Fernando and Humberto Campana, Corallo Armchair, 2004
This past Sunday's The New York Times "Week in Review" section featured an article by Michael Cannell titled "Design Loves a Depression" which has already received some wide (and in some cases approving) circulation within design circles and beyond. In it, he claims that with the current economic downturn, the design professions have received a well-deserved comeuppance. "The pain of layoffs notwithstanding," says Mr. Cannell, "the design world could stand to come down a notch or two — and might actually find a new sense of relevance in the process. That was the case during the Great Depression, when an early wave of modernism flourished in the United States, partly because it efficiently addressed the middle-class need for a pared-down life without servants and other Victorian trappings."
Design loves a depression? I can assure you that design, along with painting, sculpture, photography, music, dance, fashion, the culinary arts, architecture, and theatre, loves a depression no more than it loves a war, a flood, or a plague. Michael Cannell's article is regressive and mean-spirited, and it demands a response.
"Design tends to thrive in hard times," says Mr. Cannell. No, it doesn't. It tends to suffer, like any of the other humanistic disciplines. New ideas do not get championed or realized. Leadership turns to market-driven accommodation.
Of course, design will of necessity respond creatively to an economic downturn. It always has. And many talented, world-celebrated designers (including Hella Jongerius, Marcel Wanders, and Fernando and Humberto Campana, of whom Cannell is so disdainful) will no doubt articulate a myriad of rich, generous responses that are problem solving and practical, as well as responsive to monetary and material concerns. These and other great talents will also address through their work other areas of our lives, those human concerns we rely on the arts to embrace, including our emotional, intellectual, cultural, sociological, and political well being.
But apparently these humanistic concerns are of no interest to Mr. Cannell. Or at least I sense that he, along with Julie Lasky, anachronistically consider such topics irrelevant to design. He quotes Ms. Lasky: "If household furnishings are to avoid landfills...it will be about finding the sweet spot between affordability and durability.” That's it? The only measure of good design is whether it's cheap (by whose standards, by the way?) and sturdy? Ikea and Target are to be our official standard-bearers of good design?
It's in reference to the Campana-designed $8,910 Corallo Chair and the $10,615 Jongerius-designed "Ponder sofa" (though I presume he is referring to her Polder Sofa) that Mr. Cannell proposes that the design world "come down a notch or two." Is he suggesting that these great works should adapt something that in his personal opinion would be a more "democratic" pricepoint? What would that number be, exactly, and who would arbitrate it as accessible? (Perhaps they should be priced as the proverbial Nixonian Good Republican Cloth Coat?) When he says "come down a notch or two," does Mr. Cannell mean that Design should retreat from its current expansive, ambitious, fearless, exploratory, guild-breaking, all-encompassing plateau, from its hard-won re-positioning in the Arts? And revert back to what? To the perceived mid-century notion of efficiency and comfort? What regressive, back-in-the-box, frozen-in-the-mid-20th century absolutist utopian modernist "democratic" criteria for evaluating contemporary design is Mr. Cannell proposing from his alleged "front row seat" on design?
Designers and their true supporters have fought hard over the last fifteen years to expand the definition of design, not shrink it. Yes, to "notch it up." To cross established boundaries for the discipline. To allow design to address multiple tasks — including function — as well as the myriad other concerns that might be compelling to the designer. To expand the criteria with which we evaluate design, not shrink it. To not be afraid to talk about a "narrative" embedded in the design of a particular chair, or the sculptural nature of a table. To not relegate art solely to those flat canvases one can hang on one's wall over one's purely "functional" sofa. To allow designers the opportunity to evolve from simply being our society's slavish problem solvers to — at their best — simultaneously being our poets. And some are doing this anyway, like it or not.
Mr. Cannell quotes MoMA's Paola Antonelli as predicting for these difficult times "there will be less design, but much better design." I hope so, but I strongly doubt that will come to pass. Better how? More like the good old "sensible" days, just after the last century's Great Depression? It's far more likely that there will be far less design innovation, period.
This is not a celebratory moment for design. Design-related businesses, including my own, are suffering, and will most likely continue to face very difficult times in the coming year, at the very least. That said, I deeply resent the tone of comeuppance in Mr. Cannell's article, his condescending, parochial-school-matronly, Calvinistic reproach of the design that flourished during what he refers to as the "economic boom." (I would use the term Renaissance). None of us — gallerists, collectors, architects, interior designers, and especially journalists — who love and respect the designers and the industrialists who have grown design during the past fifteen years should be smugly waving our fingers at those unruly designers who dared to speak without raising their hands, who fluidly transverse the terrain between art and design and lead us — some of us, evidently, resisting all the way — to new possibilities, way beyond those imagined by their counterparts in the mid-20th century.
We are the fortunate benefactors, not the dupes, of design's evolution since our recovery from the last Great Depression. We should defend that progression with resolve. We should push forward, in whatever ways are still possible, even more strongly. We should lock arms and support one another. And we should not hesitate to challenge those, like Mr. Cannell, who would somehow, mistakenly and punitively, equate the current global economic meltdown with design’s recent surge. We should, and will, refuse to go back into the box.