The Home Front: American Design Now, Interview with Volume Gallery
Volume Gallery (VG): How would you define American design right now? Furthermore, what themes or prevailing styles do you see emerging?
Christopher K. Ho (CKH): Hermés, the French luxury company, recently announced an initiative called “Petit h” involving in-house artisans collaborating with fine artists to create unique objects out of detritus—excess material, cast offs—from the making of the company’s mainline products. Even though this example is not specifically American, I point to it because it encapsulates several leitmotifs in design. First, on the creative side, the trend towards inviting visual artists to oversee limited editions; this is in keeping with the increasingly coterminous fields of art and design, and also with the evolution of the artist into a service provider of sorts. Second, in terms of fabrication, the embrace of low-waste production. Finally, in the realm of consumption, the valorization of the offbeat or, in popular parlance, the “authentic.”
VG: Has the global nature of the design community had an affect on American design?
CKH: “Global” is a twentieth-century term, laden with political implications, from corporate multi-nationals (on the right) to multiculturalism (on the left). A twenty-first-century replacement might be “sustainable,” which goes beyond the political, economic and social. As the art critic Jonathan T.D. Neil recently noted, “sustainable” heralds a shift away from space (a global community of designers) towards time (an interest in multi-generational solutions). What this shift means for American design has yet to be realized (much less identified), but I believe that in retrospect, it will constitute our era’s signal contribution and characteristic.
VG: What strengths are you witnessing in American design? Conversely, what if any, are some of the shortcomings?
CKH: American design excels at providing everyday comfort. In the post-war period, this meant the rise of middle class standards of living (and indeed the ascension of the middle class itself). The US Interstate System, televisions in every home, and semi-detached two-car garages are but some residuals. Today, American companies lead in specialized gear: skis, camping supplies, technical clothing. If there is a shortcoming, it is that with increasingly sophisticated supply chains and quick turnover elsewhere, American design becomes distracted with playing logistical catch up (a Sisyphean task given lower wages, larger populations, and more willing labor overseas). The best designers remain committed to addressing ambitious comfort-based problems: how to create personal envelopes of controllable light, or to shield entire coasts from inclement weather; how to conduct electricity wirelessly, or to implement self-cleaning surfaces in all public spaces.
VG: Please discuss some of the differences you see between post-war American designers and contemporary American designers?
CKH: If post-war American design mastered high-volume production, I believe that today, emphasis is on low-waste production. The two clearly relate, but with key differences: the former is motivated by economic efficiency, while the latter (one hopes) by a sense of social and environmental responsibility. The former tends towards low monetary, high environmental impact, whereas the latter towards high monetary, low environmental impact.
VG: What is the future of American design?
CKH: Recently, design schools—formerly the enclave of specialized groups—have entered the popular consciousness, through media mentions, increased enrollment, programs for community engagement, and well-connected faculty and administrators. At its direst, American design will become assimilated into dominant culture and/or instrumentalized: turned into a marketing tool for corporations, an extra-curricular activity for youth, a problem-solving consultancy for hire. At best, design’s unique and often mutable pedagogy and methodology—a potent concoction of analysis, research, imagination, collaboration, and technique—will fundamentally alter what a younger generation considers visible, audible, palatable, tangible, thinkable, and doable—in sum, possible.