Design's role in the descending economy


So I find myself more and more motivated to blog as a way to scratch an intellectual itch triggered just today by visiting the V&A’s Cold War Modern exhibition and coming back home to read the Guardian’s interview of Philippe Starck, Terrence Conran and Kirstie Allsopp.

As I walked through the Victoria and Albert’s completely packed exhibition (my fault for picking the last weekend this show was on) full of fabulously utopian housing projects such as Archigram ‘s concept design for the Instant City as well as their abandoned project of the Montreal tower for the 1967 Expo, posters from Atelier Populaire to encourage 1968 Parisians to protest in the streets, objects used in counter espionage in Russia and East Germany as well as “socialist plastics”, it was almost possible to forget we were talking about times where the dangers of the atom bomb, the Cold War, the construction of the Berlin Wall, Bay of Pigs and general cultural and political turmoil were part of everyday life and were felt and lived as a global community. The Western world was on alert and looking for something better.


Product design, print, graphic design and architecture brought promise and hope for the future, whatever side of the iron curtain you were standing on. Not only that, but these fields were seen as political tools in themselves, because the message or image they conveyed was quite easy to communicate to a large audience. Schools were built to reinforce political agendas (not like today where it’s more often a corporate agenda that is being served), artists and film makers were invited to go to areas of political turmoil to bring their vision and perspective back home. Fewer mass media and a more focused cultural experience (not that this was always a good thing) allowed these visions of happiness and progress to be communicated and absorbed and believed. Innovation took place among fear and uncertainty.

Matt is quick to point out that perhaps this is something we can only explore now, some 40 years after, with a comfortable sense of perspective, but I genuinely feel that events like the Expo 1967 in Montreal or the Bruxelles Expo in 1958 had an impact in shaping people’s view of what was possible at the time. I don’t think that this is possible in this way anymore.

If something has come out of the Internet age it is specifically our ability to listen in to the micro-trends and micro-events that have been unheard and that we like, not the ones we might not hard heard of and probably should. Like choosing our own blinkers if you will. Again it’s been a blessing and a curse, for we’ve found a fantastic tool for self expression, creativity and global social understanding. At the same time, i doubt we know who our local MP is or who our neighbors are. When governments try to steer the public in a certain direction on some issues, we accuse them of treating us like nannies. Had the climate change issue been as central to us as the proliferation of the atom bomb, we would be in the streets asking for architects to create better buildings, products to stop using plastics, plastic bags to be eradicated, etc. Instead, we channel hop between issues that interest at the moment and hope that someone, somewhere will make the big decisions for us.


Back to fear and uncertainty. The Guardian piece has Philippe Starck himself, one of the pioneers of the designer superstar model almost talking about service design “We need to stop thinking about ownership. We need to look at the idea of renting rather than owning.” while at the same time leading a reality TV show on BBC entitled School of design where he’ll be working with “Ten aspiring designers with the talent, drive and vision to create the next ‘must have’ products of the 21st Century”. I’m sure the economic downturn won’t affect his business as he seems to be covering all the angles.

Designers like Starck have contributed to a fashion-led and attention-deficient design industry that in these difficult times couldn’t possibly hold up.

The great principle of design have faded. Form no longer follows function but fashion. Less is more but a lot more often.

The eternal realist, I also would like to be an optimist. I hope the design industry emerges from the downturn a little wiser. I’ll be watching this year’s Milan Furniture Fair closely for signs of decay and for the type of utopian vision of the future that once inspired people. I look forward to hearing about more of the types of micro-projects like Russell Davies’s Speculative Modeling, for conferences that get the sustainability, web and design crowd together, to get people thinking ahead, being smart, innovating like crazy, creating and in constant forward motion, as opposed to a never ending sugar-coated merry-go-round.

In short, I hope design can once again give people something to hope for and look forward to instead of a quick fix.

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Founder of designswarm & the Good Night Lamp. Ex CEO of Tinker London, Head of Bulb Labs till May 2019.

2 thoughts on “Design's role in the descending economy”

  1. A on-point commentary Alexandra.

    I want to respond to the comment about Philippe Starck though. While Starck has exploited (maximized?) his position in the spotlight, it is unoriginal consumers and designers that have allowed the cult of celebrity to fester. You can’t really blame a designer for making the most of the attention and capital directed towards them – most individuals in that situation will start to blend in rather nicely with the demands of the broader market.

    Regardless, now is definitely the moment for introspection and experimentation.

  2. Hi Greg,

    Thanks for your comment. I’m not entirely sure consumers are to blame to be honest, if i walk into a store one month and see everything is pink an the next month green, it’s obvious there are trends at work that are our of their control.

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