The End of Capitalism or Capitalism by Design?

There was an interesting article [1] in The Observer this weekend by Paul Mason, the Economics editor for Channel 4, and author of a new book called Postcapitalism: A Guide to our Future. The article argues (as I assume the book does) that information can form the productive core of a world beyond capitalism – a freer, networked, more idea-driven world. A world where openness and collaboration will be key.  To get to that world Mason points to both the creative and productive aspects of design thinking. Towards the end of the article he summarises:

“The power of imagination will become critical. In an information society, no thought, debate or dream is wasted – whether conceived in a tent camp, prison cell or the table football space of a startup company.

“As with virtual manufacturing, in the transition to postcapitalism the work done at the design stage can reduce mistakes in the implementation stage. And the design of the postcapitalist world, as with software, can be modular. Different people can work on it in different places, at different speeds, with relative autonomy from each other.”

He ends:

“We need more than just a bunch of utopian dreams and small-scale horizontal projects. We need a project based on reason, evidence and testable designs, that cuts with the grain of history and is sustainable by the planet. And we need to get on with it.”

On a first reading I nodded my head, connecting with what was said – the value of ideas from areas least expected, the need for imagination, the intrinsic relevance of design, and particularly the open-source nature of the postcapitalism project.

But rewind a bit and read about that modular design process again and it all begins to sound a bit, well, 1970s.  Right down to the ‘post’ prefix of the book title.

In previous posts I’ve talked about the economics of intangible goods, about open-source design processes and about how design thinking can be appropriated for good or bad.  Mason’s article does kind of add all those things up in a thought-provoking way, but I’m just wondering, now that governments around the world are on to design in a big way [2], if Postcapitalism might just be Capitalism by Design.

 

[1] Mason, P (2015) The End of Capitalism has Begun, The Observer, Sunday 19th July.

[2] See, for example, a recent gathering of government policy labs which use methods of design to develop policy.

Advertisements

Unpractical Londoners: Memory, Memorialisation, and Design Thinking

After something of an extended blog break, stuck on a long (and not-yet-finished) blog post, my attention was captured and diverted by a second-hand book purchase last weekend. Two Short Accounts of Psycho-Analysis by Sigmund Freud cost me 99 pence, although the original cost only 30 pence. Published in 1910, the elegant, Marber-grid-designed Pelican 1962 version I found had (so a blurred stamp on the first page told me) previously been part of the Maria Assumpta College Library in Kensington, London.

Book Cover

The book consists of five lectures that Freud gave at Clark University, Worcester, Massachusetts in 1909, summarising his work into the theory of the unconscious and the practice of psycho-analysis. One particular passage, drawing an analogy between how people and how cities experience and remember trauma, stood out:

“Ladies and Gentlemen, if I may be allowed to generalize I should like to formulate what we have learned so far as follows: our hysterical patients suffer from reminiscences. Their symptoms are residues and mnemic [1] symbols of particular (traumatic) experiences.”

The markers of traumatic events, in other words, remain prominent in the memory of ‘hysterical’ people. Freud continues:

“We may perhaps obtain a deeper understanding of this kind of symbolism if we compare them with other mnemic symbols in other fields. The monuments and memorials with which large cities are adorned are also mnemic symbols. If you take a walk through the streets of London, you will find, in front of one of the great railway termini, a richly carved Gothic column – Charing Cross. One of the old Plantagenet kings of the thirteenth century ordered the body of his beloved Queen Eleanor to be carried to Westminster; and at every stage at which the coffin rested he erected a Gothic cross. Charing Cross is the last of the monuments that commemorate the funeral cortege.”

Freud gives a further example:

“At another point in the same town, not far from London Bridge, you will find a towering, and more modern, column, which is simply known as ‘The Monument’. It was designed as a memorial of the Great Fire, which broke out in that neighbourhood in 1666 and destroyed a large part of the city.”

