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.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Dealing with the Passed/Past

I read today that futurists are never historians, and few historians are futurists. I disagree, and note an opportunity. ID is all about being “both”.

In the first class, I showed examples of how artists, designers and businesses are thinking and rethinking how we deal with the dead. Those who have passed. I began with this problem because I love the contemporary projects on the dead that keep popping up, like Mission Eternity, the AfterLife Fuel Cell project, and Nadine Jarvis’s carbon pencils. But also because conceptually the past is like the dead body that we ultimately have to come to terms with. What should we do with the past? Use it as a power source? a writing tool? an adornment? a monument we erect in a place we never go?

Here are the links I would like to keep as references. Please note that each solution was based on a consideration of material, even though this was understood in quite different ways.

Mission Eternity: and

Joe Scanlon's DIY Coffin from an Ikea Bookcase:


Nadine Jarvis's recycled carbon pencils from ashes:

The AfterLife Fuel Cell Project and other work by James Auger and Jimmy Loizeau:

Diamonds from Ashes:

The Process of Modern Day Cremation:

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Start Here

Every designer’s toolkit should include the manual “how to use history”. This course is that manual.

Although it is not always thought of this way, history is, or can be, an applied field. Just like ID.

History can be thought of as a dialogue with the past to help inform us about the present with the hope to direct the future. It helps in the crafting of policy, point of view, and plan of action.

RISD: ID History for 2008 is a new prototype inspired by the new presidency of John Maeda and the energy of the call made by Negroponte at the new RISD President’s inauguration:
“Don’t join the bandwagon; make it.”

Further, this curriculum acknowledges the changes wrought by the Internet as an unparalleled source of information. The course is designed to maximize the possibilities of this common resource.

For example, it allows the course content to shift from being a kind of intravenous transfer of factual expertise from professor to student, to an exercise in critical thinking and each individual student’s search for a distinctive, historically-informed, point of view of their own. What is this story about? How should it be told today?

ID History has been moved to the junior year. As you each settle into your final two years at RISD, please be always mindful of what a unique opportunity this brief time in your life affords. You will confront quite different constraints upon graduation. Right now, right here, is the appropriate time to challenge yourself conceptually and critically. Go outside your comfort zone, and risk. “Don’t join the bandwagon. Create it.”

For over twenty years my educational philosophy has emphasized learning by doing. This large enrollment class offers unique challenges for practicing that conviction. For example, it is not possible for me to ask you to write a weekly 3-page essay responding to the reading (as I might like to) because I could not respond in any meaningful, substantive way that would help your development. And besides, my response would be private and not contribute to the shared, public, class-wide discussion we should be having.

My solution is as follows. I have returned to the TimeLine assignment which I developed for this course at RISD in the past with great success. But I have updated it. The large themes of ID History will not be conveyed not through a linear chronological march through history. Rather, we will engage in a common exploration of a series of topics and typologies like sitting, moving, light, gender, humanitarian and ethical design, green design, and the doors between art and design.

Six weekly assignments will ask you to create an illustrated historical essay exploring and connecting 5 objects, materials, processes, etc. You are required to arrive each Monday at the start of class with your personal solution printed out on two connected 8 ½ x 11” sheets of paper. Please tape your work up on the wall; we will begin each class critiquing these applied histories. To push this further, the mid-semester and final project will require you to revise your work, and place these timeline/essays on a blog so that we can better see your evolving point of view, and you can communicate your work to a larger audience. This vehicle can continue after the semester, and indeed after you graduate. It can be the beginning of a RISD-ID resource on history for future students, and for your own current and future colleagues.

Finally, this ID History course will be more than a collage of individual student explorations. One of my most important jobs will be to provide the synthesis, or overarching structure, that will show, in a dynamic way, how all these separate investigations can come together. In this way, we are collectively both forest and trees. It is a method you can take with you, use, and build on. Start here, in this history workshop.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Culminating Statements

As discussed in class, please use this final 500-word essay as a chance to identify and comment on the themes that have unfolded in your collected portfolio of work. Please post this final essay (and make any final edits and changes to all the work on your blog) by this Sunday at 9pm. 

I wish you a Happy Thanksgiving and I look forward to seeing you at our final class, Monday December 1st at 9am.