After the Fall

Posted inID Mag

By: Julie Lasky | February 5, 2009

Optimists say designers are poised to create a better world in the current economy; pessimists disagree. Are they both missing the point? Remember the classic cartoon pratfall in which Wile E. Coyote, in pursuit of the Road Runner, dashes off a cliff? He remains unconcernedly suspended in mid-air until something alerts him to the fact that he’s hanging over a void. At that point, he shrieks and plunges to the ground below.

Something similar happened last autumn with the news that the U.S. economy had been in recession for almost a year. The crisis was obvious, but only when it was confirmed and labeled did Americans collectively wake up to it. Suddenly, even those who were comfortable enough to continue with their old habits of consumption felt the panicky need to cut back, a situation that accelerated the economic plummet.

Despite the catastrophic effects of consumer lack-of-spending, there has been much in the international press lately about the galvanizing effect this recession could have on our industry. Among the outcomes suggested by Alice Rawsthorn in the International Herald Tribune last November are that designers will be less arty (given that the market for expensive edition design has fallen with Coyote-like speed) and that they will be more likely to help society cope with its privations. Rawsthorn further saw an opportunity for designers to go beyond producing objects and into the realm of strategy, designing everything from banking services to bicycle-rental systems. “Design has always coped well with austerity and is especially well-equipped to do so now,” she wrote.

A spirit of optimism also marked a January New York Times article by the design editor Michael Cannell. Like Rawsthorn, Cannell pointed out that design has flourished in hard times (both writers gave the examples of the Great Depression and postwar Italy). And like Rawsthorn, he foresaw designers devoting attention to system-wide social problems, through such avenues as urban planning. Unlike his more reserved British counterpart, however, Cannell gloated over what he judged to be the end of a period of design excess, which culminated in the antics of Marcel Wanders’ girlfriend serving champagne while dangling half-naked from a chandelier. (“The pain of layoffs notwithstanding, the design world could stand to come down a notch or two,” he wrote.)

And so it was Cannell, and not Rawsthorn, who felt the wrath of Murray Moss. Writing for the online magazine Design Observer in response, Moss, who made no bones about the pain inflicted on his celebrated design store in this economy, charged Cannell with being “mean-spirited” in his failure to appreciate design’s experimental breakthroughs of the past 15 years. “What regressive, back-in-the-box, frozen-in-the-mid-20th-century absolutist utopian modernist ‘democratic’ criteria for evaluating contemporary design is Mr. Cannell proposing?” Moss asked. Seventy-three comments—some supportive, others jeering—followed as of this writing.

Lost in this controversy is the message sent by a market that suddenly dries up. Are consumers who stop buying design financially hurting? Are they in good shape yet panicking? Have they simply reevaluated their desires? Are they giving up luxuries out of temporary necessity, or have they decided in the clear light following a manic economic boom—a clarity that’s enhanced by a slowdown in pushy advertising—that they’re just not that into certain products or services? When your resources are limited, your choices become revelatory. You remain encumbered by the sticky fingers of longing, but you quickly realize which fingers are easiest to pry off. It took 10 years of scary medical literature for me to quit smoking, but I needed less than a week of bad Dow Jones to seriously cut back on my taxi habit. Smoking released endorphins in my brain; taxi rides did not. Others get their kicks from shoes, stereo equipment, or Hella Jongerius vases and will be less likely to forfeit them even when sacrifice is called for.

Moss implies that the design market in a recession will automatically and tragically revert to dull modernist principles of practicality and functionality. He seems to see aesthetic progress as a rock that, having been painfully pushed up a hill, threatens to roll backward. I don’t agree. The current interest in ornamentation may give way to an austerity revival, but no one can take away the technological and material breakthroughs of the past 15 years, which have made design both more affordable at the low end and more covetable at the high end. Now that contemporary design has joined photography as a newfound collectible, I don’t think it will be banished from art fairs and auction houses anytime soon. Nor should it be.

We judge design by a more intricate set of values and expectations than ever before, including, but not limited to, environmental responsibility, regional resonance, workplace ethics, universal application (as in ADA compliance), and the potential for customization. I see no backsliding here. Rather than use this recession to condemn whole categories such as art design or big box–store inventory, or conversely treat them as endangered species, why not evaluate all designs against the particular standards that governed their creation? If something has to give way in this economy, shouldn’t it be the products that work worst and are loved least?