A Step in the Right Direction

We devoted our last issue to the revival of ornament in design, presenting offbeat projects whose flourishes conveyed much about the individuality of their makers. For this issue, the theme is life’s milestones—the existential drumbeat of birth, education, marriage, propagation, decline, and death.

This march from cradle to grave represents the opposite of idiosyncrasy. It’s the shared condition that makes it possible for members of any culture to reach beyond social or geographical divides and find understanding. Even more than the reductive, function-oriented demands of modernism, such milestones represent ground zero for design. Still, no matter how focused the effort to develop products for active young minds, or for harmonious, fruitful couplings, or for a trimmer, fitter middle age, or for a more independent and vigorous elderly life, the results are every bit as eccentric as those in our ornament issue. This is true in part because we exist at a peculiar moment—when we are longer-lived, more matter-of-fact about sexuality, and more intolerant of environmental abuse than in any previous era—but also because designs for simple milestones grow out of intensely creative approaches. The subject may be as basic as life, but the solutions are extraordinary.

Here, we present a number of them in order of increasing maturity, beginning with a new line of children’s furniture created by educators (p. 46), Switzerland’s pioneering designs for elementary schools (p. 52), and a critique of recruitment materials from the world’s leading art and design programs (p. 56). The rite of sexual initiation is explored in a group of concepts for the ideal place to lose one’s virginity (p. 60), and the consequences are dealt with in a feature on cutting-edge contraceptives (p. 68). We cover new-fangled green weddings (p. 72), visit the 2007 Consumer Electronics Show to gather products appropriate for middle age (p. 80), and explore technology designed to comfort and support the elderly (p. 84). Finally, we asked the artist Mark Newgarden, a master of morbidity, to square off with death (p. 88), and came full circle back to inception with a feature on a Japanese ritual for mourning the unborn (p. 90).

I had hoped to end this description with someone else’s thoughts about existence since it’s been the bread and butter of every philosopher since antiquity. But the clearest voice is one that rises from my own past. I grew up in a family of chatterboxes and navel gazers, who found significance in the crumb of a Pop Tart. We debated the meaning of life until we wanted to strangle each other—all, that is, except for my father, who occasionally looked up from his paper amid the hubbub and said, “Look. You’re born, you live, and you die.” Those words may not always give comfort but they have the satisfying foundation of rock-solid truth—the kind you can always build on. I try to remember them whenever I’m tempted to get fancy.

Dunne and Raby’s Evidence Dolls (2005)—which store the bodily materials of ex-lovers for later DNA analysis—are an offshoot of BioLand, their ongoing concept for a biotech shopping mall that meets “birth, death, and marriage needs in a genetically modified world,” according to the designers.