Critical points

The finished product has always been the focus of design. It seems a straightforward process: client, brief, design and, at the end, a product at the show, on the shelf, in the home. Both art and architecture have gone through their conceptual phases, during which the value, or at least the finality of the finished object, was questioned and in which the process took precedent over the presentation.

The radical art of the 1960s, from Joseph Beuys’ shamanistic proto-environmentalism to Constant Nieuwenhuys’ and Archigram’s comic-book sci-fi reinvention of the city, posed new, big questions, not about the art work or the building but about the way we live, our relationship to nature, about humanity and the future. They were provocative, occasionally humorous, sometimes insane yet their influence permeates every corner of contemporary practice.

Design, so umbilically connected to the vicissitudes of fashion, production and consumption has, perhaps surprisingly, had few such radical moments. The closest it came was a brief explosion of radical Italian design around the student protests of 1968. That sparkle fizzled out into the excesses of postmodernism and since then not a lot.

Until recently. The emergence a few years ago of what has become known as “critical design” promises perhaps the most profound reinterpretation of the potential of the discipline in a century.

Critical design emerged as an idea about a decade ago and was named by Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby as they attempted to use design to address aesthetics in what they called “a rapidly dematerialising, ubiquitous and intelligent environment”. The remarkable products they developed at the beginning included the Faraday Chair (which is in the Victoria and Albert Museum’s collection), a kind of sideboard that acts as a shield from the incessant communication with which we live as electronics begin to take over. The Faraday Chair becomes a refuge, a place to dream, like a child’s den constructed from chairs and blankets.

“We’re interested in what happens when you decouple design from the marketplace,” says Dunne. “There is no obligation to be popular in critical design; instead you can work on things that make people think. For this we create scenarios around new technologies and try to ask: ‘Are these things to strive for or are they nightmare scenarios?’.”

Dunne and Raby are designing for what they call “neglected psychological needs”. “We wanted to zoom in on phobias and fears,” Dunne continues. “Some of these fears may be irrational – the fear of abduction by aliens, for example – but let’s not judge them. Instead we want to address them, to address broader emotional needs rather than concentrating on the purely practical.” To illustrate there is the unsettling Huggable Mushroom Cloud, a cuddly object designed to address a fear of nuclear annihilation through an intimate desensitisation therapy.

Is there a danger, though, of addressing these experiments to an intellectual elite, so that they become the playthings of curators? “These things do feed back into business,” Dunne says. “Researchers are working with scientists and with big companies. At the Royal College of Art (in London, where Dunn teaches) we are working with Microsoft and Intel to look at new ways of thinking about new applications. Intel was looking at the future of money, at new rituals of commerce. Scientists don’t see any problem with critical design, we are just challenging assumptions with a critical frame of mind.”

Dunne and Raby’s innovative and influential teaching at the RCA has spread their ideas far and wide and Jurgen Bey, director of Amsterdam’s Sandberg Institute, which offers masters programmes in fine and applied arts and design, is similarly proselytising the benefits of critical design. “Its character,” he says, “is not critical in a bad sense but in a good sense. It is about how systems work, asking ‘how can you be actively involved in society through design?’.” Bey sees a new ethic emerging. “This idea of property, of ownership seems to be reaching its ceiling,” he says, “and we need to put more energy into sharing, into public space.”

Bey is working on the problems that surround the car. “In the 1950s people used to have picnics by the side of the new roads,” he says. “They set up proper blankets, ate with proper cutlery from ceramic plates and they turned themselves not away from the road but towards it: they watched the new cars. Perhaps, if we slowed the traffic down a little, could we not do that? Roads are so expensive to build that to make them a little more beautiful would hardly cost any more.”

