Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Our Collective Practice of History

“ID History” is a mandatory course for junior ID majors. As such, the course is an integral part of the RISD-ID department’s educational philosophy of learning by doing. For example, we all know that in the metal, wood, and advanced studios, students learn to be designers through practice. By analogy, the ID History TimeLine assignments are a device for teaching the tools of critically engaged historical thinking about the incredibly diverse discipline of industrial design. After all, this is a field with no secure canon of landmark monuments, or even a consensus of when the field’s history began. (See the course Reader.) The 80 students in this course come to an ID major with the most diverse interests, from crossovers with engineering to conceptual art to socially responsible design to the craft of a machine shop culture. Thus, my approach to this history course is motivated by the goal of delivering to each student an enduring skill that they can take with them and apply with flexibility to the diverse kinds of problems they will have to face in a rapidly changing world. This course emphasizes practical skill building in the methods of thinking about history more than a concern with the conveyance of factual content. Why? Because the topicality of the specific examples covered will be rendered out of date or out of fashion within a decade. But a student well trained in the tools of historical thinking will be able to use and build on this skill for a lifetime.

So far this semester, each student’s practice required them to engage in three given topics in ID History: dealing with the past; technology and design as exemplified by lighting history; functionalism as a design philosophy of overwhelming stylistic importance, and distinct from the adage “form equals function”. The three TimeLine assignments asked each student to choose 5 objects that illustrate some theme or point of view that interests them. One can immediately notice that none of them were the same and thus the 80 TimeLines x 3 topics generated a collective history of expertise among the class, which we were able to share among ourselves and with the entire ID Department (since many people stopped by to engage with your work displayed in the ID Gallery). This dynamic is an important one, since now the teacher becomes a reference point and guide, and the class members are empowered to connect among themselves as historian/experts on their specific case studies and developing/evolving points of view. This offers a way of forming the next generation of industrial designers who will already be practicing with their peers an engaged critical thinking about their discipline.

The three TimeLines visualized each student’s research in a way that could be easily and quickly shared. Also, it was a kind of visual outline that instantly revealed if and how a written essay with a point of view could be developed from the work presented. This leads us to the midsemester review that will be a way of taking stock of where we are as a class, who is developing this opportunity in the most exciting ways, and who needs help understanding what is possible here. In a parallel universe, we would be preparing for mid-term exams and 5-10 page papers at this point. As a teacher, I have read these exams and papers and wondered what of lasting value was gained for either party. So we have here an opportunity and a freedom built on the expectation that RISD students will approach their work with passion, analytic rigor, and the sense that something that matters is at stake. It requires you to believe in the practice of history writing, and thinking about the field you have chosen as a profession – a field I am assuming you will embrace as something more than just a job. Something like a calling you go to with conviction.

The midsemester review asks you to develop your three TimeLines in two ways. First, the TimeLines are visual outlines with interesting information that can and should be shared. The larger community of sharing here will be the “blogosphere”. This is a new kind of populist forum that can be banal and “blah blah blah”, or a new and potentially amazing communication tool that you need to learn to master for the good it can offer. Secondly, it is my expectation that the TimeLine as visual outline should lead to an analogous kind of short critical essay that one would expect to do for a rigorous Liberal Arts course, which this ID History class is as well. It is this piece that I will discuss more as we go over where we are as a class. It appears that I am not communicating this aspect o the assignment as clearly as I had hoped. But we will spend time and make sure everyone understands by the end of class Monday.

To conclude, you must send me the link to your blog so I can post it on the main site, which is You must post your 3 TimeLines in either the original format and/or as well as in the way you have transformed them to the new presentation medium of a blog. It is my expectation that you do more than write captions for 5 objects x 3 timelines. Please demonstrate a critical engagement with the big questions each or all of your TimeLines lead you to consider. How you develop this is up to you. This is RISD, after all. I look forward to seeing where we are as a class on Monday. Who is doing something we might never have imagined? Who are you each as critical thinkers? How will the class generate themes and cross-connections and avenues for future research projects, from books to projects to clearly articulated visions of what an ID History, landmarks, method, and all, are for each of you. Interestingly, none of your approaches will be exactly the same. It will be great to be immersed in a community of such potential richness and sharing.

