The Designer’s Ego

Mark Newson’s Lockeed Lounge Chair recently sold for £2.4 million, making it the most expensive design object to date. While I don’t think Newson will make any money directly from such a transaction on the secondary market (unless, with clever foresight, he built any such conditions in the original sale transaction: would that be possible at all?), it will certainly affect the perceived value of any product even remotely associated with his name. Does that turn the chair into an art Marc-Newson-Lockheed-Lounge-at-Phillips-design-auction_dezeen_784_0piece? After all, you don’t spend that amount of money on a piece of furniture because it’s comfortable (though it might be, for all I know) or just the right size for that awkward space in the living room – in the same way as you don’t spend tens of millions on a van Gogh because the colours match the wall paper. The value of the piece rests not in the objects themselves and their functionality but on their significance, much of it resting on the “name”.

At the recent symposium “Ideas in the Making” in Oxford, one of the recurring themes was the importance for creative people to approach their work with humility, keeping their ego in check, whether by acknowledging a sense of ‘inspiration’ that is somehow extrinsic to themselves, or simply by accepting the need to subsume one’s personal preferences to the requirements of the design brief. The architect/designer Giuseppe Boscherini made an impassionate plea to recognise how the design process is a collaborative effort. While we are used to actors acknowledging and thanking a whole raft of people (family, producers, directors, colleagues) in their acceptance speeches and writers dedicate paragraphs to recognise the contribution of editors, researchers, advisers and (usually) long suffering family members, such expressions of gratitude seem to be much rarer in the field of design.

I found the same theme in “Artista e Designer”, by Bruno Munari. He takes the point even further making it the defining difference between the two fields. In his view art is a personal endeavour: the artist’s goal is ultimately always self-expression, whatever form they choose to work in (even risking inaccessibility, misunderstanding and rejection), whereas the work of the designer is one of collaborative efforts (with users, technicians, craftspeople, engineers etc.) in order to develop pragmatic, accessible and functional objects, where even the aesthetics are determined by materials, manufacturing and usability rather than personal preference. Paradoxically, despite his attacks on the cult of personality in design, he is probably the first designer I was ever aware of: my first school satchel in the early ’70 was designed by Bruno Munari – I remember being aware of the fact at the time, even though at 7yrs old I had no conscious interest in design and designers. (By the way, Munari’s book is well worth reading – while dated in some respects, it was published in 1971 – some of his sarcastic sideswipes at aspects of the art market he disapproves of and at artists’ attempts at product design had me laughing out loud – ).

I see much of this tension in the world of craft designer makers. On the one hand there is much talk of re-inventing and rediscovering a vernacular crafts tradition (hence the pastel colours and faux-rustic setting of the New Craftsmen gallery for instance) while on the other hand much of the ‘value’ of those same products is attached to the persona of the makers and a to practices that are closer to the art world: signed limited editions, numbered and catalogued short runs and one off pieces. Soetsu Yanagi in “The Unknown Craftsman” pointed out how much of the work of studio

The unknown craftsmanpotters seemed to be about deliberately recreating imperfections and asymmetries of earlier traditional (‘vernacular’) pieces; defects that in the original were due to the economic pressures of manufacturing: the makers were paid by the piece and the cost had to be kept low as these were, at the time, everyday objects not museum pieces; those same imperfections, in the world of studio pottery, now representing added value as well as an individual maker’s mark.

I see that same tension in my business. Some of my clients, in the best vernacular tradition, if you will, simply come to me because I am their local woodworker: what they want is a piece to fit a particular corner of the house (and there is nothing on the market of the right size, or shape, or colour), or they ask me to modify an existing piece to improve its functionality (take a shelf off for instance). They want somebody with the practical skills to do a good job of making a functional, usable piece that fits with the rest of the furniture in the room – regardless of current trends or of my own personal aesthetic preferences. I even had people walking into the workshop with a piece of wood simply to ask me to cut it up because their DIY skills or their equipment at home was not up to the task.

Others though, come to me because they have seen my work and they like my “style”. They still want a practical solution (a table, a set of shelves), but with the added value of my aesthetics, my craft skill, my problem solving contribution: my signature, as it were. They don’t just want a table but a Magnino table. From here to one of my pieces being resold for millions is quite a gap, but only a quantitative one, not a qualitative one.

