I happen to be reading through the Vice magazine Design Issue while sitting in a wooden house in Hokkaido, North Japan, watching an NHK TV special celebrating the design work of Charles and Ray Eames. It's the perfect counterpoint. I glance up from my laptop to see the camera panning across objects the Eameses collected on their travels; a shot of a beautiful shell dissolves into an Eames chair. I'm deeply moved, in an almost religious way, by the implicit parallel between human ingenuity and nature, the organic and the engineered. Then I turn back to Vice and see another symbol of the harmony of humanity and nature - a gushing toilet.
Okay, declaration of interest. I occasionally write for Vice, the satirical youth magazine based in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. It takes some careful manipulation of tone--the magazine is gross and provocative, whereas I tend to be polite and enthusiastic--but somehow, once in a while, we manage to think the same way. I had nothing to do with The Design Issue, but I thought you might be interested in what it says. The cover is a bright white Terry Richardson snap of a flushing toilet spouting water upwards. That jet of water contains a promise: Vice intends to rip design culture a new asshole, flush its pretensions away, soil design then cleanse it. Assumptions will be challenged, affectations lampooned. We're in for a ribald carnival of design satire! Well, perhaps.
The opening editorial continues the cover's fecal theme. "Why does everything look like shit?" asks 'Chris Crinkle' (the Santa costume almost certainly conceals editor Jesse Pearson or publisher Gavin McInness). "The whole of culture is at an all-time aesthetic low... things have gotten so bad, we're taking advice from a bald fag with expensive sunglasses wedged on his head." Laying out the themes of the issue, the editorial concludes "If you want to see real design, check out the makeshift knife in your son's pants. Or the roach traps poor people make. Shit, just take a look at our living room. It's a thousand times nicer than yours, and we're broke." It seems that Vice is determined to prove that design needn't be the preserve of the rich and effete. Bertolt Brecht and the Good Soldier Schweik seem to nod their approval; after all, they're also satirists of bourgeois pretension.
The Vice approach is nothing if not consistent. There's an article about bidet toilets (with more Terry Richardson photos), a piece about a fake iBook supposedly fabricated by an inventive crackhead and sold on the street to an NYU student, an inventory of homemade weapons confiscated from kids at an Alabama high school, an illustrated letter from Britain about the replica guns made by young offenders, a workshop by one "Crazy Paul" detailing the best way to kill a Madagascar Hissing Cockroach (not for the faint of stomach; Paul opts for eating the insect). That's followed by an awards page for the best roach-killing designs, two tours of cluttered, tackily-decorated apartments, and "The Vice A-Z of Design".
Here the toilet humor gives way to some real wit. "What ever happened to Herb Lubalin, Grapus, Tadanori Yokoo, Ken Adam (the Dr. Stranglelove/James Bond set guy), Kate Gibb, Saul Bass, Shinro Ohtake, Keiji Ito, Willy Fleckhaus, and all those Polish poster artists?" asks Vice. "Being a designer used to mean you drove a Benz and you could get good drugs. Now it means you own a computer. What the fuck? You start out thinking you're going to blow people's minds with your incredibly unique take on the beauty that surrounds us all, and by the time you actually get your career in motion you're essentially a wedding photographer chained to a desk... Your ideas don't mean shit to the client. He couldn't be bothered learning how to use a computer, so what he wants to do is use you as a human paintbrush. Any idea you come up with, no matter how mundane, is going to be further bastardized by his shitty Guido taste until the final result is a perfect example of everything you hate. There, you got into design as part of the solution and now you're just another part of the problem."
Here's where Vice's real agenda begins to peep through the scatology, like a seam of lace under a crumpled Kleenex; behind the affectations of hoodlum and white trash style, the glorification of rural teenage delinquency and the cheap shots at NYU students, Vice is a magazine written by and for urban sophisticates, people who know quite a bit about art, photography and design and are actually highly invested in aesthetics. Vice's photo editor, seen holding a fake iBook in the iHustle feature, just happens to be Ryan McGinley, an American Photo Magazine Photographer of the Year and, at 25, the youngest artist ever to have a solo show at the Whitney. Could it be that behind the sophomoric, mischievous, dismissive, even nihilistic style, Vice is the voice of a twentysomething generation clearing the decks for a new aesthetic? Is the magazine's iconoclasm pure destruction or preparatory work for a new definition of the 'iconic'? Is the disgust directed here at design actually disgust at its co-option by consumerism, its low aspirations?
Ryan McGinley's own work--casual homo-erotic snaps of boys in Lower East Side apartments with their shirts off--didn't come from nowhere; it's clearly "school of Nan Goldin" as well as making common cause with Terry Richardson's Bacchanalian porno-aesthetic. (And it says a lot that, in "The Vice Guide To Design", K is for kerning, and gets illustrated with a badly-kerned setting of New York Girls photographer Richard Kern's name. Well, I chuckled, anyway.) The Vice Design Issue is not an anti-design tract, but the championing of an aesthetic that's already quite well-established, already wowing museum curators - a casual, trashy, porno-party style that celebrates tack, lo-tech and the good old bohemian values of sex, drugs and rock and roll. This salon des refuses, populated by people in their twenties, is well on its way to becoming a salon tout court.
Personally, I value having my design assumptions shaken up from time to time. I still love the Eames' vision of design, but I'm willing to see the Japanese TV show celebrating it as, essentially, religious broadcasting for elderly humanists. NHK seems motivated by a desire to render homage to saints long since canonised, to relive battles long since won. I'm willing to consider that their reverence for the Eames' work may contain a lot more respect for respect, legitimacy for legitimacy, than concern for the negotiation of living aesthetics. Mightn't there be a deep nihilism in that, some deep indifference to aesthetic values and aesthetic debates, some moribund, museumlike quality? And could it be that Vice's irreverence is something, you know, alive, its nihilist bile a sign that someone, you know, cares?
Perhaps I'm overstating the value of irreverence. But I'm quite glad there are design satirists around. It makes design dialectics a bit more extreme and colourful, even if, in the end, the aesthetic choices on offer are rather small and comfortable ones. The curators of the MoMA or the curators of the Whitney? Your parents' tidy apartment on the Upper East Side or your friend's messy loft in Williamsburg?