MidSemester Grades:
A-B: 3 TimeLines developed for new communication medium of blog and the requirement to take the TimeLine seen as visual outline to the next level; that is, critical thinking in expanded writing about what this material means.
C: blog linked by Sunday Oct 19th 6pm, with 3 basic TimeLines that accurately addressed 3 original assignments, up and posted by Monday Oct 20th 6 am.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Art + Design

Gödel’s Paradox: All systems are either complete but inconsistent, or consistent but incomplete.
This is an apt metaphor for the field of industrial design in all of its sprawling interdisciplinarity.  Any attempt to write one history of ID, as they do for the history of Art, will leave out too much. Industrial Design forces us to confront a complete field made up of a motley collection of sometime conflicting pieces. How will you organize these contradictions and complexities in your own mind? 

Industrial Design is a big tent with many strands of history anchoring it down. In the last weeks we have focused on how innovations in design can alleviate human suffering and participate in solutions for a sustainable world/economy. Our research is documented in your individual blog essays, which collectively offer an amazing compendium of thoughtful commentary and links to share and inspire others. Many of you will find yourself working for a lifetime with these problems and design opportunities.

And, as we have discussed, this problem/innovation aspect of ID represents a continuous concern across time and place, and is a strand that I have often referred to as the “Better Mousetrap” branch of ID history.

Now we turn back to a different approach, with a different history.

What is possible for a designer working at the boundary between Art and Design? What does that boundary look like today? Where is exploration being done? What is possible in this cultural space? Who are the young designers to watch in 2008?

I decided to organize this material around the “where”. Where do designers approaching industrial design this way circulate their ideas today? And so, listed below is a series of links to the design fairs, gallery/shops, museums, and specific ID schools that you should be familiar with. Within each I hope you will explore the many designers showcased in each venue, and watch the videos of these designers at work and explaining their approach to design. At the end, I include a few other things that I wanted to get out on the table now, as well.

How do you feel about limited production, experimental design? What about a design process derived from personal exploration of the sensual possibilities of materials and aesthetics, with no user group analysis involved? Is there a designer here who you could point to as an inspiration or mentor? Or not?

As usual, please explore this topic more thoroughly through the lens of your own directed research interests as a young designer. And then, write a 500-word essay on some aspect of this topic that interests you. Who interests you? Can you say why? How does this approach to design relate to your own interests in ID? Does this connect back to your essay on Functionalism in any way, or not? How does your response to this material connect to the point of view you developed in the last three essays?

Please post this essay by Sunday November 23rd at 9pm. Please continue to revise and perfect as necessary the impressive portfolio of essays you have written on your websites. Please be sure you have made an appointment to discuss your work with me in a one-on-one meeting before the end of the semester.

Design Miami/Basel - Next up December 3-6, 2008 in Miami.

Follow the link: Enter/Miami/Designer of the Year
Design winners for 2008 are the Brazilians: Fernando and Humberto Campana
See: Anemone, Boa velvet sofa, vermella doll crowd chair

Campana Brothers Interview on Poetry & Functionalism; being inspired by the local environment; the need to be recognized internationally before local opportunity returns.

Other young designers featured at the 2007-8 Design Miami/Basel Fairs:
Max Lamb, Tokujin Yoshioka, and Tobias Wong

Max Lamb: pewter chair cast in sand
2008 Designers of the Future winner
40 min Poly Chair:

Note also all the 2007 Miami Design Talks. See also, for example:
Studio Libertiny Paper Vases:

2007 Miami Design Winner Tokujin Yoshioka
Designboom interview:
Honey-Pop chair; Panna chair at Moss for Moroso; ToFU
Main website:

“One of the most recent and experimental works is 'PANE chair' (bread in Italian) that was presented at the Milano Salone del Mobile in 2006. It was selected to be a part of the Centre Pompidou and the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), and it is one of the most recent and very experimental art pieces Tokujin has created. While it goes through almost the same steps as baking bread, the fibers memorize the shape of the chair caused by heat. The chair was shown at the exhibition 'Tokujin Yoshioka x Lexus L-finesse – Evolving Fiber Technology' at the Museo Permanente. Tokujin also created a large-scale fiber installation, using more than 700km of fibers that shaped the whole space into a gigantic lens. 

In Autumn 2006, Tokujin presented his one-man show 'Tokujin Yoshioka – Super Fiber Revolution' at AXIS Gallery as a compilation of his research and study in fibers. Simultaneously his new book 'Tokujin Yoshioka Design' was published worldwide from the British art publisher PHAIDON. He always undertakes experimental designs in pursuit of new possibility for the future.”