These designed artefacts – the Gothic cross and the modern column – deliberately stand to mark particular traumatic events; moments in history that were upsetting or destructive [2]. Freud focuses us on our thoughts being symbols of prior experience; related things, but different things, where the representation and cause are only conceptually linked. The problems of hysteria come when we can’t let go of a particular symbol in our memory as Freud goes on to explain:

“These monuments, then, resemble hysterical symptoms in being mnemic symbols; up to that point the comparison seems justifiable. But what should we think of a Londoner who paused today in deep melancholy before the memorial of Queen Eleanor’s funeral instead of going about his business in the hurry that modern working conditions demand or instead of feeling joy over the youthful queen of his own heart? Or again what should we think of a Londoner who shed tears before the Monument that commemorates the reduction of his beloved metropolis to ashes although it has long since risen again in far greater brilliance? Yet every single hysteric and neurotic behaves like these two unpractical Londoners. Not only do they remember painful experiences of the remote past, but they still cling to them emotionally; they cannot get free of the past and for its sake they neglect what is real and immediate.”

The reason I was drawn to this passage was that it reveals the complexity of even the simplest of our thoughts.  A thought can be thing, but it can also represent another thing, and the meanings can be very particular, not necessarily ‘rational’, sometimes uncomfortable, potentially debilitating.

My own design research started in the area of design thinking when design thinking meant design cognition and not the general-purpose creative tool it has now become. Central to design cognition, as indeed to all cognition, as indeed is all cognition, is thought. I spent a lot of time thinking about what goes on in the mind of a designer – what thoughts flick through their brain when they’re designing something – where do the memories come from? How does remembered experience feed into the pencil, sketching the new solution?

At the time I took a simple-minded approach to thought. If a person said they’d thought of a ship, I noted it down, and didn’t question why they’d thought of a ship. A ship is a ship is a ship, I thought (and that sketch does look like a ship, I thought). But over the years I’ve noticed that good designers share certain traits; an emotional connection with material and things; a fixation with small details. Getting it just right matters, and that ‘just right’ involves not just aesthetics, but an emotional connection, a feeling that can’t be reasoned away, sometimes a mild hysteria.

Freud touches on thinking at the deepest level, where the sources and the structures and the mechanisms are incalculable and often illusory; logical dead ends. Where symbols erupt seemingly from nowhere; standing for things long gone from conscious memory; an emotional residue [3].

So perhaps to be a designer you have to be just a little bit hysterical. Unable to walk away from a memorial cross without a feeling of melancholy, unable not to shed tears at the destruction of a fondly remembered building – the Macintosh library to fire at the Glasgow School of Art, for example, or the Tricorn Centre to demolition in Portsmouth.

“Memory”, the Enlightenment Philosopher John Locke wrote, “is the key to identity”, but it’s a difficult thing to nail, especially when you’re interested in design thinking.

[1] mnemic – relating to the capacity for retaining the after-effects of a particular experience or stimulation.

[2] Compare this to the ‘speaking countenances’ of Thomas Hardy in another post, where a point on a bridge develops a character formed by many troubled person’s contact with it, and thus where the environment intrinsically ‘remembers’ and represents what has happened there.

[3] One of the best portrayals of how the unconscious mind draws from prior experience, going back to childhood, is shown in the film The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, when a memory erasing device attempts to track down the source of every last memory relating to the traumatic experience of a relationship breakup.

How to Kill a Designer

In a past post I wrote about the mysterious design genius of Bitcoin creator Satoshi Nakamoto and on BBC television recently was a documentary about another internet shaper – Aaron Swartz, who played major parts in developing RSS feed technology, Creative Commons implementation, and the social news website Reddit. The documentary is called The Internet’s Own Boy and is available (courtesy of Creative Commons) through The Documentary Network.

I urge you to watch this to gain an account of how global politics is lumberingly, awkwardly, waking up to the democratic power of the web and how that, paradoxically, is threatening democracy, or at least what passes for democracy in the western world, post Wikileaks and Edward Snowden. It is a hopeful, then utterly heartbreaking, account of how someone with technical genius and political skill, someone devoted to democratic ideals of openness, and with the energy, creativity, and organisation to really achieve change, is slowly and deliberately brought down.

