When the grid of 1,000 lampshades descended on the Oscar stage, minutes before the uncomfortable-making Best Actor appreciations (I had to mute), I thought, Yes! This is a fuggable design moment. I struggled to think of something funny to tweet about lampshades, decorators, Alec Baldwin after the show but @marklisanti beat me to it.
set design brainstorm meeting.)
Between the lampshades, the jumbo crystal curtain and the curving gold grid screen, David Rockwell’s
set managed to combine the sparkly trappings of Old Hollywood glamor with a healthy dose of new Hollywood decorating, in which everything old is made new by making it bigger (see Kelly Wearstler, Vogue
). I swear I would feel like Alice in Wonderland
in one of her houses, spooked by the giant hands, feet unable to touch the floor from any of the overstuffed 1970s chairs.
Go Fug Yourself
is my favorite blog. At lunch I try not to drop crumbs on my computer and go through a list of ten or 12, looking for something to pause upon. I have had past fixations on Design*Sponge
. I always check my employers, Architect’s Newspaper
, Design Observer, New York Magazine
. Currently I am losing interest in Remodelista
— love their taste, but does one need to look at a light gray interior every single day? Swiss Miss
has a nice mix of art and commerce, and a crisp site design I love. Still liking Vulture
, except for all the coverage of TV shows I don’t watch. And I have to check Curbed
But the Fug Girls always make me stop. It is the combination of visual and words, the feeling that whatever my reaction to the celebrity outfit in question, they will say that and more and better, with an avalanche of pop-culture references and a couple of cross-references. They have good memories. Celebrity chatter is my guilty pleasure, but the Fug Girls call the puffery to account. No, she does not look good. No, American will never love her. Yes, we can see your Botox. The acid is so refreshing. And yet we know they are still fans.
That’s what I want from my design blogs (among other things), but I can’t find it. I feel trapped in the vacuum of enthusiasm.
It is nice to be part of a supportive community, especially in a downturn. And there is a lot of beautiful work out there. But the economics and tempo of blogging mean that most design sites present us with pictures of up to ten beautiful things per day. The text is often just a tweaked press release. I am not sure what I am supposed to do with this, beyond a second’s admiration. If I happened to be looking for wallpaper, or tea towels, or a new poster, I might click through to buy, but most of it just passes unprocessed before my eyes. In most cases the beautiful things are only passing before the eyes of the blog editors, too. The proliferation of design blogs means few designers can send samples of the real thing.
Architecture, too, is commented upon as rendering, and then as architectural photography
, but only sometimes as experienced. With ten posts a day, how could you go see things? But design and architecture are supposed to solve problems. Design and architecture have a history. Design and architecture are not seen, or used, or made in a vacuum. How can we have design criticism, even design journalism, having never touched or used or experienced the design? We can’t. All we can be is enthusiastic.
I think something has to change in design and architecture blogs. The magazines that used to provide some of the content I discuss below are gone. That means no one to pay the writers, but also a loss of long-form criticism, institutional memory and expertise. As Luke Hayman has suggested
the iPad may provide an ideal platform for the digital magazine, with more photos and more room to write. I can only hope he is correct, and advertisers are attracted to a model that recombines more different kinds of design stories in one place. My suggestions fall into three rough categories: criticism, history, experience.
Be meaner. On the front page of my ideal design blog is a daily fugging of something from the world of visual culture. That’s essentially what Unhappy Hipsters
is doing for Dwell
, or more specifically, for Dwell’s
preferred mode of architectural photography
. But I can tell they are already tiring of their limited field — the captions are getting wordier, generally a sign of weariness. Or Pr*tty Sh*tty
for advertising but again, I think he might be getting tired. A rotating cast of bloggers, each tasked with a different visual field, could provide the morning hit of acid I crave. The internet creates much more opportunity for short and shallow and funny (as well as long and thought-provoking and serious). Remember the instant viral jokes about the iPad? Not to bite the hand that feeds (only in the digital sense), but sometimes this site can be a little snoozy. More criticism and shorter criticism might give it something readers had to look at every day. As I tell my students, when you are primarily writing a sweet review, it is important to add a dash of pepper. Love doesn’t mean you have to love everything.