Note that Tokujin Yoshioka has been very influenced by the important designer: Shiro Kuramata (1934 -1991)

Tobias Wong & Citizen Citizen

Ballistic Rose on Citizen site:
P2. ccPhone, etc
What’s the Fuss…
Virtually Mine:
Early Work: Perfect Lovers:
Book 1 on Rashid; Tattoo; Silver pill, smoking mitten, on/off, box cutter; shelving unit; rubber-coated pearls; dream.
Mirror Clock: “The mirror/clock derived from my desire to create a painting. I've tried before, in the traditional sense, but failed. So I reexamined what a painting consists of-background, middle ground, and foreground. I used design elements instead of paint, and voile, the mirror/clock. It's also the only object that I've titled, "untitled" to give it a traditional reference.”

Suck:UK site:

“…mass production has created its own antithesis. Consider the work of young, conceptual designers like Tobias Wong, whose solid gold McDonald’s drink stirrers and diamond-embedded rubber bouncing balls have made a satire of our decadence. There is nothing innately precious about an object, Wong seems to say, until value is arbitrarily applied to often ridiculous extremes. But while Wong illustrates the point using gold and diamonds—commodities coveted, in part, for their inherent scarcity—the scarcity of limited editions is artificially imposed. It’s a strategy most often associated with art, which begs the interminable question of where design ends and art begins. …For sure, it is a curious moment when design is increasingly rarefied (think Hella Jongerius vases) and art is going mass market (Takashi Murakami). Whether the two are merging is almost irrelevant. In the meantime, designers, galleries and manufacturers continue their cavalcade of new limited-edition products, and consumers can’t seem to get enough. The limited edition, in fact, is fast becoming mass-produced.”

See also the young designers Designboom Mart each May in NYC as part of the annual International Contemporary Furniture Fair

ICFF Designboom Mart, May 2009 NYC

Moss, NYC/LA

Murray Moss, Note that RISD-ID grad Jacob Dixon has worked at the Soho store for some time. Say hi if you visit.
Links: The Daily New; Gallery. Familiarize yourself with the designers he represents here. For example: Baas and the husband/wife team of the Boyms

Maarteen Baas

Works: Treasure Furniture, Smoke, Sculpt, Clay Furniture,
Projects: workshops

Constantin and Laurene Leon Boym
Disaster Bldngs:

Babel Blocks:

8th c. Mass Production:

elevator portfolio:

As a sidepiece of free information: Laurene Leon Boym has been very active with the group “American Association of Women in ID”

Current: Jean Prouve. Next: Ron Arad opens Aug 2nd
Curator, Paola Antonelli, Design & the Elastic Mind

Schools with a strong Art/Design approach component:

RCA – Royal College of Art, London
Design Interactions
Anthony Dunne & Fiona Raby, Noam Toran
Hertzian Dreams, Projects 02, Tuneable Cities

Design Academy, Eindhoven, Netherlands
Philips collaboration. “Dreams precede Invention”
Goods Design:

See school offshoot blog approach to redesign:

ECAL – University of Art and Design, Lausanne Note: Kevin Quale has been accepted here; please talk to him for more information on this school, and Eindhoven. %3a pictures %3a industrial design

RISD today?
Consider: Alissia Melka-Techroew
(See more at Goods Design, Eindhoven link above)

[Please provide your suggestions and links for inclusion here, under RISD.]


The artist: Andrea Zittel
PBS Artists of the 21st c.
Living Unit, Pocket Property, Seasonal Uniform
Critical Space, 2006 New Museum:
Writing by Zittel in Alex Cole, Art + Design, 117-119. Posted on 5th floor near the elevator.

Please also consider the crossover ID/installation art piece/war memorial “Touched Echo” posted by Amy Su and linked at

Consider the Art/ID crossovers with textile and apparel:

See the recent Chanel/Lagerfeld/Zaha Hadid installation boutique in Central Park:
See Youtube video posted by class member Michelle Lee on her blog on November 2, 2008. ( and link to Lee, Michelle)

Not all Art/Design crossovers emphasize the same sensual aesthetic.
Eyebeam has a more techie, bohemian/nerd sensibility:


Kelly Dobson: Blendie

Finally, read Design Observer:

ID is a big tent. Where will you roam?

