Design, Taste, Ephemera

Design1

Kitaoji Rosanjin. Square platter with rounded edges. 1954

In preparing to exhibit things we believe represent Costa Rica well enough that we would want travelers to take some such things home with them, MOMA’s The Value of Good Design provides a valuable pause. The image above, from the MOMA show, is an example of good design of a tactile thing. As the video below shows that is what good design means in MOMA’s estimation, namely things that you want to look at as much as you want to touch or use.

Costa Rica, and its visitors, would benefit from an exhibition of things that are useful, inspiring, and/or in good taste.  Our contribution to this effort has focused on coffee, so we are inclined to think about taste in the gustatory sense, as in what flavors and aromas please. This type of pleasure is more ephemeral than something you can look at and touch over and over.

Design2.jpgAnother sense of good taste, which also has value: we do not consider it in good taste to sell things in Costa Rica that are foreign-made replicas of Costa Rican traditional arts and crafts. And that has been very much on our mind. It is a challenge we have signed on to. The MoMA exhibition inspired Nikil Saval to share a few thoughts about How “Good Design” Failed Us and they strike me as relevant to our own current challenge to be tasteful:

In 1958, the American radical sociologist C. Wright Mills was invited to address the International Design Conference, in Aspen. The lecture he gave, “Man in the Middle: The Designer,” criticized a number of its audience members for being willing dupes in the grand illusion that was consumer society. “Wants do not originate in some vague realms of the consumer’s personality,” he said. “They are formed by an elaborate apparatus of jingle and fashion, of persuasion and fraud.” In this sublime hoax, Mills argued, the designer was central. He made people “ashamed of last year’s model”; he tied “self-esteem” with the purchasing of this year’s model; and he “created a panic for status, and hence a panic of self-evaluation” that could be sated only by the “specified commodities” that he designed. This was what came to be known as “retail therapy”—but Mills suggested that, partly thanks to designers, it had become fundamental to the American economy. The result was not just a perversion of economic life, but of culture. As he put it, “The uses of culture are being shaped by men who would turn all objects and qualities, indeed human sensibility itself, into a flow of transient commodities, and these types have now gotten the designer to help them; they have gotten him to turn himself into the ultimate advertising man.”

Whether the conference organizers regretted inviting Mills is not a matter of record—toward the end of his lecture, he softened his attack by suggesting that designers could adopt the intimate, use-value virtues of craftsmen—but I was reminded of his words as I walked around “The Value of Good Design,” a small display of goods currently on show at the Museum of Modern Art. A curious bit of auto-institutional history, as well as a plug for the museum’s wallet-shredding design store, the “Good Design” show looks back at the museum’s attempt to establish canons of taste in postwar America—to play, in other words, the man in the middle between designers and consumers. As in a suburban shopping mall, the center of the exhibit is a whole car: the huggable Fiat 500, one of the most charming symbols of the Italian postwar “economic miracle.” (Unfortunately, there is no contest to win it.) Elsewhere, there is the liquid sheen of Eva Zeisel’s porcelain ware, George Nelson’s exclamatory atomic-age clock, and a Japanese-influenced bamboo-framed chair from Charlotte Perriand. To view these items is to feel immediately the induction of “wants” diagnosed by Mills. This is moma’s second show in a decade about its “Good Design” program, and it makes one wonder about both the meaning of those terms and what they are meant to do…

Read the whole essay here.

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