Yearbook Dutch Design 05
November 2005

Sensitive Modernism

by Max Bruinsma

Fabrica: Visions of Hope, 2001

Vision is a blind affair. We envision, dream, imagine, pray with our eyes closed. This may seem unrealistic, shutting ourselves off from eye-contact with the world in which our vision should eventually take shape, but it is in fact quite practical. In order to imagine something that is not there and project it onto what is, we need to start with making reality as virtual as our dreams. We say ‘what if’, and in this ‘if’ the whole world as it is vanishes to make place for how it should be, or could be. Of course, this virtual world of the imagination looks rather familiar. It is built from what we know and see when we look around us with eager eyes. But when we think of changing something, even a small detail, we close our eyes and imagine.

Vision is also a rather egocentric thing. For most people, it is hard to cross the gap between ‘I’ and ‘the other’. Obviously we know that underneath our differences we’re all equal, but to really experience that, from their point of view, ‘the other’ is ‘I’ as well, is a tough act to follow. This means we are inclined to project ourselves onto others. And although we know that this may not be very accurate, we have no choice; if there is anything that binds us, it is incorporated in me. I measure you with what I know about myself. I am the dimension with which I gauge the world.

An important difference between artists and designers is that the first are inclined to take the ideas about vision and projection outlined above as absolutes, while the latter use them comparatively. Artists can afford to insert something into reality which stays virtual, which remains a proposition. Designers can’t. Their job is to both have the vision and produce it as practical reality. The Belgian artist Panamarenko and American engineer Arthur E. Raymond both designed beautiful aircrafts. The difference between the two is that we accept the artist’s planes as pure imagination, while we demand that Raymond’s DC3 Dakota stays airborne.

There is another interesting difference between the two: although Panamarenko’s models of imaginary aircraft are praised to be ‘archetypes of man’s desire to fly’, they are all quite diverse. On the other hand, for most of us Dakota’s typically streamlined form represents the ultimate image of a plane. In all its diverse manifestations, Panamarenko’s work remains what it is: a symbolic representation of a desire. The designer needs to fulfil the desire. If he succeeds, his design may grow to become a symbol as well: of achievement, of a problem solved perfectly. The DC3 (the refined form of DC1 and 2, designed and produced between 1933 and 1935) is such a product. For decades it represented the ‘nec plus ultra’ of aircraft design, and its form still is an icon.

Although he is less well known than Raymond Loewy — this iconic industrial designer from the 1950s —, Arthur Raymond is in my view an exemplary modernist designer-engineer. He is the design-team leader with the vision, but not the single ‘author’ of the product. He worked for, with and through others. His team engineered an aircraft that was both state-of-the-art in technological terms and comfortably reliable. And they produced an exterior which became an icon, a symbolic image for flying in general. This is the gist of modernism: imagine something that did not exist before, and design it as if it had always been waiting around the corner to be realized. As if it was inescapable, manifest. The cantilever chair, the ‘anglepoise’ lamp, the ‘free-plan’ house, the Dakota — things that look like they are not just the best solution, but the only sensible one. The universal answer to a specific problem.

Modernism’s universalism has been severely criticised by post-modern thinkers and historians. And not without reason; when a design methodology becomes an ideology, as was the case with the avant-gardes of the early 20th century and their successor, International Style modernism after WW2, it looses its sense for comparison, this realisation that ‘I’ and ‘the others’ are not necessarily the same. In this respect, modernist design shows its roots in the artistic movements it was born from. It puts the designer/artist centre stage. Still, as a methodology, modernism has its lasting merits. Its argumentational approach, its reliance on research and development, its insistence on constructional and productional clarity and economic viability, its values of transparency and balance, its poetics of pure forms and proportions, all this still amounts to a viable way of arriving at a design. The industry still to a large degree follows these values, although they are constantly being reinterpreted.

testosterone gnomes
If you look at the Airbus A380, the new giant plane seating over 500 passengers which flew for the first time a couple of months ago, you will see a marked breach with the aesthetics of modernism. It is ugly; its proportions are compromised. It looks like a giant gnome. That is probably exactly what it is: a mega-structure with the smallest achievable dimensions. Paired with the need for highest achievable performance you get what it looks like: testosterone machinery. A body builder’s caricature of the lean engine we have come to see as the airplane’s natural form. Still, this design is modernist in every engineering aspect: minimal means to maximum effect. The ultimate in industrial production logistics. So why do I say it’s a breach with modernism?

