Tuesday, September 8, 2015

CAN GOOD DESIGN BE CHEAP?

The Aldi brochure

The message seemed clear: ‘design’ can be cheap; paying for quality 'original' design is unnecessary.

If the replica ‘style’ of good design is so cheap, what expectation does this create for the perception of designers and their work? How does this change the way in which architects are seen? Does it? Here Aldi is advertising the Eames classic lounge chair, the icon of ‘club’ lounge chairs complete with ottoman for $349.00 AU. It is the symbol of modern luxury and comfort made possible by rational design that has researched forms, functions, manufacturing processes, materials and marketing too: all this replicated for $349.00! This is not the first copy chair to be sold at Aldi: earlier in the year, Mies’s Barcelona chair, originally considered to be the essence of sophisticated modernity, was selling at Aldi for $199.00.

Mies van der Rohe Barcelona chair

I once spoke to the local metal worker about getting a stainless steel T-piece flue connector fabricated to fit the back of the box stove heater. He quoted more than $350 just for this one small sheet metal item. His cost for just the metal pieces on these chairs would well exceed the price of the whole set for each base. What is happening in our world?

Flue assembly parts

One guesses that the 'man-in-the-street', and 'woman' too, might rationalize matters with thinking that could go along these lines: if I can purchase such a classic design, even as a replica, for this price, then the design retailers, and the designers too, are just ripping me off. I am being charged for the pomposity of ‘art.’ I will never buy any 'designer' item again, or pay the full price of anything.

Flue part more expensive than a replica Eames chair

When it comes to architects, the thinking might go like this: I already know that architects are a waste of time and money. This just proves it. One can get ‘style’ at a good price without having to put up with expensive, self-important dilettante designers. Why would one ever pay an architect the fees that are expected? I could get my swimming pool for the architect's fees. Look at the TV shows that renovate buildings so successfully, all DIY! One cannot see the difference between this work and that of elitist architects or specialist designers.

Sadly we know little of the Eames chair on offer other than image and hype. What materials is it made from? Walnut veneer ply is mentioned, and aluminium castings; but there is nothing about black leather, or any reference to quality or particular provenance. How is it made? Where? What are the details like?

The original Herman Miller chair

The Eames original had the ottoman cushion loosely fitted and matched so that it could be swapped with the seat cushion of the chair. It was a practical design solution to ordinary wear and tear. Here, in the replica, it seems that the bases of the chair and the ottoman have been matched for mass production purposes. If one looks at the original Herman Miller chair, one notices that the bases are more solid in appearance, and that the chair has five supports, while the ottoman has four. The Aldi replica shows what looks like identical stands for each item – for simple economy?

The original Eames chair and ottoman
The scale of the ottoman's base is finer than that of the larger lounge chair

“So what?” might the man-in-the-street say. “It makes no difference to me, not at this price!” This raises the other side of the problem: a certain carelessness with subtlety, the 'she'll be right' attitude, only because the price is right - cheap. “Why should I pay for something that makes no difference?” “What change does a variation in detail make?” might be the thought.

Do these mind-sets become ingrained in expectations and attitudes that reach far and wide into, perhaps: how the city might be developed; into what a home can be; into what my car and clothes might be; into what one reads; into what one eats? Is everything that touches one’s life changed by this thinking and feeling that cares nothing for anything but price – the knowing the price of everything, but the value of nothing, as Oscar Wilde said? If it is so, then we have a real problem: a lack of commitment to any ideal beyond the minimization of dollar amounts - quantity. Quality and its nuances become irrelevant. René Guénon named this era in one of his books: The Reign of Quantity.

One never wants to pay unnecessarily high, gouged prices for anything; but value can be expensive as care, attention, love, concentration, commitment and effort go into the conception and making of an object, its completion as a thing of beauty, even if ‘ordinary.’ What happens to a civilisation when matters such as these are seen as just a waste of money? Has the age where mechanization has taken command, as Sigfried Giedion titled one of his early publications, modified us so completely?

Le Corbusier's Villa Savoye

Faberge egg

Kenneth Clark, in Civilization, noted that this ‘just a waste of money’ attitude arose at the end of the British Renaissance/Baroque period as it faded into modernity. One only has to look at antiques and marvel at the workmanship: the intricacy, the thought, the effort, the detail, and the precision. Look at the stunning work of Faberge; Chippendale. Now, with the ‘everything cheap’ ambition, this complexity and quality all becomes just a waste of time and money. Why? Does this thinking change the way we live and feel?

