Thursday, August 16, 2007

It's Not Stuff, It's Art

Unless you're a survivalist or a Freegan, with little more than a backpack full of basics, or unless you're a person who shops exclusively at thrift and antique stores or Freecycle, eventually you're going to have to buy something new.

Being a thoughtful consumer, you'll want to maximize the value of your purchase, whether it's household furnishings or clothing or even something decorative or artistic -- yes, thoughtful consumers are not required to sacrifice to the point that they never buy anything simply because it's beautiful or it lifts their spirits. Having beautiful objects in a beautiful environment is a worthy goal for those of us fortunate enough not to worry about meeting our daily living needs.

But have you ever given thought to the fact that someone, or a team of someones, must design whatever it is that you buy? By focusing our attention on this part of the process of creating "stuff," we can become more aware and more sensitive when choosing what objects we want to have around us. If we choose wisely, we'll be content with what we have and not be tempted to buy simply for the sake of buying.

When shopping for anything, whether it's new or "new to you," there are only two criteria to consider: the design of the item must be both attractive and functional, otherwise it's of little use. ("Functional" includes those items that are spirit-lifting.) There are many clever ways to reuse and recycle older items, but I also find it interesting to learn more about designers who have made names for themselves by coming up with new items that fit those criteria.

Karim Rashid has designed products that I think are innovative and interesting, although many are pricey and rely on manufacturing from non-renewable resources. But I do find his overall design philosophy appealing:

"Every business should be completely concerned with beauty - it is after all a collective human need. I believe that we could be living in an entirely different world - one that is full of real contemporary inspiring objects, spaces, places, worlds, spirits and experiences. . . Design is about the betterment of our lives poetically, aesthetically, experientially, sensorially, and emotionally. My real desire is to see people live in the modus of our time, to participate in the contemporary world, and to release themselves from nostalgia, antiquated traditions, old rituals, kitsch and the meaningless. We should be conscious and attune with this world in this moment. If human nature is to live in the past - to change the world is to change human nature."

These are not the statements of someone who's just designing "stuff" -- and they're not the words of someone who mindlessly clings to things out of sentiment. Rashid wants us to live in the moment, with things surrounding us that enhance that moment.

Michael Graves, already well-known as an architect, became quite famous as a result of his designs of many household objects for Target. In an article in, writer John Hockenberry states, "[Graves] has been an evangelist for beauty and humor in product design, as in his famous silver conical Alessi teapot as well as his buildings all over the world." By designing for Target, he's also demonstrated that good design should be affordable, too.

Just a few years ago, Graves suffered an illness that left him paralyzed from the waist down. He was so appalled by the ugliness and lack of functionality in his hospital environment, as well as in the designs of most products offered to people with disabilities, that now, Hockenberry reports, "Graves and his team are hard at work on a line of products that fuse one-dimensional medical utility with style, multifunctional elegance, and beauty. . . He says it all comes back to the choice of whether to make something beautiful or to tolerate something ugly. Allowing something to be simply ugly leads to permitting something that's not functional, that doesn't work right, that can be unsafe. . . 'Look around you: people can tolerate a lot of bad design,' he says with a twinkling smile to his staff, who have heard it all before. 'I can't tolerate any of it, of course. And I won't.'"

Graves' personal tragedy will result in wonderful improvements in design for medical devices and for people with disabilities. Perhaps he'll tackle the larger design issues of hospitals, which are usually some of the most ill-conceived, depressing environments one can encounter.

What happens when a fine artist designs? Andrea Zittel is one fascinating example. She creates everything from clothing to modular living units, "trying to combine design, craft and art." I became interested in her when I learned of her A-Z Uniform project which she worked on from 1991 to 2002. In her own words:

"Most of us own a favorite garment that always makes us look and feel good, but social etiquette dictates that we wear a different change of clothes every day. Sometimes this multitude of options can actually feel more restrictive than a self-imposed constant. Because I was tired of the tyranny of constant variety, I began a six-month uniform project. Starting in 1991 I would design and make one perfect dress for each season, and would then wear that dress every day for six months. Although utilitarian in principle, I often found that there was a strong element of fantasy or emotional need invested in each season's design. The experiment as a whole worked quite well, especially since dreaming up the next season's design helped relieve any monotony that might have occurred from wearing the same dress every day."

Because Zittel's an artist, her process moved on to creating uniforms from fabric torn from the bolt, then to making clothing by crocheting a single strand, and finally to using felt. Just thinking about her work can help us reconceptualize our relationship to our clothes: how many we need, how they're made, what purposes they serve when we wear them.

Performance artist Alex Martin also tackled the issue of fashion in her Brown Dress project. She made a brown dress which she wore each day for an entire year, from July 2005 to July 2006. Her reasoning:

"I made one small, personal attempt to confront consumerism by refusing to change my dress for 365 days. In this performance, I challenged myself to reject the economic system that pushes over-consumption, and the bill of goods that has been sold, especially to women, about what makes a person good, attractive and interesting. Clothes are a big part of this image, and the expectation in time, effort, and financial investment is immense."

Martin's current project:

". . . a wardrobe of my own devising -- recycled, re-mixed, re-fabbed . . . only things I made myself (clothes, jewelry, shoes, underwear, bags, everything) and my source materials were clothing items already in my possession - a completely closed loop, 100% recycled from my own closet."

Through this project, Martin offers another commentary on consumer culture, self-reliance, and creating things that are aesthetically pleasing as well as functional.

If we stop looking at our stuff as "stuff" and begin to look at each of our objects as the result of artistic expression, we'll have more appreciation for them. Then living with our carefully chosen possessions rather than just a bunch of stuff will mean paying attention to their beauty. Living in an environment that's not cluttered will be necessary to allow us to see the objects we've chosen and enjoy them. It's a shift in thinking that I believe would affect the way we look at everything in the world: seeking beauty and function, then being grateful when we find it.

Stuff is not just "stuff." Each thing has been designed, each thing is art, each thing is an opportunity to enhance our lives. Is your stuff good art or not so good art? Is it enhancing your life or detracting from it? Is your home an artistic expression of who you are or are you living in a Museum of Mess?

(c) 2007 Cynthia Friedlob


Naomi said...

It's been just about two weeks now since I have been reading your blog. I am catching up on your archives and just want to say that your thoughts, writing style and subjects are superb. Today's topic on design and the links provided are very thought provoking.Your journey to pare down and appreciate what you have echoes my own decluttering and simplifying quest. I am so happy to have found you.

Cynthia Friedlob said...

Naomi,thank you so much for your kind comment. I'm pleased that you enjoy reading my blog and hope you've chosen to subscribe. I'm also pleased to learn that you're making a similar effort to simplify your life. I wish you the best and will look forward to hearing from you in the future.