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A Happy, Scary New Day for Design
October 15, 2000
By HERBERT MUSCHAMP
IT is scary to be living at a time when a particular creative field
grips the public imagination as powerfully as design has in recent
years. I can't recall anything like it since the late 60's and
early 70's, when movies and pop music exercised a magnetic hold on
the minds of baby boomers. Today, the vigor pulses through fashion,
furniture, art direction, graphics and product and image design
with a similarly captivating verve. Design has taken on its own
life, and this raises a problem often encountered in consumer
culture. The energy is pure delight. But can we turn it off?
The new economy has been the major stimulus for the design
phenomenon. Its most conspicuous expressions are appliances for
data exchange computers, cell phones, personal organizers,
digital cameras and the software programs and communications
systems to which they are linked. Another stimulus emanates from
the world of medicine: designer drugs, genetic engineering,
cyber-prosthetics and advanced techniques in cosmetic surgery.
As expressions of The New, these products have inherited the myth
of progress, modernity's defining legend. This is not the first
time design has embodied that myth. In the early 20th century, the
old economy (machine age) myth revolved around cars, ships, planes
and other mechanized forms of transportation. But the myth also
reshaped the face of buildings, fashion, decoration, paintings and
other conventional forms. The new economic myth is having a similar
impact. In addition to generating snazzy new shapes for laptops and
hand-helds, this myth is transforming the look of buildings,
interiors, books, landscapes, advertisements and other traditional
forms of design.
Environmentalists use the term ecotone to describe the area where
two adjacent ecosystems a wetland and a forest, say overlap.
The ecotone has an ecology of its own. It can support forms of life
not found in either of the adjacent systems. Today there exists the
cultural equivalent of an ecotone between the old and new
economies, between the culture of industrial production and that of
informational exchange. Design today is flourishing in this region.
Its symbol is the veil, a graphic device that conveys the
conflicting desire to conceal and reveal.
Shadow, translucency, reflection, refraction, dappling, stippling,
blurring, shimmering, vibration, moire, netting, layering,
superimposition: these are some of the visual devices used to
render the veil in contemporary design. Recent examples include the
Apple G4 Power Cube; shadow niches in the walls of the British
architect John Pawson; the spring 2001 collection by the fashion
designer Helmut Lang; curtains by the Dutch designer Petra Blaisse;
a new book, "Life Style," by the Canadian graphics designer Bruce
Mau. His book, which is to be published next month, is an ideal
opportunity to examine the significance of the veil as a
contemporary design motif.
"Life Style" (Phaidon, $69.95) is one long Salome's dance. A
627-page strip tease performed with an endless variety of veils,
the book tantalizes readers with glimpses into the thinking of one
of the most creative minds at work in design today. Book covers,
posters, videos, exhibitions, collaborations with architects,
editors, filmmakers, performance artists and writers: Mau's
projects in these and other media are graphically documented in a
book that presents itself as a manifesto as well as a monograph.
You should not skip over the written portions, for these make
clear that Mau does far more than bombard people with alluring,
decontextualized images. "Life Style" is a designer's celebration
of the book. Mau champions books at a historical moment when print
culture is thought to be vanishing into the new economy's trash
compactor. In this sense, Mau is picking up the threads of his
fellow Canadian, Marshall McLuhan, and weaving them into a
counterargument against McLuhan's prophecies of the book's doom.
While perceived by some as trendy, Mau has a staunchly traditional
attachment to the printed page.
Recently, Mau mentioned to me that graphic design is a young man's
game. Now at 40, perhaps he sees "Life Style" as a summary of his
work in a field he is preparing to quit. More likely, his comment
simply reflected his commitment to working in the present.
Contemporaneity the atmosphere of the present is Mau's product.
It is easy to see him selling it in the many media he has yet to
Mau, who is based in Toronto, is best known to date as Rem
Koolhaas's co-author of "S,M,L,XL," the acclaimed 1998 monograph on
Koolhaas's buildings and ideas. Though the architect's work
provides most of the book's content, Mau gets equal billing for the
project: on the book's cover, the two names appear in type of equal
size. The collaboration sent a message. Form and content are not
fully divisible. A book's design, particularly when its content is
visual art, should match the intelligence of its subject and even
interact with it throughout the course of production. An enriched
sensibility may emerge along the way. This is the message Mau has
been sending from the outset of his career.
His professional present began in 1985 with the publication of
Zone 1/2, a soft-cover anthology of writings on the contemporary
city. He designed a cover of blue and dark blue squares arranged in
a tight mosaic pattern that evoked satellite surveillance
photography. The letters of the title were made from perforated
dots that revealed the flamingo pink of the page beneath.
