Monday, January 19, 2009

Design: A Dirty Word

(Image via)

In the 1970's my father sold pipes. Bing Crosby was one of his best customers. I'm not making this up. Despite this celebrity endorsement, gentleman's pipes were not a boom industry in the 1970's. My father was always looking for ways to expand his limited customer base and find new markets, more potential pipe smokers. So he came up with an innovation: the Lady's Pipe. It was very similar to the standard male version except it was smaller, perhaps a third the size, and had a clear perspex stem instead of the usual black plastic one.

Leaving aside the question of whether a view of the cancerous fumes funneling towards one's lungs was an attractive feature, the Lady's Pipe was a slightly comical, ultimately doomed, attempt at marketing a thoroughly male product to women. When friends of my parents came to dinner, my father would always produce his box of cigars and obscure Turkish cigarettes at the end of the meal. Any female guests would be enthusiastically offered the Lady's Pipe. There were never any takers.

I was reminded of this childhood trauma while reading Adrian Forty's book Objects of Desire recently. In it the author charts the role of design in capitalism's desire to seek out new markets. In particular Forty looks at how assumed differences between the sexes are articulated through design to create parallel sets of male and female products. This creation of superfluous alternatives is particularly acute when it comes to beauty products. Identical versions of the same things - razors, moisturising cream, shampoo etc. - are subjected to nuances of styling to distinguish their intended market. Even to call them beauty products is to ascribe them female characterestics. For men its always called grooming.

The interesting thing about this (leaving aside the dubiousness of the sexual stereoyping) is the role of design in creating this sense of difference. Here design is about pure styling, largely removed from function, practicality or use. The Gillette M3 Power razor, for example, works just as well in Barbie pink as it does in sci-fi neon green. The obsessive articulation of sexual difference (and therefore the appeal these products make to our sexual desires and the possibility of satisfying them) masks the fact that the products involved are basically the same.

So male products appear like a combination of custom car and training shoe; all fins, grills, rubber pads and bulbous curves. These add-ons are given automotive names: turbos, injections, triple super pro action - a conjunction of science, sport and technology, the holy trinity of male interests.

As well as looking different female beauty products accentuate their therapuetic qualities using the full lexicon of pampering so correctly loathed by Julie Burchill. For men the products take on a different descriptive language of buffing, scrubbing and performance. Look at this recent Nivea ad for men's skin products where acceptable reasons for worrying about having bad skin include partying and working too hard, complete with generic indie-rock soundtrack.

If all these ruses are about designing (sexual) difference into essentially the same product, then perfume represents the most extreme example of trying to articulate nothing but difference itself. Perfume is perhaps the most perfect piece of design and the most perfect product of capitalism. It is Marx's commodity fetish and Freud's sexual fetish combined, an almost magical product of mythical sexual properties. It creates value out of almost nothing but thin air.

In the packaging and form of perfume design has it all to do. This is why perfume adverts are so fabulously and perfectly absurd. There is almost literally nothing to say about them beyond; "Wear this. Get laid". If all products use sex to sell, most have another stated purpose. There ar no facts, no statistics and no information when it comes to perfume. The epic levels of pretention in Chanel's recent ad starring Nicole Kidman works to counteract its literal lack of content. Similarly the genius of Jean Paul Gaultier's perfume and aftershave range is to sexualise the packaging - the bit that isn't even the product itself - making the act of holding the bottle an erotically charged (if intentionally camp) experience.

Here is a version of design far removed from the realm of pragmatic problem solving or ergonomic functionality. It is about the conjuring of value out of next to nothing, a confluence of aura, glamour, sexual desire and the black arts of marketing and branding. It happens in all products of course but in perfume it reaches its apogee. This version of design is about spectacle, a suggestion of desirability that sparkles on the surface of objects. It is about pure style.

Style in design has become a dirty word. It is now a perjorative expression implying superficiality. To discuss design in terms of style is to risk appearing shallow, interested only in surface qualities rather than depth or content. In fact the whole rhetoric of art and design criticism rests on these spatial metaphors. Value is always assumed to lie behind things, an inherent property of the object, rather than on its surface. To understand something we must somehow get behind it or delve into its depths.

Design is always anxious to justify itself in terms other than (mere) style. Designers aim for their work to be useful, innovative, functional, worthy. To say that you designed something like this or like that simply because you liked it, or because you wanted someone else to like it too, appears shockingly decadent. The theory surrounding Parametric modelling can be read this way, as an attempt to provide an intellectual justification for the sparkling and vivacious surfaces of contemporary architecture. Perhaps though it is closer to the suggestive curves of Gaultier's perfume bottle or the bulbous pseudo-ergonomics of Gillette's M3 Power razor.

Style always raises the spectre of design's guilty secret; that it is just might not be that important. Its use might be simply to catch our attention. Design is always eager to please, always out to seduce us.


Anonymous said...

great post

Murphy said...

Good post.

I've been watching in horror over the years as I realise that gender equality under capitalism, if it was ever to come, would never entail women being free from having to constantly buy products to decorate themselves with, but rather would come about through men having to buy just as many.

Also, I certainly had encounters over the years with the 'don't blame me, the computer designed it!' argument with tutors. They weren't right, by any means, but of course neither was I...

Marcus said...

Great post -

Along similar lines, I find the parallel phenomenon of the 'illusion of choice' in marketing fascinating. Where there may be fourteen different types of toothpaste at the store and they are all virtually the same product. Batteries, shampoo, soap, australian political parties and so on.

Blaize said...

The Nicole Kidman ad made me feel both baffled and dirty.

Norman Blogster said...

