Bees are chic right now: they design and build their own homes and make their food artisanally and naturally. Urban beekeeping is a way of enlisting nature that couldn’t be more in tune with the ideals of many designers today. We want our buildings and cities to be as natural as the honeycomb.
For centuries, architects and designers have aspired to echo nature’s forms. Today, increasingly, their ambitions go further: to incorporate nature’s methods and materials into the work. This is the terrain surveyed in Bio Design: Nature + Science + Creativity, coming from The Museum of Modern Art in December. The book provides a thorough survey of natural design efforts from the visionary to the do it yourself.
Most of the design projects surveyed offer environmental or social lessons; some of them border on artwork. A “blood lamp” devised by Mike Thompson of the Design Academy Eindhoven forces the user of the lamp to confront pain as a prelude to consuming energy. Its switch is based on luminol, the crime-scene chemical familiar from CSI-style television shows, and triggered by blood.
The rise of powerful manufacturing economies is commonly accompanied by stereotypes: those who make well are mere imitators—clever copiers, not real designers. It was true of Japan and Korea during their rise to industrial power. It was just as true of the United States, as the image played out in Great Britain in the 19th century with the American system of interchangeable parts supplanting craft-based British makers. And it has been true of images of China over the last few years.
“Designed in California, Made in China” read the words on the back of the iPhone. But must design and manufacture be separate? That is one of the questions in the background of China’s Design Revolution by Lorraine Justice. Justice, formerly Director of the School of Design at Hong Kong Polytechnic University, and now Dean of the College of Imaging Arts and Sciences at Rochester Institute of Technology, believes China is on the verge of a design revolution.
The emergence of design in China is tied to the country’s rapid growth, and cultural shifts that Justice associates with the succession of generations in the country. China moved from a focus in the days of Mao on the “four basic goods” that Chinese households felt they could aspire to—the wristwatch, radio, sewing machine, and bicycle—to a new generation aspiring to living space and auto ownership and commensurate achievements.
Justice outlines a generation of workers in their thirties and forties, with “more freedom to create—and to consume—than their parents or grandparents.” They came of age during the economic opening of the 1980s and 1990s and are now dedicated to self-expression in ways that promise to contradict clichés of China as a collectivist society and an imitative economy. But fostering creativity needed by designers as a needed value might seem in doubt as long as artists such as Ai Weiwei face politicial oppression.
Today, the business of color choice is obscured by pop press reports of “the hue of the year” that tend to be dismissed as superficial. But the addition of color to the toolbox of the industrial designer (it had long been a tool of the fashion designer) was a major event. Thanks to the chemical industry, which flourished under the pressure of World War I, the chemistry and technology of color changed radically in the 1920s.
The causes and effects of that change are a key story in design history, told by Regina Lee Blaszczyk, Visiting Scholar in the Department of the History and Sociology of Science at the University of Pennsylvania and an associate editor at the Journal of Design History.
The key shift came in the mid-1920s, when General Motors was able to use fast-drying, colorful DuPont enamels on its cars. Henry Ford had chosen his famous black because it dried quickly, in keeping with the rapid pace of his factories. From “any color you want as long as it’s black,” Chevrolet, Pontiac, and Buick could offer simply “any color you want.” (The first of the new offerings, incidentally, was a Pontiac blue.)
GM began sending emissaries to the Paris fashion shows to scout palettes for future upholstery. One of them—and one of the many colorful color chosers to whom Blaszczyk introduces us—was H. Ledyard Towle, a former military camouflage expert who after World War I became an adviser to DuPont, then moved to Detroit in 1928 as General Motors’ first “color engineer.”
As in so many areas of marketing and design, Detroit led the way. After red Chevrolets and blue Pontiacs, the road was opened to avocado refrigerators and harvest gold stoves. Kodak was soon advertising its once black Brownies in multiple soft hues, and portable typewriters in mint green and salmon pink were found in showroom window
The change happened just in time for the arrival of the professional industrial designer. And it created the profession of color consultant, which Blaszczyk records. “Blaszczyk examines the evolution of the color profession from 1850 to 1970,” as the publisher summarizes it, “telling the stories of innovators who managed the color cornucopia that modern artificial dyes and pigments made possible. These “color stylists,” “color forecasters,” and “color engineers” helped corporations understand the art of illusion and the psychology of color.”
The effects were wide-ranging: from the arrival of mauve in the fashion world to color in film or television, color again and again wreaks major changes. These effects are more than aesthetic: they are profound and existential, as caricatured in the film Pleasantville.
Niels Diffrient, the master of design that fits the user, has written a book that fits his character. Best known for his ergonomic research and precepts, Diffrient is a modernist monument as much as Dieter Rams—he even looks like Rams.
