Farewell to design


People still talk about design. Unfortunately. Enough: forests groan, and we have no way of redeeming the rivers of ink or the millions of volts that have been poured into attempts at justifying life support for this accident in the history of art, this historical trip-up arranged by the industry and by Gropius in the regular development of artisanal production (an art-isan, a person who frequents or inhabits the arts, in Italian is an art-igiano – just like a March-igiano is someone who lives in the Marche region. And perhaps it’s worth mentioning here the contrast with art-ist, the tour-ist of art who follows but does not frequent or inhabit art, who does not pay rent. There is an important difference between those who have their ass – or ano in Italian – on the line and those who watch and visit fairs, as well-urbanised – but not yet inhumed – bourgeois).

Let’s not waste a chance at progress: let’s say yes to euthanasia, to the “good death” of design that left us before it could write its living will. So, some kind of design has existed. But why, and what it was are issues the designing mass is far from understanding, or even just perceiving. At least we can all agree that “problem solving” and “form following function” (or even just needs) are widely surpassed definitions: not due to cultural obsolescence, but because there are no real problems left to solve. No real problems, meaning no problems that are part of design’s very nature: because it’s dead, it has no problems. Of course, there are still objects and things we need to design. But with ironic anachronism, it has become extremely rare that they are designed by a designer (art-ist, and never art-isan). After post-modernism, all that’s left is post-mortem. Design, real design, was an adventure on the sidelines of European history, quietly resolved by the last epileptic spasm of the 20th century as it left us before its time, three quarters of the way, without a new century that could be born (and keep in mind the calendars of culture are rarely on time with the numeric appointments set by the beginning or the end of a new century).

Let’s take a short break now, to open the window and let out the stink of nostalgia that you may have thought you sensed at this point, if you were not paying attention. Let’s air out these few lines for a moment. Away with any stench of conservation. There is no 21st century because the 20th died in an accident, leaving us – if not exactly living – at least surviving between metal and glass, as every theorist of the “post-historical condition” of contemporary man has felt at various turning points in the 1900s. This is a dialectical fact, not a moral grievance. The last authentic example of design was produced in the final wave of optimism before the last hour, in the three decades between the end of the war and approximately the mid-1970s. It was the time of Fronzoni and Munari, Mari (who felt the end coming more acutely than others) and even Otl Aicher, who in his last written works, on the threshold of the 1990s, saw the future clearly. The present-future, for the brightest of them, was marked by the end of the technical and civil culture that had endowed design – at its origins and in its maturity – not of art’s structural independence (late illusion of rationalists) but of a different destiny, a different cultural mission from pure art. And Steiner: “to bridge the gap between technical culture and humanism”.

Today, in Europe, designer-serfs urbanized in Milan, London, Berlin, prostitutes of globalism with no home, no assets, no privacy, 1 pathetic imperial Anglo-American subjects, slog away unaware and numbed by the song of hard (crypto)cash (or at least by the notification sound iPhones play at every change in value: quick, sell). When they sense disturbance on the leitmotif of meaning, it’s a barely foretold nuisance, by instinct: they manifest their “disillusion” the best way they can, or turn with uncertainty to the discourse in the field, which promptly incubates them in the petty imperial politics dispensed with great generosity by American academies from their papal seats (whether domestic or colonial: the United Kingdom, the Netherlands etc.). Meanwhile, in their free time, they devote themselves to making passive-aggressive memes. As already noted in “Nothing special”, today Silvio Lorusso – who published Entreprecariat on these issues (available for free on Monoskop 2 ) and is currently working on a second piece under the title “Design and Disillusion” – catalogues all of this with resigned diligence.

We see no escape because the issue exceeds, and widely, the scale of designers’ autonomy. Warnings like “designers need to take responsibility” are sold at great profit at the bazaar frequented by activists and those who either don’t practice design anymore (48: dead man talking, according to the traditional interpretation of dreams in Southern Italy) or never did and instead live off of consulting, curating, design leadership chatter and preaching, but know nothing about the real world. Some recent titles: “What Designers Can Learn from Indigenous Communities Fighting Climate Change”, “If We Want Design to Be a Tool for Liberation, We’ll Need More than Good Intentions”, and many others along the same lines. Design critic Alice Rawsthorn informs us by parroting Helmut Schmid (who had completely different intentions with his Gestaltung ist Haltung) that “design is an attitude” and notably, if you read her book to find out what attitude, it is one that mistakes design for political activism. 3 In eschatologies such as these, if designers cannot be the saviours of global society on judgement day, they will at least be the whipping boys to blame for every flaw in society itself, the economy, and everything that lies outside of their actual range of action; and they better not show up in public without a whip for self-flagellation.

Cultural and civil conscience, but for an edifying design. That’s what’s missing. There is no building without certainty about what defines the raison d’être of a cultural category, without knowing why we are necessaryNever mere politics, with all due respect to praying critics, but always and only a fact that derives its necessity from the core of history and humankind. On its own two feet, it will then walk around the polis, becoming also political, just like every other significant fact. And may that suffice for our funeral oration.

design award contest
  1. 1

    According to WEF likely reality by 2030. (weforum.org)

  2. 2

    Silvio Lorusso: “Entreprecariat”. Krisis Publishing, 2018. (monoskop.org)

  3. 3

    Alice Rawsthorn: “Design as an Attitude”. JRP / Ringier, 2018.