Design Loves a Depression

Eames chairs brochure, 1946

That’s the title of an interesting article in the NYT last week. By “design” the writer obviously means design itself, and not the world of commercial design which is in fact suffering during the current economic crisis. The article’s author Michael Cannell argues that design benefits both in terms of social responsibilty and aesthetics during times of austerity, because working within constraints is often a spur to both the creative process as well as to a more considered, thrifty use of materials. He points out that the high points of modernism were born from such constraints. I don’t want to sound presbyterian about this, because I don’t think it’s about that. It’s just true that necessity often spurs invention married to simplicity and economy of materials. There are dissenters, though, too. Read Murray Moss’ rebuttal “Design Hates A Depression” in the designobserver.

For me, though, it seems that the more money you spend on a design project the more garish or sterile it gets. A constrained budget produced the best Olympics graphic design I’ve ever seen: Lance Wyman’s designs for Mexico 1968. They are probably the lowest budget Olympics visuals ever and they have never, in my opinion, been surpassed. This goes for interior design and architecture too.

Eames Chair Prototype

It’s worth reading the whole article, but in terms of designers on this continent who worked out of the austerity of the 1930s and 40s, Cannell mentions American designers Russel Wright and Charles and Ray Eames, both of whom who produced classic furniture and other design objects from inexpensive available materials like resin and plywood. In Italy, it was the impoverished post-WWII era that saw a flourishing of classic Italian design.

Eames - Moulded Plywood Sculpture

Photos: Top, Eames brochure explaining moulded plywood chair, 1946. Middle, Lounge Chair Prototype, designed 1945, molded plywood and rubber. Bottom, beautiful Eames sculpture made in studio during experiments with molded plywood, then a new and cheaper material. More from Cannell’s article below.

Michael Cannell tells this story of design decadence over the past decades:

Two years ago, at the Milan furniture fair, Marcel Wanders, a Dutch designer known for arty provocations, held a thumping party to show off his 15-foot-high lamps and other furniture of distorted Alice-in-Wonderland scale. Never mind that his work was upstaged by his girlfriend, Nanine Linning, who hung upside down half-naked while mixing vodka drinks from bottles affixed to a chandelier. Form followed frivolity [if that’s what you call that]. Function was left off the guest list…

and then concludes

…. If Ms. Linning’s dangling from the ceiling was a cultural moment now passed, we can look forward to others for an age in which beauty and austerity go together.

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3 Responses to “Design Loves a Depression”

  1. John Hopper Says:

    Interesting NYT article. Whether we get anything significant out of this depression, is yet to be seen of course. If it turns out to be a five year blip and we go back to living a credit fueled lifestyle as if nothing had happened, then design will meekly tag along with the Wallpaper International set and we’ll get more of the same. Still, it would be nice to think design might achieve something fundamentally worth while, so I will be looking forward to the next few years with interest!

  2. admin Says:

    Murray Moss’ rebuttal in The Observer:
    Design Hates A Depression

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