Zone 1/2 s reprinted in "Life Style" in its entirety, a
book-within-the-book laid out on five double-page spreads. The
print is too small to read. It registers as a series of thumbnail
scrims, periodically punctuated with photographs, maps and other
graphic devices. These create the effect of small explosions in the
text, the visual equivalent of urban events.
Mau's sensibility is resolutely urbane: the artistic quality of
his work is more essential to him than its commercial success. By
the standards of academic publishing, however, Zone 1/2 was quite
successful, and this led to the launching of Zone Books, a
publishing co-venture with MIT Press. Edited by Jonathan Crary,
Michel Fehrer and Sanford Kwinter, the imprint has specialized in
visual art and urban culture, new titles as well as classic studies
in these fields by authors like Panovsky and Batailles.
Since 1990, Mau has designed books in a similar vein for the Getty
Research Institutes Publications Program, under the direction of
Julia Bloomfield. In 1992, he was hired by Chee Perlman to redesign
I.D. magazine, a trade publication that under Perlman's editorial
direction became the leading chronicler of contemporary design.
Mau is now the imprint's imprint. There is a characteristic Bruce
Mau look. It didn't come out of nowhere. Rauschenberg's
silkscreens; color field paintings by Lewis, Frankenthaler and
Olitsky; the pointillism of Seurat: these are some obvious visual
precedents for the superimposed veils of image and text that one
encounters throughout Mau's print work. Too, his approach echoes
the visual/textual collage aesthetic of "The Medium Is the
Massage," the 1966 paperback by McLuhan and the graphic designer
Quentin Fiore. This book has become a classic for the wired
WHAT emerges in the pages of "Life Style," however, is not just a
distinctive aesthetic a Mau brand but the consistently high
level of cultural sophistication represented by his clients. His
roster consists almost exclusively of high-end publishers and
cultural institutions. This focus, as well as the intelligence of
his own work, is responsible for Mau's own lifestyle, the
professional image Mau currently projects.
To put it another way, Mau's reputation rests on the ingenuity
with which he blurs the boundaries between picture and text. He
operates in an ecotone between print and visual culture. From that
position, Mau perceives the distortions that images and words can
separately impose on our view of the world. Mau is powerless to
correct these distortions. But he can call attention to their
presence. And he can provoke us toward skepticism about their
claims to truth. That is the function of Mau's veils.
The veil evokes a universe of metaphors. Religious: maya, the
veils of illusion; the veil of the temple; the glass we now see
darkly through; glory be to God for dappled things.
Political: the deceptions practiced on a grand scale by public
officials, particularly at election time.
Economic: the use of advertising and public relations to screen
consumers from consumerism's unsavory effects.
Philosophical: the shadows in Plato's cave; the borders between
our private worlds and the public realm we share.
Psychological: mental structures denial, desire, dissociation
that enable us to filter, focus or ignore feelings, knowledge and
The veil design motif brings all these connotations into play.
With the Apple Power Cube, we see through a glass, darkly, but on
the Internet we shall see each other virtually face to face. In
advertisements, the Cube is presented as the embodiment of
omnipotence and omniscience, an entity whose name we almost dare
not utter. The inner and outer enclosures create an ecotone of
color, a silver shade generated by the laying of clear plastic over
From the exterior, the Cube is a pure product of what used to be
called industrial design. Even its abstract, geometrical shape
harks back to the Bauhaus-influenced products displayed in the Good
Design shows organized in the 50's by the Museum of Modern Art. The
innards, easily removed by means of a handle, represent the
increasing miniaturization of information-age technology. The
Cube's inner and outer enclosures symbolize an interface between
the old and new economies.
"Silver makes everything disappear," Andy Warhol remarked apropos
the d cor of his 47th Street studio. The tone of the G4 nudges this
technology-packed device toward immateriality. So does the silence
of its fan-less operation. Perhaps this is not, after all, a
machine, but a box of emptiness, a chunk of force-field that has
been captured from the event-horizon of a black hole and returned
to earth, where its power to warp time, space and gravity has been
harnessed to serve consumer needs.
The Cube plays off against the infinite variety of forms in which
other computers come packaged, and the ceaseless abundance of
images that materialize on its dematerialized flat screen. The Cube
is a rounded-off Platonic solid. Its speakers play the music of the
spheres. On the screen a veil of pixels everything is changing,
morphing, mutating, pointillistic. The Cube transcends change.
Helmut Lang's clothes display the rigor, consistency and
playfulness of a philosophical system. But what is the philosophy?