I hadn’t heard of Schwartz before I watched the film but it is clear how much hope was invested in him. What I was struck by was a T-Shirt he wears in a brief scene about half-way through the film (shown below):

Design can Save the World

Aaron Swartz’s T-Shirt: “Design will Save the World”

“Design will save the world”, it says, and it’s easy to see why he might have seen design as a key force in the projects he was involved with: creating forums for knowledge exchange, making ‘private’ research information public, and allowing creative outputs to be used by all. But designing at this level is becoming a dangerous and political business, which probably means it is absolutely vital that we try to protect and support those people who know how to do it.

Design’s Political Agnosticism

At the Victoria & Albert museum in London at the moment is a very good exhibition called ‘Disobedient Objects‘ [1]. The exhibition shows examples of things produced for protest: against governments, against organisations, against building programmes, against injustice. Wandering around the show sparked lots of ideas, but not only for me; I overheard one girl knowingly saying to another, just in front of me: “are you getting blog inspiration here?”

She could have been talking to me, because that is what I was thinking too. The exhibition made a link for me that had previously been a bit hazy. It was brought home when I read the following quote, describing one of the exhibits. Try and work out who the ‘they’ is at the beginning:

“They have to be strategic with how they deliver their message. This can mean engaging tactically with the media, or finding ways to circumvent it and speak directly. Today, this involves immediate hands-on forms of expression alongside appropriating cutting edge technology and social media.”

The ‘they’ could be a Barak Obama political campaign – or any politician’s for that matter. It could be Facebook or Google or Vodafone, or any new start-up. It could be David Beckham or Victoria Beckham or even Brooklyn Beckham.

It is, in fact, a general description of how social movements voice dissent and hence how objects can be appropriated for ‘disobedience’.

The use of all manner of objects in civil disobedience shows how creativity and design is essential to form an effective protest. Police using tear gas? Make a gas mask out of a 5-litre water bottle (see below). Need to lock yourself to a post to stop a road being built? Make a lock-on device using a metal pipe with nuts, bolts, and chains. Need to distribute information quickly to avoid censorship? Make a pamphlet bomb.

Gas_mask

An improvised gas mask from ‘Disobedient Objects’. The original caption reads: “The Turkish Government used record amounts of tear gas to disperse the 2013 Istanbul protests. Protesters devised homemade gas masks as a form of protection” (p.48)

The quote was interesting to me because of my teaching in the area of Design Thinking. Rewind to 2009 and I was working for The Open University to put together a new distance-learning course called Design Thinking: Creativity for the 21st Century. Currently over 4000 people of all ages and abilities have studied the course – most with no previous experience – and learned about the many ways in which the methods of design can be applied [2].

In putting the course together, and arguing for the University to invest a considerable amount of money in a new area, I justified it in one primary way: that teaching design methods to people who wouldn’t normally have access, or the confidence, to undertake such an education was empowering; a way of engaging more with the world around and consuming less. Design to self-actualize, in other words, not design to produce more pseudo-useful stuff.

Of course there were other aims too. Giving people a foot up to study Design in a Design School, for example, or using Design Thinking to contribute creativity to an organization or service. And that is where the link I made above comes in; Design Thinking is an ability that can be used equally effectively for business or, bizarrely, for protest against business. In fact, ironically, the strategist planning an effective protest probably has a lot more in common with the strategist in politics or corporate business than they’d like to think.

It does perhaps reveal the strength and weakness of having a Design skill too – its political agnosticism. Design can be used for good or ill, protest or profit, obedience or disobedience.

Resistor

Resistance! Original caption reads: “In December 1981 martial law was imposed in Poland in a crackdown on Solidarnosc, which was declared illegal. Supporters wore tiny badges with the Solidarnosc logo, which signalled their support for the movement in a way that could be easily concealed. A more oblique strategy was to attache a ‘moc rezystor’ (power resister), taken from a domestic radio, to your lapel – a play on words which indicated resistance to the government and support for pirate Radio Solidarity.” (p.116)

I like to think that my teaching in Design Thinking produced, if not outright disobedience, then a measure of resistance (as one of the objects in the exhibition nicely exemplified, see below). I mean resistance in the sense of a questioning of the world around.  But that may no longer be the case, if it ever was. The Design Thinking course is now being offered as part of the Business Studies degree, and they’ll be no Protest 101 any time soon I’d wager.

