may 16, 1997
design of everyday things
art history 61
t. kaori kitao
cities of the early part of this century and the century before often bear the clear impression of one white male's design process. being a Chicago native, i'm thinking of Daniel Burnam in particular; after most all of the city burned down in 1871, he was able to plan and construct one of America's major urban areas. as a result, the grid of streets and length of lakefront parks makes the center of the city a remarkably pleasant metropolitan residential zone, especially for its current wealthy occupants. i have not studied enough about this field (i hope to next semester as the economics department is offering a course in urban economics) but I am forced to repeatedly reckon with Burnam's sustained effect on the lifestyle of Chicagoans.
another fellow i've heard of recently was reported to me in far less repute: Robert Moses; though he brought some beautiful bridges to New York, he had designs for some neighborhood-destroying freeway systems.
a few years back we heard a lot about Seattle, a locus of burgeoning growth, and studied as exemplary of growth management and urban planning, i have heard of no one name with which to associate their success. i have seen some fascinating looking textbooks on this subject; it seems to have become its own industry: advising small towns about how to get big, while preserving their charm and convenience.
i have a friend named Evan Dorn; he is a fifth-year senior at Swarthmore, double-majoring in engineering and biology. we talk a lot about invention and technology. he is from Boise, Idaho, which he recently reported as the site of recent unprecedented growth. unfortunately, also the victim of poor planning: paving the foothills around the valley where the city itself sits has prevented rainwater from seeping into the ground and resulted in massive downtown flooding. also no major roads or alternative transportations provide access from the newly-arising suburbs to the business city center, a source of frustration.
as i consider better roads and access, i am reminded of our own neighborhood abomination: the roads surrounding the Springfield mall are a pedestrian atrocity. no entity of non-steel is welcome to walk beside the chains of stores, and any street life or neighborly community is destroyed by an endless face full of fumes.
evan and i were wishing we could try our hand at redesigning some of these shoddy systems. gone is the day, i think, when one person has that much control - as professor kitao mentioned in our last class, a professor at rice school of architecture bemoaned the extended interdependency of architects and all the various engineers and image consultants and financial arbitrators and the endless network of people responsible for all aspects of structure construction. i realized as i contemplated a new baltimore pike layout that i would have to deal with local politics for the rest of my life just to plant a new tree. it seems the day and age of large scale one man one design is gone. perhaps we have idealized or located great power in those that proceed us, and they were equally as beholden.
so i imagine a different scale. as i was in this class, i had the wonderful opportunity to interview a hand doctor and rarely renaissance fellow, doctor robert markison. at the time i visited his office, he was responsible for making his shoes, his socks, his pants, his rings, his shirt, his tie, his jacket, his hat. on the scale of one man, one body, he put himself forward as exemplifyingly self-tending. as i interviewed him i had thousands of people a day looking at my web site and i couldn't run a sewing machine to save my life. i created abstractly large scale, he relentlessly sold the small personal scale, and the control over one's life afforded by knowledge of the means of self-tending.
still, i found things for which he was not responsible; particularly the manufacture of the fabric involved in his personal tailoring. so everything is interdependent. i don't know enough to say this is new truth, but at least interdependency helps us leave the question of design authorship unanswered. who is responsible for a design? everyone has a teacher. every product has a user. if most or much of art and design emerges from urban centers, we can't even begin to quantify the mass of stimuli and media design images and concepts presented to designers daily. constantly kids, for example, appropriate everyday things for socially coded uses - beepers, once a sign of professionals on call are now a sign of simply being connected. this notion of relative and subjective and fluid authorship is nothing new. with regards to design, there seems to be more sensitivity because the objects resulting have somehow physical properties, tangibility, conveyed upon them by their designer or creator. this is most applicable to sam malouf, a one man design and production force. in the same way that doctor markison has designed his world, sam malouf, with his painstakingly wrought wooden chairs might be said to have designed a piece of a few hundred different customers' worlds. but once it leaves his studio, it becomes a part of someone's living room design; their composition of wooden and metal furniture juxtaposed to create a cyber-organic modern moment is a design creation all their own.
this question of ownership becomes particularly poignant when we think of mass goods. the other day during a hall study break, i was eating some doritos (which actually have MSG in them) when i noticed with excitement that the bag contained a star wars toy surprise. within a foil wrapper was a semi-holographic two inch square scene of han solo and chewbacca heading off into hyperspace. i didn't have much use for it once i'd thoroughly wiggled it, the object as designed was extremely ephemeral and spoke to me of little further use. i decided to send it to my girlfriend, amy. before she received it, a postcard arrived in the mail from her. it was another one of her handmade postcard collages: black painted heavy paper, with the word "future" in red on a white background, clipped from some magazine and pasted on the painted black, and in the corner, a similar, semi-holographic moment of princess leia reaching out to r2d2. it was the most perfect appropriation of the star wars useless giveaway i could have imagined. it was rich with meaning, i thought, relevant to society beyond me, with important, if not profound universal significance. either way, it was a redesign of the original design and also the obvious outcome from amy.
amy and i have a fair amount of trouble saying i love you. it's too societally determined. while each of us inspires strong emotions, the societal generational collective gives rise to relentless irony. we struggle for a provocative medium. for her, it is postcards that rearrange symbols. another creation was a picture of charles and diana, bordered with cadbury cream egg purple foil, and a chinese fortune cookie fortune pasted over diana's eyes: "what the eye cannot see, the heart does not grieve for." is amy monkeying with meaning, miraculously concocting a weekly stream of independently meaningful missives? is she merely rearranging and copying available text, speaking societal scripts? similarly, she alternates between identifying me with A. doogie howser, a television 16 year old doctor kid who addresses his computer journal every night; or B. forest gump, a recent movie starring tom hanks, where the protagonist ends up in wild disparate situations always acting his same dorky self. still, we find opportunities for originality, at least exceptions to the examples laid out before us. hers, for example, would definitely be her fascination with large underpants. i know no other person so fascinated with undergarments (during our interview with doctor markison, she pursued his undergarment fabrication til i stepped in, unsure of his tolerance for tangents).
i wouldn't necessarily say that the two positions, author individuated, and popular appropriating are to the artist irreconcilable - i think they are reconciled in tension, and whether or not the creator agrees, works represent something of either camp. even amish painters have individual image fetishes.