Monday, November 10, 2008

A Better World by Design -RISD/Brown 08

In 1971, Victor Papanek opened his now-famous book, Design for the Real World, with this incendiary passage:
“There are professions more harmful than industrial design, but only a very few of them. And possibly only one profession is phonier. Advertising design, in persuading people to buy things they don’t need, with money they don’t have, in order to impress others who don’t care, is probably the phoniest field in existence today. Industrial design, by concocting the tawdry idiocies hawked by advertisers, comes a close second. Never before in history have grown men sat down and seriously designed electric hairbrushes, rhinestone-covered shoe horns, and mink carpeting for bathrooms, and then drawn up elaborate plans to make and sell these gadgets to millions of people. Before (in the “good old days”), if a person liked killing people, he had to become a general, purchase a coal mine, or else study nuclear physics. Today, industrial design has put murder on a mass-production basis. By designing criminally unsafe automobiles that kill or maim nearly one million people around the world each year, by creating whole new species of permanent garbage to clutter up the landscape, and by choosing materials and processes that pollute the air we breath, designers have become a dangerous breed. And the skills needed in these activities are carefully taught to young people.” (Papanek, 14)

Two decades later, in the 1990s, social entrepreneur Paul Hawken published two seminal books (The Ecology of Commerce, 1993 and Natural Capitalism, 1999) that sought to point the way for a change that encompassed both the pragmatics of business and environmental sustainability. His most recent book, Blessed Unrest (2007) argues that there are a million organizations out there now working for change, and although they may seem “atomized”, modern communication tools are making these efforts come together and reach that famed “tipping point” of change.

Indeed, in the last five days, it has felt for me as though the tipping point was NOW. This weekend, just days after the most important US Presidential Election in a generation, I found myself speechless with amazed excitement at the RISD-Brown student-run conference “A Better World by Design”. This conference was conceived last spring by Brown engineering students; the committee then broadened to include three RISD Industrial Design seniors: Mike Eng, Tino Chow, and Winston Mi. By the time of the conference, a mass of volunteers had signed on, and many of them were from RISD-ID.

The presentations and workshops at A Better World by Design bombarded you with example after example of pioneering people, projects, and organizations begun in the last ten years (mostly) that used technology and design to make a difference, and a profit. This was the biggest change for me: the acceptance that the greatest change would come with a partnership between the shared interests of people, planet and profits – as the Triple Bottom Line philosophy puts it. A Better World by Design showcased a design reform movement that was not content to stay on the margin, but was working to change the center. This would be the path to the wide-scale change needed.

Since only about a dozen RISD-ID juniors were able to attend this weekend, I would like to use this week’s blog essay as an opportunity to document and share some of the projects shown at the conference (or other related case study of examples which you can share and which inspire you).

Listed below for now is simply that, a list of some of the people, organizations, and/or projects featured at A Better World by Design. Please choose one or two, and briefly research it. Write at least 300 words about it, with an illustration and web references, and post it on your blog by next Sunday at 9pm.

This exercise will help alert us all to contemporary design solutions we might never have otherwise known about. It will begin an easy to access source of visuals and case studies to inspire. It also will help maximize the critical energy of this conference, and spread the word across the RISD-ID department, and beyond. A Better World by Design ’08 was run by RISD-ID seniors. Please consider helping to continue this initiative by getting involved, in one of many possible ways.


Main site and blog:

A Better World by Design
Blog site:

See speakers, sites, bios, etc for more links

Please also see the class member links (posted on the class site: site) of these conference participants:

Chiu, Megan; Cho, Karen; Clare, Michael; Maruyama, Aya; O’Connor, Jon; Peloquin, Eric; Reilly, Hayden; Van Vleet, Liam; Yi, Boram.
(Please let me know if I missed you and/or you have links you want to share now.)

