Why Design Needs a Recession | icon 050 | August 2007

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design recession

The Icon Team
illustration Cecilia Lindgren

Fat-cat designers draining limited-edition buckets of Cristal and swinging from Swarovski chandeliers at the Gdansk Biennial… where did it all go wrong? As it has in the rest of society, celebrity power has opened up a parallel universe in the design economy. There, a select group of stars can rake in the cash with bits on the side, no matter how lumpen, thoughtless or silly those

Designer furniture for children
As the expanding design economy thrusts towards new markets, children have become the latest target. Between Habitat’s VIP kids range, which includes dolls designed by Yves Saint-Laurent, and Vitra’s diminutive version of the Panton chair, anyone would think kids care about such things. Do we really want image-conscious toddlers?

£100,000 speakers
This year Ross Lovegrove made a two-metre-high speaker system encased in super-formed aluminium worth £100,000 for British audio brand KEF. Do they sound any better? Who cares?

Design week mania
Every third- and fourth-tier city in the world seems to want to rebrand as a design city. Belgrade, Budapest, Ljubljana, Solihull? In a recession, these places would actually have to have a significant design scene of their own rather than just flying in the usual suspects for a photo opportunity. The same goes for design conferences: we’d rather have a few good ones than a dozen where no one’s bothered to prepare presentations and audiences get nothing but hot air. Also, if Rem and Zaha are on the billing, we want them to show up.

The subculture
It’s less and less possible for a subculture to exist. Once, underground movements like Punk or Hip Hop had time to develop and mature before being picked up by the mainstream. Now, as soon any 19-year-old does anything interesting it’s all over YouTube and being appropriated and effectively ended by advertisers and other corporate interests. There is so much media – sorry – and it’s so immediate that good ideas get exposed before they’re ready. Designers, like other creatives, need time away from the spotlight to develop their work.

Young designers
Don’t worry about young designers. They don’t make any money anyway and this way their rents will be cheaper.

Promo overload
In a recession, companies would have to stop sending out wastefully over-packaged promotional bumph. Don’t they know that press releases that arrive in gloss-laminated, gold-leaf-embossed boxes go straight in the bin?

Luxury brands have made themselves so aloof and untouchable that they’re having to resort to guerrilla tactics to keep the younger, cooler consumers interested. For every temple-like flagship store that Prada or Comme des Garçons commissions from a world-famous architect they have to compensate with a guerrilla store that pretends to be an artist’s squat in Berlin. The thing is, the wallpaper might be peeling and the wood floors splintering but the clothes aren’t any cheaper.This crisis of authenticity is summed up by “favela chic”. If the Campana brothers are designing chairs inspired by the makeshift creativity of Brazilian slum dwellers that look like they’re made of bits of scrap wood then they shouldn’t cost £1,600. At some point the design world is going to explode with irony.

Design magazines
Design magazines like icon are getting too fat – we don’t want to work this hard. May’s issue of Italian Elle Décor was an inch thick, posing a danger to coffee tables and pets. Our only worry is that in a recession the Financial Times might have to change the brilliant title of its weekend supplement, How To Spend It.

We’re running out of derelict factories to turn into luxury lofts. Pretty soon there’ll be nowhere left for designers to live. Enough regeneration – bring on degeneration.

Limited editions
“Limited editions are the product of a time of affluence,” noted Vitra chairman Rolf Fehlbaum last month at Design Miami/Basel. They are also a by-product of the exploding art market, which has proved what staggering sums collectors are willing to part with these days. At their best, limited editions give designers the opportunity to experiment with methods and materials that ordinary production wouldn’t allow. At their worst, they result in objects being made out of materials that don’t make any sense simply to justify the expense of a limited edition. In a recession, designers wouldn’t have so much opportunity to pander to gallerists and collectors.

We live in affluent times. From DVD players to affordable Scandinavian furniture, our material needs have largely been met. Consequently, designers have stopped focusing on what people might need. The new potential of the discipline to be a pure form of expression or even social critique is resulting in interesting work by a minority of designers, while the majority is churning out useless, disposable pap based on our insatiable appetite for novelty. Design is
in a decadent phase that won’t abate until we are forced to rediscover what it is that we need.

Bye bye.

Design as spectacle

This year’s Milan furniture fair was symptomatic of a new tendency for designers and manufacturers to do their utmost to attract attention to themselves with huge, lavish productions. From Marcel Wanders’ floor-to-ceiling lamps and giant kitsch bells to Bisazza’s oversized mosaic commissions from Jaime Hayon and Studio Job, it felt like the products had turned into the advertising. The design field is getting so crowded that it now takes excess to stand out.

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