The short format might also broaden the perception of the field of design criticism, and mess up the categories of design. Magazines have traditionally had to differentiate and categorize themselves. Now that they are all gone, I think the future lies in writing about design as it appears in life — the houses in TV shows, the architecture behind the cars, the selling of architects as personalities. I loved all the discussions of the faux-denim Olympic snowboarder outfits, which migrated from the sports pages to various design blogs
. There is a subset of (mostly male) writers and designers that seem to take special pleasure in re-inserting sports into a world typically dominated by cultural pursuits. For most people interested in design, there’s no need to segregate uniforms in the sports section and advertising on the business blogs.
There are plenty of products that it would be horrifying to review in one paragraph. Buildings, for example, once built, need to be taken seriously and treated at greater length. They aren’t just trotted out for the Oscars, and, as Paul Goldberger has said
, “Nobody tears down a building if the architecture critic doesn't like it.” There need to be more architecture and design critics given 1000 words or more to review buildings, and a platform to show their work to readers. Maybe new buildings of note could be reviewed by two or three people, an exercise I always include in my criticism classes. Maybe we need to forget about buildings and review transformed neighborhoods. This would be the long-form part of the blog, for which the daily dose of poison serves as a kind of loss leader.
It seems like there is so much to see on the internet. Hundreds of images on Flickr. Tens of new products every day. But after a while, all those things start to look the same. Most of the home design blogs have a particular sensibility which, once absorbed, can be numbing. How many multi-color letterpress alphabet posters does one need to see?
To a historian, many of the new things also start to look old. As with fashion, much of design is recycled. I had thought the web would provide a perfect opportunity for annotation. Love that Jonathan Adler cushion
? Then you will love bargello needlepoint
patterns from the 1960s. Love the new angular blonde chairs at West Elm? Check out Jens Risom
. In general, due to lack of time, or ignorance, or not caring, no one ever name checks the inspiration. The blog Nothing Is New
, which mines the archives of various institutions, promises some of this excavation, but offers more visual adjacencies than historical insight. I fear the design consumer today has knowledge only five years deep.
If you went searching online for similar work, suspecting a past connection, you’d never be able to find it. Most designers only have a few recurrent images connected to their name. I found this out when I did research on Alexander Girard and Warren Platner. There are a fair number of fan posts on Girard, but they tend to focus on his flashiest work: La Fonda del Sol
, the textiles for Herman Miller, Braniff Airlines. You would never know Girard was an architect who designed a number of houses, as well as a designer and curator of exhibitions, and a man who knew when not to use color. Warren Platner
was an even sadder case, Google Image-wise, known mostly for his wire chair series for Knoll. After my essay
about him ran on Design Observer, Apartment Therapy
stepped into the breach.
has begin a series of excerpts of new design monographs, a lovely gesture that may well cannibalize the already small market for the monograph. I wonder if our collective visual literacy might be equally well served by judicious slideshows from monographs of the past, particularly cultish, expensive ones like Ten
by Warren Platner. I wish more people could experience Rem Koolhaas’s Delirious New York
in its original picture-book form
. I wish more people could experience I.D.
magazine, as designed by Alvin Lustig in the 1950s
. Flickr provides some of this, but spottily, and at will. A nice verbal career summary, better than Platner’s dreadful Times
obituary, would also help. I don’t necessarily care where an architect went to school, I want to know why I should know him or her.
, Witold Rybczynski
often does reviews in the form of slideshows, with historical references, but they lack a pop sensibility and audience. Along with slideshows with more work of individual artists, I’d like to see more slideshows showing the evolution of a type, or a product, or an individual’s work. Could we make it harder for designers to be reduced to a single image? Maybe this sounds like telling design bloggers and readers to eat their Wheaties. It need not be all history lessons, all the time, just a judicious sprinkling of fiber. In truth, I think people would find the old eye-candy as appealing (if not more so) than the new.
