Deyan Sudjic has a nice British newsreader accent but, unlike Alain de Botton, can claim to be have come upon it honestly – by actually growing up in Britain. Sudjic applies this national feel with unwavering consistency in The Language of Things, a smart book about industrial design that is easy to read. It proceeds methodically – as do his verbal presentations, if podcasts are to be believed.
This is a book of ideas with no take-aways, yet it succeeds at what it attempts to do. I could not possibly recount from memory any of the points made in the book. It’s all about flow, it all makes sense, and you forget it five minutes later. This is not really a criticism.
And, thankfully, this is one design intellectual who understands he must show the object he’s talking about. When will we ever do away with the genre of design writing that’s all words and no pictures? (I just flipped through a book about Maus at the library and left it there because it didn’t include a single illustration.)
I would add that the photos in the book are quite dramatic and reflect due curatorial care, as one would expect from the director of the Design Museum. (Steve McQueen is in there!) I am now a believer in the power of the single red accent on an all-black object (Tizio lamp, pistol, Golf GTI).
If an object comes with an extensive instruction manual, you can be fairly confident that it’s never going to be an archetype.
Consistent with what I’ve been saying all along, Sudjic differentiates designed objects from art objects using a simple criterion – usefulness. If it does something, it’s design(ed). If it doesn’t, it’s art.
espite the eccentricity of form and structure, and despite MoMA’s best efforts, the Red Blue Chair remains to a certain degree stigmatized by the fact of being useful, no matter how slightly, unlike the entirely useless Mondrian painting.
(He uses -ized spellings, by the way, which is unusual for somebody quite so British.)
Art creates a language that design responds to. Design also plays its part in creating a visual vocabulary that shapes what artists do. But… it is the ability of an artist to question and to be critical that justifies what he does. For a designer to make a critical object is to bite the hand that feeds him. Without commerce, industrial design cannot exist.
As industrial designers cannot yet engage in the kind of personal work that the Web enabled for graphic designers. 3D printers are going to change all that.
And yet we now have a generation that produces not just design that aspires to be art, but even industrial objects that also suggest a certain detachment from materialistic considerations. Philippe Starck proposes that a gold-plated replica of a Kalashnikov assault rifle is an appropriate ready-made base for a table lamp, and suggests, somewhat obscurely, to those who question his taste that it is a work intended as a piece of criticism.
Paola Antonelli…, who put on Arad’s first show , maintains that there is something questionable about the idea of design that does not have at least the ambition of mass production. So for her it is possible to permit Arad into the museum only if she can detect the intention for his work to be understood as design, to be produced in multiples.
If this is irony, then it is an irony that is likely to escape the attention of the Chechen warlords or Colombian godfathers who would find it a congenial accessory for their living rooms.
In any reissue of the book (such things are rare), Sudjic might profitably consider the ethics of Damien Hirst, with his transsected and dissected sharks and cows.