design might now include plastic surgery, traffic management systems or the virtual manipulations of data - From the bone sawingly and bloodily ‘real’ to the beaurocratically, systemised ‘virtual’. Designers can no longer rely in the innate morality of materials or techniques – now so disparate that what can be considered ‘authentic’ and ‘true’ or even ‘better’ is much harder to discern. Turning away from the physical and functional, it is becoming a series of sensations – not exactly the way something looks, or the way it might feel, or the way it does whatever it is it needs to do, or the sound it makes. Instead, it’s the way it makes you feel.

That means design happens in the kinds of places that we’ve been educated not to look. Good design isn’t about making things work better anymore—because most stuff works pretty well. It’s about making you feel engaged with the present, allowing you to touch the moment - that elusive, slippery sensation of “now”. Fashion allows us to see what “now” looks like and what “now” does. Which explains why we need to keep on designing new kinds of chair. Fashion is an attempt to make sense of ourselves in a complex world. It might be easier to think of design as a form of cultural criticism, anthropology, or satire. Like science fiction, design looks toward the future, but more often than not it’s actually telling us about the present. Design objects sit between an individual’s intimate space and the wheels of global commerce. They work out a space that tells us about where we are and what we’re thinking—the kinds of thing you see and feel before you know. Its here that new design can find its own kind of truth – the place it makes you feel mighty real.

Posted by sam at March 13, 2006 7:02 PM

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