our “obsession with the new”

Perhaps the most important of these papers on the internet was published back in April. Entitled Beyond the New, it was described as a manifesto for design. The authors were Hella Jongerius from Utrecht in the Netherlands - a teacher at Design Academy Eindhoven who, since 2008, has run her highly regarded and successful design studio in Berlin - and Louise Schouwenberg - head of the master’s programme in Contextual Design at Design Academy Eindhoven.

It was a very important piece but curiously few people have responded on the internet although there may be articles that I have missed in print journals and magazines. Nor was the manifesto published quietly in an obscure academic journal but Jongerius gave a widely publicised talk where she opened with the statement that “there is too much shit design” and rapidly moved on to identify one culprit as the insatiable drive for economic profit.

The over-riding message was that “It's time to rid ourselves of the obsession with the new.”

Some of the points in the manifesto seem to address underlying theory - and are actually close to calling for a stronger sense of ethics so, Design requires a constant research of new idioms, a battle against presuppositions, a push of the limits, and the continual refinement of responses to fundamental questions, like 'What can design add to the world of plenty?' and 'What is functionality in the here and now?’

Working with students, the next generation of designers, Jongerius and Schouwenberg can judge better than most a change of approach that design companies and larger studios might not be so quick to appreciate. So - 

Many design students question the role design plays in today's world, aiming to solve larger societal problems with their work, empower the users with surprising strategies, and entice passionate debate on the implications of the newest media. In the meantime professionals are ploughing ahead with business as usual, sending one egocentric design after another out into the world. Is the future generation naïve, or more in tune with the world around them? In any case: the gap between higher ideals and industry is too large.

Some points are even more aggressively critical. For instance the manifesto admits that “design is flourishing. But the field has not benefited. What most design events have in common are the presentations of a depressing cornucopia of pointless products, commercial hypes around presumed innovations, and empty rhetoric.

Other comments are incredibly revealing and show a sharp dissection, succinctly expressed, that opens the reader’s eyes to wider concepts. So for instance there is the observation that “Without play, there can be no design that inspires the user. Without foolishness and fun there can be no imagination.” Designers in the Netherlands and in Belgium more-readily play with conventional and restricting ideas of good or bad taste to provoke a reaction and that is not so obvious with restrained or conventionally-beautiful designs.

There is one point I would contest … although this is probably predictable given my views on craftsmanship and my belief that designers have to understand the character of the materials and the historic context of the techniques they work with.

That is an injunction to “Count the blessings of industry. Industrial processes have greater potential than low-volume productions of exclusive designs, which reach such a limited market that talk of 'users' can hardly be taken seriously. Industries can make high-quality products available to many people. We should breathe new life into that ideal.

The manifesto goes on to suggest that “We have lost sight of the higher ideals that were so central to the most influential movement by far in industrial design. The Bauhaus ideals - making the highest possible quality accessible to many people – were based on the intimate interweaving of cultural awareness, social engagement, and economic returns.” 

Surely through the 1920s, the Werkbund in Austria and, in particular, building work for new apartments under the Socialist government of Vienna after 1919 had a much stronger and much more immediate impact on creating affordable homes and affordable furniture for those who were not from the professional middle classes. And there were design projects like the Frankfurt kitchen by Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky from 1926 or the work of Danish furniture designers in collaboration with the Coop that had a more tangible influence on domestic design for ‘ordinary’ people; set standards for affordable design, and began the process of showing people that they should expect more and demand more from products they were buying.

 

Frankfurt Kitchen designed by Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky in 1926

Of course, the work of the Bauhaus was absolutely crucial in the development of both architecture and design in the 20th century and the influence of the school continues to be felt but, and here is the real irony, if you look carefully at the original furniture from the Bauhaus that is shown in Berlin, although those pieces were revolutionary and were designed with a vision of a better and more egalitarian and primarily industrial future, they were made by hand in the school workshops. In style, they are not what we would immediately associate with hand-crafted furniture but they were hand made. This might seem a mute point or seem rather pedantic but it means that they have a warmth and quality that reproductions and specifically cheap copies do not have: made too perfectly with modern machines, modern copies of Bauhaus designs can look cold and mechanical and lifeless when compared with the workshop-made originals.

Cantilever chair by Marcel Breuer and desk from 1935 in the collection of Designmuseum Danmark

Teaching staff at the Bauhaus

Look also at the photograph of the teaching staff of the Bauhaus. They were not scruffy Bolsheviks about to man the barricades for the right of the ordinary family to own a steel framed chair by Breuer. If you look at the villas built around the school for the staff or look at the interiors and the furniture in those houses, this furniture was not designed in anticipation of a company like IKEA with its large production runs although of course others did take forward the style and forms of Bauhaus furniture to revolutionise the industrial production of generally well-designed furniture at reasonable prices in the second half of the 20th century.

And before I am lambasted, I know that no one can assess how the Bauhaus students might themselves have changed commercial design at a popular level if the school had not been disbanded for political reasons in the 1930s but works by major figures from the Bauhaus, like Breuer and Mies van der Rohe, in the 50s and 60s were certainly designed for a wealthy elite.