Monday, December 1, 2008


Author’s Note: When I started this I thought it would have more of a point, some insightful point about industrial design and the history of industrial design but I ended up just talking about myself really. But perhaps in that there is some point.

This is the seventh “history” class I’ve taken since I started college. Two world history classes, two in architectural history, one called “history of rock music”, Art History here at RISD and now, the history of industrial design. I’ve learned countless dates (432BC), I’ve read about countless movements and isms and I’ve written a bunch of essays—my coup de grace being a five page paper relating Nietzsche and architecture. And now, four and a half year after starting school, where have I gone? Where have I ended up? What have I learned? What have I gained?

I hate meeting people now, because there’s also the inevitable question—“what do you do”? What do I do? “I go to RISD”--“What do you study there?” And I say industrial design and some people get that, but often I get a “Like buildings”. And I have to say no, because industrial design is not buildings, “that’s architecture” I explain to them. But as I have studied architecture in the past I feel the need to go into the whole rant about how while I study industrial design now and how it’s not about buildings, I did study architecture which is buildings and if they want to talk about buildings I’m okay with that.

I’ve done a lot. There’s certainly a lot of people out there who have done more than me but at 22, I’ve had a lot of ”life experiences”, as they call them, and I’ve learned from them. Also, as the seven history classes may indicate, I’ve learned a lot in the non life experience way, and most of it was book learned. I’m on my third major (English—Architecture—Industrial Design) and this is the second college (SUNY Buffalo being the first) I’ve attended. And one would think that I have some greater insight about life, about where I want to be, what I want to do, but the fact of the matter is if I met myself from years ago I’d have nothing to say. No “maybe you should think about this more”, or “hey look into this”—I didn’t hear the phrase “industrial design” until spring semester my first year, I didn’t even know RISD existed until my second year.

And now being at RISD, it’s just weird sometimes. I’m glad I came here, I love Providence, LOVE Providence—this is an amazing and beautiful town. And yet, while RISD is not all I hoped for or expected (if I was hoping for or expecting anything at all), I know that I would not have found Providence without RISD, which is also weird. I sometimes wonder if it’s just all the things that came before this moment, would I feel the same way if I had come directly here pout of high school, if I had done the foundation year that most everyone else went through, if I had some better reason to come into industrial design other that it seemed like the logical major to go after architecture (however that may sound, good or bad, that is how I came to be doing industrial design, that and knowing that going back to English would just be dumb). What if this was just my second or third history class instead of my seventh.

And that’s what history is—all the moments before this one. In academics it can be just cold hard dates, movements, dead people who brought us evolution. But it is not just that. The second class of architecture history I had was more architectural theory--dates were nearly nonexistent in this class, and at the time it was going on it was a hard class, about 10-15 people were taking it for the second time. But now that it’s done and over with I can say without a doubt, it was the most memorable, and probably the greatest class I ever took, I still have the class lectures the professor recorded on my iPod.

And I feel that is part of what this larger idea of history is—being able, years later to have something to say about it, knowing how it informed now. Think of the time paradox, if one were to go back in time and kill their grandfather before one of their parents were born, thus eliminating the existence of oneself, how is one able to exist now? We are often focused on now and the future, but at some point we have to look back. This class was certainly different from the other history classes and there are a few reasons why but one that I feel is the most relevant is that we talked a lot about what was going on now. There were some “normal” history lectures. But from the first lecture where we talked about the past, we were shown things that people were doing now with it. At the very least it would’ve been nice to understand how people came to put their dead in boxes. Why? And the lecture about humanitarian design and what we can do? I felt it would’ve been nice to mention what we did. Why the world is the way it is, not just vague bullet points. In architecture I took a few urban planning classes and it was amazing and slightly sickening to see how suburbs developed and to know that as suburbs still develop, that we should’ve stopped at some point (probably in the 70s) and looked at what we had done and gone from there, but we keep going, no stops and its gotten worse.

We talk about being designers and how we can make the world a better place but I haven’t really seen anyone go back and sort through what was going on, where it was going on, why it was going, and make the connections. What made the world become something that needs to be made better? How did the 90% of “designing for the other 90%” get to be that way? Is it free trade? Is it plastic? We talk about changing the world but is there anyone out there who gets it, it’s great to be optimistic about a bad situation you don’t really know about. And one question that I really wish was at least looked at in this class, history of Industrial Design, where there is a constant mention of one material: Where the fuck did plastic come from, and how did it get so popular?

