Though only the few penetrate the screen that habits of thought and conduct form in their time, it is good for all of us to pause sometimes, to think, wonder and maybe worry; to ask “where are we now?”
Concerned with form and with the shape of objects surrounding us—that is, with design—we will have to look at the things we have made. With the evidence of our work before us, we cannot escape its verdict. Today it tells us of separateness, of segregation and fragmentation, if I interpret rightly. For here we find two distinct points of departure: the scientific and technological, and the artistic. Too often these approaches arrive at separate results instead of at a single, all-inclusive form that embodies the whole of our needs: the need for the functioning of a thing and the need for an appearance that responds to our sense of form.
This complete form is not the mixture of functional form with decoration, ornament or an extravagant shape; it is the coalition of form answering practical needs and form answering aesthetic needs. Yet wherever we look today we are surrounded by objects which answer one or the other of these demands and only rarely both. If we believe that the visual influences us we must conclude that we are continually adding to disunity instead of to wholeness, that we are passing on the disunity which brought our objects about.
Wholeness is not a Utopian dream. It is something that we once possessed and now seem largely to have lost, or to say it less pessimistically, seem to have lost were it not for our inner sense of direction which still reminds us that something is wrong here because we know of something that is right.
An ancient Greek vase, though unsuited to any use today, still fills us with awe. We accept it as a manifestation of completeness, of true perfection. A bucket, fulfilling today somewhat the same purpose and functionally far superior to the ancient vessel, embarrasses us and we would blush were our cultural standards to be judged by it. We sense its incompleteness. It is true that some of our technical products today, our chemical glass or china, for instance, or some of the work of engineering, exhibit, in addition to—or by reason of—their clearly defined function, a rare purity of form; they are beautiful. But of the many things that make up our equipment today, hardly any are pure in form though perhaps sufficiently useful. On the other hand, those of our objects which are more concerned with the artistic, the products of our crafts, often are found lacking technologically and are often, if at all, only in part representative of our time.
Though fundamentally, people seem to change very little in the course of centuries, we of today are obliged to approach this work of designing very differently from our predecessors. If we realize that designing is more than merely giving a final outer appearance to articles of use, our problem becomes obvious. The craftsman, the designer of old, usually did not find his raw material ready made, waiting to be put to use by him; he had to prepare it himself. Nor did he follow a prescribed course of handling his material, but often himself was the inventor of working methods. At the same time he was the artist, free to use his material to his end in whatever way he would feel impelled to use it. The characteristics of the material, or the working procedure may have intrigued him, or the use his product was meant to be put to, or any other stimulus or their combination, that may excite an artist. Picasso writes: “The artist is a receptacle for emotions, regardless of whether they spring from heaven, from earth, from a scrap of paper, from a passing face, or from a spider’s web.”
In our modern world this all-comprising work of the craftsman is broken up into separate functions. The task of supplying the raw material is largely in the hands of science. Science not only supplies us with new processes of treating the product of nature as we have known them, but, changing the structure of materials, creates new compounds. The properties of known materials can be transformed, giving them new qualities. New materials have been brought to us, often characterized by their amazing pliability, their lack of rigidity. Today, the task of determining the working processes is in the hands of technologists and engineers; the execution of the work is in the hands of workmen, each one of them responsible only for a segment of the work. The planning of the shape of the thing to be? Here we have reached the crucial point.
We may think of “design” as the form we give to things after consideration of the varied and many claims from which that form evolves. There are the claims made by the purpose of the object as to choice of working material; further claims in regard to treatment that the chosen materials make and claims which develop with procedure of work. We must also regard as cogent, those considerations that come up with marketing, both financial and psychological, that is, those dealing with an imaginary or future public. Trends are important considerations whether in regard to function or appearance, including the trends that come into view and those that should be brought about. Obligations arise with exerting influence by the very act of adding more objects to this already complicated world. Finally, if we regard the culmination, the subtle effects of those intangible qualities that lie in proportion, in color, in surface treatment, in size, in the relationship of all factors together which constitute form—if all of this enters into what we consider “design,” then the problems of designing today, I think, become apparent.
