On Design, Culture and the Future

Inaugurale rede van Timo de Rijk bij zijn aanvaarding van de leerstoel Design, Culture and Society aan de Rijksuniversiteit Leiden en de TU Delft, gehouden op 8 mei 2014.

Mr Rector Magnificus, ladies and gentlemen,

Most of the lectures given at this conference (What Design Can Do), many museum exhibitions on design and all the design history books have in common the fact that they focus on change, renewal and improving that which exists. I say this because I am also very interested in the greater part of material culture that does not change, and I like to draw attention to the view that themes such as authenticity, nostalgia and tradition should not be regarded as a matter of course and therefore rejected or ignored.(1) Cf. T.R.A. de Rijk, On Design Culture and Unchanginess, Amsterdam 2011 (inaugural address, VU University, Amsterdam).

This lecture for the What Design Can Do conference, in this beautiful theatre, is one such form of expression of a well-thought-out and cultivated tradition. The historic décor, the cortege and beadle, and the cap and gown that are indispensably part of this, present a suggestion of authenticity and constancy.

The inaugural lecture is a good example of what Canadian sociologist Dean MacCannell, in his book The Tourist, calls ‘staged authenticity’, an activity that gives the spectator the idea that he is experiencing something real, but is also something that has been specially devised for him or her and is carried out as part of a historic continuum.(2)D. MacCannell, The Tourist. A New Theory of the Leisure Class, New York, 1976. In this case, you are the tourist and I am the academic equivalent of the native tribesman who preserves his tribe’s customs as carefully as possible for you. So I would not wish to deprive you of such a staged inaugural lecture in its most conventional form. This location, a theatre, a traditional epitome of an artificial condition that represents an intensified realism, is nothing less than a gift, with you all in front of mee and the real world directly behind me.

(un)change and the future

The desire for constancy, which is not only a psychological desire but also culturally determined, can also be seen as a survival strategy. Whether we are talking about standardised interface symbols, classic handbags or the paraphernalia of hard rock, that which has long existed and is familiar, usually functions perfectly, whereas that which is new, is in danger of not being understood. But there are also objections that undermine the importance of constancy. My lecture today is about the tendency towards change and the captivating idea of the future, that are both so deeply rooted in our culture in general and in the culture of the designer in particular. I shall attempt to show how our idea of the future has become uncertain over the past 100 years, how yesterday’s and today’s designers approach that idea and how my chair can contribute to a productive debate which is so evidently lacking in the discipline.

In the first place, culture is by nature conservative, but shared norms and values do change, although this is often a slow and sometimes almost unnoticeable process. The cultural meaning of hand-crafted objects for example, has changed independently from form and execution, and almost exclusively in relation to time and place. Over the past century, for example, craft has been: artistically innovative, luxurious and elitist, nationalistic, anti-international and regional, socialist, fascist and therefore good, fascist and therefore bad, impoverished, old-fashioned, nostalgic, regional, anti-industrial, and once again artistically innovative.

A typical characteristic of Western culture is also the tendency to embrace and implement change in various forms, and for various reasons. One of the constant values in our culture is the predilection for change. It is an apparent contradiction that modernist design is literally envisaged with a search for the eternal, archetypical form of the product, as well as radical innovation that is often inspired buy technology.

Changes in products and their design are driven by countless processes and social views. The capitalist system, for example, has a need for permanent change – think of car manufacturers catalogues, seasonal presentations of furniture and new fashion collections, some of which appear on a monthly basis. Change is also driven by ideologically motivated ideas about the makeability of the future. Permanent change is, as it were, inherent to the journey towards an unattainable utopia.

In all these cases, a vision for the future has the most appeal if it already appears to have been realised or is, in any case, presented as tangibly as possible. A small-scale study I once carried out revealed significant similarities between the immense success of catwalk shows and that of the concept car, for which American car manufacturers openly looked to the Paris fashion industry.

In Leiden, my Art History students are studying the phenomenon of the model house, which manifested itself during the greater part of the twentieth century as an ideologically inspired vision for the ideal house, as well as the ideal lifestyle. The model house seemed to bring the future within reach, and the modern lifestyle that went with it, was something that could be learned. Both were provided by a new professional: the designer.

Of course, in the case of a model house, other parties such as property developers, energy providers and technology companies also have an interest in such future scenarios, but we expect designers to know what the future will look like. The attraction of design is that of life itself, with its permanent development of plans for the future and the suggestion that the designer is the ideal person to bring about the changes. It is the claim to this role that characterises the design world, and it is the future-oriented approach with a perpetual motion of change that has penetrated deep into design practice, into design education and the practice of design history.

