words Alex Wiltshire
“We don’t have happy endings. Things never work out. They’re grey and muddy and complex,” says Fiona Raby of design duo Dunne & Raby, snuffling into a hanky. “We’re living in this irresolvable, messy place …”
Looking around, things don’t seem that bad. Dunne & Raby works out of one half of an ordered and calm white-walled studio off Old Street in east London. The prototype of a table lying upside down is one of the few indications of the pair’s work as designers, and a tidy bookcase covering the back wall is the only sign of their work as tutors at the Royal College of Art. Their profile is understated but Tony Dunne and Fiona Raby have been hugely influential in developing “critical design”, a term they coined to define design as social commentary rather than just style.
Raby, who is battling a heavy cold, has been describing the way things are in the “real world”, which is what she feels their design engages with. But her mobile rings and she jumps up to take the call. Things are frantic – it’s a couple of days before Christmas and their hopes of completing the purchase of a new home and studio before the holiday are fading in a flurry of calls and half-sent faxes. The situation brings to mind a series of products they created called Prescription Products: Designs for Fragile Personalities in Anxious Times. Dunne & Raby’s work is all about this kind of thing: the ordinary, the in-between and the problematic – the bits of human life that design tends to disregard.
“Dunne and Raby were among the first people to look at the immaterial aspects of what designers work with,” says design commentator John Thackera, with whom the pair worked early in their careers. “Their study of the relationship of objects with the rest of the space around us is now regarded as normal discourse.”
In part through their tutorships at the Royal College of Art, Dunne and Raby are an influential force in the design world – Raby teaches a unit on the architecture course, and Dunne teaches on the design products course, though he is now taking a year’s sabbatical. Dunne has written two books, Design Noir and Hertzian Tales, and the pair is currently making an installation for the Centre Pompidou in Paris.
Their central interest is in technology, but not simply for styling new products. For Dunne and Raby, who are partners in both senses of the word, design has a much more significant role to play. Their “critical design” plays on people’s concerns about present-day and future technologies, from electronic products to biotechnology, and is specifically geared to stimulating debate. For them, design has a powerful capacity not simply to visualise potential scenarios, such as a world in which families are expected to harvest hydrogen to generate electricity, but to make them tangible by showing their impact on daily life.
“It’s amazing that designers only deal with a narrow sliver of design,” coughs Raby, who despite her cold is still hyperactive, and a little scatty.
“People are usually characterised as users and consumers,” says Dunne, who is Raby’s opposite; steady and sincere. “But we like to think of people as tormented, existential souls moving through a consumer landscape. It’s design for how people are – they’re contradictory, messed up. It’s not that we can fix or cure people, but if you look at products at the moment you see an idealised notion of what it means to be human: efficient, successful, simple and functional. What would it be like to see a more complex embodiment of humanness in the physical environment? It might create a richer, more exciting life.”
Dunne and Raby met at the Royal College of Art while Dunne was studying industrial design and Raby architecture. After graduating, they moved to Japan for three years, where Raby worked for architect Kei’ichi Irie and Dunne worked for Sony. Dunne’s ideas, like the Noiseman, a kind of Walkman that distorted ambient sounds instead of playing tapes, were a little too avant-garde for the company. But the pair’s time in Japan cemented their interest in the design of electronic devices. They were attracted to the complexity and richness of the typology – and especially to the new social behaviours electronic devices can inspire.
They had a depressing return to the UK – the first Gulf War had started, the recession was biting and there was no work. “People just weren’t connected with the things that were exciting us in Japan,” says Dunne. So they returned to academia at the Royal College of Art, Dunne in industrial design and Raby in interaction design. “Coming back to the UK was a process of finding out how to put thoughts into a form of design practice,” continues Dunne. And this process was one that eventually led to the establishment of the computer-related design department at the RCA.
