The evolving purpose of design

Design is about communication and respect as much as function.


Massoud Hassani’s wind-powered land minesweeper, the Mine Kafon. Photo by Rene van der Hulst, courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art.

For more than a century, design has been determined by its applications to the physical world. As architect Louis Sullivan expressed in an 1896 essay, “The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered“:

“It is the pervading law of all things organic and inorganic, of all things physical and metaphysical, of all things human and all things superhuman, of all true manifestations of the head, of the heart, of the soul, that the life is recognizable in its expression, that form ever follows function. This is the law.

But Paola Antonelli, senior curator of Architecture and Design at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, thinks that’s a law best consigned to the dustbin of history; she gets exasperated when design is presented as the subservient handmaiden of utility.

“There shouldn’t be any differentiation between form and function,” she maintained in a recent interview. “The idea that form must follow function, that’s out the window; it’s a tired cliché. A good object, a well-designed object, is encompassing. It is unified, the material embodiment of a strong idea.”

For Antonelli, design is the highest mode of creative expression, subsuming inspiration, materials, and applied purpose. For too long, she insists, design has been given short shrift.

“I’m not a moralist, but I do think objects deserve respect,” she said. “Design is not decoration.”

That’s particularly evident today, when the merging of computer technology and the physical world has made design both more protean and pervasive.

“One of the most important and exciting trends we’re seeing is the evolving purpose of design,” she said. “It’s less and less about function as an end point, and more and more about access to networks. Increasingly, objects are gateways to different ways of doing things, to different ways of living.”

Last year, Antonelli observed, “Older people bought more new cars than younger people, reversing a long-established trend. That’s terribly significant because it’s pointing to the emergence of a shared economy. Young people want the convenience of a vehicle when they’re going to certain places or doing certain things, but they don’t necessarily want to own them. They’re happy to share cars. That’s a very different paradigm, and it’s going to require Detroit to reconfigure their approach to designing cars.”

Computer technology has made Antonelli’s job both richer and more challenging. For example: she has curated objects for MoMA’s permanent collection that were created by Neri Oxman, leader of MIT Media Lab’s Mediated Matter Group. Among Oxman’s projects are a skirt and cape produced by a Stratasys Connex multi-material 3-D printer. They each were printed in a single build, and employ both firm and soft materials, allowing the ease of movement associated with “regular” clothes.

“They’re wonderful garments — but from a design perspective, it can be argued that the real significance, the real ‘elegance,’ is in the software,” Antonelli says.

Antonelli is also curating the emblematic icons of the the computer and Internet revolutions, including the Google map pin and the @ symbol.

“I’m particularly proud of that,” she said of her acquisition of @. “It shows that you don’t actually have to have physical possession of something to ‘acquire’ it.”

Because @ is in the public domain, MoMA did not have to pay for using it, thus making it — as Antonelli has described it — “[Probably] the only truly free, albeit not the only priceless, object in our collection.” An exhibition devoted to @ is on display on the 3rd floor of MoMA’s architecture and design east gallery.

In a blog on @, Antonelli noted it was first applied to electronic communications by engineer Ray Tomlinson in the seminal email system he developed in the early 1970s.

“In January 1971, @ was an underused jargon symbol lingering on the keyboard and marred by a very limited register. By October, Tomlinson had rediscovered and appropriated it, imbuing it with new meaning and elevating it to the defining symbol of the computer age. He chose the @ for his first email because of its strong locative sense — an individual, identified by a username, is @ this institution/computer/server, and also because…it was already there, on the keyboard, and nobody ever used it. … Tomlinson performed a powerful act of design that not only forever changed the @ sign’s significance and function, but which also has become an important part of our identity in relationship and communication with others. His (unintended) role as a designer must be acknowledged and celebrated by the one collection — MoMA’s — that has always celebrated elegance, economy, intellectual transparency, and a sense of the possible future directions that are embedded in the arts of our time, the essence of modern.”

If @ is now an iconic symbol, it has also served as a harbinger to the massive impact of computers on design. Advanced technologies have accelerated and compressed design cycles, Antonelli observed. “Not long ago, if you wanted to design something, you’d make a non-functioning model of it first and use that as a template for prototype development,” Antonelli said. “Now, we’re able to move directly from concept to prototyping. After all, that’s one of the greatest applications of 3-D printing, where virtually everything you produce can be considered a prototype.”

Streamlined prototyping has, in turn, upended the basic ethos of design. There are no longer real set points, observed Antonelli. Design is now more akin to flowing water than a series of steps carved in stone. And again, that conforms to the nascent “culture of sharing.” The same impulses that drove open source software are now driving the design of objects.

“Physical objects increasingly exist in a matrix, where they can be modified by different people for their individual purposes,” Antonelli said. “Design is thus becoming more collaborative, but at the same time, it’s more amenable to customization, to addressing individual desires and needs.”

This extends beyond objects to entertainment and information, Antonelli observed, citing Biophilia, the 2011 Bjork album that was released in a series of apps, allowing people to interact with the music to the point of creating new versions of the songs.

Antonelli feels some of the strongest designs are coming from the developing world, where poor access to capital and materials drives innovation. Among her acquisitions for MoMA is a wind-powered minesweeper created from bamboo and biodegradable plastic. Designed by 29-year-old Afghan Massoud Hassani, it is a visually arresting object, resembling a gigantic dandelion seed head.

“We have a lot to learn from poorer countries,” said Antonelli. “Their maker traditions are directly opposite to our consumer culture, and I admire them immensely. They use everything; they hack everything. Recycling is second nature. I understand corporations must make money, but there are better ways to do that than constantly throwing away stuff and wasting resources.”

Conversely (and ironically), Antonelli feels there is a lack of appreciation for the bedrock principles of good design in the area most celebrated for creative engineering: Silicon Valley.

“I’ve had quite a bit of interaction with venture capitalists there, and I must say I was quite disappointed,” she said. “I was amazed that they consider design an ’embellishment,’ something superfluous. Yes, I know that Steve Jobs is always cited as a master of design, and that he’s a symbol for Silicon Valley. But Jobs was only one guy, and his vision was his vision. You can’t imitate Jobs. And frankly, at this point, his approach is a bit old-fashioned. He was obsessed with beauty and purity above all else. For the strongest designs, you have to be willing to get a little dirty. I have no problem with beautiful objects, but the purpose of design isn’t to be beautiful — it’s to communicate, to inform clearly and concisely. Again, it’s about respect, both for the object and the person who uses it.”

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