[1] Floor, C., Grindon, G. (2014) Disobedient Objects, V&A Publishing.

[1] As a nice piece of Design Thinking in itself, the description about how the mounts to display the disobedient objects were put together is worth reading.

 

Unreal Realism: The Stories in Postcards

Two interests collided the other day: continuing photographic experimentation and postcard collecting. I recently bought a mini-magnetic-macro lens for my iPhone (nowadays the only camera I carry with me) and have been rediscovering the worlds revealed by extreme close up. Buying the postcard shown below, of Selfridges department store in Oxford Street, London circa 1970, and taking close up photos with the macro lens, revealed some nice aesthetic effects along with reflections on suddenly examined life.

Oxford Street

The postcard is of Oxford Street I’m guessing circa 1970 and shows a classic red bus / black cab shot of London outside the famous Selfridges department store.

IMG_4301

The first macro photo is from the bottom left of the Postcard.

IMG_4300

The second macro photo is from the bottom right of the Postcard.

The image samples remind me of a sophisticated computer-generated model for a new piece of urban design (see past posts on representation); not quite real, not quite not-real; unreal realism you might call it.

The narrow depth of field of the lens introduces a realistic motion that isn’t there in the postcard, while the people caught in focus move centre-stage. What is that old man thinking as he crosses the road? He looks so… sad, reflective and calm amongst the bustle of traffic and people. Perhaps he has just lost his job, or wife? or maybe he is just walking to work. Perhaps he knows the women in the second image, just about to cross the road, with her bags?  Perhaps she is his wife, or daughter, or the women next door that he often catches himself thinking about.

How to Grip the World: The Artist and the Designer

Two quotes caught my eye recently, both about the nature of ideas in the creative process. One is from an international artist and the other is from an international designer, see if you can tell which is which:

Here is the first, from Person 1:

“Between an idea and doing something, there’s a bridge. First you make a sketch, it’s a small doodle but it’s amazing, at that moment you have changed the world! Then you might do another drawing, a cardboard model, add colour, put it into a computer, maybe a scientist assists. The assumption in our society is that creativity lies within these choices, between cardboard and wood, red and blue, floor or ceiling, but it doesn’t. It is in the quality of the way it grips the world.”

And here is the second, from Person 2:

“I don’t know anybody who has just had an idea and then will stand up in front of a group of people and try to explain this vague thought. So it tends to be exclusive and fragile. When you make the very first physical manifestation of what the idea [is], everything changes. It’s the most profound shift because it’s not exclusive any more, it’s not so open to interpretation, it’s there, and it includes a lot of people. The ideas aren’t the most difficult bit, it’s the actually making them real. Giving an idea body is very hard.”

So ideas, according to the two people above, are neither in the thought or the thing, but in ‘the quality of the way an idea grips the world’, in the case of the first quote, or ‘making [the idea] real’, in the case of the second quote. It’s in how the embodied idea forces its way into the world.

Two more clues:

Person 1 has a studio that employs ninety people: architects, engineers, technicians, and two cooks. Person 2 works for a global computer corporation. Getting warm yet?

The fact that it is difficult to tell who is who in the above quotes reveals a similarity between art and design that is often overlooked; roughly speaking, the emergent quality of things. Both are iterative processes of making, to find out what is or might be. And this is a delicate process, easy to disrupt by too much exposure, too soon. An artist or designer must be able to handle fragility and uncertainty, nourishing and nurturing an idea whenever the opportunity arises – in making, in testing, in conversation, in thought.

That’s why a supportive environment is so vital to creative processes; to help both the nourishing and nurturing and in determining the degree to which an idea grips the world. The studio is the traditional environment that supports the growth and exploration of ideas – in music recording, across the arts, and design – but ideas of what a studio can be are opening up and going online. In the words of Person 1: “The studio is not a closed unit, it’s an instrumental part of society; creativity is about interdependence”.

