Alice Rawsthorn argues that design has never been better placed to serve as a force for change, but she is at her most persuasive when confronting the sector’s innate conservatism, finds Priya Khanchandani
Design as an attitude is a phrase that derives from Vision in Motion by Hungarian Bauhaus luminary Lazlo Moholy-Nagy, a seminal text of modernist theory in which he set out his belief in design’s power to build a better world. ‘Designing is not a profession but an attitude,’ were his full words. ‘There is design in organisation of emotional experiences, in family life, in labour relations, in city planning, in working together as civilised human beings.’ Although he penned Vision in Motion during his last days, it brims with optimism about the possibilities of design in a new era.
Its message was rooted in a period of change. On the back of the industrial revolution, mass production was laying the foundation for new processes and ways of working. Moholy-Nagy wrote of his concern that industry was not ideologically equipped to deal with the design challenges that lay ahead. For instance, he condemned the then emerging phenomenon of forced obsolescence. He did so not just on grounds of waste but also morality, by saying that it ‘leads – in the long run – to cultural and moral disintegration’. Good design, in Moholy-Nagy’s eyes, should improve society for the better: it was ‘design for life’.
Rawsthorn’s ‘attitudinal design’ has the hallmarks of ‘design for life’ in its equation with all that is for society’s good. At the crux of her book is the idea that in whichever form it manifests, good design should be ethnically conscious and aspire to be a positive agent of change. It also brings the concept into the 21st century. It is about design tackling contemporary issues like climate change and healthcare, by providing support during natural disasters or to asylum seekers. Rawsthorn explains that such functions remained on the margins of design’s definition in the 20th century. Until recently, she writes, design was too often ‘dismissed as a shallow medium’ and ‘confused with styling’ (once again echoing Moholy-Nagy who wrote, ‘high pressured by salesman, the industrial designer succumbed to a superficial styling’.)
Design as an Attitude is a generalist’s guide to design’s modern history. Its 12 thematic chapters, based on the author’s columns for art magazine frieze between 2014 and 2017, offer a succinct view on a subject that is more often written about by specialists honing in on a material or a period in history. Rarely are we given this sort of insight into the overall state of design, a vast subject which – as the breadth of Rawsthorn’s treatise implies – is expanding rather than contracting. As a former director of the Design Museum and a design critic who shaped her field through outlets like the Financial Times and the New York Times, Rawsthorn is well placed to offer us a bird’s eye perspective.
The book is at its most compelling and thought-provoking when it veers away from the conjectural and builds an argument through examples of how design has changed lives. These include Sehat Kahani, a network of tele-clinics that allow female doctors in Pakistan to practise from home while liaising with a clinic attended by their patients, to help resolve the severe shortage of female doctors in a country where many women will not be examined by a man. A passage about the numerous prosthetic limbs designed for Aimee Mullins – who was a highlight of Rawsthorn’s last book too – draws empathy and makes you see design’s capacity to ascribe to the book’s definition of ‘attitudinal’.
Unlike Rawsthorn’s last book, Hello World, which was in many senses evangelical about design, Design as an Attitude does not shy away from its problems. We don’t read often enough about the history of discrimination in design – both through misogyny and ethnic bias – which makes Rawsthorn’s chapters on these subjects welcome and timely. Is Design Still a Man’s Word is a powerful summary of the treatment of women like Charlotte Perriand, a seminal figure in the modern movement, who was initially told to go and embroider cushions when she sought a job as an architect. The following chapter, Design’s Colour Problem, reminds us that Emory Douglas, who created the visual identity for the Black Panther party, was one of the first black designers to be acknowledged by exhibitions at major institutions. While conceding that the success of designers like Duro Oluwo and David Adjaye offer signs of progress, Rawsthorn says, ‘design has long been accused of being a man’s world but “white man’s world” would be more accurate, because that is what has been portrayed in most books, exhibitions and other orthodox accounts of design history.’
Rawsthorn’s claim that the last decade has seen ‘a radical transformation of design into the fluid, open-ended medium described in Vision in Motion’ is a tad optimistic. In reality, pockets of the design sector reflect a change in favour of ethically conscious design, but design is still perceived as a vocation that concerns aesthetics and form as well as function. Attitudinal design is definitely worth aspiring to; at the same time, it would be naïve to dismiss stylistic qualities as being superfluous to design’s definition.
Good design cannot be visually pleasing alone. But surely design’s appearance is worth more than what Rawsthorn calls it: namely ‘demeaning’? Looks may be superficial but the visual language of objects throughout history has been crucial to asserting their identity. For instance, without minimalism we wouldn’t have modernism, and devoid of kitsch there is no way we would have had Memphis.
Rawsthorn is more convincing when she concedes that ‘attitudinal design is a work in progress’. As she points out, its reputation will rest on the success of high-profile projects with significant investment behind them, like Ocean Cleanup. If attitudinal design were a universal reality, she explains, we wouldn’t have ended up with products like Google Glass, one of several products Rawsthorn accuses of putting style over function.
Ultimately, attitudinal design is an ideal and not a universal truth. Like most ideals, it is hard not to agree with it, and it means well. Through the clarity of her message and attempt to promote society’s betterment, Rawsthorn is certainly an ‘attitudinal’ design critic if ever there was one. But in order for design as a phenomenon to win a reputation for being an ethically conscious force, it still has a lot to prove.
Design as an Attitude, by Alice Rawsthorn is available now from JRP/Ringier
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