September 12th, 2012
Designers love ‘things’. Mostly beautiful things that are carefully considered and fulfill their purpose effectively. We live in an age where the gadget and gizmo have replaced the doohicky and doodad. Prone to the allure of all that is shiny, fiddly, stylish and trendy – the ordinary and everyday is often overlooked as some designers become too enamored with their own ability to re-fashion and consumers are too gullible to notice when the wool is being pulled firmly over their eyes (I mean seriously, are we really so lazy as to need this?).
I was reminded of this the other day when my 5 year old used a clothes peg to seal up a cereal packet that had been mysteriously separated from its box (the box was later found having been transformed into a multi-storey car park). Children have an innate ability to put everyday objects to multiple uses – the relationship between form and function being revisited each time a new object is picked up and used. Spending any length of time with a group of kids demonstrates just how inventive young minds are, often more open to interpreting new ways of putting an object to use beyond its initial and intended purpose.
I’ll never forget the time I saw a group of Palestinian kids playing with a cardboard box that had been converted into a wheel-less go cart that kept them occupied for ages or the Somalian children that refashioned coke cans into animals to sell for food – the added dimension of poverty creating an impetus for creativity. There are books and websites aplenty about the D.I.Y kids craze – which seems a clever way of cashing in on something that comes naturally to most – but designers can learn a lot about resourcefulness and ingenuity by simply observing young’uns at play.
The prevailing economic model of today is to sell us more things, more often – frequently trying to sell us the same stuff with arguably unnecessary minor additions or modifications. The term ‘planned obsolescence’ is accurate inasmuch as tech companies realise that desirability for new things can be more powerful than functionality, hence many gadgets are built with a limited ‘shelf’ life – either becoming unfashionable or simply failing to work properly after a certain period of time.
A designers role is not simply to make new ‘stuff’ but to make us think again, often about things that are around us and which have a world of possibility waiting to be revealed. Ken Garland in his original 1964 First Things First manifesto (and echoed later in the revised 2000 version) argued about the need for values in design and I would suggest interpreting that phrase literally: the value ‘in’ (a) design. Advertising and marketing can suggest the precise value of a given object but as mentioned above, this value can be extended and reinterpreted in the hands of a creative mind. Some recent projects, such as Rob Walker and Joshua Glenn’s ‘Significant Objects’ experiment have taken this idea even further by demonstrating that the effect of narrative on any given object’s subjective value can be measured objectively.
Sure I understand the need for jobs and the whole economic argument to support productivity, but ingenuity and creativity need to be aligned equally as much with cultural, environmental and political changes in a world that faces growing resource shortages, increased consumption and overpopulation.
This is a big topic and mine are small words, but I do feel that a more concerted awareness of – and reconnection with – childhood creativity continues to provide inspiration for everyone, not just designers.
Categories: Design Education
April 19th, 2012
There is a fleeting scene about 8 minutes into Wim Wenders’ heartbreaking but life-affirming film Paris, Texas that has stayed with me ever since I first saw it twenty odd years ago. The scene is of Walt Henderson (Dean Stockwell) parked up at a gas station, checking his map which is propped up on the hood of his car while on the way to pick up his wayward brother Travis (Harry Dean Stanton) deep in the Texas scrubs. I had yet to experience the great American open road even though I was living in Los Angeles at the time, but this one glorious shot encapsulated what I had always imagined a typical Stateside road trip to look, and more importantly, feel like.
The first quarter of Paris, Texas is essentially a road movie which shows just how taken Wenders was, as so many of us are, by a generic roadside Americana that includes fabulously lit-up gas stations, convenience stores and diners bathed in multicolored neon that often transforms them into alluring dreamscapes. The unique ability of a film maker is of course to elevate these ‘non-places’ even more by the use of ambient sound, cinematography and action – something that Wenders has done so well throughout his career. As both a photographer and film maker, Wenders appreciates the power of the still image which may explain why many of his films use an idle camera that allows scenes to unfold within the space of a carefully composed frame. This lingering, elegiacal method fits perfectly with both the mood of Paris, Texas and the measured pace of Travis’ character as he makes slow but steady progress towards his personal redemption – and scenes such as Walt’s gas station pit stop help to establish this tone early on.
I’ve been lucky enough to venture out on a few American road trips since first watching the film in the late 1980s so now have my own experiences to compare to those onscreen, and while I’ve thoroughly enjoyed each journey none have quite lived up to the dreamy promise of Paris, Texas. Understandable I guess as reality very rarely lives up to a fictional account, especially one created by a film maker like Wim Wenders so versed in transforming the everyday into the extraordinary.
