Lilly Smith | Interviews

Chain Letters: Alice Twemlow

This interview is part of an ongoing Design Observer series, Chain Letters, in which we ask leading design minds a few burning questions—and so do their peers, for a year-long conversation about the state of the industry.

In May, we examine the state of design criticism in a world where everyone’s a critic.

Alice Twemlow is Research Professor at the Royal Academy of Art, The Hague (KABK), Associate Professor in Artistic Research at Leiden University, and head of the Design Curating & Writing Master at Design Academy Eindhoven, NL. Previously, Twemlow was the founding chair of the Design Research, Writing & Criticism MA at the School of Visual Arts in New York. She writes for publications such as Disegno, Eye, Dirty Furniture, and Frieze, and has recently contributed essays to Night Fever: Designing Club Culture, 1960-Today and Victor Papanek: The Politics of Design (Vitra Design Museum, 2018), Her book, Sifting the Trash: A History of Design Criticism, was published by MIT Press in 2017.

With the proliferation of independent mags and personal blogs, it seems everyone’s a critic. Is design criticism as we’ve known it still relevant? If not, how can the field regain relevancy?

Yes, I think it’s a very exciting time for publishing; I’m really enjoying the blossoming of so many interesting and editorially rigorous independent magazines and journals, like Dirty Furniture, The Real Review, Disegno, MacGuffin, Open!, themed anthologies on Medium, and E-flux Architecture, to name a few. So, in that context, perhaps today it’s more that everyone’s a publisher, rather than a critic.

Having said that, yes, of course design criticism is still relevant—it just inhabits formats that we might be less familiar with. Whereas once design criticism was clearly labelled as such and existed in framed spaces within the confines of a magazine; now it is a more distributed and rhizomatic entity that undertakes unpredictable journeys across social media (in the form of Instagram narratives, Twitter commentary, YouTube videos, and curated memes) to the printed page, and from live events and symposia to physical manifestations in the form of installations and interventions in design biennials, weeks, and festivals. Even more interestingly, it’s ending up in the form of activist campaigns and protests.
Of course design criticism is still relevant—it just inhabits formats that we might be less familiar with.

It’s hard to discern anything like a central conversation; what we find instead are thematic threads that we as readers have to go and collect for ourselves using search terms, alerts, feeds, and by aligning ourselves on and offline in clusters of like-minded writers and readers.

What are three rules that make for a productive discourse about design?

I’m not that keen on “rules,” but I’ll try! Firstly, I think it’s essential that any discourse about design should be informed both about the historical lineage of that discourse and its variants in different contemporaneous cultural and disciplinary contexts. In other words, when entering a conversation as a writer, speaker, commenter, or respondent, a participant should be aware of what has gone before and what is going on elsewhere.

Secondly, I think it’s important that criticism is based not just on opinion, but also on a bedrock of good reporting, which means you have to go out and do the research legwork.

And lastly, before launching into any discussion about design, the terminology being used needs to be interrogated and clarified: participants need to say what they mean by the key terms they are using. Ideally these definitions should be historically informed, theoretically grounded, and politically explicit.

How do you approach trends like “anti-design,” which throw aesthetics traditionally associated with “good” design out the window?

If you are referring to the anti-design movement of the 1960s, otherwise known as Radical Design, I approach it enthusiastically and as a historical movement with continuing relevance! If you are referring to the more recent appearance of messy, awkward, unfinished, and knowingly “wrong” design solutions that seek to provoke through their wilful ugliness, I am interested, but sceptical. At best, they refocus our attention on the message or meaning and on participatory encounters with so-called “users” of design. But more often they feel a bit like sophomoric rebellions by emerging designers who want to demonstrate that they know the rules and are able to subvert them, and end up as introspective monologues or very small conversations with other designers.

What is the best design criticism you’ve read recently?

Currently, I am developing a Readership on Design and the Deep Future at The Royal Academy of Art in The Hague (KABK). I’m exploring the potential of an interdisciplinary approach for expanding our limited notion of timescale in relation to designed objects through reading in fields like Environmental Humanities, garbology, discard studies, eco-criticism, geophilosophy, and sustainability studies.

Geobiologists such as Reinhold Leinfelder stress the importance of discussing different conceptions of time and how they interact with each other, such as cosmic, evolutionary, cultural, technological, societal, and individual timescales. Ecological theorist Timothy Morton proposes the term “hyperobject” to help us think of things like Styrofoam or plastic bags in terms of their massive distribution in time and space, relative to humans. I’m also reading TJ Demos’ Decolonizing Nature: Contemporary Art and the Politics of Ecology which provides a really interesting critique of the limitations of the appellation Anthropocene.
There is a democratic impulse at the heart of design criticism—to make its methods so evident that anyone can practice them in their everyday lives.

Bearing in mind our first question, can anyone be a critic?

Absolutely. As I have discussed in my book about the history of design criticism, I think there is a democratic impulse at the heart of design criticism, demonstrated by some of its most influential pioneers, such as Reyner Banham and Jane Thompson, in which the role of the design critic is to make the methods, approaches, language, and mechanics of criticism so evident and accessible that anyone can apprehend them and practice them in their everyday lives.

Within that very broad interpretation, I have two caveats: Firstly, there are certain types of criticism—the hard-nosed, activist, and investigative variants that call for a certain kind of personality. If you are a fundamentally gentle, shy, and kind person, you may find it hard to go head-to-head with the people, products, and policies that misshape our environment. The second qualification is that within the general context of an expanded field of critical activity in which anyone with the will to learn and access to the means of dissemination can participate, I also think there is room within the practice for depth and specialization. An aspiring critic who wants to devote most of their life to the enterprise will benefit from the kind of slow and patient accumulation of knowledge and experience that will not appeal to everyone. And they will benefit from education.

As you may know, I launched the Design Criticism MA at the School of Visual Arts in 2008. Now in its 10th year, and with Molly Heintz at the helm, it continues to provide an educational program for the development and refinement of critical skills and methods and a dedication to exploring design and its social, political, and environmental implications. It is a true thrill for me to see those labors bear fruit in the form of the many alumni from that program who are now in key curatorial and publishing positions across the world, and that I now sometimes have the privilege to work alongside. In their work, I see evidence of the thoughtful, rigorously researched, and public-facing approaches to criticism that I tried to foster in that program.

These days I am based in Amsterdam and one of my new roles is to direct an MA in Design Curating & Writing at the Design Academy Eindhoven. Here, I am particularly excited about the ways in which we are developing a new kind of visual critical language that includes creating video essays, collages, information visualizations, and live interactive dashboards that fully engage with the themes and data sets available to us as 21st century design critics and curators.
I find myself murmuring Alice in Wonderland's phrase, "curiouser and curiouser." It’s a great position from which to begin one’s investigations of why and how the world works.

From AIGA medalist Karin Fong: With which fictional character do you most identify? Why?

I love this question, but find it quite hard to answer honestly. I identify most with complex and fatally flawed female characters such as Clarissa Dalloway, Emma Bovary, and Anna Karenina, but I think the psychiatrist’s chair might be a better setting than this public forum for that discussion! So, I will choose Alice in Wonderland—reflective, mostly polite (but sceptical of authority and bureaucracy), outwardly sociable but ultimately a bit lonely in her wanderings, persistent in her goals, but above all, a curious character, open to adventure. In my own explorations in the world of design, I often find myself often murmuring her little, yet generative, phrase “curiouser and curiouser.” It’s a great position from which to begin one’s investigations of why and how the world works.

Posted in: Chain Letters

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