Democratic ecology or retail?

January 16, 2009

14 January 2009: Compliments to Caroline Roux, Editor of the Guardian Weekend’s Space feature for her report on a conversation between Sir Terence Conran, Kirstie Alsopp and Philippe Starck on the role of the designer in lean times. It cast up some ideas with traction. It’s fantastic that Starck, self-styled “design superstar” who rose to glory in the decade of big shoulders and conspicuous consumption, should now so outspokenly champion the politics of design, “democratic ecology” and revolution. It’s easy enough to claim, as he does, that design has always been political, but when design has also always been commercial, how is that more than a truism? It’s like that old chestnut: “look around you, everything man-made has been designed!”; so true that so what? But this notion of democractic ecology does advance the political idea, especially when Starck elaborates with an example from the internet design resource “The next years will be the time of the microstar. It’s our duty to help this new solution along”. This speaks directly to the new hypothesis that RSA Design will set out to demonstrate: that the insights and processes of design can increase the resourcefulness of people and communities. Since design has for so long been concerned more with creating beautiful resources, this could be quite political.


So naturally, I also admire Kirstie Alsopp’s statement about self-reliance: “I like the idea that people become as confident about furniture and decoration as they have about food”. Not for the first time, I’m struck with the thought that cooking is the last remaining bastion of domestic craftsmanship. We don’t dressmake much any more (the haberdashery and fashion fabrics and dress patterns department of John Lewis used to cover half the ground floor of their Oxford Street store, now it’s tiny), but we cook like mad.


Terence Conran answers Roux’s question about taste by invoking the idea of essentials, basics, “necessary things that were good value and simple”. As a designer, with a designer’s radar for the archetype, the perfect synthesis of utility and form, I concur. But I think there’s a problem. For the English eccentric, the sceptical, anti-modernist, individualist British person, there’s something too dogmatic about this design-led prescription. Doesn’t it suggest a liveried matching set – or perhaps an assorted but exquisite collection – of designer items? Where in Japan it might be culture, here it just sounds like retail.


Conran also raises the economic question of employment: “If we design everything for longevity… what are all our hands going to do”. The answer is somewhere in Starck’s democratic ecology: a more ambiguous relationship between supply and demand, producer and consumer, professional and amateur. Charles Leadbeater, in his essay Production by the Masses, argues that the future role of professionals is to guide non-professionals into a condition of self-reliance, rather than to “do” for them. “Professionals should become campaigners, counsellors and advocates…”, he writes. How might this vocation be interpreted for design?  

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