words Sam Jacob
The multi-talented godfather of Generation X has a new novel out and an exhibition of his sculpture. We can learn a lot about design from the poet laureate of the McJob.
William Shatner acts and sings. Sting sings and acts. Sometimes one medium just isn’t enough. Coinciding with the UK publication of his novel Eleanor Rigby, Canadian sculptor, furniture designer and writer Douglas Coupland has an exhibition at Canada House in London, entitled Canada House.
Originally trained as a sculptor, Coupland turned novelist by converting a journalistic lifestyle guide commission into Generation X – a book that marked out territory explored in later novels: lives lacking traditional narratives; drifting McJob non-careers, overwhelmed by disaster or fragmented by teenage pregnancy and adoption, warped by disease. Coupland’s books describe the awe and disappointment of modern life. They are also the best descriptions of the sensation of modern design. Perhaps it’s the economy in his prose – the way a few words can generate a cosmic enormity as well as the numbing comfort of the modern world. It’s probably not exactly what Mies meant by “less is more”, but that’s because it’s all seen through a pop artist’s eye. That way of looking described by Denise Scott Brown as “withholding judgment”.
Coupland observes the 21st-century habitat and finds profundity in things that seem lightweight – magic realism in the parking lot of a video rental store. But being real isn’t what fiction is about – it uses the story to tell you about the real world. In the same way, chairs aren’t about sitting down. There are already hundreds and thousands of perfectly good chairs on the market. The motivation to produce new chairs must be something else.
What kinds of things can you say with a chair that you can’t say with a novel? What can art say that design can’t? Could a chair be as eloquent about loneliness as Eleanor Rigby?
In Generation X one character uses the phrase “I turned into furniture” to describe being on the point of crashing out. Perhaps chairs are personality turned into furniture. Perhaps they are also frozen situations. Coupland’s Two Solitudes sofa arranges its sitters on either side, facing away from each other. Treaty, another sofa, splits its seat into two parts – one a sliver too thin to sit on, the other is a one-and-a-half person size. Perhaps chairs are really poetry cloaked in function.
His sculptures are often odes to plastic – human-sized toy soldiers, frozen in grimaces of action or melted together like the innocent carnage of the toybox. There is a series of detergent bottles made solid and anonymous, their handles forming holes in mass like Henry Moore. They look pristine – a shape rather than a container becoming idealised visions of the mundane.
The main character in Eleanor Rigby has a cosmic experience involving a fragment of a Soviet space station’s nuclear fuel cell that falls to earth. Thinking it a meteorite, she carries it around as a lucky mascot. Eventually, it’s discovered in transit at Frankfurt Airport. A little piece of space junk in junk space.
Confused between the natural and the man-made, the episode recalls Billy Bragg: “Is it wrong to wish on space hardware?” How about other objects? A classic Eames chair? Conran cookware?
Can things carry hopes or desires or dreams? Design once symbolised progress. People believed in sans serif fonts. Helvetica was going to make a better world. Baroque chairs dreamt hysterical dreams in which they grew birds’ feet. Rococo chairs dreamt they were metallic foliage. What does furniture dream now? What do Ikea’s Billy, Klippan, and Glimma see when Ingvar Kamprad turns out the light?
Coupland might like to describe himself as a futurist, but he’s a long way from the wild-eyed Marinetti. Reyner Banham places those war-crazy Italians at the frantic heart of the modern movement. But there are other modern traditions, and other kinds of futurism. According to Nicolas Pevsner, William Morris was the epicentre of modernism. And ironically, Morris was driven on by nostalgia as all-consuming as futurism’s love of the future.
Coupland’s modernity is a nostalgic-futurism. It reaches out both forwards and backwards in time, grasping for things that the now seems to lack. Things like certainty and meaning.
We live in the future that was imagined by 20th-century visionaries like Le Corbusier and Walt Disney. Surrounded by these failed futures, it’s impossible to have the faith that older generations had in progress. Progress now seems much more complicated. Perhaps it’s that faith that boosts the price of mid-century furniture. Things that once looked boldly into the future are now repeated as nostalgia.
Design finds the modern world problematic. It confuses being modern with being slick, cool and right. Coupland’s work shows that being modern is really about feeling shattered into thousands of pieces, about loss and wonder. It’s more likely to be the far-off sound you hear when you are in a hospital waiting room than the products in SCP.