El Lissitzky, “”Lenin tribune”, 1920
A small group of people working for everyone is a pattern to be found in quite different situations ranging from cutting-edge design (as well as technology) all the way to the great revolutions of the past.
The French Revolution, Lenin and the Communist party as well as the innovations made in Turkey by a small group of people led by Ataturk (or if you prefer, Ho Chi Minh and the war in Indochina/Vietnam).
A designer can easily find himself in situations where he has to work as a part of a small groups with big ambitions.
The small group is generally defined by a very strong ideology (either way political or technical or cultural) and the constant risk of “groupthink” (the risk of falling in a circular system of consensus in which different thoughts are inhibited and everyone thinks, with great satisfaction of the whole group, in the same way).
This is the dark side of the phenomenon described in the previous case. We can say that a small group is more efficient but has less antibodies against any kind of abuse.
If you work within this pattern, please be very careful not to become completely and totally self-referential. Ho Chi Min and Pol Pot had two similar agendas (to get to power in order to improve the living conditions of their country). Then of course the final outcome is radically different (with horrible consequences for the Cambodian people).
A small group of people was the driving force of the Russian Revolution. Another very small group has moved Jews around the world to build the nation of Israel. And a small group decides the global strategies of Microsoft, Google and Apple (and De Beers and Walmart, just not to limit ourself in the realm of the technology).
We do not have precise recipes to understand which group will become important and which one will remain a footnote in the history books. In retrospect, Garibaldi or Robespierre, it seems obvious that they would have not achieved success. At the opposite the Children Crusade or the Baader Meinhof terrorist group didn’t seem to have the slightest chance to achieve success. How to understand?
The Children’s Crusade, by Gustave Doré
One thing is to ask the two basic questions of every (good) revolutionary: are the masses ready to switch to Linux or to make a political revolution or to become a kibbutzim? Besides, who supports us in revolution? While Lenin and Garibaldi are on the barricades, will be there a Cavour rather than a Leo Trotsky to find the money to buy food and guns?
If we want to turn the issue in theoretical ground, we must ask ourselves what is the given (or potential) relation between the stakeholders and our project of global change. Without forgetting that the stakeholders are generally many more than we would expect.
It is for this reason that this tendency of contemporary software to become an online service (GMail for email, to write using Google Documents, OSM navigation and countless other service), is in favor of Linux operating system (in itself not so suitable for computers working within this new paradigm, but finally it’s free). When everything is working in environment existing on the Internet, the operating system becomes a small commodity such as sand or frozen orange juice: defined by technical parameters and bought at minimal cost.
The moment that the cost becomes zero, and the practices of commercial and private users are compatible with any operating system able to run BitTorrent to download pirated movies (and a web browser for everything else), Linux becomes an obvious choice, as it happens netbooks today.
Closer to us, in the design world, the mechanism of the small group of designers (heroes) ready for anything is very similar to Lenin and Trotsky theories related to the Communist Revolution (to succeed the revolution has to be exported all over the world).
Walter Gropius, Bauhaus building, Dessau, 1925
This was the spirit running the Bauhaus in Weimar and later in Dessau, the energy pushing Le Corbusier to write “Towards an architecture“, suggesting Kazimir Malevich to paint his famous “White on White”. In the art world this kind of attitude is generally classified with the label of “avant-garde”: an handful of well motivated people, generally with few means but with great enthusiasm and ambition.
Le Corbusier, “Toward an Architecture” (original title: “Vers une Architecture), 1923
Kazimir Malevich, “White on White”, 1918
Within the above-mentioned art field, surely Duchamp and the Dada group in Zurich were central to the whole XXth Century art. A whole bunch of incredible artists, architects, poets and graphic designers, active in Russia, Italy, France, Germany.
Raoul Hausmann, “ABCD”, 1924
From this perspective, rhetoric is a key element in the creative process. The Italian Futurists and the Russian Constructivists were in this extent similar to Frank Lloyd Wright who had to convince the whole world about the advantages of organic architecture compared to the rationalistic one.
“How to convince people on a mass scale” is the same ingredient you can find in architecture, design, cinema. Think to the French New Wave of the last century sixties: Truffaut and Godard appear and the movie cultural industry has to change in a radical way.
The small group trying to convince everyone about its own ideas and visions is a phenomenon easy to be found in any period and in several different places. The “avant-garde” between World War 1 and World War 2, the the Italian master of the “neorealismo” period (Roberto Rossellini, Vittorio De Sica, etc), then we can move ten years ahead and we arrive to the Utopian communities of the sixties (experiences and world later condensed by Stewart Brand in his incredible “Whole Earth Catalog“).
An image from an issue of the “Whole Earth Catalog”
In short, the “small group for all” system is one of those driving forces making the world change. Once again we have to remember that in this class we are interested about the “how”, not about the results. This means that in terms of “how”, the Bauhuas story (how to build houses and furnitures with excellent quality for the masses) is similar to the “Manhattan Project” in Los Alamos (how to build an atomic bomb in order to destroy whole cities in a second). In both cases you have a small group of people, highly motivated to reach their desired goal.
All this said, in absolute terms, it is a system where the relation between costs and benefits is particularly convenient (the relation beween cost and benefits is an obsession generally carved deep into the head of every designer). It’s no by chance this typical phenomenon of big companies buing small ones in order to remain innovative and on the edge of the market.
Mart Stam, tubular chair (prototype 1926)
Also relevant to notice is this necessity (for the small group trying to conquer the world) of having an enemy to harass. It doesn’t matter if the enemy are the Tsarist Guards (and you are the Bolshevik) or the Beaux Art formalists (and you are a student of Gropius and Itten at Bauhaus). Revolutions (of any kind) always need an enemy to fight and clear and simple objectives to reach.
Parallel to this, it is also fascinating to observe the relation between different “small groups” active in the same time/period.
If the masters of Bauhuas had devoted less time to the development of tubular chairs and greater attention to what was happening on the German political scene of the 1920’s, the final result could have been different. In this extent, the inner circle of the Bauhaus worked similarly to the inner circle of the then infant Nazi party. A bunch of people not so knowledgeable on the theory of form or color, but we very clear ideas on the mechanisms by which the “core group” becomes mass and takes power.
Joseph Albers, “Interaction of Colors”, 1963
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