My summary would be: it’s not designed as ‘the’ airplane, it’s designed as ‘an’ airplane. Its projected life-cycle has been a major factor in its design from the first sketch. It accepts from the start that it will be obsolete in a few decades from now, and that in that short life span it will have to earn back its investment. In no way it boasts that it is the ultimate answer to carrying 500 people through the air over large distances. It is _an_ answer. This is essentially a post-modern approach: there is no such thing as a universal answer to a question. The best we can do is to combine a given set of variables and arrive at a viable proposition. The answer is context driven, not an attempt at attaining eternal truth. 

Truth, you may remember, was the magnetic north to early modernists. Their compasses were calibrated to Truth. Never mind that this ‘Truth’ was as disputable in rational terms as are, for instance, the revelations of faith, a true believer would see in every well conceived modernist design an incontestable proof of concept. Modernism is Platonic in that it closely connects the good, the true and the beautiful. It incorporates a closed aesthetic system. 

modernism’s legacy
What I see as a common mistake in the public reception of postmodernism is that it extends its criticism of the universal claims of modernism as an ideology to the personal position of individual actors in a discourse. By this I mean that although it may be perfectly defendable to disqualify Truth as a universal principle, it can be as valuable to adhere to an individual concept of truth as gauging point. That is, after all, what we are, by nature and by nurture, inclined to do: believe in certain basic principles as being true — for us. And of course we project these onto ‘the other’, whether they agree or not. We look at the world through our own eyes — we have no other. 

I was asked to comment on whether modernism still had any meaning for today’s design. I think I gave half of the answer above. The other half is concerned less with ideology or methodology than with history and sensibility. Modernism’s legacy for design is the idea that a product can be thought of as ‘A problem solved. Permanently.’ Even if we cannot believe in the ‘permanent’ aspect anymore and even if we have come to resist the very idea of being able to solve anything sub specie aeternitatis we, the heirs to this legacy, are still steeped in a tradition which addresses fundamentals before turning to the superficial aspects of design. Or at least we would be, if we were aware of where we are coming from. Postmodernism has opened our eyes (again) to the fact that ‘I’ and ‘I’ are not necessarily ‘we’ and that when we dream about designing a better world (or a better chair, for that matter) we should realize that we mostly do so with our eyes shut. But opening them does not mean that we should forget what we saw when we looked inward. This detached thinking about fundamentals is, I believe, the lasting legacy of modernism. 

the human factor
This year, the Dutch Design For All Award went to the 'Ambient Experience for Healthcare' by Philips Medical Design. It consists of a lighting and projection program to soften the hardcore hospital atmosphere around their PET scanner. The ‘scannee’ can choose a projection, a decor, a colour scheme, that distracts them from the grim reality of their visit — that the scan is there to detect potentially lethal defects in their body. The scanner itself has been awarded a Rotterdam Design Prize nomination the 1990s for similar reasons, so one can safely say that Philips cares for more than the technological workings of its medical equipment. I think both the machine and the recently awarded environment are examples of ‘imagining with eyes wide open’. They are attempts to combine technological performance with human factors design in a new way. 

‘Human factors’ are formerly know as ergonomics, and used to deal with measurable aspects of the human body in order to arrive at a sensible mean — an exemplary modernist discipline. In this case, however, the design takes up the challenge to cope with such highly emotional and therefore hard to measure or generalize aspects as anxiety, insecurity, verfremdung, which befall anyone who has to go through a machine like the PET scan. Philips’ virtual environment allows the ‘patient’ a notion of ‘being there’. You may say it’s frivolous to give someone a marginal influence over the digital decor of their surroundings, while a huge machine is scrutinizing every cell of their body, but I believe Philips when they would argue that even this marginal acknowledgement of a person’s emotional existence is of great value in the dehumanizing milieu of today’s medical examination rooms.

For me, the PET scan and it’s digitally manipulable surroundings represent a happy marriage between modernism and its critique. Logic governs the design process of both machine and environment, and performance is paramount. But the logic of the machine is not just looking inward, not merely focusing on making form follow function in the narrow technological sense. It looks to the users of the design as participants. It tries to incorporate not just ‘the other’s’ abstract presence, but their viewpoint.

In a sense, design approaches like this represent an answer to a hitherto unanswered promise, or a neglected one, of early modernism; that design can or should empower its users. That it can provide a richer potential for the projection of individual values than by merely stating that everyone is the same (modernist universalism), or by furnishing everyone with fetish objects (post-modern individualism). Neither have achieved this: a design methodology, as Victor Papanek formulated it, “for the real world”, in which we design with open eyes and a clear look to ‘the other’. For that, it takes — indeed — modernism and sensibility.



max bruinsma