Faberge design


Chippendale chair


Louis Sullivan's decoration

Le Corbusier's House 14-15 Weissenhof Estate

Modern architecture might have rationalized matters into a stark simplicity with theoretical and philosophical treatises, but is this ‘purity in form made by function’ alone merely a response to this carelessness with matters multifarious and subtle; a result of the concern for price alone? Is it conceptual laziness, mental meanness? Ruskin said that decoration was the core of architecture, its ‘principal part.’ If this is so, where does this leave us - just as builders, mere mechanical construction workers, as he suggested?

Ruskin's drawing

William Morris design

Louis Sullivan's decoration

Do we know how to decorate? Does it matter? Ruskin said that it did. Louis Sullivan knew how to decorate form beautifully. He forecast not only its demise, but also its rebirth. How might this renaissance arise; how can it begin? What do we have to do to decorate again? As Ruskin said, decoration needs to be ‘visible,’ ‘natural’ and ‘thoughtful.’ He was concerned with the craftsman and the attitudes he brought to his work, as William Morris was.

William Morris design

If we are ever to decorate again, we need stories, core cultural understandings, and shared ambitions to celebrate in decoration. Decoration tells stories - narratives, chronicles, anecdotes, fairy-tales, yarns, and legends. It enriches being, defines a culture and its essence. Good decoration is always more than mere ad hoc embellishment for difference. If decoration is so intertwined with a culture and its core beliefs, it seems that we will not be having any decoration for many, many years to come, given the extreme differences and conflicts in the world today.

 If we can get style and design so cheaply and effortlessly in our era as the Aldi promotion notes, does it matter that we lack a core in our culture? Anyhow, why bother with any unnecessary decoration? This would just push the price up. “No, she'll be right mate. No add-ons. Let's go fishing with a few stubbies. The ‘misses’ can pick up the chair and do the decorating if we need some. Anyhow, what difference does it really make? When’s the footy start?” could be the response.

Charles Rennie Mackintosh chairs

Indeed, that is the question we all need to ponder - what difference does it really make? - for the implications do reach deeply into all aspects of our being. What do we have to celebrate other than cheap goods? What craftsman made these? How? Do we care about flesh and blood, how it can participate in matter that can itself reverberate in other flesh and blood as feelings? What price are we really paying for our cheap design? Who cares?

Charles Rennie Mackintosh cutlery

Frank Lloyd Wright Jacobs House

It is a real dilemma. Charles Rennie Mackintosh had an ambition to design and produce quality items for everyman, affordable quality design. It still stands as an ambition for some today. Frank Lloyd Wright designed a house for a family with an income of $5.000.00. The concept of affordable quality design sounds wonderful and necessary. So why is one concerned about the cheap Eames lounge and ottoman? What's the problem?

The Eames chair in its original context, the Eames House

There is a difference in intent between designing a quality item for an everyman price, and producing a replica of a quality design for an everyday price. Integrity is changed here. The first ambition holds its integrity in place; the latter shatters it with the singular aim to produce a copy, a replica, a ‘look-alike’ as cheaply as possible, trying to be what it is not. Integrity resonates with our being that remains hollow, shallow without it; it fulfills it in a way that is difficult to identify. It embodies a feeling of being enriched and complete. The alternate ‘cheap’ experience is of having saved some money with a ‘near-enough’ copy - perhaps. There are some fine differences here, so fine that they might appear as irrelevant to anyone interested in the Aldi replica, as the differences in the bases could be to them.

William Morris design

But can good design be cheap? It is better said that it can be affordable and still maintain its integrity and provenance. The core, singular attention to price distorts ambitions and skews intents.



NOTE:
NEWS 09 September 2015
ABCTV 7.30 REPORT
Maybe the question concerning the sensitivities to nuances in our age of quantity has been answered? The expert being interviewed on the news report that the government was to bring in 12,000 selected refugees from Syria, and begin bombing the country, noted that the issue involved here “is not about relics that can be rebuilt.”
This seemed to be a comment on the demolition of the ancient structures at Palmyra by the IS. Astonishingly there appeared to be no qualms about the terrible acts that resulted in the destruction of ancient World Heritage structures. No worries: these can just be rebuilt?
Might one assume that this commentator could also hold the same attitude to the blasting of the ancient Buddhas of Bamiyan by the Taliban? Surely our era has not lost its feeling for things past, their place and provenance, their presence that can never ever be replaced let alone rebuilt? Are we really happy with a replica world, the "She'll be right mate, it's near enough" dismissive attitude to everything, especially if it's cheap? It's like the "Don't worry mate; you'll never notice it" syndrome, that great excuse of the Australian builder for shoddy work.

2 NOVEMBER 2015
see: http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2015/10/faking-provenance-misuse-of-meaning.html

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