July 2010

Arts & Letters

Food for thought

By Alan Saunders
A recyclable and re-configurable shop design for Aesop by March Studio, Flinders Lane, Melbourne. © Amanda de Simone
The State of Design Festival

In discussions about contemporary Australian design, the name of the nineteenth-century American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce is, it’s safe to say, seldom mentioned. It’s a pity, because Peirce invented the form of logical inference known as abduction. If you’re reasoning abductively, you start with a set of seemingly unrelated facts and an intuition that they are somehow related. So, to some extent, abductive reasoning is just posh philosophical talk for having a hunch. It is, however, vital to design thinking, and there is no such thing as good design without good thinking. Designers are not just people who are skilled with their hands, their pencils or their Macs. And they are not merely people who design objects. Rather, they are thinkers.

The nature of design thinking is high on the agenda of the Australian design community right now. And not just the design community in Australia: David Clark, editor of Vogue Living, returned from the annual Salone Internazionale del Mobile (also known as the Milan Furniture Fair) in April with news that the talk there was of how the pace of the fair needed to change. Did it need to happen every year, because, after all, how much stuff do people want to see? Designers want to be relevant, to solve some of the problems that we’re all facing. According to Clark, one of the buzzwords at Milan was “collaboration”.

Perhaps we can grasp this a little better by considering one of the most salutary stories in the history of design. It begins in London more or less on 1 May 1851, when Queen Victoria opened the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations in Hyde Park. Judging by accounts of the event, many of the works of industry were none too impressive. You can understand the presence of Fortnum & Mason’s coffee-preserved fruits, which were probably delicious, and Reckitt’s Starch, which was no doubt very useful. And there were locomotives, and carriages as well, which would have been difficult not to warm to. But what of the Gothic Revival carved-oak bookcase presented to the Queen by the Emperor of Austria? The model of a floating church for seamen from the US? Or the hideous papier-mâché chair “decorated at the top with two winged thoughts” to represent happy and unpleasant dreams?

These things, and many like them on display, represent design in overdrive, design sweatily roaming the world in search of some way of making things prettier, more interesting or just different. They were shamed, all of them, by the surroundings in which they found themselves. Before it was built, the wise old Duke of Wellington said of the building: “It will be more curious than anything that can be seen in it. It will be constructed of iron and glass.” It became known as the ‘Crystal Palace’.

It went up in no time. The building committee did not accept the successful tender until July 1850, just ten months short of the scheduled opening of the exhibition. Joseph Paxton, a gardener who had already built a notable conservatory, now designed the world’s greatest conservatory in Hyde Park. It was undoubtedly the first modern building – a prefabricated structure of metal and glass – and the problem of the elms that were growing on the site was solved easily and elegantly: they were incorporated into the building’s design.

What Paxton did – and what so many of the designers whose works his building housed notably failed to do – was identify a problem and then solve it imaginatively and brilliantly. This is what good design does. In Australian terms, it’s why the Hills hoist is good design and so many of the things you see in expensive shops and at design fairs – ingeniously crafted and entirely expendable things made of glass, plastic and wood – are not. In design circles it seems to be increasingly understood that design is not just about objects, and indeed not just about solving problems, but about creating designed solutions to the various issues – financial, environmental, social – that confront us.

This is not to say that we don’t already have good objects and good designers of good objects – Marc Newson and Collette Dinnigan spring to mind as a couple of local design stars – and there is every indication that design in the traditional sense has shaken off its exclusive image and taken on an aspirational cast. Think of the furniture catalogues from low-price outfits such as Harvey Norman and Domayne that tumble out when you buy a Sunday tabloid. The objects on offer undeniably look better than their equivalents did even as little as ten years ago. They may not be well or durably made – I really can’t say – but their appearance is an indication of how much people now want things to look cool when they decorate their domestic interiors.

But what about the broader design issues, the issues that encompass more than objects? Where does Australia stand on these? One way to find out is to look at what’s on the agenda at the State of Design Festival to be held 14–25 July in Melbourne. The signs are encouraging: the rubric on the web page talks of design promoting sustainability and innovation, and adding value to business and society.

It won’t just be a collection of new chairs. Important questions will be asked. Does designing on one side of the world and producing on the other limit designers’ understanding of the processes involved in production and contribute to a diminution of their sense of responsibility? Is it true that “global online stores, eBay, guerilla retail and micro-brand stores are the retail tools of the future”? Retro-fitting is big this year. Existing commercial building stock is inefficient. Can spaces be retrofitted in a way that is good not just for the environment but also for landlords and suppliers of materials and services? I particularly like one of the exhibitions for which architects were challenged to use recycled materials to design a working licensed bar.

The session on food is the one that really attracts my attention, though. Food – professionally cooked food, at least – has always been about design in quite a literal sense, and the idea of design, of painting on the plate, became even more pronounced in the 1970s, when nouvelle cuisine introduced some of the aesthetics of Japanese cuisine to the Western plate.

But think of the matter, as participants will be encouraged to do for this session, from a broader design perspective. We’re not simply talking about the look of food on a plate, rather we are also considering how the food got to be there. We should not be passive consumers; we should know what we are consuming, where it comes from and what effect our choices have on the environment. In this spirit the Victorian Tapestry Workshop will present, in collaboration with Edible Tales, an evening called Edible Tapestry Tales, a six-course dinner that “interprets the act of tapestry making, creating an active and didactic eating experience that relates to the spectacular setting amongst the Victorian Tapestry Workshop’s looms”. This event “will incorporate local foods and pay tribute to this historical setting, both on and off the plate”.

If this sounds removed from anything you would usually think of as design, consider the work of Digital Eskimo. Based in Sydney, the people at Digital Eskimo are predominantly communication designers but their work goes far beyond those limits towards a commitment “to projects that progress humanity towards a sustainable future”. Among their initiatives – not a million miles away, perhaps, from the Edible Table – is a multi-stream waste management system (which includes a vegetable garden and worm farm). Digital Eskimo sees design thinking as abductive, collaborative, experimental (posing hypotheses and testing them), personal, interpretive (“devising how to frame the problem and judge the possible solutions”) and integrative (looking at entire systems). So when told they should abandon their pretentious profession and work in a soup kitchen, the Digital Eskimo response is that they would rather attempt to “design out homelessness”.

Or, perhaps, that the homeless should be encouraged to help design out homelessness, in keeping with the new idea that design is something we are all involved in. One of the exhibitions at State of Design, ‘Empowering Communities through Design’, is devoted to design methods and artefacts devised by regional communities in the Southern Otways in Victoria. This is an area that’s particularly vulnerable to catastrophic bushfires and has relatively little communication infrastructure so, in an emergency, the locals are dependent on their own resources. Using a bit of design thinking, they have learned how to better share their expert local knowledge of people at risk, fire hazards, animals, topography and vegetation. It’s unlikely that any of them will become the next Philippe Starck but working on the exhibition has made them all designers.

Alan Saunders
Alan Saunders was a writer, philosopher and broadcaster who contributed to the Sydney Morning Herald, the Bulletin and other publications. He was a presenter on ABC Radio National for 25 years where his programs included The Philosopher’s Zone and By Design.

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