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January 4, 2009
Design Loves a Depression
By MICHAEL CANNELL
Few of the arts benefited from the late economic boom more than design. After all, when the wealth is flowing, people don’t covet the concerts you see or the books you read. They covet the couch you bought, and then they buy a cooler one.
In the recent giddy years, signature architects and designers came to be known by their first names — Rem, Philippe, Zaha — and they were photographed as prolifically as Bono in new design hotbeds like Miami and Dubai. Brooklyn designers became the apotheosis of indie cool (thin portfolios notwithstanding), and the British collective Established & Sons and other skilled maneuverers learned to breed their self-conscious furniture selectively into limited editions that sold for the kind of prices more often found in the art world. All of which was chronicled in self-celebratory books like “S, M, L, XL” by Rem Koolhaas, a 1,300-page monograph as lush as glazed fruit and weighty as firewood.
Looking back, those of us with front-row seats might have known that this design surge would not sustain itself. Two years ago, at the Milan furniture fair, Marcel Wanders, a Dutch designer known for arty provocations, held a thumping party to show off his 15-foot-high lamps and other furniture of distorted Alice-in-Wonderland scale. Never mind that his work was upstaged by his girlfriend, Nanine Linning, who hung upside down half-naked while mixing vodka drinks from bottles affixed to a chandelier. Form followed frivolity. Function was left off the guest list.
Now, given that all those slick Miami condos are sitting empty in the sky, designers like the Campana Brothers, with their $8,910 Corallo chair, and Hella Jongerius, with her $10,615 Ponder sofa, might have a harder time selling their wares. Already designers are biting their knuckles over the damage reports. The American Institute of Architects reported that last month’s billings index, a gauge of nonresidential construction, reached its lowest level since it began collecting data in 1995.
The pain of layoffs notwithstanding, the design world could stand to come down a notch or two — and might actually find a new sense of relevance in the process. That was the case during the Great Depression, when an early wave of modernism flourished in the United States, partly because it efficiently addressed the middle-class need for a pared-down life without servants and other Victorian trappings.
“American designers took the Depression as a call to arms,” said Kristina Wilson, author of “Livable Modernism: Interior Decorating and Design During the Great Depression” and an assistant professor of art history at Clark University. “It was a chance to make good on the Modernist promise to make affordable, intelligent design for a broad audience.”
The most popular American designer of that era was probably Russel Wright, who acted as the Depression’s Martha Stewart, turning out a warmed-up, affordable version of European modern furniture, tableware and linens for a new kind of informal home life. A bentwood armchair cost $19.95. “They were not just cheap, they were beautiful, and that was a powerful combination,” Ms. Wilson said.
Design tends to thrive in hard times. In the scarcity of the 1940s, Charles and Ray Eames produced furniture and other products of enduring appeal from cheap materials like plastic, resin and plywood, and Italian design flowered in the aftermath of World War II.
Will today’s designers rise to the occasion? “What designers do really well is work within constraints, work with what they have,” said Paola Antonelli, senior curator of architecture and design at the Museum of Modern Art. “This might be the time when designers can really do their job, and do it in a humanistic spirit.”
In the lean years ahead, “there will be less design, but much better design,” Ms. Antonelli predicted.
There is a reason she and others are optimistic: however dark the economic picture, it will most likely cause designers to shift their attention from consumer products to the more pressing needs of infrastructure, housing, city planning, transit and energy. Designers are good at coming up with new ways of looking at complex problems, and if President-elect Barack Obama delivers anything like a W.P.A, we could be “standing on the brink of one of the most productive periods of design ever,” said Reed Kroloff, director of Cranbrook Academy of Art.
On the other hand, the design community talked up its role in safeguarding the world after 9/11, with little result.
Modernism’s great ambition was to democratize design. Ikea and Target have shown that the battle for cheap design can be won. The emphasis will most likely shift to greater quality at affordable prices. This time around it will be the designer’s job to discourage consumers from regarding that $30 Ikea side table as a throwaway item.
If household furnishings are to avoid landfills, says Julie Lasky, editor in chief of I.D. magazine, they must be capable of withstanding the vicissitudes of fashion — like the Aalto stool, but at a fifth of the price. “It will be about finding the sweet spot between affordability and durability,” Ms. Lasky said. This kind of innovation means rethinking the economy of production and distribution so that goods are made cheaply closer to home (or in the home, if the most radical ideas are to be taken seriously).
One way or another, design will focus less on styling consumer objects with laser-cut patterns and colored resin and more on the intelligent reworking of current conditions. Expect to hear a lot more about open-source design, and cradle-to-cradle, a concept developed by William McDonough and Michael Braungart that calls for cars, packaging and other everyday objects to be designed specifically for recycling so that their parts and materials are used and reused without waste.
The old paradigm — epitomized by shelter magazines like Architectural Digest and Dwell — that found romance in single-family homes, each with its own lawn, detached garage and septic system, may crumble under the weight of its wastefulness. One challenge will be for designers to coax us to a more efficient way of living, as the architect Lorcan O’Herlihy is doing with his light and airy schemes for multifamily dwellings in Los Angeles, a city where backyards and driveways are all but a birthright. Fewer buildings will go up, and the stock of mid-century buildings nearing the end of their lifespan will be thoughtfully reworked to make them efficient and in keeping with principles of sustainability.
If Ms. Linning’s dangling from the ceiling was a cultural moment now passed, we can look forward to others for an age in which beauty and austerity go together.
Michael Cannell is a former editor of the House & Home section of The Times and founder of thedesignvote.com.