Things are getting better every year

Design has a centuries-long history. On balance, that history is even longer and richer than that of the visual arts. Unlike architecture or the visual arts, however, the discourse of design – and product design in particular – is hardly based on history. This is mainly because design should be future-oriented, a notion that is heavily at odds with the development of a history that can be actively utilised.

Passively utilisable history is, of course, all around us. History once functioned as a visual lucky-dip, and has now been largely replaced by Google as a permanent mood board. What remains is history as so-called history with its own constant, meaningless and deadly boring grammar of forms. In this sense, the future serves as a counterpart to history, with the designer in the here and now as the main link.

Obviously, the future is determined by the course of history, but in the case of designers, this process is usually reversed: the way in which history is written depends on how the future is presented or envisaged. And that is the only form of historiography on which the designers appear to focus: that of historical legitimization. This manifests itself, for example, in a designer’s admiration for a historical kindred spirit; one who is preferably dead and therefore not a danger. Or it is a legitimization in the form of a historical series, for example a series of products that leads automatically, as it were, to a highly specific future scenario often one that the designer himself has designed, of course.

An interesting and well-known example of this type of deterministic design for the future is the five years long series of chairs designed by the Hungarian architect-designer Marcel Breuer. In his sequence of images, presented as a Bauhaus film, in 1926, he speculates on the plot of the future as a nothing that is both desirable and inevitable. Things are getting better every year and ultimately we will be sitting on elastic pillars of air, Breuer claimed. Completely in line with the Zeitgeist philosophy that was so popular in early modern German art, the designer announces that it is not he but life that presents or even rightfully demands this natural evolution. Breuer is the implementer – or rather the chosen one – who serves as the voice of modernity and has no choice but to comply with the inevitable process of modernisation.

At the time, an apparently similar blankness also represented a very different proposition.(3)Cf. C. Wilk (ed.), Modernism 1914-1939. Designing a New World, London 2007, pp. 226-227. On the cover of the well-known booklet Der Stuhl from 1928, by the modern architects Heinz & Bodo Rasch, the blankness appears to invite all possible interpretations with the understanding that history remains absent. Only the Western sitting posture is historically determined; the place of the design is still a tabula rasa, like undeveloped land that has yet to be built on, or a naked human being who has yet to be clothed.

Give me four years time

These two images of non-existent chairs – or rather, ways of sitting – accurately summarise the ambition of heroic modernity in design. Product design as the development of history, and design that attempts to turn its back on history and denies or destroys that which is old, and constantly beginning with something new. This is the modernity that sociologist Zygmunt Bauman calls solid modernity, a modernity that permanently renews, a perpetual state of modernization, but with a fixed foundation and from a known framework.

It is modernity of order, and Bauman places the designer literally at the centre, as he writes: “The drawing board was one contraption the modernity could not exist without, and the profession of the designer, of drafter of blueprints was the best entrenched of modern vocations, one that emerged intact from all and any changes of style and fashion. Modern society had an enormous thirst for legislation, defining norms, setting standards; for beauty, goodness, truth, usefulness and happiness.”(4)Z. Bauman, K. Tester, Conversations with Zygmunt Bauman, Cambridge 2001, pp. 72-73.

Buaman is here concerned with a design practice without history, without context, and literally without a reference work. It is this solid modernity that was the basis for structuring a planned industrial society; one with a varied ideological basis.

In 1937, architect-politician Adolf Hitler promised that he needed only four years to transform Germany into a country of international standing that was economically prosperous and above all innovative in terms of military technology. The exhibition Gebt mir Vier Jahre Zeit, held in Berlin in 1937, displayed the results of the first period of the Nazi’s planned economy. With this first, extremely appealing presentation of the contours of a new Germany, Hitler seduced a large part of the German people into believing in an unknown future: Give me four years time, and you will not recognize Germany.


This solid modernity, with its desire for standardisation and planning, led to the founding of new design schools in Western Europe and the United States during the 1950s and 1960s. it was apparently evident that these design schools – such as the Eindhoven Academy for Industrial Design and Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, and the Ulm School of Design in Germany – could not be direct heirs of existing study programmes in the decorative arts. Instead, they were new schools with a new mission, namely to meet the needs of a society that was not only being reconstructed, but was also expected to undergo radical change. In the field of design education, the standard examples were the artist (on the basis of its claim to the avant-garde) and, the engineer (on the basis of the future it could systematically bring closer).