That says something about the way we should value creativity in society, I think, as something that both generates growth and connects expertise around a common discourse. That might be a design discourse or an artistic discourse, but the effects are the same: compelling ideas that show us how we should live, and help us to live better.

So I’ll leave the last word to Person 2:

“[The creative process] is the most extraordinary process. The way that it comes from nothing. When you step back and you think about it, it’s bizarre, that it’s Wednesday afternoon at 3 and there’s nothing. There is nothing at all. And then at 5, there’s an idea…”

And who are the people?

Well, Person 1 is Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson, famous for the 2006 ‘Weather Project’ setting sun in the Turbine Hall at London’s Tate Modern, and Person 2 is the British head of Design at Apple Computers, Jonathan Ive.

Not so different, really.

References

Design Education is Tragic says Jonathan Ive, Dezeen, November 2014, http://tinyurl.com/mju3pkf

His Place in the Sun, Olafur Eliasson tells Jackie Wullschlager about the challenge of staging an immersive spectacle at the museum of France’s richest man, Financial Times Weekend, 6-7th September, 2014.
http://tinyurl.com/pddxnp3

Meat-themed Advent Calendars: The Butcher at Christmas

Just around the corner from my flat in Hove is Canham & Sons, a butcher of the highest order, with queues snaking out of the front door at weekends. If you’re in Hove and you need raw flesh, Canham & Sons is the place to go.

Christmas time is especially busy for butchers and I came across an interesting piece of systems design when I called in for a scotch egg today.  The photo below shows the inside of the shop and it’s worth clicking on the image to see the large version and full detail.

Canham & Sons, a popular butcher at Christmas time in Hove.

Canham & Sons, a popular butcher at Christmas time in Hove, with their ‘wall of orders’.

It shows a bustling butchers, full of people waiting to be served, sausages and game hung in the window, joints of beef on show, and eggs piled high on the counter. But take a look at the back wall, which normally consists of a tiled and mirrored surface. Virtually all of it is covered in leaves of paper from a simple notepad. Each one represents a Christmas order: a small turkey for Jeremy, a large goose for Rosemary, a whole smoked ham for J. Reed, and a rib of beef for 8 people for Hartwell – just four of over five hundred orders.  All orders have a name and a number and are hung more-or-less alphabetically in a defined grid.

Instantly one sees what Christmas, or more precisely Christmas Eve, means for a butcher, and can understand the customer base that supports the business.  The ‘wall of orders’ fulfills a number of functions simultaneously and therein lies its design genius.

First, it’s a simple visual representation of how popular the butcher is – 500 people can’t be wrong! Second, it provides a sense of a well-managed and well-ordered butcher. Third, it values every single customer by giving them, equally, a small piece of real-estate on the wall (and providing a nice reminder should anyone want to check that they really did make that order). Fourth, as it builds up it provides a sense of the coming event, like a meat-themed advent calendar.

Most of all, however, it works on Christmas Eve, when a whole team need to match their customers to their meat. Rather than having an order book to rifle through, or a database to access – both ‘one-at-a-time’ processes – it provides a parallel but pretty much failsafe way for multiple people to work together. It also provides another visual reminder of how many orders there are to go, as they are taken off the wall, one by one. This time a reversed, meat-themed, advent calendar.

The simple understanding that such a system provides – to employees, to customers, to the passing photographer – represents a kind of joie de vivre that few commercial design systems produce, and all without a Post-It note in sight. Christmas orders could so easily be a drudge of queuing, checking, confirming, but at Canham & Sons they are turned into a performance of, if not democracy, then at least benign dictatorship, or something like community.

Rem Sleep: At the Casa Musica

A few days ago I was in Porto for a workshop in Design for Uncertainty and on a day off picked my way through the granite-cobbled, crumbling-latin streets to find the Casa Musica: the opera house designed by Rem Koolhaas and opened in 2005.

Rem Koolhaas buildings generally grab you firmly by the throat and the Casa Musica is no exception; an asymmetric, geometric collage of materials with angular glimpses into irregular fragments of interior space, like a genetically modified dodecahedron crossed with a utility space vehicle awaiting instructions to return to the mothership (in Rotterdam).