The craftsman held together in his work all these varied aspects of forming. He was the coordinator of all the forces affecting his product. He had the material in hand, not only figuratively, but actually, and it was his actual experience of wood, of fibre, of metal, that told him about his material. Its strength and its weakness directed him. His tools, too, were in his hands and they led the way, circumscribing the range of action. His output answered first of all the demand of his own community, a public known to him through direct contact, and its response directed him—approving, suggesting, disapproving. His production was on a scale that allowed for changes and, if it proved unsuccessful, financial risk could be kept under control. His independence as the sole in command, his not being tied to any outlined routine of production, allowed for formative speculation and imaginative variation from piece to piece and thus for improvement. (This chance for progress from one piece to the other is important to the conscientious worker.) Above all, the craftsman was free to follow the promptings of material, of color, line, texture; to pursue a thoughtful forecast of function, a cleverly conceived construction, to wherever it would lead him. The results were objects embodying the many forces that took part in their making; some so finely blended that this whole became art, others, less successfully, the fertile soil for art.
Today we have a different scene. The many considerations that go into this entity called form are, of course, the same. But the miraculous event that is changed from addition to sum—the fusion of parts into one whole—is indeed a rare event. No one organizer is any longer at work. A staff of specialists, sectional professionals, has taken the craftsman’s place. (With expanding knowledge goes limitation in range.) The product of contributions from scientist, engineer, financier, market-analyst, production-manager, sales-manager, workman, artist, is the addition of these many factors; to form from the parts a whole takes a spirit of great cooperation. Too often though, the parts compete, each seeking to predominate and, subsequently we have not wholeness but fragmentation. A cathedral, of course, was also not one man’s work; but a common belief guided all efforts and acted as coordinator where today we seem largely lacking in an over-all purpose.
Division of work is not the only aspect of specialization. Specialization means the loss of direct, actual, experience beyond the field of specialty and there, substitutes information for experience. But information means intellectualization and intellectualization—one-sidedness, incompleteness. Alfred North Whitehead comes to my aid here when he says: “Effective knowledge is professionalized knowledge, supported by a restricted acquaintance with useful subjects subservient to it.”
“This situation has its dangers. It produces minds in a groove. Each profession makes progress, but it is progress in its own groove. Now to be mentally in a groove is to live in contemplating a given set of abstractions. The groove prevents straying across country, and the abstraction abstracts from something to which no further attention is paid. But there is no groove of abstractions which is adequate for the comprehension of human life. Thus in the modern world the celibacy of the medieval learned class has been replaced by a celibacy of the intellect which is divorced from the concrete contemplation of the complete facts. Of course, no one is merely a mathematician, or merely a lawyer. People have lives outside their professions or their businesses. But the point is the restraint of serious thought within a groove. The remainder of life is treated superficially, within the imperfect categories of thought derived from one profession.
Designing has become more and more an intellectual performance, the organization of the constituent parts into a coalition, parts whose function is comprehended but can no longer be immediately experienced. Designing today is indirect forming. It deals no longer directly with the medium but vicariously: graphically and verbally.
To restore to the designer the experience of direct experience of a medium, is, I think, the task today. Here is, as I see it, a justification for crafts today. For it means taking, for instance, the working material into the hand, learning by working it of its obedience and its resistance, its potency and its weakness, its charm and dullness. The material itself is full of suggestions for its use if we approach it unaggressively, receptively. It is a source of unending stimulation and advises us in most unexpected manner.
Design is often regarded as the form imposed on the material by the designer. But if we, as designers, cooperate with the material, treat it democratically, you might say, we will reach a less subjective solution of this problem of form and therefore a more inclusive and permanent one. The less we, as designers, exhibit in our work our personal traits, our likes and dislikes, our peculiarities and idiosyncrasies, in short, our individuality, the more balanced the form we arrive at will be. It is better that the material speaks than that we speak ourselves. The design that shouts “I am a product of Mr. X” is a bad design. As consumers, we are not interested in Mr. X but in his product, which we want to be our servant and not his personal ambassador. Now, if we sit at our desk designing, we cannot avoid exhibiting ourselves for we are excluding the material as our coworker, as the directive force in our planning.
