The challenge of contemporary design is to avoid being imprisoned in trends and fashions, and to bring back human emotions at the center of our work.
Another edition of the Milan design Week is starting and as it often happens when fairs and gatherings are about to open, I find myself wondering about a crucial issue: how to create something original, authentic, in an age in which everything seems to have been thought and created already.
In other fields, such as science or engineering, I believe almost all ‘new’ work done is based on previously researched data and information. I’m a designer, but I do know it is paramount to rely on previously generated data. How would engineers build bridges unless they are relying on previous done structural calculations and formulas? Looking to other disciplines underlines the problem in design. How can we claim something as our own? How can something become a ‘signature’ work which all others need to avoid being referred to?
I think is fair to say everything has been done. It is always possible to find work that is similar, or concepts that have been borrowed. Let me provoke you a bit. I wonder why do we get so upset about that. Shouldn’t it be more important to emphasize the process or the intentions of the designer and how the designer ended up with the results?
Let’s not forget, in this endless search for “absolute originality”, that to argue that something has been done or somebody is copying elements from somebody work is not a good critique. Such an attitude only shows the critics’ lack of understanding of the mechanics of the creation of any work of design or art. It would be silly to say anyone who use Korten steel is ripping off Richard Serra. Or anyone who uses algorithms in their design is exploiting Zaha Hadid’s work. Can we all agree that we, in fact, are all standing on the shoulders of giants?
Clearly, there’s a reasonable limit to this way of thinking. Let’s take the Memphis revival movement. I think this is a very good example of pure plagiarism and superficial attitude of lot of designers. It is seen merely as a style, or fashion and copied to formulate ‘new’ concepts for products and furniture. It bears no connection to the original ideas behind the movement, which are understood only as a surface.
The Memphis example shows something very important to me as a designer: too much exposure to trends and ongoing fashion leads ultimately adapting a certain conformist style of creating and formulating ideas. As seen for the last five and more years of ongoing Memphis revival and its influence on design scene. Very few seem to have the courage to break out from that.
It’s very challenging to confront the prevailing trends and still being a part of the scene. In my own practice I find very helpful to limit the amount of external influences in my work, a kind of certain isolationist policy, such as the Japanese sakoku, which led to development of unique and highly revered art and culture. Although there are undeniable downside effects when a whole country takes on such an extremist choice. I like to believe that at an individual level this kind of policy can be a good adaptive answer to avoid getting sucked into the worst part of the mainstream.
This is not to say original work cannot be created standing inside the flux of trends and fashion, let’s be clear on this. Different personalities work in different ways. I’m just saying that perhaps the notion of originality and authenticity needs to be redefined and somehow even nullified in regards of previously described reasons.
In the beginning of my creative process I don’t necessarily think about how my objects function or how practical they are. Take an example form my graduation work ‘Engineering Temporality’. At the time I was studying in Netherlands as my family was confronted with my grandmothers diagnose of Alzheimer’s disease. I was away from my family and Finland, and couldn't be there more for them. Nevertheless, I was affected by the situation profoundly and I began to approach my education and profession from a very critical point of view and asking questions such as ’Why do we design objects that are inherently indifferent from us, how we are as human beings?’ We have emotions and dreams, we are fragile, temporal and sensitive. The objects we design often are the opposite. Why don’t design professionals address these topics and base their philosophies on humanistic and emotional values?
My approach to design is more humanistic and I think in terms of feelings and expressiveness of material mediums. I’m more interested in the human interpretation over an object, because finally that’s what really gives its meaning.
Human beings have a desire to feel experienced and to dream, to have aspirations and growth using the whole spectrum of our sensory system. That is why we desire to consume, to own more things, new things: we are a species hungry for stimulus. I believe that psychology behind durable design is our emotional attachment to objects. Emotions are our greatest chance of originality in what we do.
One of the founding fathers of Memphis Group, Ettore Sottsass argued that life is centered on sensorial experience. He didn't think intelligence is pivotal at all. For us to know something, perception through our five senses is much more important. This concept is the starting point for my new collection of lights. Illumination is only one aspects of light, as is darkness and the shadows are the synthesis of these elements.
I think darkness has a special place in our fantasies and imagination. These are ultimately human emotions. And perhaps in emotions we find true, genuine chance to originality and authenticity. Take an example from my own home. I find it very difficult to be at ease in a space that is highly illuminated, where things shine and glitter. During the day, I rely entirely on natural light filtering through my windows. In the evening I prefer to use as little artificial light as possible, illumination that renders darkness beautiful.
It seems we have collectively forgotten the beauty of darkness and colors of shadows that used to occupy the corners of our home. Just figure yourself into a daily and familiar space, such as your kitchen, that you seem to perfectly know in every corner. Now figure yourself being surprised by low lights capable of modifying this space, making it suddenly unexpected, partially new to your eyes.
As Junichirõ Tanizaki wrote in his famous book, In Praise of Shadows: “The quality that we call beauty, however must always grow from the realities of life, and our ancestors, forced to live in dark rooms, presently came to discover beauty in shadows, ultimately to guide shadows towards beauty’s ends.” His book takes place in a pre-war Japan, which is obviously very different culture and time. But does that make his ideas less relevant today? Could it be that in our attempt the eradicate shadows from our environment with excessive lighting we are loosing something essential about the space we live in and ourselves?
Tuomas Markunpoika – Distant Lights
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