In his foreword to the book ‘On Location: Cities of the World in Film‘ Wenders describes this evocative nature of landscape:
‘A street, or a house front, or a mountain, or a bridge, or a river, or whatever, is not just “background”. Each also has a history, a “personality”, an identity that deserves to be taken seriously.’
He reinforces this idea by putting forth the example of how the Aboriginal people of Australia see every landscape formation as embodying some figure from a mythical past – every rock, tree or hill carrying a story that is related to their ‘dreamtime’. I can fully relate to this and remember a time in my own childhood when spaces, landscapes and objects had this kind of resonance, either in how I co-opted them into my own imagined play-space or seeing what they could reveal about my own fears and dreams i.e. that house is haunted or that skyscraper is literally scraping the sky.
These ideas and beliefs must inform the way in which Wenders makes his films and no doubt are one of the reasons why his films–Paris, Texas in particular–have made such an impression on me, essentially because I share the same beliefs. So when I see Walt sipping his coffee beside an ice dispensing machine as the setting sun ignites the sky into a thousand shades of orange, I don’t simply see what is there but what is ‘dreamed’, both by the the film maker and by my own imagination.
Categories: Architecture Design Film Photography
April 5th, 2012
While watching Alan Yentob’s BBC 2 profile of Las Vegas last night (The Lure of Las Vegas, 2009) I got to thinking about the reasons why this ‘city of illusions and ghosts’ is just so damn fascinating to me. In truth I should loathe the place. As a European surrounded by ‘genuine’ culture and history, the mere sight of the faux indulgence that Vegas city planners and architects lavish on the neon-lit landscape like a gaggle of children hopped up on hallucinogens should make me retch. And although wandering on foot up and down the strip with its undulating and disconnected hodge-podge of ‘architainment’ really is unsettling, the sheer magnitude of Vegas’ conviction of its own significance does cast a spell perhaps because, as Yentob suggests ‘it radiates that longing for a world of infinite possibilities’. From its early settler period through to its decadent glory days as a gambling mecca for mobsters and crooners to its current incarnation as the family friendly gaming (not gambling) capital of the world, Vegas is in a constant state of flux – raising, wrecking and transforming it’s topography faster than a card player’s losing streak, endlessly attempting to prefigure the wish fulfillment of those seeking an escape.
I could point to Robert Venturi’s 1972 book ‘Learning from Las Vegas‘ as a primary reason for why the city is now looked at with genuine interest rather than simply derided as a commercialized and tacky roadside attraction, but academic analysis only goes so far in helping us to understand our unique relationship or emotional response to a given place. Granted the more I read about and around the city’s history the more I’m inflating the bubble of mystique and significance of it in my own head, but recent visits to Vegas in support of a book project have helped me to balance out the theoretical with the actual physical experience of being there.
I can’t say that my visits have been pleasant experiences (I’ve either been too ill, too tired or too much of a miserable sod to make the most of what Vegas has to offer) but they have been learning experiences, and ones that seem to make more sense to me when looked at in hindsight and form a distance, which brings to mind Roman Polanski’s oft quoted remark about Los Angeles. As a design lecturer I’m still blown away by the neon signage that radiates across the city at night-time and had the opportunity to visit the phenomenal collection of signs at the neon boneyard, where hundreds of iconic relics whose lights have long since faded still pulsate with historical importance and relevance. I also managed to meet with local Las Vegas residents to chat about what the city has to offer beyond the strip and outside of the escapist transit of tourists, hucksters and players. Photographs I took there of derelict and stalled building sites due to the current economic climate sit uncomfortably alongside shots of recognizable Vegas movie locations, and a folder of reference material collected prior to my trip that includes excerpts from Michael Light’s book ’100 Suns’ about the nuclear tests carried out in the Nevada desert from the mid 1940s to the early 1960s jar when placed beside a $4.99 all-you-can-eat buffet receipt kept and brought back. I’ve realized though that perhaps this odd juxtaposition of artifacts, historical oddities and lived experiences is precisely the reason for my fascination with Las Vegas, in that it throws up more questions than it can ultimately answer – and what enquiring mind doesn’t like questions?
For now I’ll keep sifting through my photographs, read with interest of development plans for the city’s future and look out for the next probing documentary that inevitably searches for some of the answers I seek.
Categories: Architecture Design Photography