Human occupation sometimes seems like an afterthought for Rem’s supersized urban space vehicle. It can be a thrilling journey walking around, discovering cavernous diagonal spaces, dead ends, and architectural non-sequiturs; never knowing quite what is round the corner, although most of the time there aren’t corners at all, but combinations of angles and planes that agree to meet at various points.

The Casa Musica isn’t so much designed to confuse you, as to ignore you; your existence a matter of indifference to it. It is a building lost in its own dialogue, still in negotiation about the nature of the space it thinks it has created. Koolhaas buildings really don’t care about you and that is their impressive, masculine strength. At the Casa Musica you feel a bit like a limpet on a killer whale; another sucker in Rem Koolhaas’ crazy, angular, oversized dream of the future.

Casa Musica

 

Casa Musica

A Dialogue with the Man

I was recently at a Design Thinking conference at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana and took the opportunity to see some well-known domestic architecture around the Chicago area: the Farnsworth House by Mies van der Rohe in Plano Illinois; the Ford Residence by Bruce Goff in Aurora, Illinois; the Robie House by Frank Lloyd Wright at the University of Chicago; and finally the Samara House by Frank Lloyd Wright, adjacent to the Purdue University Campus.

The Farnsworth House in Plano, Illinois designed by Mies van der Rohe next to the Fox river.  The house was constructed on steel stilts to save the building from flooding.

The Farnsworth House in Plano, Illinois designed by Mies van der Rohe next to the Fox river. The house was designed in 1945, built in 1951 and was constructed on stilts to protect the building from flooding.

The Ford Residence, designed in the same year as the Farnsworth House, by Bruce Goff.  The photo shows the current owner Sidney K Robinson, a Professor Emiritus at the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture in Taliesin, Wisconsin (and who showed me around his house).

The Ford Residence, designed in the same year as the Farnsworth House (1951), by Bruce Goff. The photo shows the current owner Sidney K Robinson, a Professor Emiritus at the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture in Taliesin, Wisconsin (and who showed me around his house).

It was a fascinating road trip; not only to see how the houses presented themselves, but also to see how they were narrated by guides, residents, and ‘interpreters’. For lasting influence, the effrontery and discipline of the Farnsworth House was surely the winner, but probably the most interesting was the Samara House, where one of the original owner (age 97) still lives and where the stories of the architect-client relationship with Frank Lloyd Wright have the authentic ring of living memory to back them up.

The Samara house, West Lafayette, Indiana, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright for John and Katherine Christian in 1955.

The Samara house, West Lafayette, Indiana, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright for Catherine and John Christian in 1954.

The house was commissioned John E. and Catherine Christian, who both worked at Purdue University, Catherine was the Social Director of the institution while John was a Professor of medicinal chemistry (a pioneer of the use of radioactive isotopes to trace the path of drugs through the human body). In 1948, soon after they married they came across one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s ‘American system’ houses in Milwaukee and liked them so much (the story goes) they decided to contact FLW, then aged 81, to see if he would design them a new home. Much to everyone’s amazement FLW said that he would and so began a design process that has only in recent years come to final fruition. The house was completed in 1954 but the Christians were unable to afford much of the furniture, fittings and interiors that FLW designed at the time (and there isn’t much that FLW didn’t design in a FLW house!) so undertook to fulfill his plans and vision for the house over the course of the years and when sufficient money became available. The result today is an entirely realised FLW environment – lights, shelves, audio and television systems, rugs, furniture, curtains, stools, plates, cups, and cutlery; all FLW. If he could have got his hands on the oven and fridge he probably would have designed them too. The man was a design machine.

A Frank Lloyd Wright designed gate at the Samara House, West Lafayette, Indiana.

A Frank Lloyd Wright designed gate at the Samara House, West Lafayette, Indiana.

The Christians embraced the design machine, happy to trust in the overall vision and have their lives structured and ordered by FLW, who would have expected nothing less. As the interpreter pointed out, the living space, partly created for seminars and discussion with students and colleagues, had seen a few Nobel prizewinners passing through.