My institution, Delft University of Technology, pondered for a long time on the government’s request to set up an Industrial Design degree programme. The Board eventually decided to do this, and in 1963, two students registered for Industrial Design. Modernist designers that were employed by Delft such as founder Joost van der Grinten, Emile Truijen and Wim Crouwel regarded engineers in general – and industrial designers in particular – as the most far-reaching and systematically deployable instrument in their civilising offensive. At Delft, knowledge relating to man and design could be objectified. Technical construction and ergonomics as the most objective forms of knowledge, were at the heart of that design. But the aim was highly normative, namely a materially perfect world of comfort and efficiency. To a certain extent, the engineer was a metaphor for design, an example worthy of emulation, with planning, order and engagement as the most important symbolic ingredients.

… and what came out the other end was electric as hell

Precisely at the time when the new design schools were being founded, the first examples of a new form of modernism emerged. This new modernism was no longer production-oriented, but consumer-oriented. Zygmunt Bauman called this condition liquid modernity, and I shall explain it with an example.(5)Cf. Z. Bauman, Liquid Modernity, Cambridge 2000.

Coincidentally – or not – but in the same year 1963 that Delft was founded, the Philips company, developed the compact cassette recorder. This player-recorder would develop into an innovation that almost literally changed our view of the world, an advance that, to a certain extent, could be compared to the compact photo camera and the photo album. However, Philips had in no way foreseen that the compact cassette would be such a commercial success. The player-recorder was intended as a professional recording device for journalists and secretaries. Consumers subsequently adopted it and the meaning and function of the device changed. The enforced standardisation of cassettes was the precondition for ready acceptance on a large scale, and at the same time a precondition for complete freedom of use.

Worldwide use of the cassette recorder had far-reaching consequences. It facilitated subcultures such as punk and disco, it spread revolutionary messages in the Middle East, and it destroyed the corporate music industry in countries such as India. The portable recorder enabled consumers to record sounds from the radio; fragments of the real world. Recording songs became an individual and a shared experience. We could record the world in a sequence of our own choosing, and we could always erase it and start again. In his autobiography Life, Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards describes his love of the Philips cassette player as a device that could amplify, record, erase and play music, and, to his joy, produced a gritty, impure sound, in his words: what came out the other end was electric as hell.(6)K. Richards (with J. Fox), Life, London 2010, pp. 244-246.

What is beclouding our crystal ball?

The cassette recorder epitomises the metaphor for what Zygmunt Bauman calls liquid modernity, with its condition that had to be constantly redefined and above all: a future that apparently could not be based on order and programming. It had to be constantly reformulated and could not serve as a foundation for new situations. A cassette recorder was a piece of equipment with unforeseen functions and a new meaning, and the imperfection of the sound it produced was embraced. Clearly, this is completely at odds with everything an engineer represents, and caused Knut Yran, head of design at Philips, to lament: “What is beclouding our crystal ball?”(7)Cf. Design Signals 1965 n.p., in: T.R.A. de Rijk, Het elektrische huis, Rotterdam 1998.

For many, Bauman’s liquid modernity was still completely volatile and the future was by definition unimaginable. Designers seemed hardly able to understand or respond to the new condition, and study programmes continued to resort to the role models they had always used as examples: the artist and the engineer. The appeal of the future as a driver of continual change thus became trapped in a paradox that began to manifest itself in the 1990s when the design profession made the transition from making objects to inventing ideas for the future. The practical making of objects had always been linked to an ideological future-oriented motivation, whereas the development of ideas for the future (concepts and services, rather than products) appeared above all to be a basis for rediscovering the raison d’être of the designer. The role models of the traditional engineer and the romantic artist degenerated into unfounded choices for the design profession. The design discourse and the capacity for self-criticism were clouded by the almost automatic relationship to the methods of the arts, or an almost vernacular approach to technological subjects.

Even today, the field of design lacks a form of critical debate, such as still takes place in architecture, for example. In the Netherlands such a debate took place, during the 1990 conference How Modern is Dutch Architecture?, held in honour of Rem Koolhaas’ professorship.(8)B. Leupen, W. Deen, C. Grafe, Hoe modern is de Nederlandse architectuur?, Rotterdam 1990. The main conclusion was that the objective analytical approach, and the related language of forms had degenerated into a dull-edged classroom modernism. Almost 25 years later, this type of debate still needs to take place in the design world, so that it can reflect critically on its position and thus formulate questions for a new age and a global world.