Afrigadget blog with lots of links and examples: on cell phone business model for worldwide conversion to electric cars. Amazing!!!!!
Triple Bottom Line
John Elkington and SustainAbility
ReUse People of America
Urban Ore (California salvage)
Tibetan Monks & temple out of Heineken bottles
Sugarcane waste (fagus?) and recycled paper
Recycled blue jean denim insulation
Designers Accord
Material Facts
Patagonia & PET recycling
Hermann Miller, incl shipping & packaging in a returnable blanket
Circuit Board options to reduce toxicity
The issue of Certification and Govt Regulation
Nau apparel:
Apple, Google, Whole Foods, Amazon, REI, Caterpillar, Hermann Miller as green companies that position themselves first as effective companies.
Seth Godin, Tribes
TerraCycle cleaning products
Architecture & Design have no Hippocratic Oath: “At least do no harm.”
A Prius is more damaging to build than a Hummer – research this comment (prefab houses)*** Site with many subsites
Jim Collins on Visionary Companies
NASA plants that filter indoor air quality?
Fireplaces that burn denatured alcohol?
Need for home automation systems, an open field?
Janine Benyus, TED talks
Box Fish to Mercedes concept car
John Todd, visionary developer of plant based water treatment systems
Living Machine Systems, now a registered trademark of WWT
Lily Pad as model of cleanliness
Red Sea kelp as model for contact lens & hospital surface germ free
Gecko tape
London Swiss RE building out of glass-like fiber model
Pax Scientific and the nautilus waste water device
Bumps on Blue Whales and increased efficiency on wind turbines and airplane wings
Water Bears and protecting vaccine delivery in 3rd World countries
Termite houses as models for cooling structures
Biomimicry Guild. Business model of institute and guild
Nature’s 100 Best by EO Wilson
GreenBuild in Boston, Nov 08
John Jevins, How to Grow More Vegetables, 1970s
Colin Campbell, China Study on the politics of food and health
Cradle to Cradle
recycle to down-cycle
Corporate compliance & Regulations: EU-ROHS
Design for Disassembly
GrameenPhone – bottom up development
Microfinance and design
MicroTurbines/ microcombines
Decentralized prosperity as a basic aspect of democratic societies?
N/S Korea night lighting as example
Amory Lovens
Cameron Sinclair & Architecture for Humanity
Design Like You Give a Damn, see “best chpt written on history of humanitarian design”, by Kate Sinclair
Solar cookers and pastuerizing water
Biodiesel and solar cookers to rid cooking oilof waste
Integrated solar cooking: solar cooker, rocket cooker, hay box
Production Solar cookers for village businesses: 1000 loaves a day at bakery
And much much more.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Humanitarian Design & Real Needs

The world doesn’t need any more stuff! --- I have to question why I am in ID, designing more stuff!!! Who needs it???”

I have spoken recently with a number of ID students who expressed this concern. The answer, I feel, lies in a broadened sense of “who” and a non-market-driven sense of “needs”.

In fact, your skills are desperately sought to help solve the real problems that inescapably define the lives of millions of your fellow human beings living elsewhere in the world.

For example, the UNHCR (United Nations High Commission on Refugees) has released the depressing statistic that there were 67 million refugees and internally displaced persons in the world in 2007.
That works out to be about 1 in 100 people alive today are "of concern" to the UNHCR. and

What can designers do? In 2007, the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum held an exhibition, Design for the Other 90%. It began with the premise that 90% of the world’s total population has “little or no access to most of the products and services many of us take for granted; in fact, nearly half do not have regular access to food, clean water, or shelter.” This exhibition, book, and on-going web site hopes to inspire designers to get some perspective on their affluence, and sign on to help solve the real problems that define every day for ”the other 90%”. The website is filled with short lectures, resources, and examples of the design work or prototypes of fellow designers working in this field. I urge you to spend time exploring it.

Design for the Other 90%:

Today our guest lecturer is Dr. Bruce Becker, a Brown professor and first-response disaster relief provider. He will alert you to the problems faced every day in providing refugee and humanitarian relief after a disaster, war, famine, or civil unrest, and the design opportunities that beg to be addressed. He notes also that the principles apply to urban ghettoization in the third world as well. Dr. Becker currently sponsors a Brown/RISD course on Disability, and would welcome the opportunity to pursue collaboration on Humanitarian Relief with RISD-ID students. Dr. Bruce Becker's email address is:

We have talked about the various ways of writing an ID History, and we have often followed the thread that is concerned with design innovation and that “better mousetrap”. This week we look at a contemporary application of this ongoing chapter in ID History: How to solve a real problem in a better way, with your help?

So, if you find yourself asking, "Who needs more stuff?" See if you can't find opportunities to meet real needs by maybe turning your binoculars towards a different horizon.

Assignment due Sunday November 9th by 6pm: Please write and post on your blog a 500 word essay responding to some aspect of the lecture by Dr. Bruce Becker. These issues could include the problem of how designers can best contribute to user groups from extremely different cultural and economic backgrounds, such as refugees in third world countries. Should you do nothing because it might be wrong? What are some examples of positive interventions that could serve as case studies for the future? What do you see as the most important problems in the field of humanitarian design that should be top design priorities? 

I hope that these essays will spur dialogue among yourselves within the department, as well as with Bruce Becker and his colleagues from the field -- certainly a storehouse of information waiting for designers to start acting upon.  

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

How do products get meaning?

This week in class I asked you to consider two case studies in design & the construction of gender in order to get at these larger questions/issues:

  • How do products get meaning?
  • To what extent do you believe a designer is able to “design” meaning into a product and determine a user’s behavior?
  • Do you believe design has the power to effect or even control how a person can or cannot act?
  • How do you understand the user’s “agency”?

