I’m Lindsay Brown, a Vancouver designer and writer.
Ouno Design, the textile-based design company which I now solely own and run, was co-founded in 2004 with the ingenious Sarah Gee Miller who now works full time as an artist.
The word “ouno” is a name in both Finnish and Japanese, two favourite nations for design. Apropos of nothing, the word also contains the symbols for both zero and one, and it’s the same right side up as upside down. My father was a mathematician in love with puzzles, and maybe that is why I like these things.
My current book project, on the massive UN gathering in Vancouver in 1976 that spawned UN Habitat, is described at bottom.
I am also involved, from time to time, in civic troublemaking regarding development, demolition and property speculation. In 2010 I co-founded a coalition that defeated a supposedly done deal for a megacasino in downtown Vancouver. This began as an arts-led initiative to protest unique-in-Canada cuts to arts investment (how the one led to the other is a long story), and continues as a fight against non-transparent government and backroom deals.
Currently I’m actively annoyed by Vancouver’s other mega-affliction: mega-developers and the way in which they participate in the condo speculation that drives Vancouver’s rampant unaffordability and subsequent brain drain, not to mention bad architecture.
No one wants to live in an executive resort city. Decor begins to seem trivial when all your art and design colleagues are forced to leave town.
I wish more designers involved themselves in fighting for better cities, towns and buildings. Good cities are created as much by citizens who block politicians and developers than they are built by city halls, developers and big money. When Big Money is left to its own devices, bad cities happen.
This blog is a long, somewhat messy photo essay on the history and politics of design. Design’s socio-historical context—that is, the constraints and influences on the way we make objects, dwellings and cities—seems too often ignored. We no longer know where our styles, tastes or objects really come from, and this damages our creativity and sense of meaning. Historical knowledge is so fugitive in the New World, with everything so decontextualized in the rapid flow of commodities and images. Don’t even get me started on tumblr and pinterest.
As Fran Lebowitz said, “Designers now, they all have these things called mood boards. I suppose they think a sense of discovery equals invention. It would be as if every writer had a board with paragraphs of other writers—’Oh, I’ll take a little bit of this, and that, he was really good.’ Yes, he was really good! And that is not a mood board, it is a stealing board.”
As for the sort of design I’m personally interested in, full disclaimer: I am more interested in the modern & contemporary on the one hand, and the ancient on the other, than in what lies in between. I don’t understand the appeal of cathedrals, which I find garish and oppressive, or the love of the baroque. I like the space-age, the futuristic as well as the Aegean village, the utopian and the anti-utopian, the unstuffy and the unstaid, the frugal but also sensual, the possibly-not-entirely-lost promise of the 1960s and 70s, the creative, the practical, the ingenious, the mixed, the unorthodox, and the way people actually live in real spaces. I am interested in bricolage, making do, and the way necessity mothers invention. And I find most interiors uncomfortable and not conducive to pleasure or lounging or informal social engagement.
I like the sheer level of cultural borrowing that is evident in design but somehow goes unremarked and ignored. I find the history of design history interesting precisely because it reveals the actual impurity and hybridity of design traditions long considered “pure”—the fact that the “Dutch” tulip came from Turkey or that the Mexican taco originated with immigrants from the Middle East. I like the general miscegenation of everything as a hedge against a purist nationalism of objects. Design tradition is one thing, tribalism another.
Having said that, can we stop calling those hideous synthetic crocheted blankets “afghans”? Or if we’re going to keep insulting Afghanistan’s justly famous textile tradition with our lazy, atrocious imitations, the very least we could do would be to get the CIA out of there.
This is not to say that all mixing is good, and I’m definitely not talking about the faux-historification of our cities, ie. the demolition of our actual built history followed by its replacement with a faux nineteenth-century ‘originality‘. That’s when you get elements of the past and the future, combining to make something not quite as good as either, as The Mighty Boosh would say.
Because design is never divorced from anything else, this long essay is also about urban planning, philosophy, art, political economy, architecture, sociology, geography, neurology, pyschology and anything else that pertains to design—which is everything.
This blog makes no attempt to avoid being nerdy or critical. There are plenty of nicey-nice design blogs out there (many with some pretty innocuous comment streams) and if that’s what you’re looking for, I wouldn’t blame you for going there instead. But calling me negative is a bit like those guys who come up to women in the street and bark “smile.” I just think that without critique and complaint, the design of cities and dwellings in North America isn’t going to get any better. And it needs to get a lot better than it is—less creatively impoverished, more democratic, and a lot more pleasurable. We do after all spend almost all of our lives in buildings and towns and cities and human-altered landscapes, and these have a overwhelming impact on our conscious lives, our unconscious lives, our health, intelligence, creativity and our social interactions. Whether we’re aware of them or not (and studies suggest that most of us are not aware), these things affect us every moment of our lives.
More importantly, not only do we need more humane spaces in which to live, we need—above all—to ensure affordable housing for all. Without this, all our interest in decor is just privileged fiddling while Rome (or insert your city here______) burns. Housing is a human right. Public policy and regulation are the only ways to insure people are housed and can afford to live in the cities where they work. The market, more “supply,” or private industry are not going to fix this.
We all need to fight the worsening property speculation! Dear Canada and the USA and beyond, quit letting developers run—and ruin—this show.
About the book:
To read about my book project on Vancouver’s UN-Habitat Forum event of 1976, concerning sustainable urban settlements, click here. Few seem to know that Buckminster Fuller, Margaret Mead, Mother Teresa, Paolo Soleri and Maggie & Pierre Trudeau, along with many thousands of others, came to Vancouver then to talk about better, safer, more sustainable, fairer, cities and clean water worldwide. This book is about what happened that year. It’s a snapshot not just of Vancouver, but also of how we began to view cities in the wake of the first Oil Crisis.