All that is solid…

Today, we both love and hesitate to face the future, especially if this involves a revolutionary élan. Car manufacturers present concept models that later turn out to be production models whose design has been interpreted as futuristic for the past 50 years. It seems that utopian model houses have ceased to exist. At best, the future has been replaced with the wish to ‘formulate the future’, carefully and without obligation. The Prada fashion house for example doesn’t develop clothes for the future, but launches an essay competition on the theme of the future. In this unstable no-man’s land we once again welcome the romantic projections by artists with a supposed visionary talent, or trend forecasters with an over-sensitivity to changes over time. Not infrequently, applied technology has a symbolic character in their work, or personal projects are clothed only with the visual aura of experiment.

The u-turn is visible and tangible in design courses everywhere. Design schools in Australia, New Zealand and Denmark are developing a form of fantastic design anthropology.(9)See for example the work of Anne Galloway, School of Design, Wellington. The design duo Dunne & Raby are teaching their speculative design at the Royal College of Art.(10)A. Dunne, F. Raby, Speculative Everything. Design, Fiction, and Social Dreaming, Cambridge/London 2013. And my colleagues Hekkert and Van Dijk have developed the Vision in Product Design Approach.(11)P. Hekkert, M. van Dijk, Vision in Design. A Guide Book for Innovators, Amsterdam 2011. In these widely differing methods, design is advocated as the formulating of propositions for the future.

It remains difficult to determine the context within which the proposition functions, and these futures are usually defined by means of extrapolation. All things considered, extrapolation is a historical method. Knowledge of the future is thus based on how, and to what extent, the present differs from the past. The way in which the future manifests itself, including every possible unforeseen event, is proposed in a schematic and logical scenario. Another way of imagining the future is the What If-method, in which it is easier to make use of improbabilities. This approach was first explored in the military world, mainly in early nineteenth-century Prussia through the Kriegsspiel (war game) by Von Reiswitz.

The Rand Corporation later developed the approach into commercial and societal applications for the American army, as well as the petrochemical company Shell. Even today there is still intense discussion on the question of whether, and if so, how Shell actually understands the future. But the question is actually not very relevant. Shell responded more effectively than any of its competitors, for example to the energy crisis of 1973, which came as totally unexpected for many. Rand had managed to persuade the oil concern to rehearse the future, and crucial parts of the company were geared to permanent change.

In my view, this type of exercise in self-reflection is the most important contribution that the Chair of Design, Culture & Society can make to the design world. In the first place, the expertise of the Art History department in Leiden can serve as the basis for a resumed academic study of historical modernisation processes and a critical examination of the role of design and the designer in the world. The work of the department at Delft will enable Leiden, in turn, to form a much more accurate picture of the practice, discussions and ambitions in today’s world of design. There is little of essence to be discovered about the future, but both the extrapolation method and the What-If method are unthinkable without, respectively, historical knowledge and critical cultural analysis.

Timo de Rijk, 2014.

noten   [ + ]

1. Cf. T.R.A. de Rijk, On Design Culture and Unchanginess, Amsterdam 2011 (inaugural address, VU University, Amsterdam).
2. D. MacCannell, The Tourist. A New Theory of the Leisure Class, New York, 1976.
3. Cf. C. Wilk (ed.), Modernism 1914-1939. Designing a New World, London 2007, pp. 226-227.
4. Z. Bauman, K. Tester, Conversations with Zygmunt Bauman, Cambridge 2001, pp. 72-73.
5. Cf. Z. Bauman, Liquid Modernity, Cambridge 2000.
6. K. Richards (with J. Fox), Life, London 2010, pp. 244-246.
7. Cf. Design Signals 1965 n.p., in: T.R.A. de Rijk, Het elektrische huis, Rotterdam 1998.
8. B. Leupen, W. Deen, C. Grafe, Hoe modern is de Nederlandse architectuur?, Rotterdam 1990.
9. See for example the work of Anne Galloway, School of Design, Wellington.
10. A. Dunne, F. Raby, Speculative Everything. Design, Fiction, and Social Dreaming, Cambridge/London 2013.
11. P. Hekkert, M. van Dijk, Vision in Design. A Guide Book for Innovators, Amsterdam 2011.