2. a single person for a small group

Colin Chapman, Lotus 7 (1957/1972)

In the previous class, we examined the universe made out of people who work for themselves.

Speaking of  a single person (designer) toward a small group and having as reference the horizon of the contemporary world in the production of physical artifacts, we have to spend few paragraphs writing about the world of auctions and limited series (applied to design). In design field it is a recent phenomenon, coming out with great resonance and media coverage (anyhow shattered by the great crisis of 2009).

The “limited series for auctions” model breaks the classic modernist paradigm (the designer is the gentleman who designs products for large industry which will then produce, communicate and market those products for the mass). The designer is no longer some kind of Dieter Rams (who worked for Braun for more than thirty years shaping industrial design as we know it). Neither is Giulio Natta synthesizing polypropylene plastic, opening the way to the world (filled with all kind of plastic objects) as we know it.

Dieter Rams, Braun products

To design is no longer related to understand how to vulcanize rubber and how to transform it into mass-production (Charles Goodyear, 1839), or to follow the experiments of Charles and Ray Eames with fiberglass and its uses for household equipment (1950 approx).

Charles and Ray Eames, Lounge Chair

According to this new paradigm (design is made for auctions), the designer is the gentleman who produces (usually independently), an unique pieces or a limited edition of few pieces for a public carefully selected (usually very rich). The place where the designer meets this public are international auctions and top-level exhibitions and art fairs.

If you have read any design magazine in recent years, it is a world you should know well. Hella Jongerius, Kram/Weisshaar, legions of former students of the Design Academy Eindhoven (blinded by dreams of fame) running in the footsteps of Maarten Baas and other supposed masters. The fact that this model has been finally crashed in 2009 global disaster, it is in itself a nice side effect of the crisis.

Maarten Baas, recent works (from Milan Furniture Fair 2008)

The cause of this crash are obvious and not particularly significant in terms of theoretical speculation. More interesting for us to go to check if there are possible analogies with similar mechanisms in different periods and places.

In absolute terms, the ideal type of individual who works for a small group is the “specialized craftsman” (not to be confused with the “generalistic craftsman”).

A typical example of a “generalistic craftsman” is for instance an Italian baker (he sells his bread to a small group of persons determined by geographical proximity). At the opposite, a fine example of the “specialized craftsman” is for instance Eugenio Marinella. Mr Marinella in 1914 decides to rent twenty squared meters in the Riviera di Chiaia (Naples) to set up his business related to the production and sale of fancy shirts and ties. In this extent, the specialist craftsman is a gentleman who produces top end goods for a very limited group of clients.

Neckties from E. Marinella ltd

The wannabe famous-designer, just graduated from the Royal College of Art in London (or any other similar institution) generally misses the correlation between the mechanism of the “one for few family” and its time-line. If you want to work within the “one for few” paradigm you need time-lines incredibly long. Putin and Tony Blair fight for a fanciful Marinella necktie after almost one hundred years after the start of the Marinella ltd. If Don Eugenio would have set out to become worldwide famous in few months (as the young ambitious designer generally desires), it would have been a disaster.

The mechanism upon which the individual starts to work for a small group, later expanding its field of operations (reaching a broader audience) is plenty of famous examples. Colin Chapman who set up the Lotus car business, Isamu Noguchi, who engineered the first Japanese paper lantern with electricity, John Maeda developing Design by Numbers… …they all work in the same exact way.

Isamu Noguchi, Akari Lamp

Worth to mention is this curious fact that this is the same system used by the person who lives in a shanty town willing to build a proper home for himself and his family.

The child who builds a toy in the favela is contiguous to his father who builds the house for the whole family (they work with similar design principles, materials and methods). What is is radically different is the “how”. The child works for himself, his father works for his family. The second character (the father) has to include in the overall design equation the concept of “other”: he has to negotiate his own idea of need and desire with the ideas of other people.

If we were to analyze those artists who work for a narrow niche of people (the finest example is the artist who decides to look far ahead, trading an immediate success for a broader recognition over the following decades), one of the most relevant examples to look at is Marcel Duchamp, or – if you prefer literature to visual arts – James Joyce.

Marcel Duchamp, “Fountain”, 1917

By the way, James Joyce and Marcel Duchamp are the two key players of the team called “Modern culture of the Twentieth Century.” The Beatles are the third (with Andy Warhol and Luis Bunuel on the bench, having Stanley Kubrick and Jackson Pollock in the stand).

Stanley Kubrick, “Clockwork Orange”, 1971

Finally, before to move on, a last thought on this issue. In the past, several relevant ventures did start using this operational mode (individual for the small group). This mechanism now seems gone. Is this because of the typical process of compression and distortion of the variable “time” of our times (think for example to “Big Brother” TV format, converting everyone in a celebrity in few hours) or is there more?

Droog (Tejo Remy), Milk Bottle / Chandelier

Name and things useful + important (to be remembered for the exam):

Marcel Duchamp

Charles & Ray Eames

Isamu Noguchi

Andy Warhol

Dieter Rams

Lotus 7

Hella Jongerius / Droog

John Maeda

Marten Baas


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