I wrote about the difference between style and design a while ago in reference to Libeskind's pap chair. I reckoned design had to have some notion of solving a problem to it, whereas styling was just aesthetics. You seem to mix the two up in your middle paragraphs, and use "design" and "styling" indiscriminately. You're right that styling is normally used pejoratively, but should it be? Why is this? Is it just in architecture land that this is so?
Parametric modelling has nothing to do with any of this - you should delete the reference because it spoils an otherwise interesting post.
And what about branding's role in this? J.Lo or Britney, for example, wouldn't be able to sell perfume, no matter how styled or designed, if they hadn't already established a brand.
PS: Congratulations on the birth of Betamax :)

Charles Holland said...

Thanks all for your comments.

Blaize. I can't stop watching it myself! It's compellingly awful.

Sir Norman! I remember reading your piece about design/style. I have to say though that then, as now, I don't buy the distinction you make. For a start it seems too self-serving, i.e. it privileges design and designers with doing something useful. Secondly it seems too easy and merely confirms the prejudices I was trying to get to the heart of in my post.

It wasn't my intention to echo the marginalisation of style but to draw attention to it by looking at an area of design where the justication of problem solving which you cite is largely absent.

I think style is a useful way to discuss architecture but one that has been suppressed by designers for precisely those reasons; it doesn't seem important enough, it sounds too wilful, its not intellectual enough. So I don't think I use them indiscriminately, but to deliberate confuse the supposedly watertight distinctions.

You may have a point as far as parametricism goes though. I suspected tht the reference was a bit gratuitous when I put it in. Then again, if you can't be gratuitous on your own blog where can you?

Finally, I would say that J Lo and Britney are part of the design. That's my point really: that design is about the experience of an object - its meaning - as much as it is about its literal function. Hence my looking at un-functional things like perfume where design is still present.

Murphy said...

I remember reading the N.Blogster Design/Style piece as well, and I agree with you Charles. It smacked of pro-architectural prejudice, as if Arch. were a form of decoration that somehow arbitrarily had more content and value than any other.

Don't shy away from Parametricisation!
However, I've noticed that a lot of you (well, you and Owen, perhaps) don't appear to have peeled back its layers (to see how much it stinks). In this case I think you're referring to the early '00s 'avant-garde' use of the stuff, whereby you release the particles and stuff the programme in later (which is the method I attempted at school).
It's mutated a lot since, esp. the theory, which has gone from sub-Deleuzian-flux-wank to some very weird old fashioned functionalist rhetoric stirred in with some volk-ish bio-metaphors.

Needless to say, I think it's a little naive.

Norman Blogster said...

Sir Charles!
Certainly don't shy away from parametricism, but please let's not even consider it a "style" or a "movement" and certainly not part of the avant-garde. It has no reflexive criticality to contribute, no political aspect, nothing to say about the "institution" of architecture. It's just a computer tool. A useful one - yes - but still just a tool. We may as well have "Sketchupism" as the next avant-garde movement if we accept parametribollocks.
I just didn't think it fitted into this otherwise well considered post.

As for the design/style thing... sigh... anyone who read PartIV would know that I'm the first to put the boot into architecture where it hurts rather than privilege it. I can't agree they are the same thing, although I'm willing to reconsider their differences - which is why I've come out of retirement temporarily for this provocative post. What engineers do and what hairdressers do is entirely different. Yet they both have a function. As does perfume (I like your point about JLo & Britney being part of the design).
At the end of the day, we're all just trying to reproduce our genes (or they are trying to reproduce themselves through us as Gawkin Dawkins would have it) and so anything that contributes towards that goal must have some function and, I guess, therefore solves some problem. I think we'll have to agree to disagree for the time being... but I might be back.

Charles Holland said...

Murphy, I think Norman has a point regarding Parametricism in the sense that I don't know much about it. Peeling the layers back requires at the very least that I find out some more. So far, I havn't really been tempted to spend the time so there's a danger on my part of just appearing a bit of a philistine.

My limited understanding of it though is that there seems to be a desire to justify extravagant form throwing as some kind of logical outcome of the generative process (rather than, say, it looks good - nothing wrong with that in my opinion) and in that sense represents a continuation of the modernist dogma of design as a pseudo-technical excercise albeit in more glamorous garb. Which brings us back to the 'design is problem solving' issue raised by Sir Norman.

So, Norman (and nothin but respect for Part 1V which I paid tribute to a couple of posts back as my Most Sadly Missed blog of 2008)I don't think design is simply about problem solving in some strictly pragmatic sense. That is a component of it for sure, but it is also about the other things i was trying to talk about; seduction, aura, style, desirability, difference etc.

In a sense these are all problems too. The problem of sitting for example has already been solved. But designers keep on designing chairs. So clearly design (and the desire for it) is about something else too. Unless you are going to say that the whole history of chair design has been pointless- whih is possibly true, especially of Daniel Liebeskind's effort.

This is Marcus' point above too I guess, that design is partly about manufacturing difference (and thus a certain amount of redundancy) into objects in order to make us desire them.

Murphy said...

sorry, i sounded a little bit 'strong' there.

In my hazy recollection I may have missed a level of irony in that libeschair post from back in the day.
But the hard, pragmatic kernel of 'pure' design is something which can only ever be oscillated around, and never achieved...

Norman's points on parablibble are right, I concur (almost) wholeheartedly. I do have a serious position on it, which will come out at some point soon enough.

anyway, this has all been very thought provoking...

Charles Holland said...

...looking forward to reading your thoughts on 'parametribibble'>

j. Winkel said...

As I recall, Gillette was also one of the first major consumer product companies to insert digital chip tracking into every one of their packages. Inventory control and to prevent bootlegging.