Thursday, November 11, 2004

Living versus looking

So I've been thinking more about critical design.

In this month's issue, Metropolis magazine profiled the American contribution to the Saint-Etienne Biennale - Value Meal: Design and (over)Eating. Socially-aware design? Sure. Ironic? Maybe. Critical? Not really.

I read (and enjoy) the magazine every month, and while it avoids the blatant fetishism of, say, wallpaper*, I often enough roll my eyes at its love of surface. Now the magazine's best content, not surprisingly, can only be found in print and this issue is no exception. If the biennale entries are only pseudo-critical, then the interview with Bill Stumpf about his mid-70s research in Julia Child's kitchen fleshes out what critical design really involves.

[Aside: I'll admit I'm a bit biased because I think that Julia Child was super cool. I mean, did you know she was also a spy?! And in a country obsessed with losing weight, Child opposed stoopid diets and instead advocated smaller portions and regular exercise. Right on.]

Anyway, Stumpf explains that design school at the time hadn't covered the actual behaviour of people with products and he wanted to better understand the "relationship between tools and the people who master them." Apparently he just called Child up and asked if he could come study her kitchen, and she was thrilled that someone was "interested in the process."

Here's a (lengthy) excerpt of what he says he did and learned there:

"We spent four days at her house in Cambridge. I interviewed her. We sketched her kitchen, measured it, photographed it, and conducted an inventory of all the objects in it. So it became like a design anatomy. It was like walking into an operating room and analyzing every tool - what it was, why it was there. We would ask questions like, 'Why are your lids so far away from the stove?' And she would say, 'Well, you know, a person needs exercise. I don't like standing in one place and cooking.' So everything that I was thinking from an efficiency and design standpoint, she blew holes in it. We drew the kitchen as an exercise in understanding the complexity of the space. It included not just the main kitchen but a room for china, another one for tools, and a pantry as well ...

I was thrilled with what I saw. I found a person who had a much more comprehensive view of design than I had ever encountered ... Julia was more than a cook; she had these ideas about where to be in a space while doing other things. She had a view of cooking that was essentially social ...

After meeting her I thought, My God, what a remarkable person! She set me back on my heels on how to approach design. I didn't have the words for it at the time, but ever since then I've been dedicated to Julia's approach, which is about mastering and celebrating the arts of daily living. Unfortunately we don't have a research base in our country that studies the basic living arts, like sleeping, shopping, loving, working, cooking ...

[Design] is about living - about living versus looking. I don't understand this idea of looking your way through life ... Too much of American life is rooted in uniform rote behaviors. Julia helped knock me loose of that ... If you've ever been in a good woodworker's shop or a photographer's studio, there's a kind of rootedness in these places that is not overridden by form ... [To get beyond this as a designer] you live part of your life as the Dutch did in the seventeenth century - as an experiment ... It's not about designing objects differently but about honoring the arts of daily living in fresh ways ..."

As a social anthropologist, I take for granted what Stumpf exalts. This everyday life is exactly what ethnographers and cultural studies seek to describe, and it was with this focus that some of the best critiques of everyday life - including living and cooking - were formulated. By focussing on the mundane and the taken-for-granted, these types of research move beyond surface, and critique the social and cultural status quo. Stumpf describes this process as a shift from looking to living, and as much as I take heart in his appreciation for these perspectives in design contexts, I suspect that the potential contribution of critical ethnography and cultural studies remains underestimated. And ultimately, I believe it is people, not design, who suffer for that.

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