History in and of itself is an interesting idea, the moments before this one. By no means can we constantly look back, we do have to move forward at some point, but part of going forward is going forward from somewhere that we cannot change and that will be behind us forever.

Random idea that didn’t make it into the final edit but still is an interesting idea: Remember that at some point doctors endorsed cigarettes and Coke had coke in it. And now cigarettes in Canada come with pictures of a black lung on them and Coke is still highly addictive but for other reasons.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Experiemental Design

Related yet standalone thought- Experimental design is experimental. It could work. It could not work. If it does work, you try it again and again to see if you come up with the same thing. This becomes a limited production. If it keeps working (and keeps selling) eventually it can become mass produced--like penicilin.

During the many pictures, webpages and videos shown on Monday one of the projects that stood out in my mind was by the Boym partners, the disaster buildings. The idea of making well known buildings or monuments into miniatures is certainly not experimental, I have a pencil sharpener in the shape of the Golden Gate Bridge, and there’s more than enough people out there who own a miniature Eiffel Tower given to them by a friend or relative who went to Paris. However, the theme of buildings that have some disaster-- something negative—attached to them is experimental. Who would’ve thought of making and consequently owning a miniature of the Unabomber hut? Many people have bought miniatures of the WTC with the American flag plastered across them and “Never forget”, but what we are never forgetting is that they were hit by planes and collapsed. So why not have a miniature showing that, offensive to some sure, but why else would we care or even know about the Unabomber hut if not for the actions of one Ted Kaczynski.

Intrigued, I went to their website. At the top of their blog was a quote by Sal LeWitt that read-“Learn to say ‘Fuck You’ to the world once in a while”. And besides totally agreeing with this quote, I feel that this is where experimental design comes from. Experimental design isn’t necessarily making an improvement to something or even making something that we need—it’s just someone dicking around who when they’re done, present it to the world and has enough confidence to say “Yes, I’m doing this, fuck you.” Chairs aren’t experimental—they’re pretty basic, looking back to nature a tree stump or large flat rock would suffice. But how about a chair made from used gum? Disgusting, probably not done before, and strange enough its sure to draw a crowd. And what about a chair made from used gum isn’t saying “Fuck you”? Even more so if anyone can be convinced to sit in it, or even pay money for it.

The world has been discovered. We’ve become civilized. We have electricity and indoor plumbing. So now it’s just the boundaries. We have chairs but again, how about a chair made from used gum? How about a chair made out of air—you can’t see it but it’s there and with enough showmanship, enough press and the all knowing design critic being like “oh yes, this is grand, furniture made of out the thin air is what’s new and exciting” it could probably sell for hundreds or thousands (this is a subtle stab at the Frank Gehry wiggle chair—the most you’ll even spend on cardboard, for now at least)

I would like to end talking about an artist who I feel most exemplifies the idea of saying “fuck you” to the world. And that artist is Dan Flavin. I think Dan Flavin is an asshole, I never met him but through his art alone and I am confident in calling him an asshole. Dan Flavin is famous for hanging fluorescent lights on walls. Fluorescent lights. A few years ago I was at the Dia beacon with my mother, looking at Dan Flavin’s fluorescent lights hanging on a wall and my mother says to me, “I could do that.” And in my mind I was like, “yea, ya could”, but she couldn’t. She could, physically she could go out and buy some fluorescent lights and hang them on the wall and call it art, but it wouldn’t do her any good because Dan Flavin already has and the art community isn’t letting anyone else get away with it. Dan Flavin became famous because he hung fluorescent lights on a wall stepped back and asked “Is it art?”, and because no one was there to tell him differently, he said “yes, I’m doing this, fuck you.”

