Monday, September 5, 2011

design and kitsch

great machine, silly design
Don’t get me wrong, South Miami’s new parking meters are great. They take credit cards and cash, and the system allows you to pay by phone. They even have photovoltaic panels which, presumably, generate electricity. So why do these cool new machines have such silly designs?

It wasn’t that long ago that television manufacturers mercifully stopped making sets that looked like pieces of wood furniture. The design disciplines have often suffered from a tendency to shy away from the formal potential offered by new technologies, materials and functions, and instead draped objects in the kitschy garb of the familiar and cliché. Nostalgia, provoked by an anxious fear of the present, is a powerful inertial force weighing on the design arts.

Industrial design is particularly prone to syrupy exercises in retrograde and superficial confectionery, despite the principled efforts of so many designers. At the turn of the last century, German architect Peter Behrens distinguished himself as an industrial designer in part by crafting objects that clearly reflected their utilitarian functions. He promoted this ethic through the Deutscher Werkbund, the organization of manufacturers and designers he helped found, which in turn inspired the creating of the Bauhaus school under Walter Gropius. From its origins as a discipline, industrial design – like architecture – has been driven by an ethic of honestly expressing the function and construction of the object.

Why, then, do we still indulge in kitsch? Why should a solar powered, credit-card-reading parking meter look like its 80-year-old coin-operated antecedent?

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