An individual for an individual (wobbling solutions, part 4)

Leonardo da Vinci, “Codex Atlanticus

1. An individual for an individual (or, made for oneself)

This is the apparently simple case of the individual working for himself (or for one other person). As examples we can bring the craftsman, the tailor and the bricoleur. We find the bricoleur very fascinating: firstly because it is a relatively new character, the beloved son of the revolution in production and consumption. A special revolution that enabled everyone to get all the knowledge, materials and tools he needs to work for himself as a client. Even more, the beloved son of a 180 degrees change in thinking (compared to previous periods) the relabaled bricolage and hobbies as an acceptable and desirable activity.

Observing the individual who works for himself reminds us that every activity and object is a form of representation where the individual is facing first of all himself. Why does a bricoleur buy, say, a Beta screwdriver instead of a no-brand one? We think that he makes this choice not necessarily to impress the seller or his girlfriend (ordinarly two people fairly uninterested in his bricolage). The aim is to achieve, in his personal theatre, conneisseur status: a character who is able to discriminate and choose well even in the hobby domain.

We said that the sitution is apparently simple, because there are only one or two participants: both, though, are immersed in their cultures, both live within practices. Between the bricoleur and the designer who works for himself (let’s say for example, Le Corbusier who builds the Cabanon for himself) the differences in only in awareness, while the tools or the intensity can be quite similar. While contemporary technology enables anyone to produce new objects with CAD and laser cutters, this growing widespread availability of tools has not yet led to any kind of Renaissance, neither new forms or languages. What we get is generally a tired reproductions of existing forms in new materials, sometimes on different scales. The kind of things that Gillo Dorfles would consider as signal examples of kitsch (19).

Le Corbusier, “Cabanon”

Of course we can expand the field. We can arrange this kind of activities (doing for oneself) on a line that runs from good sense to complete insanity. Le Corbusier, as he travels in the East, keeps track of places and thoughts in a series of notebooks. This is an example of common sense, just like our grandmother who grows basil on her balcony to have an absolutely perfect pesto. Keep a diary or a notebook that is not meant to be shared with others is the best example of work of the individual for the individual. For our purposes there is an isomorphism going from the Codex Atlanticus of Leonardo da Vinci to the World War II diary of grandpa. Two individuals working for themselves, keeping track of their thoughts.

Instead, the “man who never throws anything away” (an environment artwork by the extraordinary Ilya Kabakov) certainly works for himself, but he is acting out of insanity. As a side not, Kabakov was not making anything up: his “man” is nothing more than the famous Collyer brothers turned into works of art (20).

Ilya Kabakov, “The man who never throws anything away”

A madness not unlike that of Ferdinand Cheval, a French postman who took thirty years to build his house, stone after stone. He had no knowledge of architecture, carpentry or engineering, and his house still stands. Having completed his castle of found stones, Cheval spent another eight years building his tomb. The pulsion to build form himself can also take the form of Ettore Sottsass leaving everything to spend a few years in the desert, building his “metaphors of design” (21).

Ettore Sottsass, “Metaphors

The bricoleur’s significance for design is twofold. The products of the bricoleur can be very sophisticated, and may point the way for subsequent commercial development (22). Even more interestingly, intensive DIY indicate the presence of a tension in the domain: what’s on the market, easy to acquire, is not satisfactory. The designer (or perhaps better, the sociologist) should ask why.

Ellen Lupton, “D.I.Y

19. To speak of kitsch with confidence and competence, we suggest reading: Gillo Dorfles, “Kitsch: anthology of bad taste”, Universe Books, 1969.

20. Another important subject in this family of curious characters is certainly Aby Warburg. Again we have an intelligence and sophistication bordering on passionate madness. He gave his part of the family bank to his younger brother, in exchange for an annuity to support his profound research into the history of Italian art. When he died, he left a hoard of 65,000 volumes and 80,000 photographs, the very foundation of iconography as we know it now. His incredible collection can still be visited in London, at what is now known as the Warburg Institute.

21. Introducing Ettore Sottsass and his world in a footnote is clearly impossible. Italian design (like Homer’s Iliad) is defined by the perennial conflict between Hector (Sottsass) and Achilles (Castiglioni), two men each being perfectly reasonable in his own parallel universe. Here is an explanation by Sottsass of what is design what is its purpose: “I just wanted to say that quite beyond the ‘user’s manual’, the tools and the things are the means men use to perform the ritual of life, or at least try to. If there is a reason for the existence of design, this reason – the only possible reason – is that design can give, or perhaps give back, sacredness to tools and things: that same sacredness that can take men out of deadly automatic behavior and back to ritual.” (from: “Design”, in: Domus, No. 386, January 1962.

Achille Castiglioni, Studio-Museo, Milano

21. Von Hippel’s “lead-user method” requires that, in order to design innovative products, you have to listen to a particular class of users – the users who use the product in extreme ways. Unlike traditional marketing, which is perennially in search of the standard user, the lead-user method seeks the non-standard and the advanced users: those who know the product well and who often have already developed their own solutions. For example, to imagine a new portable lamp one should not focus on the weekend hikers but rather on miners, fashion photographers and deer hunters. We suggest: Von Hippel, E. (1986). “Lead Users: A Source of Novel Product Concepts.” Management Science 32 (7): 791-805, or better yet, you can visit http://web.mit.edu/evhippel/www/books.htm (filled with books, articles, tutorials and videos on the topic).

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