The living room at the Samara House full of Frank Lloyd Wright designed furniture and fittings.  The rug bottom right, was the most recently completed item (2009) to FLW's design, and features the 'winged seed' (Samara) inspiration for the house.

The living room at the Samara House full of Frank Lloyd Wright designed furniture and fittings. The rug bottom right, was the most recently completed item (2009) to FLW’s design, and features the ‘winged seed’ (Samara) inspiration for the house.

Famously FLW was the model for Howard Roark, the no-compromise architect protagonist of Ayn Rand’s novel The Fountainhead. Rand had also been one of FLW’s clients, though the house he designed for her was never built. Of the water-colour sketch Wright produced in response to her brief she gushed:

The watercolour sketch by Frank Lloyd Wright of the residence (cottage!) he designed for Ayn Rand, but which was never built.

The watercolour sketch by Frank Lloyd Wright of the residence (cottage!) he designed for Ayn Rand, but which was never built.

“The house you designed for me is magnificent.  I gasped when I saw it.  It is the particular kind of sculpture in space which I love and which nobody but you has ever been able to achieve.  I was not very coherent when I told you what kind of house I wanted—and I had the impression that you did not approve of what I said.  Yet you designed exactly the house I hoped to have.  The next time somebody accuses you of cruelty and inconsideration toward clients, refer them to me.”

FLW’s ‘cruelty and inconsideration’ towards clients was legendary; how dare anyone question the genius? But nevertheless the genius was questioned and FLW had a variety of responses to those questions. The Interpreter at the Samara House had a story: one wife of a client who reputedly complained that the bathroom Wright designed lacked suitable storage found that the answer to her question was a deliberately mis-designed cupboard, almost impossible to open without doors banging. Wright’s dialogue was with the architects around him who had acquired sufficient knowledge for him to meaningfully engage with. Not for him the petty concerns about volume of storage, or kitchens that were too small, or the wrong shape, or not required at all. FLW was interested in the overall composition, and that derived from a system, with an underlying logic, coupled with a creative inspiration. In the case of the Samara House the system was a 4ft grid and the inspiration was a winged seed Wright had found on the building plot (Samara: noun, a dry one-seeded fruit, with a winglike appendage that facilitates distribution on air currents). Take it or leave it, FLW might have said, but don’t mess about with it. At one point in the design process of the Samara house Dr Christian, looking at his vanishing bank balance, wrote to Wright to ask if he could make the living room smaller:

The wire that was sent to Frank Lloyd Wright from John Christian, requesting that the living room be shortened.

The telegram that was sent to Frank Lloyd Wright from John Christian, requesting that the living room be shortened.

“Wish to shorten living room length from 32 feet to 28 feet by removal of section G-2-H. Advise. Wire or call collect whether satisfactory from an architectural point of view. If not recommend way of reducing size of living room.”

Wright replies in a scrawl:

“Sorry you feel living room too large. Have never yet seen one too large. Yours is already too small.”

The answer to Christain’s “satisfactory from an architectural point of view” question is no, because if Christian understood the architecture and composition, he wouldn’t be asking the question. Wright understood that to enter into dialogue with the client at this level, to explain in feet and inches, would be to compromise the (or his) ‘architecture’. His response allows no counter-response other than to carry on, or not carry on. But the dialogue is there; Wright is communicating his idea of architecture as efficiently as it is possible to do so. The exchange brings to mind Tom Wolfe’s readable critique of modern architecture in his book From Bauhuas to Our House [1]. Modernism as design idea, social programme, and new aesthetic was so forceful in Architecture it was like a tidal wave. And how, Wolfe writes, do you negotiate with a tidal wave? The tour of the Farnsworth House revealed one of the architects surfing that Modernist tidal wave. Mies van der Rohe, the former head of the Bauhaus, was the Farnsworth architect whose minimalist spaces projected a future that somehow still remains the future. But he shared with FLW the problem of having to deliver a building for a client who focused more on how they could live in the building than understanding the architectural space created. Alice Friedman nicely describes the conflict that Edith Farnsworth had with MvdR in attempting to make her weekend retreat in rural Illinois more of a home. Somewhere to hang the clothes perhaps? or maybe an easy chair to relax in comfort? MvdR compromised on a formal wardrobe, but was unhappy about it. Friedman perceptively describes the key difference between the architect and the client as:

