Fine Design for the End of the World is an exhibition of the 3D Design Department of Cranbrook Academy of Art at the 2016 Collective Design Fair, taking place May 4-8, 2016, at Skylight Clarkson Sqare in West Soho, New York City.
This new work by graduate 3D Design students gives a voice to the hard questions that face the next generation of designers:
As social, economic and environmental uncertainties threaten our modern age, does design culture now face an existential crisis?
Will climate change deliver the ‘end of the world’?
Will the apocalypse come by human design?
Or will design somehow save the planet?
With the pressing need to rethink our culture of production and consumption, can industrialized society willingly change?
Can design still improve the future?
Is it already too late?
This collection of objects does not answer all of these questions, but instead offers a poetic response - to frame the problem and to communicate the urgency, beauty and fragility of what is at stake.
Interview with Scott Klinker, Designer-in-Residence and head of the 3D Design program at Cranbrook Academy of Art. Interview questions posed by Cranbrook student Aleksandra Pollner via email.
Aleksandra Pollner: What's the intent behind the title of this show?
Scott Klinker: Fine Design, like Fine Art, is about making unique objects, not mass-produced things. Such objects can offer a critical perspective on our world, in the same manner as art. Industrial Design, in its effort to sell mass-produced stuff and be commercially ‘friendly’, almost never poses critical questions. Now is a good time in our history to ask critical questions of design, because our global systems are in crisis. All of the positive energies that went into Modernism, like utopian dreams of ‘progress’, have now found a limit—the ugly side of global capitalism: greed, social inequality, climate change, overconsumption, overpopulation. Do we just look away and keep making shiny, happy objects while the house is burning down? A rational response to that question would probably be didactic. But with this show, we offer a poetic response.
Of course we are not ‘for’ the end of the world, which is an ironic reference. Instead we hope to point to the potential tragedy we face. It’s not about saying we’ve got the solution (precisely the kind of modernist impulse that’s now being critiqued); instead the show portrays what it feels like to face these conditions as creative young people who want to improve the world. The work can be read as a poem, a prediction, a protest or a prayer for our collective future.
AP: Who are the designers in the show?
SK: They are current students of Cranbrook’s 3D Design graduate program. Most of the students are in their 20’s and come from varied backgrounds including industrial design, architecture, craft and sculpture. The group is an international mix of Americans, Asians, Europeans, men and women.
AP: How did this project come about?
SK: The project was first posed as a question to my students. I pointed to growing societal anxiety about our uncertain future, the way people work within global systems but feel they have little control over the human values that guide these systems. So, I asked them to think about what design means in the era of climate change, for example. I asked, given current conditions, can the motivations and ambitions of design remain the same?
The conversation evolved over two semesters, as students were encouraged to critically discuss the current state of global design in relation to global crisis. From the start the conversation was focused on a poetic response to this universal problem. We asked “what forms point to this condition?,” not “how do we solve this problem?”
AP: How do the students feel about growing up in an age of environmental uncertainty?
SK: How do any of us feel? We all want to improve things, but the scale of the problem is hard to comprehend. Climate change confronts all of our ‘master narratives.’ We need a new narrative, but the historical status quo is hard to redirect for numerous political reasons.
Will it lead to tragedy? Few indications point to significant change. Should we raise children in that kind of world? These are the difficult questions that every young person faces today.
AP: Is it a designer's responsibility to 'save the world' from environmental collapse?
SK: In our case, we hope to ‘save the world’ with poetic design.
All designers hope to improve the world in some way, whether it’s through new functions, forms, processes, aesthetics, etc. Design is a positive force! We hope to make the world more ‘human.’ But current conditions call human supremacy into question, and so this moment needs absolute humility, not arrogance. And this is the paradox for design: how to reimagine a role for human creativity and invention while simultaneously recognizing their limits—and even the harm they can do.
Designers, like other kinds of citizens, can ask such questions, but it takes collective will and leadership to give healthy answers. Designers have offered many visions of a more sustainable society, but very few ideas have overcome the political status quo so far.
AP: Are we already too late?
SK: Who knows? Maybe. It’s easy to imagine that the Industrial Revolution set society on a tragic course that is irreversible. Maybe that revolution was the ‘beginning of the end’ and we are simply living through the end of the world. At some point people become victims of their own comfort, shielded from nature by more and more technology until we are completely out of touch with the realities of our environment.
AP: What kind of forms came from this discussion?
SK: The formal responses to this subject were varied. Some designers responded with ‘mythic’ images of mankind, while others responded with forms derived from data. Formal themes of ‘excess’ and ‘disintegration’ were prevalent and the overall collection has a somber mood.
AP: Does 'Fine Design' have a different responsibility than Industrial Design? Can Fine Design have a critical voice that differs from Industrial Design?
Historically, Industrial Design has served industry, and therefore has reasons to be complicit with certain lies we tell ourselves about ‘progress.’ Fine Design doesn’t have these constraints. Fine Design can look more objectively and critically at design culture to ask important questions. In fact, it may be Fine Design’s duty to ask those questions that Industrial Design can’t or won’t.
Design today also operates in the world of images in addition to the physical world of ‘stuff.’ Prototypes can circulate as ideas on the internet while never being intended for production. This exhibit, for example, is intended to provoke conversation, not sell stuff.
Of course, I don’t want to sound completely uncritical of Fine Design either. It doesn’t have the same constraints as Industrial Design but that doesn’t mean it has no constraints. When we categorize our work as Fine Design we may leave behind the demands of mass production, but we are also reliant on – and need to be reflective about – the conditions that make that possible. After all, “opting out of the market” altogether is, itself, a strategy that few can afford. We need the critical distance this enables, but we can and should be critical about that privilege at the same time.
AP: What does it mean to show this kind of work at the Collective Design Fair, which could be described as an exclusive market for design ‘rarities’?
Fine Design can suffer from the same contradictions as Fine Art. It may look critically at the world, but caters to an elite audience.
We are not blind to these problems. The work is complicit with the context of elite consumption while looking at it critically. For example, luxurious materials were sometimes used to announce the object’s rarity. I don’t see this complicit/critical quality as cynical. It adds conceptual tension to the work. In the art world, it’s not uncommon for an artwork to be critical of the art scene or the art market (think of Duchamp’s Fountain). In our case these may be ‘conflicted objects’ but simply point to the existential crisis of design as a whole: we all want to improve the world with new things, but simultaneously contribute to our problematic systems of consumption.
AP: Why should your ideas be expressed in design objects? How does this differ from, say, sculpture?
Useful things are their own medium, and they don’t need to answer to commercial goals or even everyday functions. They have their own things to say and sometimes they do this using languages that overlap with sculpture. For example a chair is ‘figural’ and has a character like a person. It expresses these ideas before needing to perform the function of a seat. A lamp can provide ‘illumination’ both functionally and metaphorically.
• Where is the line between Art and Design?
Traditionally, Design leans more toward ‘use’ and Art toward ‘metaphor.’ But it’s time to question those lines in the sand, because as our exhibit suggests, useful things become metaphor within history whether we intend it or not. In thousands of years, an archeologist will uncover the artifacts of our society. The story these objects tell may become surprising metaphors for what is, or was, ‘human.’