Q+A – Douglas Coupland

Douglas Coupland, 41, is famous as the author of Generation X, a 1991 novel that slapped an indelible label on people born between 1961 and 1977. He has also written works with unsettling titles such as Shampoo Planet, All Families Are Psychotic, and Girlfriend in a Coma. But writing isn’t all he does. A self-described “art-school boy,” he graduated in 1984 from the Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design in his hometown, Vancouver, British Columbia, and studied fine art and design in Hawaii, Milan, and Sapporo, Japan. Coupland has sculpted and designed in Vancouver ever since. His Pop-inspired creations range from the useful (colorful tables with names like Lichtenstein and Hockey Night in Canada) to the uncategorizable (a chair of steel, leather, and elk antlers) and have won two Canadian National Awards for Excellence in Industrial Design. Some pieces are available online through Pure Design (www.puredesignonline.com). On the eve of the release of his ninth novel, Hey Nostradamus!, a saga about the ripple effect of a horrifying event in a suburban high school cafeteria (published in the U.S. by Bloomsbury Books), he held forth on generations, education, and Art Deco.

Dan Nadel is a partner in Monday Morning, a visual content studio that produces The Ganzfeld (www.theganzfeld.com).

You’ve more or less stopped designing for the moment and gotten back into sculpture….

Yes and no. Yesterday I was sorting through some old art-school slides. It was slightly painful and slightly funny and sad. I saw all of these great pieces I made out of plywood and thought, “I should start working with it again.” So within the past 24 hours I’ve made a decision to go back that way. Your question comes on an odd day.

Are you taking a specific direction?

You’ll die when I tell you: Art Deco. I know. It’s design stripped of any and all ideology, yet at the same time it utterly defies globalization. So it has a weird and unexpected politics of its own. Who would have thought?

How does Art Deco defy globalization?

Can you imagine anything Art Deco in, say, IKEA or Conran’s? Can you see the masses demanding their Art Deco? Can you imagine Gap models on Art Deco furniture? No. I mean, I can imagine Gap models sitting on an Empire chair clone from Ethan Allen, but not a chair from Carole Lombard’s dressing room in the Depression. There’s something still crypto-gay, sexually charged, and backdrop-y about Art Deco, in a way that’s too ambiguous for globality.

How do the boundaries between art and design blur for you?

I think the art world has largely evolved into a system for creating branded luxury goods, which I actually don’t mind. Art has become really good furniture. At the same time I have a Statuette chair by Cappellini that has had maybe 45 seconds of people sitting in it over the past eight years, so it’s become sculpture. It’s all fluid.

Do you find one more interesting than the other?

I like both the same. As long as it’s shiny and Pop, I’m in. On a practical level, art is much harder to sell than furniture. When they’re good, art and design both make you feel like you live in a brand new world full of potential and hope.

How did you find life as an industrial designer?

That was so long ago, but baby cribs I did in 1986 still sell in J.C.Penney. I see them on TV and in movies all the time. They were really good. I often miss the cartoon-y, creative tangle of the factory. Factories are great. The stuff I’ve been doing recently is made 1,000 miles away, so I feel more detached from it than I’d like.

How does it feel to design and produce art while also writing?

It feels no different than it did during my third year of art school. Really. I used to do the art-school paper, so the words-images-design-art tag team is in full operation.

Do you think today is a good time to be an emerging designer?

It’s always a good time to be an emerging designer. At the very least it’s more interesting than being an emerging chartered accountant.

How do you think design practices have changed as generations have shifted?

Design school grad shows are so boring because all they have are Web sites and onscreen whatevers, and they’re drained of passion or a visible need to really screw around with materials. If I ran a design program, you’d have to create your final project using only stuff you pulled out of dumpsters. These programs need to become drastically more low-tech. Get people away from the headphones and mouse pads, and put them in front of a pallet-load of spruce plywood and 55 sheets of customized laminate.

Do you find that world events have an effect on aesthetics in any substantive way? Should they?

Design has been keeping up to date far more than art. The lack of a concerted artistic response to 9/11 has been slightly painful to watch, whereas I can’t think of a more interesting moment in design history where everybody’s a critic as well as an input-giver and an idea-holder.

Why do you think designers have been able to communicate about the World Trade Center disaster so well?

Because they’re interested in it. Interest is the best teacher. And because it’s an event that’s still hard to process verbally, whereas with an image you can look at it and say yes or no.

Do you see any trends on the horizon?

How about Art Deco?