Lack of experience is a big a problem on architecture blogs, where all the interested parties are mostly talking about renderings and not built works, or photographs and not visited buildings. But it is a problem for product, home, interior design blogs too. Many exist solely to publicize products. The blogger has selected the product to showcase, but in most cases, their judgment is entirely based on an image. Items like tea towels, or cards, or bedding can fairly easily be evaluated in 2D — they had to invent thread count so we wouldn’t need to feel the fabric ourselves — but there are plenty of other consumer goods that some company is always reinventing, and not always for the best.
We need Consumer Reports for design products. Not everything, but at least those fetish objects that go viral without a single touch, or lift, or test drive. There’s nothing inherently dull about this category, as recent fine examples of the genre include Nicholson Baker on the Kindle
in the New Yorker
, and Julia Turner on Penn Station
signage on Slate
. It seems significant to me that both these pieces happened in non-design publications: usability is a category that could be a bridge from the rest of the world to the design world. I am afraid that people looking for critiques of garbage cans, cellphones, wayfinding won’t find it on most design blogs. They will just find cuter cans, cells, signs. Design blogs tend to lapse male or female, toward gadgets or wallpaper. A few consumer reports might help to bridge the gender gap, since, while I am not interested in gadgets per se, I would love someone to explain why I need a smartphone.
This idea is born out of my own experience with the Jasper Morrison coffee
maker for Rowenta. For a year or so, it was everywhere: design magazines, gift guides, stores like Moss and MoMA. I was remodeling my kitchen at the time, and had this crazy idea that I would have only two things on the countertops: the most minimal coffee maker and the most minimal toaster oven. (I didn’t have a kid yet.) My husband bought me the coffee maker for Christmas, and I immediately noticed that the handle and pour spout were a light gray rather than white. Oh, I thought, Morrison has cleverly specified a different plastic so they won’t get stained with coffee like my last carafe. Alas, no. I still don’t know why the plastic is gray. But it is certainly coffee stained. It is also hard to rotate the top with one thumb in order to pour your coffee (when the carafe is piping hot, you don’t want to set it down and use two hands). When I saw the new Bodum kitchen appliances posted
— so orange, so adorable — I just thought, here we go again.
There’s something deeply ironic about the green design blogs
showing ten new things a day. New and recycled is still new. Ironic in the same way a 10,000 square foot green house is ironic.
But even the design blogs without an explicit political agenda generally have an undercurrent of unbleached cotton-locavore sentiment. Offering recipes and D.I.Y. projects gets around this problem to a certain extent, but there is still something unsettling about incessant consumerism even of handmade, locally-sourced, upcycled products. To show more things you can’t buy (like Reference Library
, more historical and/or contextual slideshows, and more creative and active assemblies of things seen would mitigate this issue. And I suspect provide more fodder for discussion, the lifeblood of the blog. When I read a comment thread that essentially says “Cute!” 40 times, I wonder why I bother.
I want to give full credit to the men and women who were there first, and established some of the most popular, provocative and adorable blogs. It is wonderful that there is a design and architecture community online. But now the launch moment is over. Some bloggers have managed to establish themselves as stand-alone brands, and some magazines have managed to create online channels that stand alone. But the design magazines that helped to popularize the original design blogs (by providing content and then providing publicity) are gone. And the bloggers themselves can no longer rely on the magazines to provide insta-criticism, research, and product testing to comment upon. That makes for less diversity and scale of discourse, and over the long run, less good writing and less history.
Am I alone in wanting something to take the place of a magazine, to bring the atomized content together, long and short, visual and wordy, historical and of-this-minute? Maybe it is a digital-only magazine, using the new platform of the iPad (but then I wouldn’t be able to read it). Maybe it is a super-blog, an all-star coagulator of content from those writers made online and those (like me) that have been driven there. I think there would be power in assembly.