Friday, November 2, 2007

History Today

Book review: Intelligence Made Visible, by Stephen Bayley and Terence Conran

“…Certainties about standards of taste…(have) in recent times disappeared altogether” write the authors of this updated A-Z of design. Well, it doesn’t seem to have affected them much. Stephen Bayley and Terence Conran remain certain of their own standards of taste throughout, even if they are a little baffled by society’s unwillingness to toe the line.

Throughout this book what comes across most is the authors’ fear of design without rules, of there being no accepted standards and no official canon of good design. Digital culture and the sprawling landscape of contemporary consumerism promote a deep unease about how to quantify and qualify what is going on. Not only that, but as much contemporary design no longer conforms to the authors’ ideology of mainstream modernism, they see the situation in slightly apocalyptic terms. “Ugly, inefficient, depressing chaos” starts one chapter. “Taste” they write, “is directed not by Domus or the Architectural Review…but by what comes down the broadband connection.” Indeed, a paranoid fear of bad design, or possibly bad taste, lurks in all their pronouncements.

On the one hand this is a perfectly straightforward book. It lists designs and designers in alphabetical order. There are few surprises. The notion of design here is basically high modernism and so the cover blurb of this being “an indispensable guide to the contents of the modern world” is predictably misleading. An indispensable guide to the contents of the Design Museum would be more accurate. You certainly won’t find much new in it. There is very little on popular culture, fashion, graphics, or the kind of everyday objects that slip through the net of design conneursureship. There are no entries on current design with the exceptions of Jonathon Ive and Thomas Hetherwick, although Studio Job, Tord Boontje and Droog are mentioned briefly, and negatively, in passing. So, the plot line on modern design trotted out here is a very familiar one.

But there is a more interesting and entertaining sub-text which is the author’s relationship to the evolving design world around them. Inevitably, with two such big personalities writing what is meant to be a general guide, their adopted mask of objectivity constantly slips. The Arts and Crafts for example get a terrific mauling for their presumed culpability in the UK’s obsession with the past and with what the authors call the ‘Cotswold effect’. Fair enough, you might say, except that ridiculing our desire for the county lifestyle would be more reasonable if Sir Terence’s own historic country pile were not so well published. Somewhat randomly, some designers - such as C.R. Ashbee and Philipe Starck - are ridiculed while other equally preposterous characters such as Carlo Mollino or Joe Columbo are treated reverentially. In fact the entry on Mollino is one of the best and written with unalloyed enthusiasm for an idiosyncractic character.

Ultimately, despite all their protestations to the contrary and their stated desire for objective truth in design, this book conforms entirely to the taste of its authors. It is far more about them than it is about design. So, the two appear pictured at the beginning and end of the book, somewhat gratuitously enjoying a nice glass of wine together. They even write a short biography of each other, although, oddly, while Stephen Bayley’s tribute is generous in its praise, Sir Terence’s reads like a less than glowing reference. Indeed, there is a slight underlying sense that they might not have wanted to write this book together,

The tone of the book they have written is nostalgic, slightly mournful, occasionally a little bitter. It mourns the passing of the simplicities of an earlier era, or perhaps, the simplicities of youth. Things have changed, say the authors, and definitely for the worse. Where design used (apparently) to be about simplifying the world it is now about making it more complicated. Where it was once straight it is now perverse. Where there were once solutions now there are more questions. The fact that it never was simple is not the point. Design, like nostalgia, is just not what it used to be.

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