The good designer is the anonymous designer, so I believe, the one who does not stand in the way of the material; who sends his products on their way to a useful life without an ambitious appearance. A useful object should perform its duty without much ado. The tablecloth that calls “Here I am, look at me,” is invading the privacy of the consumer. The curtains that cry “We are beautiful, your attention please,” but whisper “though not very practical, we will need much of your time to keep us in shape,” are badly designed. The unknown designer or designers of our sheets or of our light bulbs performed their task well. Their products are complete in their unpretentious form.
The more we avoid standing in the way of the material and in the way of tools and machines, the better chance there is that our work will not be dated, will not bear the stamp of too limited a period of time and be old-fashioned some day instead of antique. The imprint of a time is unavoidable. It will occur without our purposely fashioning it. And it will outlast fashions only if it embodies lasting, together with transitory, qualities.
Not only the materials themselves which we come to know in a craft, are our teachers. The tools, or the more mechanized tools, our machines, are our guides, too. We learn from them of the interaction of material and its use, how a material can change its character when used in a certain construction and how in turn the construction is affected by the material; how we can support the characteristics of material or suppress them, depending on the form of construction we use. In architecture this may mean the difference of roman and gothic style, in weaving the same difference on a minute scale, the difference of satin and taffeta—the same material in different construction. Important, too, is the realization that with the increased perfection of a tool in regard to any one function, its range of use grows more limited. Thus we find that for a hand-weaver, for instance, the foot-power loom allows for far greater variety of work than a machine loom for “each step towards the mechanical perfection of the loom, in common with all machines, in its degree, lessens the freedom of the weaver, and his control of the design in working,” says Luther Hooper.
In regard to material and tools or machines, it may be easier to supply the direct experience of their influence on the form of the object to be, than to supply the experience of the public demand and public reaction. The buyer, who today is the interpreter of public taste, only rarely has the necessary penetrating insight or foresight for this influential task. Were the judgment of the buyer of any consideration to the production and exhibition of a work of art, for instance, the event of a Paul Klee or a Picasso would have been utterly impossible. The public has more good sense and sound judgment than is usually supposed. The buyer has an inclination to base his estimation on the expression of lower rather than on higher tastes. He also may be misled in his interpretations by the deflecting influence of advertising. If the public were given a free chance to choose a larger number of well-designed objects, it would perhaps rise above any now-expected response. The designer of today who is asked to consider this forecast of public reaction is dealing possibly with a fictitious public, a public that is known to him only by hearsay. He may be adjusting his product to the unreal public that a biased interpreter is showing him. The craftsman of old was in the fortunate position to know his public in the circle of his immediate neighbors. Even though this group may not have included all of his customers, he could check public response by direct contact with this part of his public. A tentative production by the method of craft, on a small scale, might make it possible to try out an object and gather public reaction to it before it is produced on the enormous scale of today’s mass production. Maybe it would then be possible to avoid speculation as to the acceptance of an article and have a more reliable basis for judging public response. Perhaps it would then also be possible to be bolder in our production and not necessarily conform so much to questionable standards. This may be less impractical than it seems for it might make it possible to avoid large scale financial risk. All these practical considerations, real, or fictitious, such as those in regard to a general acceptance, may act, as we have seen, as a stimulus to the designer. On the other hand, these very considerations may, at times, be frustrating to him and may impede the full play of his inventiveness, his freedom as an artist. When the practical usefulness of the object to be threatens to turn mainly into constraint, his conscience as artist may tell him to disregard it in favor of unrestricted use of color, line, texture, or whatever other form-element may be leading him on. Losing sight of the practical purpose need not necessarily be a loss, for the impractical result may turn out to be—art.