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!


Christopher said...

Good post Nik -

I still think permanence and longevity are relevant, and I think it may be ingrained in the human condition. I also don't think that's a bad thing.

Certainly there was a paradigm shift in the 20th century - I personally like my $30 rug from Menards more than I like the oriental rug valued in the thousands that's been in my family for more than a century - but it's the idea of the legacy that is attractive. My parents have made it clear I'm not getting the aforementioned rug when they pass, it will go to my sister which makes them all happy and in turn, me happy.

It also makes me feel good to think that some of the things I hold dear (art, furniture, etc I have collected) will be appreciated by future generations. Call it a validation that what I'm doing/supporting actually makes a difference and I think we need that purpose in our lives.

I know you're talking a lot about technology and fashion here which sort of falls in a different category but some of the ideas hold true. Will the paradigm shift continue? Probably and some of that is good and necessary, but I don't think the idea longevity will become irrelevant anytime soon. Except maybe in fashion - H&M already makes clothing that 'breaks down in water'. Just put anything in their men's line in the wash a couple of times and you'll see what I mean!

Sam said...

For me, context is everything. The client, designers, builder, community all offer different perspectives and ranges of control during design and construction. We, as the designers, set the tone. I've believed that for years. My experience suggests that everyone, including the client, looks to us first. When we are "good" actors, the rest follow, often enthusiastically.

More broadly, the second kaboom for our lovely society is that everything we make leaves all the natural loops open. Literally - we need systemic change that is starting to be illustrated by manufacturer's like Interface. Unfortunately, truly forward (green) looking designers are the vast minority.

Kate said...

Nikki, great post! Let me know if you'd like to put this (or a version of it) up on the IMA blog!


Craig said...

Great post, Nikki.

It is difficult as designers to try to have a measurable impact on our society's propensity (be it intentional or just consequential) for creating waste through lack of foresight. In the mediocre office building where I spend most of my days, I have these past few months watched the gutting of an entire floor (or more) of office space which was only a year old. Twenty or thirty times I have seen a dumpster the size of a shipping container filled and replaced with the gypsum and flooring and ceiling and fixtures of a tenant office space. I imagine this recession is a boon for the waste business.

As designers, what can we do? Specify recyclable materials, of course, encourage our clients to act sustainably during changeovers perhaps... it's all very little in the big picture. Might save a dumpster or two of material from the thirty.

In the United States, we are enslaved to a system of ideologies and business practice which prohibits conscientious designers from doing their best with most design problems. The simplistic profit models which create isolated spec office buildings with disposable tenants ties our hands. The only way to evolve beyond these constraints is to design new models and systems of economics which have forethought the inevitable futures of buildings and designed environments.

One example, [google it] the Klip House by Mark Wamble and Dawn Finley of A systemic modular unit which assumes an aftermarket for it's modules, by design. Minimal waste.

As for products - I would definitely buy disposable/recyclable design items. They should come with destructions as well as instructions (how to take them apart and recycle them, like the new iMac).

Dona Doyle said...

Interesting topic--it had Scott and I talking at dinner about our disposable society, the humiliating lable of "dated decor" on HGTV, the job of designers to lure us into replacing what we have with their new designs and how that seems to conflict with the push for green living, Your blog created quite a buzz--good work!

joe shoemaker said...

I have several of Karim Rashid's trash cans scattered about my house... they're just darned cute.