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Alice Rawsthorn on the Next Promise of Design

As the developed world’s social and political systems crumble, new design paradigms are needed. But what should they be, who is in control and where do the Dutch stand in all of this?

By Gabrielle Kennedy / 03-12-2009

Talk in the design world is of change, even revolution, and it’s a colossal and intimidating prospect for not just the designers, but for the academies teaching them, the critics discussing them, and the public whose lives are shaped and controlled by the direction the industry takes.

That change has to occur is accepted and has moved beyond the realm of trend and fancy. The jury panel at last weekend’s Rotterdam Design Prize noted in their published comments that too many designers submitted works using the word “sustainable” for projects that showed no genuinely sustainable characteristics.

In the hours before the prize was announced, Alice Rawsthorn, one of the international jurors, addressed a full auditorium on this very subject. Titled “The Next Promise of Design”, she talked with the same sort of flare and perspicacity that have earned her a reputation for being one of the best design commentators working today. Her subjects traversed design ethics, the failure of modernism and how over-production and hyper-consumption have almost single-handedly created the environmental catastrophe that the design industry must now help to solve.

How designers react will shape the way the world looks in the future. That is a lot of power given the very un-moderated way the industry operates minus - for the most part - any sort of proper, hard-hitting criticism. The media continues to indulge design by discussing it in overly celebrated tones using an abundance of adjectives – a dangerous situation given the industry’s influence and global agenda.

According to Rawsthorn, the urgency now is defining that global agenda, and working hard to ensure that practitioners, educators, the media and the public understand it so they can democratically contribute. "Design's next promise is the same as its old promise," says Rawsthorn, "namely, to create a better world." But now that the modernist dream is dead, just how to achieve that is not yet clear.

When Rawsthorn challenged the audience to come up with the most prominent modernist iconic chair of twentieth-century design, she warned that it wasn’t from an intellectual name like Eames or Mies van der Rohe made accessible by Ikea. Instead, an image of British soccer hooligans hurling plastic Monoblock chairs across a terrace flashed up.

“More people have seen these chairs and sat upon them than any other,” she said. “They cost ten euros at any discount store … and when Saddam Hussein was arrested two were in the background … it is easy to be snobbish because they don't look nice, but they are cheap, light, stackable, easy to clean, comfortable and rain proof. All very functional benefits and the sorts of thing that modernist designers strove to achieve.”

The problem, of course, is that if they break, they cannot be repaired and plastic is not biodegradable. “The chair has all the characteristics of a modernist dream but also all the characteristics of a post-modernist’s nightmare,” says Rawsthorn. It’s a simple way to prove that design is no longer governed by the sorts of certainties that that movement was grounded in – basic Bauhaus principles of utilitarianism, rationalism and a pro-technology ethos have given way to technophohelp to create a better world have dramatically changed.

Consumers want a clear conscience and are now wanting to know more about what happens to their purchases post-usage. “Nothing is well designed if it leaves us feeling guilty about using it,” Rawsthorn says using the Apple Powerbook as an example of a genius, physics-defying design that will end up as landfill.

Rawsthorn acknowledges that most design students do not go to design school to learn how to design nappies, but points out the gDiaper, a flushable, biodegradable nappy designed in Tasmania, Australia and sold only in North America as a good example of what consumers want to hear more about. The gDiaper tackles the fact that conventional nappies are the third largest contributor to landfill in North America. “Design is now as much about eradicating things as it is about creating new things,” she says.

In fact, the only time throughout the afternoon when Rawsthorn’s jovial speech, which she peppered with references to Gossip Girl, African politics and the oft-losing English football side, turns palpably irritated is on the topic of sustainability. “I hear time and again that the best way to produce sustainable products is to make something of quality that lasts,” she says. “That is fine, but that does not excuse the failure to address our environmental responsibilities.”

One big goal for design that Rawsthorn raises is the development of a universally accepted system of measuring sustainability. Through her involvement with the World Economic Forum, she is working on a project that should result in water and carbon footprint symbols appearing on products to help consumers make informed decisions.

The iPhone, Rawsthorn points out, is an interesting approach to sustainability because it’s one gadget that can take the place of so many others. “It’s a phone, a watch, a diary, a clock, a web browser, a DVD player and a CD player, and the software is updated automatically so you don’t need a new device," she says.

The iPhone also addresses another flaw in twentieth century design in so far as it empowers us all to participate in the design process. Design for everyone, or open-source as it was originally called in the software industry, has expanded into product and fashion design. “It’s about designers delegating parts of the design process to users,” Rawsthorn says. “It’s like designing a formula that others can use.”

This time the examples were social design initiatives like a ceramic water purifier designed by Potters for Peace. Also, the way Apple has successfully democratized design by opening the Apple Store to earn royalties rather then cracking down on hackers for making iPhone applications.

Other non-profit social design outfits Rawsthorn speaks highly of are Architecture for Humanity and Project H Design, which designed a plastic roller to help people irrigate large areas of ground without having to carry heavy vessels on their backs. And despite criticism from all quarters, she also heaps priase on the One Laptop per Child initiative pointing out that ideally the plan could evolve into something that will benefit local industry rather than relying on imports.

Rawsthorn looks bemused when asked to comment on Holland’s very grim mood regarding its own position in the international design community. “I’m always surprised by how gloomy people are here,” she says. “I guess it is part of their Calvinistic way of being self-critical, which can also be very constructive. But the way I see it Holland, more then any other country I can think of, ticks all the boxes on all the characteristics required to create a good design industry. It has excellent design education, good museums, generous government grants, funding from organizations like Premsela and the Mondriaan Foundation and empathetic manufacturers like Royal Tichelaar Makkum … and I also think that the intellectually rigorous approach the Dutch have adopted in design will be more relevant in the future.”

The task for all designers then is to crack current social problems as well as environmental and humanitarian issues and to start designing for everybody, not just the richest 10% of the planet. Design and designers have to be “more fluid, more embracive and more open-minded,” says Rawsthorn, “which all makes this a thrilling time for the industry. And for all its challenges and obstacles, design has always flourished in difficult periods.”


“The Next Promise of Design” was a joint production by Stichting Designprijs Rotterdam, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen and Premsela - Dutch Platform for Design and Fashion.

Images: large and small top Alice Rawsthorn, in conversation with panellist Clemens Weisshaar, Monoblock plastic chairs, Hussein's hideout, the afternoon's moderator Gert Staal, Weisshaar, panellist Sylvian Willenz, and faces in the crowd - designer Joost Grootens, designers from Gorilla with Rawsthorn, designers Jurgen Bey and Rianne Makkink, Tim Vermeulen from Premsela, Hugues Boekraad with Gijs Bakker, and Wieki Somers. Event photography all by Fred Ernst.

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