The two case studies by Maines and Wright on the general topic of constructing female identity imply that the meaning of a product is socially constructed and does not reside “in” the design. Rather, the designer’s intention is mediated first by structures of belief embedded in the society, then by social conventions, and finally by the user as some sort of ultimate mediator of meaning within their own private, subjective, self-created modern self.

These case studies dealing with design and identity also point out yet another critical frame and starting point for a history of industrial design. In the modern period (beginning in the West around 1500) we find a new sense of the private self coming into being. In this scenario, industrial design is a key discipline involved in the performance of the modern self. In a sense, this way of writing a history of industrial design is a complement to the history of branding we looked at earlier. But the focus shifts, and we look from the other end of the telescope.

Please write a 500-word essay responding to the issues raised by these two case studies. Your essay should be posted on your blog by 6pm Sunday November 2nd so that we can have time to read one another’s responses. The final deadline will be the next morning at 6am, before class.

See below for a summary of the Maines and Wright case studies.

Rachel Maines, The Technology of Orgasm (1999).

Lee Wright, “Objectifying Gender: the Stiletto Heel,” A View from the Interior: Women and Design (1995).

Note on Maines:
Sex is a basic human need that has been treated differently by different cultures at different times. From the ancient Greeks to the near present, one historical constant has been the tendency of male-run societies of the last 2500 years to label as pathological or diseased any female sexual requirements that might exist beyond what men thought to offer women. (Would you say today is a moment of historical continuity or of change?)

In the groundbreaking, scholarly book, The Technology of Orgasm, Rachel Maines documents this medical literature, and the surprising finding that for centuries doctors and midwives were assigned the tedious clinical job of manually bringing women to orgasm as a way of relieving female “hysteria”.

Further, Maines brings to the table the fact that the vibrator was invented by doctors in the late-19th c. as a laborsaving device to relieve them of “the job nobody wanted”. It reduced the time it took doctors to get results from one hour to ten minutes. Maines illustrates the technological innovations and vast variations in the design of this prevalent medical device from 1880 to about 1920. Maines concludes her book with a study of how the vibrator moved from being a medical device to being freely advertised to middle-class women in Sears catalogues for private, in-home use around 1900, to the shift again within twenty years to being a taboo appliance after the vibrator founds it way as a prop in the new genre of porn films in the 1920s.

Thus, as one website notes, “the toaster and the vibrator were contemporaneous electrical inventions, both sold directly to consumers through such venues as the Sears Roebuck catalog.” Maines states that the vibrator was the 5th domestic appliance to be electrified, "after the sewing machine, fan, tea kettle, and toaster, and about a decade before the vacuum cleaner and electric iron." (Wikipedia citing Maines.)

This important research into design and the construction of female identity is now being presented as a film. Entitled, Passion and Power: The Technology of Orgasm, it is produced and directed by Wendy Slick and Emiko Omori, and is an independent Wabi Sabi Production. []

You can view the trailer at

You can view some of historical design approaches to this appliance in the collection of the Bakken Museum of Electricity in Life, in Minneapolis:

In this Industrial Design History class, I want to focus our attention on the questions raised by Maines’s case study of how a product is given meaning and how cultural norms constrain the information a user group (like women) can report on their own sexuality. How does this work? A male medical establishment determined women were ill with hysteria and should be rushed through a tedious procedure with the help of a laborsaving vibrator. And we have no records of what the women thought. As a case study, it is an example of a “black hole” in history, where we should stop and ask why it is possible to know so much about toasters and so little about vibrators? Product design history can be a powerful window into the very structure of a culture. From this historical analogy, designers today can find openings to design innovations that address basic human needs, a sense of personal freedom and self-determination about one’s own body. It is important to be able to talk about this historically-grounded case study, its meaning in design history, and the implications for designers today.

The vibrator can be seen as a case study of a clandestine product. Designers believed they were designing appliances with one kind of (medical) meaning in the product, but really the questions they were asking and their view of the user’s agency leaves much to be desired. Industrial designers are uniquely sited in society to design products that enable human beings to achieve new kinds of private, subjective freedoms. This includes the opportunity for both sexes to discretely explore their own sexuality and body within, as well as outside, conventions.

Please use this case study to reflect on these questions: To what extent do you believe a designer is able to “design” meaning into a product and determine a user’s behavior? How do you understand human “agency”, or the ability of a self to act in/on the world? How do products get meaning? How can we find a way to voice unspoken personal truths that need design solutions?

