I am usually spending my evenings doing something productive, but occasionally I do enjoy a good documentary or a video on art or design. Last night I watched “Ellen’s Design Challenge” on HGTV. Although I have a degree in fine art, design is a large part of any artistic endeavor and is quite fulfilling in practice. About 90 percent of all the furniture in my house-and this includes everything from couches and chairs to wardrobes-was designed and built by myself. My strongest influences come from the mid century modernists such as Charles and Ray Eames, Neutra, Nelson and so forth. However, I don’t think my designs are derivative, yet in some respects every form that follows function is derivative.
Even though the image above is the preliminary 3D model of my Seven Chair, I have completed a couple of them to replace my current dining room chairs made of tubular steel and molded plastic and made by some one else.
I include this variation of the Seven Chair to show that slight changes in design can result in a large difference in look.
I have gone a little far of field. I mention “Ellen’s Design Challenge” because some of the representations of design are typical of many attitudes among creative institutions, in particular centers of learning. After receiving a degree in a totally different area, I initially went back to university for one in architecture. This was a compromise between fine art and domestic design. I quickly dropped architecture as a result of the unsettling atmosphere I found in the courses. Many of the same ludicrous attitudes of “pushing the envelope” and “thinking outside the box” and the encouragement of the impractical turned me away from this area of study.
I remember having an assignment where we were to produce a design and model for a large housing complex of high-rise apartments situated near a lake. My design, rather in the manner of Louis Kahn’s Salk Institute, featured three buildings, each in the shape of a T, situated on a platform accessed by a dramatic, slowly climbing incline, with the complex facing the lake, descending like cultivated terraces toward the water until reaching a point where a pool, surrounded by a simple cement enclosure to exclude lake water, formed a fountain that sprayed water high in the air. These structures were feasible and practical, without excessive ornamentation, very much in the modernist traditions of clean lines and simple rectilinear forms, while presenting a dramatic introduction to the landscape.
Unfortunately, I don’t have my architectural portfolio readily available digitally, but I include the following pictures as a crude reconstruction of the project. Besides the high-rises, the platform included a car park, shops and other facilities. In these renderings, one does not see the lake or other significant environmental features or much of the detail of the platform shops and facilities.
The greatest interest among these projects included proposals for giant structures made of steel more fantastic than anything from Frank Gehry. They were unrealistic, improbable and would require vast sums of money to bring to fruition. It has always been my design philosophy that any design object should be usable, affordable, as well as interesting to view. In commerce, no designer will ever see his or her objects produced that do not conform to these simple principles. Why design something that will never be produced? The professors encouraged fantasy and extremism, making all sorts of cliched pronouncements.
I became ill hearing such nonsense as “Make it speak about you.”, “It’s trying too hard.”, “I just don’t feel it.”, “It shows taste.” and so forth and so on. The realization quickly came to me that these professors had technical knowledge, but in matters of aesthetics, their judgement was considerably less than mine, that when their students graduated, the real world would force them to design Wendy’s and Targets, as well as these ghastly beige housing tracks that spread for miles.
This brings us to the “Ellen’s Design Challenge”. I hear much of the same on this program. The judging panels are just spouting what they consider the latest trends. They have no special knowledge or understanding. Their guest host, Shawn Yashar, I found particularly funny, pronouncing many of the same cliches I heard at university. When I hear someone, like Mr. Yashar, say something is chic or has or lacks taste, this is not an intellect that I would waste much time listening to. On one poor soul’s design, Mr. Yashar said that his design did not look expensive! As if a good design must be expensive. Many of the iconic designs of 20th century modernism were purposely not expensive and meant for mass consumption. Anyone remember the bean bag chair! It’s obvious the nature of the people Mr. Yashar associates with.
These are people who hang out at design and art galleries, among the glitterati, holding glasses of wine and working out the appropriate chatter that one hears in these environments, full of endless absolutes that are actually temporal in reality.
Both the pieces were built and happily sit in my dining room. I don’t worry one bit that some one like those on “Ellen’s Design Challenge” would approve or disapprove, that some one might think these show little taste or are not “chic”. This is the point of this article. There are experts who know what is selling at the moment. There are experts who capitalize knowing future trends. There are writers of art and design magazines that know what their readers want to hear. They are not, however, repositories of taste or design. They have an opinion and nothing else. Many of the designs they encourage would have little interest among the populace in general. They can legitimately criticize lack of functionality, practicality and even commercial viability, but any other comments are strictly opinion without the necessity of acceptance.
Besides the flaw of making the design and construction like a game show where the participants barely have enough time to finish, the show shuns any practical, conservative, reflective approach. Doubtlessly, any famous designer of the 20th century would fail massively, because the greatest objects took several iterations before reaching their final form. The famous Eames molded chair had many problems before proper materials were used. Forget the design cliches! Who cares if something characterizes the designer! Unless the designer plans to only use it for himself, why should the purchaser give a hoot about the personal nature of the creator.
The point of all this is that, if you are like me, and enjoy furniture design, or any type of design, don’t ever fall for the trap of the compulsion of a so-called authority. Some may be able to tell you what is selling, if that is your interest. Nevertheless, in terms of art and design, always look at any authority with clarity or suspicion. They may know more about the history of their field or some sort of arcane details on this or that subject, but never subvert you own intellect or defer to another without good reason.