Some garments in his new collection have been compared to bondage
attire. Featuring strips of cloth, tightly woven around the torso,
they could also be seen as resortwear for mummies. Lang himself
said his inspiration came from pictures of insects. Both
interpretations are true. Fashion is a convention for
simultaneously loosening and defining the boundaries between an
individual and the social and natural environments in which she
moves. It is a form of bondage, but one that the wearer is free to
change or discard at any moment. Indeed, part of the bondage of
fashion is that the cut and color of the boundaries must be changed
as often as possible. They have, at most, an insect's life span.
Norbert Elias, author of "The Civilizing Process," used the term
homo clausus, the conventional sociological image of the individual
as a self-contained entity. Just because human organs are contained
within the skin, it does not follow that a self is likewise
circumscribed. On the contrary, a self is in large part an
accumulation of relationships with the world outside the skin, a
set of complex interactions with a rich variety of environments
that began before birth. In the fashion world, society is an
ecotone between a self and the stars. Self- image becomes
tantamount to a world view.
Consider the fashion show. The young woman on the runway is a
walking ecotone. We may identify her personality with her
appearance, but even her appearance embodies cultural expectations
ranging from body type to facial characteristics to the changing
image of fashion projected on her by designers of clothes, hair,
Then of course there are the conventions of the fashion show
itself: lighting, sound, movement, photography, editorial rank and
spectatorship. Where does she stop and we start? Perhaps, if it
weren't for the straps, the model's self would be very nearly
uncontainable. She would dissolve in the glare of flashbulbs, her
corporeal presence dissipating ever outward in reproductions
transmitted by newspapers, magazines and TV.
Petra Blaisse makes Christo look like a hobo. Blaisse wraps walls,
windows and entire buildings with fabrics and landscapes of great
subtlety and strength. Her work, now the subject of a fine show at
Storefront for Art and Architecture on Manhattan's Lower East Side,
includes projects for private houses, theaters, a convention hall
and a men's prison.
Many of Blaisse's projects were designed in collaboration with Rem
Koolhaas. Her curtain for the Nederlands Dans Theater, a
composition of metallic discs on black fabric that repeats the grid
of stage lights behind, has become the logo for the Koolhaas
building in the Hague. For the Rotterdam Kunsthal, Blaisse designed
a diagonal terrace of trees that veils the windows. Inside, she
conceived a spiral curtain track that transforms a two-dimension
wall of fabric into a fluted cloth column.
The Villa Floirac, designed by Koolhaas for a family in Bordeaux,
has become the most celebrated private house of recent times. For
it, Blaisse designed a curtain system that allows fabrics to
envelop the exterior and interior of the building. An inner curtain
of aqua-colored netting covers a plate-glass wall extending the
length of the second-floor living room. On the exterior, the owners
can deploy a metallic thermal sheet. A screen of thin birch trees
extends the effect of veiling into the landscape.
Koolhaas's architecture, designed for a wheelchair-bound man and
his family, is an essay in the interweaving of prospect and refuge.
Blaisse's curtains are the warp to the architect's woof. The
combination of thermal sheeting, plate glass, aqua netting and
birch trees is a vision out of a dream. It reminds us that
architecture arises from the ecotone between material and metaphor.
Apple claims that the Power Cube's minimalist design makes it
suitable for any d cor. Not true. The little gizmo wants to be
enveloped within an environment as basic and translucent as the
Cube itself. Specifically, it wants an interior by John Pawson, our
leading maestro of light, shadow and void. The British architect,
designer of the Calvin Klein store on Madison Avenue, is the
subject of "John Pawson," another monograph published by Phaidon
this month. With an illuminating text by Deyan Sudjic, the book
describes the spiritual underpinnings of Pawson's aesthetic.
In the 1970's, Pawson traveled to Japan, lived for a time in a
Buddhist monastery and briefly considered becoming a monk.
According to Sudjic, Pawson's design work is still informed by
Buddhist beliefs. A central tenet of Japanese Buddhism is the
concept of esho funi. Roughly translated as "the oneness of life
and its environment," esho funi means that living beings and their
surroundings, while different, are two sides of one entity.
Buckminster Fuller exhorted his followers to "Reform the
environment, not man." Fuller's idea would be unacceptable in
Yet architects do design environments. Clients hire them to make
agreeable places, not to reform their spiritual lives. The most
architects can hope for is a client whose values are sympathetic to
their own. Even then, the places created by architects are
spatially circumscribed. Even a Buddhist temple may be situated in
an unsympathetic milieu, or why would a religion be needed at all?
(This is the perpetual Utopian problem.)
From a Buddhist perspective, the spiritual and the material are
also aspects of a single entity. This is why there is no
contradiction in the alliance between Pawson and Calvin Klein. The
work of both men is aspirational. Klein makes more explicit links
between aspiration and desire (for sex, money, fame), but neither
is Pawson running a monastery. What links the two, to each other
and to the culture at large, is an appreciation for beauty, and a
talent for creating real and virtual spaces where beauty shines.