Personal more than prescriptive, the book is heavily illustrated and full of fun anecdotes—including how Diffrient, while working on interiors for TWA, ran into Howard Hughes with Jane Russell beside him in his convertible.
Growing up in Detroit and dabbling in car design, Diffrient took many career turns before he became the master of ergonomics. He was born in 1928 in the small town of Star, Mississippi. The family soon moved to Detroit; his father worked on an assembly line and Diffrient never forgot it. He managed to find himself at Cranbrook Academy. He spent five years in the office of Eero Saarinen. By 1954, thanks to a Fulbright scholarship, he was in Italy, imbibing the high period of Italian modern design and learning from the likes of Marco Zanuso, with whom he collaborated on the Borletti sewing machine.
He spent a quarter of a century working with Henry Dreyfuss, as a designer and partner, during which time Diffrient was able to codify the Dreyfuss office’s early research in practical guides to ergonomics. Later, with his own company, Humanscale, he put these principles into practice with the design of office chairs. His years at Dreyfuss provided Diffrient with some of his best stories—how, for instance, for American Airlines he designed an inflight passenger lounge to be installed on the quick. He also worked on ideas for the never-built American rival to the supersonic Concorde, called the SST.
In Diffrient’s memoir, his work makes for useful case studies but also a lively personal narrative.
From 1960s tie-dye to contemporary NASA photos, fractals have emerged as the characteristic pattern of the last 50 years. Like God’s own paisley or chintz, they live at the micro as happily as the macro level and they’ve become the symbolic imagery of complexity and emergence theory in economics and culture. Behind fractals, of course, is Benoit Mandelbrot, whose memoir—The Fractalist: Memoir of a Scientific Maverick—has been published by Pantheon. A show of Mandelbrot’s work currently appearing at the Bard Graduate Center Gallery in New York suggests the huge influence fractals have had on design and thinking about design. “The Islands of Benoît Mandelbrot: Fractals, Chaos, and the Materiality of Thinking,” curated by Nina Samuel, remains in the BGC Focus Gallery through January 27, 2013.
Sports cars like Porsche can spawn near fanatic cults—even among designers. So can lesser vehicles, such as the 1960s Chevrolets that serve as the basis of Texas “lowriders”—hydraulically modified and painted cars created in Mexican American communities. This book looks at what might be called the anthropology of design and customization. It is written by Ben Chappell, an assistant professor of American Studies at the University of Kansas who spent time with groups of lowriders in Austin. He reports that early ‘60s Chevys are the quintessential lowriders. “A ‘61 to ‘64 Chevy Impala would be perfect. And there are practical and mechanical reasons for that. The frame of the Impala is really good for hydraulics. It’s a very solid car. There are lots of flat surfaces for murals. But it also represents the past to people whose families were entering the middle class in the ‘60s. That was a time there was more consciousness about Mexican American identity, and people trying to become more visible in American society.”
Just as motorcycle gangs have morphed from semi criminal outfits to more social ones, the gangs with which lowriders are associated in pop culture are frequently anti gangs—alternatives to less savory outfits in the same neighborhoods. The cars form a basis for local clubs that function like the backers of teams or hunting or social clubs. “If you have a hydraulic suspension, you can actually make the car bounce, you can ride on three wheels, you can do all kinds of tricks that really make it stand out in traffic or at a car show. That’s the signature modification that defines a lowrider.” Car customization is a social medium too.
The Harry Ransom Center, the University of Texas at Austin
The Museum of the City of New York
Norman Bel Geddes Designs America accompanies the first major exhibition about Norman Bel Geddes (1893–1958), at the Harry Ransom Center at University of Texas in Austin.
Bel Geddes began in theater. He became the quintessential industrial designer of the founding generation—the pop apotheosis of the profession—but Raymond Loewy, Walter Dorwin Teague, and Henry Dreyfuss ended up better known and more highly respected. At the height of his career Bel Geddes was already the object of joking New Yorker cartoons and covers.
Curator Donald Albrecht traces Bel Geddes’s career in this first full volume about him. Running through the story is the theme of theater: dramatic effects were the stuff of Bel Geddes’s earliest work, in costumes and sets for stage, and the keynote to his work in products and presentations. His designs for hardware participated in the same melodrama as his dramaturgy. His buildings and technology were more Amazing Stories magazine cover than serious proposals. There were the pod-like cars, thousands of which were deployed in the Magic Motorways of the Futurama display for the General Motors Highways and Horizons exhibit at the New York World’s Fair of 1939–40. There were amazing visionary multi-engine airliners and ocean liners. It turned out that there was a mundane reality behind all of these: the freeway traffic jams and the crowded aisles of Boeing jumbo jets or Carnival cruise lines. But dramatized and futurized, it was technological opera. Bel Geddes’s approach is seen in miniature in the cover of his book Magic Motorways, where the type is shadowed and stretched like figures in a film noir set.