How does this case study complicate or reinforce the perspective that a history of industrial design should begin with the modern period and new ideas of the modern self-created self, “freed” from tradition? As I mentioned above, this starting point highlights industrial design as a key discipline involved in the performance of the modern self.

Notes on Wright:

Lee Wright in “Objectifying Gender: the Stiletto Heel” uses the case study of the stiletto heel (1950s-1960s) to ask how and why meaning gets attached to objects & if these meanings are inherent in the design criteria. She argues that the stiletto heel is seen as an emblem of female subordination, but during its first decade of existence, it was a mass phenomenon for women symbolizing assertion, modernity & feminity - all wrapped up. Further, the idea of the heel forced manufacturing advances in plastics technology and chemical engineering.

The high heel is a good product to use as a case study on design and the construction of gender since both men and women have worn high heels at various points in history. For example, around 1700, the short (5’4”) French King Louis XIV established the fashion of elite men wearing heels up to 6 inches; red heels were restricted to those close to the inner court circle. However, since the 19th c. high heels have been seen as part of the construction of female identity.

Wright begins her study with changes in clothing fashion after WWII, when designer Dior replaced the Utility Clothing and chunky heal of wartime with the “New Look” that emphasized the female form. The style combined a new feminity with an imagined active modern role for women. The Stiletto was an extreme development of the pump, and it took 10 years, from the 1950s to early 1960s to perfect the Stiletto. From 1953-7, the heel and toe of the pump slowly elongated and became the 4-7” spike of the Stiletto.

Wright documents how women’s desire for the Stiletto came before the ability to mass manufacture such a heel.

• The original high fashion stiletto had a wooden heel-spike reinforcement that would snap with normal use.
• It took 10 yrs before advances in injection molding perfected the metal spike in a plastic heel. This allowed the Stiletto to be mass-produced in Europe and America.
• With a 1-ton/sq inch heel pressure, the stiletto heel fashion required aircraft, offices, and factories to redesign tougher flooring material.
• During the peak sale years of 1958-62 the Stiletto heel was seen as a progressive form that symbolized dissatisfaction with the traditional female roles. Here was a new modern woman that was going places, who was active, and economically free. The opposite image of these very high heels as shackles on the modern women did not develop until the later 1960s, when women rioted to be free of these heels.

Wright argues that female gendered objects are devalued based on meaning already determined. In her opinion, these are active, aggressive shoes and the women who first adopted them felt that, and embraced it as a new freedom. She asks: If men can buy objects that make them feel assertive and “big”, then why can’t women?

From 1957-1962, the Stiletto was a mass symbol of women’s liberation from traditional roles. The Stiletto is the case study of the design and invention of a progressive product, even if we know see it as the opposite. It is another example of industrial design supporting the performance of the modern self and the agency the original user felt in making her own meaning. These case study examples deserve discussion. If one product can have such different meanings, then how, really, can it be said that the designer controls or designs meaning into a product?

Monday, October 20, 2008

Mid-Semester Review

We enter now the second half of the semester on this, the last day of summer. This week’s assignment is to make sure you have met the goals for midsemester and posted the best possible iteration of your work on your blog by the deadline of Sunday October 26th at 8am.

These goals include:
1) Three TimeLines on history & the past; lighting; and functionalism. Each TimeLine should present a point of view about your chosen subject matter. Be sure to clearly state the big picture questions raised by your TimeLine case study. When possible, please reference web links so that other people can easily follow up and read more. Remember also that all writing in your blog should be your own, or it is plagiarism. Finally, as a professional, be sure to proof your work for grammar and spelling before you send it out into the world.

2) Also due posted on your blog by Sunday October 26th at 8am is a thoughtful, well-crafted 1000-word essay that develops some aspect of the material we have covered in class, or, some aspect of your own TimeLines. You might decide to choose one image from one of your timelines to expand upon, or you might like to develop a theme that ran across all three TimeLines. This is up to you. If you have questions, feel free to email me. I will respond to any draft sent to me by Saturday October 25th at 8am.

I am assuming that the possibilities offered by this essay are clear after our class discussion today. Please feel free to use this essay as a chance to think through some idea or case study example/s that suggest a complication requiring further reflection. Do challenge and re-examine your accepted ideas. Strive to be honest about if and how you walk the talk you are espousing. Be open to risk in this essay of exploration, revision, editing, and a final structure that may be tentative, but is still clear and communicating.