“being the profound understanding of the fact that while the architect of a house can remain fully clothed at all times, the client must ultimately strip naked if the house is to become a home.” [2]

In a glass box next to the Fox river in Plano, Illinois, stripping naked as a single women must have been an intimidating thing. But the architect of the building wants to be the architect of your interior life; in return for space he wants your psyche. Where Farnsworth rebelled by rejecting MvdR’s formal layout and bringing in her own domestic furniture, the Christians assented by, erm, bringing in their own furniture but undertaking to realise FLW’s vision. Because how do you negotiate with a tidal wave? When MvdR visited the site for the Farnsworth House he thought about the river and how high it might get in full flood. According to the tour guide he asked the local fisherman what the maximum height the river had ever reached was and designed the steel stilts for the house to keep it just above that height. Architect 1, Nature 0 you might say. What he didn’t account for was how building development upstream, channeling run-off water through concrete culverts, might alter the behavior of the river which now floods on a regular basis and reaches heights midway up the building. Architect 1, Nature 1. And he also didn’t factor in a changing climate, with rainfall more focused, intense and liable to cause flash flooding. Architect 1, Nature 2. In fact negotiating with a tidal wave turns out to be more like slowly turning a tap on; a tap that will eventually flood by sheer persistence; a water level imperceptibly rising until its presence can’t be denied. How did the water get in? The architect, preparing for the tidal wave, might say. What a small little nuisance, they might think. But they’d have to do something about it.

[1] Wolfe, T. (1981) From Bauhaus to Our House, Picador.

[2] Friedman, A.T. (2007) Women and the Making of the Modern House, Yale University Press.

Design of a Do-Hicky (or Not so New After All)

Some years ago I wrote a paper [1] looking at the representation of the design process on television which analysed three programmes featuring the well known (at least in the UK) design partnership of Seymour-Powell. Each programme attempted to show the difference design could make to three ‘everyday’ things – the electric car, the toilet, and the bra.

Of the three programmes the latter, about the design of the bra, was most successful and resulted in a product, called the Bioform, that reached the market for underwear manufacturer Charnos. Richard Seymour and Dick Powell, in trying to completely rethink the product, focused on reducing the number of components in bra manufacture, making use of new materials, and increasing the comfort of wearing a bra. The programme is still available to view through the Channel 4 website here.

Since writing the paper, I have become increasingly interested in the way design is represented and talked about both on television and in feature films, so the following little scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo intrigued me. Midge, a supporting character, played by Dallas Grandmother, Barbara Bel Geddes, is in love with Scottie, the main protagonist, played by James Stewart, who thinks of her more as a friend. Near the beginning of the film Scottie talks about his vertigo condition – which has caused him to quit the police force – to Midge in her apartment, while she goes about her business as a fashion designer. Suddenly he notices what she is working on and goes over to look more closely:

Vertigo

Scottie (James Stewart) talks to Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes) about bra design in Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo

Scottie: What’s this do-hicky?
Midge: It’s a brassiere, you know about those things, you’re a big boy now
Scottie: Well I never ran across one like that before
Midge: It’s brand new, revolutionary uplift, no shoulder straps, no back straps but it does everything a brassiere should do. Works on the principle of the cantilever bridge
Scottie: It does?
Midge: Ah hmmm. An aircraft engineer down on the peninsula designed it, worked it out in his spare time
Scottie: Kind of a hobby, a do-it-yourself type thing

The ‘revolutionary uplift and cantilever design’ formed a large part of Seymour-Powell’s do-hicky, which just goes to show that innovative solutions aren’t often as innovative as designers would sometimes have us believe.

[1] Lloyd, P. (2002) Making a Drama out of a Process: How Television Represents Designing, Design Studies, 23, pp 113-133.