The present book looks behind the wizard’s screen, with never-before-seen drawings, photos, films, and models from the Ransom Center collection. Essays by 20 scholars accompany the images. The exhibition called “I Have Seen the Future: Norman Bel Geddes Designs America” opened in Austin in September and will travel to the Museum of the City of New York in 2013.
A Venn diagram of designers and Porsche fans reveals a major overlap. Sober, businesslike design academics or executives turn into positive Bieber buffs when the subject of the quintessential German sports car comes up. As respectably modern as a Braun coffee mill or Vitsoe shelving system, a Porsche 356 or 911 possesses the additional advantage of being speedy and sensual. These are the people who will enjoy Karl Ludvigsen’s latest Porsche book, from Bentley, the auto book publisher. Ludvigsen is highly regarded by automobile collectors and historians; his three-volume Porsche history, Porsche: Excellence Was Expected, is standard. One such collector is comedian Jerry Seinfeld, who is very serious about his sports cars. (He constructed a special garage for them, at great expense, in Manhattan.) Seinfeld has written a foreword to Porsche: Origin of the Species. The book, arriving in the year that F.A. Porsche died, tells of the early days of the Porsche company, in Gmund, Austria, and the birth of the mythic 356.
Leonard Lauder, like so many postcard collectors, fell in love in childhood with the distant times and places the cards evoke. But unlike most collectors, he had the wherewithal to assemble a great collection of them. In the process, he helped raise awareness of the cards above the dusty dingy hobbyist sales world. Today, we can see the cards as the Twitter or better Pinterest feed of their time and therefore an invaluable inexpensive time capsule of the world of the early 20th century.
The notes on the back of the cards are revealing, too: many are mundane appointment reminders or greetings—the e-mail of great cities with twice- or thrice-daily mail delivery in the years before universal telephony.
Leonard Lauder donated a selection of his cards, a group produced by the Wiener Werkstätte, to his brother Ronald Lauder’s Neue Galerie in New York, devoted to Germanic art and design. The Leonard A. Lauder Postcard Collection is likely the world’s best, and samples architecture, art, commerce, and the incidental surrealism of the medium.
“Forgive” seems an odd word to find in a title, especially of a book about design. But there it is: To Forgive Design: Understanding Failure is Henry Petroski’s most recent volume of several on failure.
Henry Petroski, of course, is an engineering professor at Duke who, in addition to his classic history of the pencil and contemplation of ordinary small objects, wrote To Engineer Is Human: The Role of Failure in Successful Design and Success Through Failure: The Paradox of Design.
The titles help us look at the uneasy border between engineering (which is arguably Petroski’s real subject) and design in some wider sense. This is an important line although it risks raising many old and misleading divisions. (The Apple Samsung patent case also touched this issue, as does the legal distinction between engineering patent and design patent.)
Engineers tend to be deeply suspicious of aesthetics. Petroksi’s account of the famous failure of the Tacoma Narrows bridge suggests why. “Galloping Gertie,” as the suspension bridge was nicknamed, is famous from an old strip of black-and-white film in which winds set off a steadily amplifying wave motion. Eventually, the bridge shakes itself to failure.
But Petroski’s version of the familiar story is different. It was not simply miscalculation or failure to consider physical effects that led to the failure, he says. It was not “unknown unknowns.” No, Petroski blames over confidence and self importance on the part of engineers—and their aesthetics. He argues that “engineers can be blinded by fashion.” In the 1930s, he says, bridge engineers had come to think that solid older bridges, exemplified by the Brooklyn bridge, were clunky and homely. They came to prefer a new aesthetic of slender, ribbon-like designs, such as the George Washington bridge. It was not just because such bridges were lighter and less expensive to build that engineers moved toward them, Petroski writes, but because they looked more attractive. And inevitably they sacrificed function to this form: like a too-thin fashion model, Gertie was a victim of her own desire to look slender.
Looking at the failure of design has become something of a cliché in academia, but Petroski shows that it remains critical. What about the failures of non-engineering design? Or can engineering be defined as the part of design whose failure can be easily identified—while that of aesthetics cannot? There are many flavors of failure: failure to sell in the marketplace, failure to achieve affordable price, failure to last, failure to be maintainable or sustainable. But what of failure to imagine? Failure to dream?