After all, no matter how self-effacing I would like to be (in some ways), for my business to be successful and sustainable I need to maintain a visible profile. I have to keep emphasising my Unique Selling Point, as they say. What I offer is a service, and not an essential one. Nor am I the only one, even locally. What makes my work different from other makers? Why should you choose me over somebody else? Ultimately just me: my approach, my sensibilities, my aesthetics, my listening and problem solving skills, my understanding of materials and production processes: the service I provide. So, not unlike the Zen koan about the sound of one hand clapping, how do I say “look at me, look at me” without ego?

Designing Eutopia: when a chair is more than a chair

Philippe Starck / Kartell - Uncle Jim Chair

Philippe Starck / Kartell – Uncle Jim Chair –


At the recent Salone del Mobile in Milan, Kartell unveiled a new range of  chairs designed by Philippe Starck. The news was commented on in two discussion groups I follow. One of the groups focuses mostly on production furniture: the comments here were about the technical achievement of producing “the largest single mould polycarbonate sofa” . The other group tends to focus mostly on bespoke furniture and high value added design. Here the comments targeted the fact that the design (effectively another iteration of the plastic monoblock chair) showed no engagement with issues to do with environmental awareness and sustainability.

In 1516 Thomas More coined the word “Utopia” as the name of an imaginary island which he described as being the perfect society. The etymology of the word is normally explained as a combination of the Greek word “topos” (place, location) and the prefix “ou-“ (no, not) and so is usually translated as “No-where”. However reading Umberto Eco’s “The Book of Imaginary Lands” I learned that an alternative etymology has been suggested: that the prefix should be “eu-“ which carries positive connotations (good, pleasant) so that Utopia instead of being Nowhere Island, is actually “The good place”.

Thomas More is only one in a long list of writers describing Eutopias – perfect societies… What strikes me about these ideal worlds is that they generally tend to be totalitarian: almost every aspect of the lives of their citizens is controlled, “designed” for the common good. The dystopias of science fiction (and here the prefix is “dys-“, with negative connotations “bad”) – from Arthur C Clarke’s Rama sequence to films like Eon Flux, Equilibrium, Serenity – are often imagined as the degeneration into tyranny and dictatorship of eutopian attempts to create rich, peaceful and stable societies.

Map of a city in Utopia

Map of a city in Utopia

What’s all this got to do with furniture design, Philippe Starck and Kartell?

Much of the thinking that underpinnned design movements that I like from the 19th and 20th century had to do with social and political agendas. (I guess this applies to earlier movements too, but I don’t know them as well). William Morris and the Arts and Crafts were hoping that by re-valuing hand skills and craftsmanship they would free labourers from the alienation of the useless toil of factory production in favour of meaningful work. The DeStijl movement had a strong foundation in theosophy and (at least to start with) a strong moral and spiritual ethos. The Shakers saw their designs and working methods as extensions of their spiritual lives. The Bauhaus and Modernism held the belief that applying a scientific practical approach to design, rather than simply an aesthetical ethos, they could create better products that would improve everyday lives.

Today there seems to be much pressure on designers to come up with designs that are environmentally friendly, sustainable, socially inclusive etc. – in a word, ethical. Some commentators are actually saying that without those characteristics there is no “good” design. (See my blog on Alice Rawsthorn’s comments). I agree to a large extent and yet I fear some sort of “group-think” developing that could become restrictive and counterproductive. In fact, going down the route of green=good / plastic=bad becomes a negation of the best aspects of design thinking: asking questions, looking at products in their wider contexts, finding the unexpressed needs and the unintended consequences…

For one thing we run the risk of ending up with poor quality products. I find it difficult to understand why so much furniture made out of reclaimed timber is so badly made: poor finish, gappy joints, sloppy movements. My guess is that the designers believe that by giving it such a “rustic” look they are emphasising the fact that the product is made with recycled materials… but why should something that screams “I am made of scraps” then attract the same price tag of something of much better quality? My guess is that the clients are prepared to pay a premium to buy themselves the sense of moral superiority that comes from owning “green” furnishings. There is a website that looks at some aspects of the collusion between big business and ethical products –

For another thing, the question of how environmentally friendly and sustainable something is, often does not afford clear cut answers. Around 14 February every year there is a debate about roses. How does the carbon footprint of a rose grown in West Africa, blooming in time for Valentine’s Day under natural conditions but transported several thousands of miles compare with a “locally” grown rose which had to be coaxed to bloom with artificial light and heat? As far as I know there is no definitive consensus. (As an aside it could be argued that the design thinking (i.e. creative) question should not be which rose?, but why a rose? Is there some other more personal creative way to tell my beloved how I feel about her/him?) I understand that the food critic Jay Rayner in one of his books raised the same question about food production (I heard him discussing on the radio the pros and cons of New Zealand lamb vs. British lamb.