Some artists and critics like to think of beauty as an incentive
to reach toward the good and the true. I agree that art can be part
of a philosophical system. But in the consumer society, beauty can
also be a smokescreen a tool for distracting our attention from
the bad and the false, the less savory side of consumerism itself.
What a car! What a body! What a cool computer! Who wants to think
about the sweatshop labor, acid rain, social disruption and disease
that may be caused by the manufacture or use of these products? In
this sense, beauty can be a veil, an invitation to overlook the
ugly that we implicitly accept by buying into the system.
This is the case not only with individual objects. The desire to
overlook the ugly is a major factor behind the present infatuation
with the design medium as a whole. With that infatuation, consumers
what used to be called the public are giving design enormous
authority. Call it a myth, a virus or a mass psychosis. Like any
authority, the design phenomenon derives its power from denial. It
persuades people to leave unpleasant things out of the picture. A
fancy story like this one is an example of denial at work.
Buildings account for 63 percent of energy consumption and 50
percent of so-called greenhouse gases. Yet I make a living writing
about architecture as if it could be separated from this reality.
(Smog as veil?) There are many ways to rationalize this practice:
if buildings are going to be built, they ought to be good. Science
falls outside my sphere of competence. Since my column runs in an
arts section, readers would get bored with continuous commentary on
solar collectors, the violence of urban development, sick building
syndrome and the politics of French social housing.
SOMETIMES I take the unsavory aspects of architecture into
account, the social and cultural as well as the environmental
degradation. But I'm no good as Jeremiah. I write about buildings
because I find the flux of urban life aesthetically appealing. I'll
go on using the Truth is Beauty trick as long as I can get away
Buildings, being large and expensive, are typically seen, at a
distance, as totems of external authority. In the context of the
new economy, they become emblems of the global operating system,
allied more closely to similar totems in other cities than to their
own towns. The Power Cube, being small and cheap, occupies personal
space. For consumers, the stakes here are higher. One can choose to
buy another computer. One cannot choose to opt out of the global
Your oil company is working hard to protect the environment! It's
relatively easy, even accurate, to blame big business for
consumerism's sinister effects. The hard task is to reckon with the
psychological mechanisms that enable consumers to look the other
way. This is the subject tackled by Israel Rosenfield in his
dazzling and uncanny new novel "Freud's Megalomania." In the book's
fictional last testament by the father of psychoanalysis, Freud
argues that the need for self-deception (denial) is far more
powerful than the sex or death drives as a motive for human
At once a satire and a probing philosophical essay, the book
combines a bogus manuscript with footnotes that cite true events
from Freud's life along with references to his writings and other
psychoanalytic texts. These are then framed by other fictional
devices: an introduction by a fictive editor (Prof. Albert J.
Stewart) and a (fictional) postscript by (the real) Anna Freud. The
result is an ecotone between two kinds of reality: (subjective)
fiction and (objective) fact. The book's intellectual texture
resembles a moire: truths about human nature shimmer in the
layering of reporting atop invention. Reading it, the mind swivels
among similarities and differences, between objective and
subjective realities. It occupies a region that cannot be sustained
either by reporting and invention alone.
This is one of the major ideas uncovered by the structure of
Rosenfield's book. The mind is dense with veils that float between
what we see, what we know, what we believe and how, or whether, we
choose to act. What is the value of this? To produce skepticism. To
induce doubt. To propose that seeing is not believing.
Design can perform a similar service. Mau does this. Like
Rosenfield, he rubs together different kinds of information. The
opaque and and the semitransparent. Picture and text. Focused and
blurred. That the mind is given no place to rest. The eye can
momentarily alight here or there, only to be quickly drawn away, to
a different place on the same plane, or toward an implied zone of
great or lesser depth. The effect is equivalent to critical
thinking: a constant oscillation between conviction and doubt.
Pawson, Blaisse and Lang beckon the beholder into a similar frame
of mind. Their work simultaneously expresses a given condition and
a problem. The condition is that the information age operates as
much inside the brain as outside it. The problem is how to clear up
mental confusion so as to reach a place of historical and moral
awareness. Veils are at once facts to be contemplated and fictions
to be pulled aside.
Even the Power Cube computer, which visually abases itself before
the new economy, enlarges the user's capacity to resist as well as
to conspire with economic globalization. Computers have made it
possible for opponents of the World Bank to contest its trade
policies, for example, as organizers of the Seattle protest did
earlier this year. The image of power projected by the Cube is
ambiguous. Where does the power lie? The Cube's beauty is in the
eye of the beholder. Doubt, too, is an individual matter.
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