Friday, May 15, 2009

Timeless Design-Is there still a need for it?

If I had known earlier that Objectified, the latest documentary by Helvetica director Gary Hustwit, was going to be screened at the The Toby in the IMA I would have put out an APB. This film explores the design and consumption of products from the designer’s point of view and I left the screening questioning how I as a designer and a consumer measure a product’s worth. Typically we judge the quality of a product by its longevity and performance; that we as consumers shop for products that we think will stand the test of time. However, after viewing Objectified, my appreciation for long-lasting products has been turned on its head.

When I attended the European Design Exhibit and Symposium at the IMA, some of the presenters were asked to discuss product sustainability and the price of ’designer’ goods in Europe. A typical direction that the responses traveled was toward the belief that in Europe things are designed to last forever and therefore need only be purchased once and kept forever. What I took away from the symposium is that if something is well designed it will be cherished forever, that my designs, materials, and spaces need to be just as desirable in 2009 as in 2029.

Now fast forward to last night and this guy (I know what you're thinking) says:

Karim Rashid. *Examples of his work can be seen at the bottom of this post.

“If the average shelf life of a high-tech object is less than eleven months, why on Earth does anything have to be built to be permanent? It should all be 100% disposable. You know, I think my laptop should be made of cardboard, or my mobile phone could be a piece of cardboard, or it could just be made out of something like sugarcane or bioplastic.”

In the Indianapolis Star I made comment that European design principals do not translate to us as consumers. In Indiana, I feel we buy based on trends and fashion. We swap out all of our kitchen appliances because the ones we have aren’t stainless. We buy a new TV because the one we have won’t mount on the wall. We buy new jeans because the pair we’re wearing have boring pockets. And when we shop to replace those things, price tends to influence our choices because we know this isn’t the last time we will be buying this item.

To bring this topic back to my field, it should be pointed out that people are opting to reside in their homes for relatively brief amounts of time. Decades ago people died in the same home in which they raised their children. Today, individuals can expect to live in an apartment, a starter home, their family home, and an empty nester home. Business sizes fluctuate and their space requirements change accordingly. A company can start in the basement of a house, then fill a downtown office complex, and then perhaps become a completely mobile organization. So why would a client buy solid cherry casework that will not only outlast their stay but outlast the trend that influenced me to design them? What happens to that casework when they move or remodel? Why are they looking for sturdy furniture that will last years?

So here I am, marinating all of the elements of product consumption; need, cost, appearance (form), function and longevity. While cost and appearance vary wildly (usually in tandem), need, function and longevity seem to always be elements of a product that can’t be compromised. But why? Why does my vacuum cleaner come with a 10-year warranty? Do I really expect to have it that long? Well, maybe, I rarely clean. Why is it that I have a closet full of beautiful well-made coats yet every fall I am seduced to buying another one?

Could consumers embrace the idea of temporary products? What if there was a clothing line that would eventually break down in water or could be added to a compost pile? Would you feel comfortable buying something if you knew it was intended to fall apart or degrade at a speed of fashion instead of tradition? You know you will have a new phone in a year or two. Why would you be hesitant to buy one that could dissolve?

So here I am trying to re-define my definition of quality in regard to product design as it relates to interior design. What is a quality product/design? Is it something that promises to last as long as you do or something that knows you well enough to know that your relationship won’t last that long?

* As promised, here are some of Karim Rashid's designs. Christian owns the Alessi watch and it is a gem!