In Placebo (2000/1), a collection of objects that focused on people’s relationship with electromagnetic fields, they examined the new behaviours and situations electronic devices create. Some of the objects were concerned with making tangible the presence of electromagnetic forces. The Nipple Chair had two nipples set into the back that vibrated when they sensed electromagnetic fields, and the Compass Table was simply inset with compasses that reacted when laptops or mobile phones were placed on it.
The objects, which took the form of familiar household furniture, created new awareness of these invisible forces and were given to various households to see how they were used. Dunne and Raby found the reactions surprising, especially to the GPS Table. “If we went to a company with an idea to put a GPS receiver in a table so it displays where it is they’d laugh and tell us to get lost,” says Dunne. “But when you put it in a house, people are not thinking in terms of that rationality.” The father in the trial family would check it every night, finding reassurance from the proof that the GPS satellites were orbiting as usual and so all was well with the world. “With all the objects we were very surprised by the connections that people made with them. It was frustrating that we couldn’t go to companies and say, ‘Look, there’s a market for poetic, experiential devices in the home, not provided by art, not provided by practical product design.’”
Dunne and Raby accept that their work isn’t for mass consumption. But its conceptual grounding means that they are often assumed to be artists, a label that Dunne says they fight to avoid. “It’s important to present our work as a form of design, even if we borrow from artistic processes,” he says. He explains that at a conference at Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan in the USA, he found that the audience was much more upset by their work than when Joep van Lieshout presented his apocalyptic visions. “Lieshout is an artist but I’m a designer. I’m supposed to be somehow optimistic, believe in the future and be utopian. It’s like there’s some unspoken Hippocratic oath that I’m a designer and that I promise only to see the good side of things and paint a pretty picture of the world.”
Dunne and Raby decry the design and scientific communities’ uncritical optimism in the technologies and products they create. They brought this scepticism to an installation at London’s Science Museum about future energy sources. They devised three scenarios based on scientific thinking, each composed of a photograph and a range of designed objects. One proposed human waste as a resource, with a lunchbox with two compartments for “food” and “poo”. Another proposed meat as a resource – already “gastrobots” can break down food and convert it to electricity – with a radio fuelled by blood and a TV fuelled by a hamster. Dunne and Raby wanted to avoid the usual utopian visions of hydrogen cars that don’t cause pollution, and instead make kids think about the consequences of new technologies. “We didn’t want to be negative with the science museum project but we didn’t want to reinforce the positive stereotypes that go with hydrogen,” says Dunne.
Their examples were purposefully simplistic to engage with children, but a scientist who worked on the project took exception to the implication that new technologies would force people to kill hamsters, and wanted nothing more to do with it. Dunne and Raby dismiss his reaction as indicative of science’s tendency to deny responsibility for what it creates, but their work does have a reductionistic, almost tabloidy edge in its treatment of big issues. For instance, a project addressing biotechnology included a questionnaire that asked, in a theoretical world where human tissues are grown in laboratories for food, whom people would eat. Apparently a lot of respondents chose politicians.
Dunne and Raby developed an interest in biotechnology because it has begun to move from the laboratory into the public realm. They feel that biotechnology, like electronics, is an area in which design should be involved, at least in creating debate. The pair’s early forays have been in research rather than actual design, but have fed into projects with design products and interaction design students at the RCA. Some of the students’ designs, including the Biopresence Tree, a “burial tree” that is impregnated with DNA to commemorate the dead, have won funding from outside the design community. “It’s great that it’s from outside of design,” says Raby.
“But it’s also a problem because within design the students are dismissed as arty or oddballs,” says Dunne. “But outside they’re accepted as people who can make scientific and ethical concepts tangible through hypothetical designs.”
It reveals the battle Dunne & Raby has to get its work viewed seriously from within a community with a narrow view of its own potential. “The design world only lives with that thin layer of success – it doesn’t deal with complexity,” says Raby. “We deal with neglected situations. Life is messy and complicated and that ordinariness needs to be explored more.” They’re probably being modest when they say they’re not sure that people are coming round to this way of thinking about design. But it’s hard to think of anyone else pushing quite so hard at the boundaries of what design can do.