The language of things

April 15, 2009

A new book by Deyan Sudjic wrestles with the pleasures and problems of manufactured desire.

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Deyan Sudjic, the director of the UK’s Design Museum, deals in stuff. He’s responsible for curating it, promoting it, describing it, collecting it. Yet judging from his vital new book _The Language of Things_, he’s more than a little uncomfortable with aspects of his calling and even his own motivations when making a purchase.

In the first chapter he tells the story of buying yet another Mac laptop before a morning flight from Heathrow Airport. His fifth in eight years. It’s not exactly an impulse purchase, but he allows himself to be seduced, this time by the MacBook’s stealthy black rectitude rather than Apple’s citrusy earlier offerings or the laboratory white iBook. “Quiet, dignified and chaste by comparison… The keys are squares with tightly radiused corners, sunk into a tray delicately eroded from the rest of the machine.”

Yet his ardour is dampened almost immediately as he unwraps it and finds the cables are white – a failure of rightness by which all the parts should build to a harmonious whole. Passion cools to disappointment.

Sudjic, the London _Observer’s_ architecture critic and a former editor of _Domus_, is one of the finest writers about design and architecture on the planet. His books _The 100 Mile City_ (1993) and _The Edifice Complex_ (2005) are masterpieces of timing and targeting. He’s expert at describing the most elusive qualities of an object, be it a cheap pocket calculator or the companionable clunk of a luxury car door closing.

Here he has in his sights the soft sell of the designed object – of manufactured desire:
“When I bought my first laptop, in the Apple store in New York in 2003, I really believed that we were going to grow old together,” he confesses.

Today, design’s serial seduction means that we are awash with things – a world drowning in objects. Sudjic notes the publication in 1932 of advertising theorist Earnest Elmo Calkins’s _Consumer Engineering: A New Technique for Prosperity_. The book advocated that a consumption-driven way out of the Great Depression was to persuade people to use up goods we once simply used. Laptops discarded like three-quarters empty toothpaste tubes. “Apple has made it happen,” writes Sudjic, “just at the moment that the world is beginning to understand that there are limits to its natural resources.”

A camera or telephone once designed and built to last a lifetime is now shed easily into a slurry of “designer kettles, hotels, mineral water, pasta, toothbrushes and all the other useless paraphernalia that laps around the world”.

The book, essentially an essay, is divided into sections covering fashion, art, luxury and others spheres of production and consumption, but it looks first at how design manipulates in order to continuously feed the beast. We inhabit an age where technology means that most designers are really the aesthetic and emotional sculptors of enclosure and carapaces for undifferentiated electronics rather than creative modellers of moving parts and connections (there is a profound ode to the Anglepoise lamp included here).

An important jumping off point is Sudjic’s questioning of John Berger’s 1972 Ways of Seeing assumption that it is publicity not the object that creates desire: “Objects are far from being as innocent as Berger suggested, and that is what makes them too interesting to ignore.”

The force that is modern fashion comes under especially refreshing scrutiny with Sudjic arguing its primacy in design: “The fashion industry is now shaping almost all the others… Fashion is the most developed form of built-in obsolescence, the driving force behind cultural change.”

Whether that means fashion can no longer be dismissed by architects and designers as essentially frivolous is not settled – can something be both frivolous and powerful? Possibly.
As Sudjic notes, the less utility an object has, the more it is likely to be highly valued – art especially so. Which brings him on to Marc Newson’s Lockheed Lounge, the prototype of which sold for silly money at auction.

He describes the Lounge as the product of Newson’s “surf-shack sunny Australian sensibility”. It is about the only moment in the essay where Sudjic loses his sure touch, because whatever the fibreglass genesis of its manufacture, the Lounge’s form has much more in common with, say, Nigel Coates’ NATO-era baroque, Jules Verne nuttiness or the retro-future romanticism of the European steampunk movement than anything discernibly Australian.

S**udjic uses it as an illustration of the growth of design art (which he calls gallery design) and the position that designers now find themselves in – the absolute antithesis of the democratic principle of good design for everyone that, in theory, underpinned modernism.

This is a minor quibble – very minor – because The Language of Things has insights in every paragraph. It is accessible and written with precision spattered with acid wit. The book is made even more of a pleasure by being more warm and personal in its writing than Sudjic’s earlier work where he can come across as cool and detached. He achieves this without wishy washy de Botton-like subjectivity.

More frustrating is what looks like a conscious decision not to gather the threads of his arguments together into a sewn-up conclusion.

Although his nausea at our collective greed shines through (“We have cupboards full of sheets; we have recently discovered an obsessive interest in the term ‘thread count’.”) this smart red book is neither polemic nor manifesto. He does not take a ‘design should do this or fight against that’ position. He also reminds us that design remains a pleasure in itself.

Perhaps then Sudjic has taken a lesson from King Canute. Who, contrary to popular belief, set his throne in front of the rising tide not to try and command the sea, but to demonstrate to his court the folly of thinking a man could do so.

Sudjic confines himself to taking the measure of this lapping tide, explaining the forces pulling it ever higher over the land and letting us draw our own lessons about the likelihood of us drowning.

His penultimate paragraph states: “We live in a time when our relationship with our possessions is undergoing a radical transformation.” This is an observation rather than a conclusion. Few critics though, have observed as cogently and effectively as Sudjic does here.

h2. Review by

Robert Bevan
Allen Lane (2008) $39.95

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