As a class, our goal will be to use these essays to promote respectful dialogue about complex questions that no one has “solved”. What are the issues? What is someone else challenging you to think about that might complicate or compromise your own position? How can we go against the grain of much civic life today and have people with different points of view hear one another and engage in respectful communication? How can we demand of ourselves that we move beyond clichés to think critically about complex issues? How do we achieve balance and integrity within ourselves and in respect to larger and larger communities? If your topic takes you here, feel free to address the difference and implication in your mind of advocating a paradigm shift vs. reform, or, in contrast, the response of those who might believe, with Calvin Coolidge, that the business of America is business, and by implication that design is subordinate to the business needs of capitalist growth? What criteria do you use to feel your ideas are “right”?

These essays will take time and come into focus over the week as you draft, think, and revise. Remember, I am a skilled writer, and I almost never finish more than three pages a day. Please meet the deadline for posting of Sunday October 25th at 8am. I expect the whole class to read as many blog essays as possible before class on Monday morning so we can begin with discussion and dialogue about our understanding of design, its history, and your role as a designer now and into an uncertain future. I look forward to it. You are the future.

(PS. This is what 618 words looks like.)

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Functionalism as a theory of form

The first timeline was an orientation to thinking about the past through an analogy and the visual organization of a thesis or point of view. We talked about where one could properly begin a history of industrial design, and the downstream consequences of choosing that beginning. Did your history emphasize continuity or change? What is at stake with each choice?

The light lecture asked you to consider industrial design as a multi-faceted discipline with one branch deeply involved with new technology and the solving of pragmatic problems. (Design as the making of a better mousetrap. Please google “humane mouse trap” for new approaches.) As we saw in various examples, these pragmatic problems can extend from how to manifest new power sources: from the electric light bulb to OLEDs to bioluminescence. We looked at a range of practical problems designers are engaged in: from solar cookers for refugees to night vision goggles for warfare.

The light timeline was designed to help you try out which branch of industrial design most interested you: Design as the making of a better mousetrap? Design as a critical modern practice? Or perhaps design as a consumer practice? Again, the goal was for you to choose 5 lights, research them, and then figure out how to visually organize this information to convey your own point of view about the history of industrial design. It is a focused case study approach that can be used to discuss the broadest historical problems. This exercise is a valuable transition tool for designers to use as they make the bridge from mind-map to timeline to confidence in writing 5-10 page text essays. If you can’t find, express, and organize your ideas in a timeline, it will not likely get clearer in a paper.

The third timeline uses the topic of the chair to cover the classic story of functionalist design from Morris and the Arts & Crafts movement through the Bauhaus and on to today. How would you tell this story to yourself? At minimum, you should repeat the story so you are sure you understand the basic outline. Ideally, you would express a point of view and comment on this approach to a history of industrial design. Please see the timeline I distributed in class and consult the writings by Hauffe and Marcus. I also refer you to the articles listed in the Reader under “Modernism and the Ambivalence of Design for Production”.

In the third timeline, engage with functionalism as an underlying theory of form in Industrial Design. We will be using Marcus’s definition:

Functionalism - “the notion that objects made to be used should be simple, honest, and direct; well adapted to their purpose; bare of ornament; standardized; machine-made, and reasonably priced; and expressive of their structure and materials - has defined the course of progressive design for most of the century.” (George Marcus, Functionalism, 1995, p.9.)

Using 5 chairs, trace a history of functionalism from Morris to the Bauhaus to today. The written part of the timeline assignment should address the questions listed below as you reflect on your research and the timeline you are drafting.

How is functionalism a form determinant, and how not?
Is it a style, and what does that mean?
Is functionalism timeless and/or modern?
Is there an ethical dimension to functionalism? If yes, what is that about?
How does the designer’s use of functionalism relate to the engineer’s goal of functionality and manufacturability?
What are the merits and problems of using functionalism as an organizing principle for the history of industrial design? What does such a history leave out?
Is this approach relevant to your own work?

This is the third and final timeline that is due for mid-semester. The assignment for the week after next will be to revisit, revise, and develop further each of your three timelines and the exploratory, explanatory essays that should accompany these. I remind you that class on October 20th will be devoted to presentation and critique of your work, which will need to be successfully posted on a blog. We can easily make your page link to the class page after Oct 1st, when the RISD email address becomes This aspect of the work due for mid-semester will be discussed in more detail next week.

Again, I am available to comment on any drafts submitted to me ahead of time.
I look forward to seeing how everyone in the community of our ID History class understands and interprets functionalism as a theory of form, and its meaning to their own work.