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Title Pending

As I drink my coffee, eat my breakfast, I’m listening to NPR. It’s Sunday morning and the program on is “Studio 360”. It had already been on for an hour or so but when I tuned in they were talking about the Coney Island Stillwell Ave. Terminal. The architect of the renovation talked about the Photovoltaic (PV) train shed glass roof of the terminal as well as solar energy in general. He talks about the energy put into building a building as well as the generally wasted space of a roof. He talks about the relationship between a building, energy and the sun and how most buildings are counteracting the sun’s energy because as the building heat up from the sun, the occupants of the building use the A/C, which is a waste to cool the building down.
The program then goes on to talk with William McDonough, architect of one of the first green roofs and author of Cradle to Cradle. One memorable things he mentions is that there’s probably 5000 times more solar energy than we’ll ever need, he also talks about the future of the changing world and the traditional idea of beautiful architecture, “How can anything be beautiful if it’s not ecologically intelligent.”
Buildings use a lot of energy--in their construction and building, in the use of them during their lifespan, and finally in their demolition. Most of the energy usage comes from the occupancy of the building, from lights, security systems, HVAC systems, and just daily use. The Coney Island Terminal services millions a year but with its PV roof, that produces 250,000 kWhs a year, enough to power 40 single family houses, its impact in the “green” world as not only a mass transit station but as a mass transit station producing such a large amount of renewable energy is amazing. While PV systems are expensive, there are state and government incentives and if we merely just applied them to roofs of huge warehouse size buildings, shopping centers, Wal-Mart, whose stores account for roughly 18,000 acres of land, larger than the island of Manhattan (at least there are no Wal-Mart’s on the island of Manhattan) the amount of energy that could be produced is huge.
I think that buildings are a huge part of a “better world”, in terms of space taken up by them, the energy they use, the way they are used (strip malls are buildings too). What if Wal-Mart had no physical stores? As mentioned before, buildings use a huge amount of energy just by themselves, even more when you add into the equation their use by people who are “too hot” or “too cold”. It always makes me sick to see a building being knocked down and even worse, when the space it formerly occupied is paved over and turned into a parking lot. Demolition zeros a building out, when a building it knocked down 100% of its energy is lost. As seen in the Coney Island Terminal renovation, buildings can be used to produce needed energy and any reuse of a building impacts the overall energy use of the world.

This is a picture from GOOD magazine showing the acreage taken up by various corporations, the biggest being Wal-Mart.

-Studio360 - you can listen to the program via one of their links on the page
-Stillwell Ave. Terminal by Kiss+Cathcart -they are very focused on green projects, their website features a lot more
-NYTimes article on Solar energy - talks about "big box" stores, Wal-Mart beign among them

Monday, November 3, 2008

Products and Meaning

The idea of “meaning” is very singular and subjective. Nearly everyone had little trinkets or other objects that are very valuable to them--“priceless”--for one reason or another--it could’ve belonged to a relative or friend who is not around anymore, the object has a specific memory attached to it, it could just be something you’ve had for so long it becomes a part of you, your character. However when other come across these objects existing in our world they cannot see or recognize the value they have to us, these objects have value only because we place it on them. Even if we were to explain the back story of the object’s meaning, it could only be partially explained because others do not have the same feelings and memories as us. The object is valuable to us, but they cannot partake in any of that value because they did not share in its experience.

Meaning is an emotional quality, it for the most part cannot be broken down in dollar signs-- a necklace from a recently deceased grandmother is of great worth, whether the necklace is actually worth something monetary is inconsequential--the necklace is meaningful because it came from someone close, someone important, someone not around anymore. Equally, even if the same necklace was worth something--possibly a lot--monetarily, it doesn’t matter to the owner of the necklace because it has meaning to that person, which is a value that cannot be quantified.

So how does this affect the world of the designer and product? Certainly no one, not even designers can design or produce memories that make things meaningful. But certain products, because of what they do, what they look like, how they feel, can produce a kind of meaning depending on the user. For example, a few years ago a product prototype called Rapex (which has since seemed to disappear off the map) was introduced. The product is a condom that is inserted into a women’s vagina that has hooks on the inside, the idea was that in areas with a huge rape problem, such as South Africa, women could wear this and if assaulted, the hooks would hook into the skin of the rapist, causing pain and in theory allowing the victim time to escape. Once hooked onto the skin it would have to be surgically removed thereby identifying the rapist. This is a product that I think means a lot. First, it is a product that was designed specifically to help a major problem, and while it has some detractors, saying that women should not adapt to rape, some don’t have that choice, and this would help at least just a little bit. Also, knowing that a product like this is out there, any would be rapist might think twice. Obviously this product means different things to men and women. Many women are thrilled at the idea of this product, they see this as a great thing, however there are probably many men who are equally not as thrilled, because this product’s outcome hurts men. And even if they would never even think about raping someone, many men I’m sure can imagine some vengeful girlfriend or someone equally as crazy playing some dirty tricks with something like this.

Sunday, October 26, 2008