Or looking at a material I am more familiar with, wood. A piece of furniture hand crafted out of locally source timber might seem great in principle but: how sustainable is it really? If all the wood used in Britain (for construction or furniture), had to be British, how long would our forests last? Information from the North American Hardwood Council (or some such body, I don’t have the details to hand) claims that their forests, thanks to good management, are actually growing. I have heard similar claims about European forests. That’s a good thing, right? The reverse of the coin however is that the growth is probably based on replanting only a limited range of fast growing, commercially viable species, logged in relatively short rotations and that therefore the increase comes at a cost of reduced biodiversity and loss of ancient woodlands and their related ecosystems…

Should we just stop making things then? Stop designing chairs was a campaign linked to Helsinki as World Design Capital in 2012

Another level of analysis would look at the fact that by choosing “local” roses, or lamb or timber you are contributing to and supporting the local economy. And that must be good, right? And yet many products on the market make their USP the fact that by purchasing that particular product you are supporting some other “local” economy, be it in Africa, Asia, South America…  Advocates of globalisation actually claim that by actively  choosing to trade with countries with poor environmental records, questionable employment practices or a general disregard for human rights, we can stimulate change and ‘nudge’ them to improve on all those counts much more effectively than by boycotting them.

Gio' Ponti - Superleggera Chair -

Gio’ Ponti – Superleggera Chair –

And yet another level: why did Kartell and Starck produce this chair? Despite pushing the technical boundaries, the technology is fairly well established. The design does not look terribly different from many other plastic chairs – I don’t believe that it would be particularly more or less uncomfortable than similar designs. Kartell are a business: they manufacture plastic chairs. To keep their business going they have to sell furniture. To maintain their market share (and to increase it) they have to come up regularly with new products that attract the buying public’s attention. Philippe Starck runs a design agency: to keep his business going he needs manufacturers that buy his designs and produce them.  (other designs of his show engagement and understanding of ethical product issues…) If there is not a “need” for this particular design, there must be, at the very least, a market for it.  So who’s going to buy it? I don’t know what its price point is: looking at the images I would expect it to be a mid-range item. It’s a mass produced plastic chair: despite Stark’s cache, probably not iconic enough yet to be a strong statement piece (like, say, Gio’ Ponti’s Superleggera); yet the design is crisp, the execution excellent: it’s clearly not a cheap chair: it’s not aimed at people whose prime consideration is price. I imagine the people that buy it will be aware of the fact that it’s by a recognizable designer  and a reputable maker – it will show that they have an understanding of design, of current trends. That they have taste and can afford to choose quality stuff (both in a domestic and in a public or corporate setting). And for that market it matters that it is a new design. That it was unveiled at Milan. That it attracted press and critical attention. Designing and making the chair was ultimately only a small part of its significance.

This is why I enjoy engaging with the design community. Because design is not just about the product – for me it’s a way of making sense of the world.  On one level a chair is a chair: something you sit on. And yet it is more: it’s also a status symbol, a piece of art, a technological achievement, a political statement… its design, production and significance weave a complex web of meanings and connotations – looking as a designer means realising that “everything connects to everything else”, as Leonardo da Vinci taught us. And more: any chair is just a point in a long history, in an endless process of iterations and variations, repetition and innovation. Humans have been ‘designing’ things to sit on for… well, I guess from the moment they learned to stand. And yet no solution has been final – nor it will ever be. Things will change: society, technology, materials, mores…and we will need a different chair…

Perhaps we will find a way to create a just, peaceful society around the world – but it won’t be by designing it in black and white. It will be by embracing complexity: what looks beautiful to one person looks ugly to another. By embracing ephemerality: what today looks like a solution, tomorrow will look like a problem (what world would we be living in if the internal combustion engine had not been invented or we hadn’t found ways to use electricity?) . By embracing change: today’s technical innovation is tomorrow’s old fashioned way of doing things.

Finally, to accept that in design, as in life, there is no ultimate solution. Whether that is a reason to feel excitement or despair, you’ll have to work out for yourself: I haven’t made my mind up yet.