If the thrust of critical design is the process, the rethinking of accepted ways of living, that does not mean that products are not emerging, rather that they become something more akin to journalistic “think pieces”. “Usually,” Bey says, “the designer takes responsibility for the piece, the object, but not for its growth beyond that point.” His practice, Studio Makkink & Bey, creates items almost as a by-product of the rethinking process. A recent project attempting to address the future of workspace resulted in a range of possible future-furniture archetypes including decorated crates inspired by the studio’s own industrial housing, pieces that are packed up and unpacked as the offices grows or contracts, as users’ needs change. Each piece becomes an ongoing essay in possibilities.

Barcelona and Berlin-based Martí Guixé, best known for his witty store interiors for shoe company Camper, goes further than many others in referring to himself as “an ex-designer”, one now more interested in society or food than in products. He explains that a designer’s obligation is not only to the final design but to the system of consumption to which it will ultimately belong.

Ilse Crawford, designer and founding head of the department of man and wellbeing at Design Academy Eindhoven in the Netherlands, concurs: “Critical design is less about the thing but asks ‘what are the important questions?’. Design is a three-dimensional version of philos­ophy and asking the right questions is part of the process.” She cites students on her course who are “researching how the skin and the atmosphere may not be separate, how they might act together; another who is looking at how certain plants can ­air-condition the space around you – projects which look at how design can make you more human.” I was invited to Eindhoven last year as an external examiner and one piece cited by Crawford in particular (by student Roos Kuipers), took this message absolutely to heart. In an extraordinarily theatrical presentation, Kuipers got a friend to lie on what was in effect a stretcher, subtly and beautifully carved to accommodate the body, which was then wrapped in a series of ­veil-like shrouds. The delicate placing of the shrouds on a faux-dead body represented a memory of throwing a handful of dirt into an open grave or of the placing of a rose or a stone – a final act of farewell but one intimately connected with the body. It was a heartbreakingly lyrical response to a funeral industry based on standardised boxes and ornate historicising coffins and asked all the right questions of humanity.

“The final show at Eindhoven,” Crawford says, “is a question mark.” And it is the question mark that will be displayed this year in Milan as the design academy sets up its stand – co-ordinated and designed by Crawford – in which students will display their relentlessly questioning pieces alongside the chairs and sofas of the Salone Internazionale del Mobile.

In many ways, critical design overlaps its close cousin, narrative design, in which products attempt not just to respond to a functional brief but to tell a story, to become part of a bigger cultural picture. Narrative design, in turn, is intimately related to, often inseparable from, the emergence of design art, which sees the context of the object change from the every­day to the gallery. Yet, ironically, critical design could hardly be further from design art: its social agenda and its refusal to be tied to the finality of a finished product seem to be everything the market (with its preoccupation with the limited edition art-object) is afraid of.

Yet one gallery has surprisingly taken critical design on board. Z33 in Hasselt, Belgium, was founded by Jan Boelen and, in embracing the wide-ranging ambition of critical design, has become a pivotal forum for ideas and action. “Things always happen in art earlier than they do in design, like they have in conceptual art,” Boelen says. “But a work of art is not just a thing of beauty, it is also an object for discussion or debate and critical design appropriates this idea. It is not about a formal thing but about an attitude towards everyday life, the things we do, the things we feel.”

How, I wonder, can you show something as intangible and intellectual as that in gallery conditions? “These are very conceptual works. Much of the time you can’t understand them, as they are so far ahead that you need a lot of information. That is why it is important to show the process, the way the projects develop,” Boelen says. Z33 recently launched a show that concentrates on Design by Performance. “It is about what happens before the object,” Boelen explains, “about how the concept is arrived at. It is a new definition of design that asks questions. Critical design is also the most sustainable way, not concentrating on just producing new things but on creating awareness of the issues surrounding them.”

The word “sustainability”, although it has become the great cliché of the age, is something that critical design can, and does, address. The idea itself is a critique of the endless cycle of production and consumption, of planned obsolescence and fashion but it is one in which a broader cultural picture is encouraged to emerge.

Design is a relatively young profession, only really in its second century, yet it has proved remarkably static. Industrial and product designers see themselves as problem solvers: there is a brief, a process and ultimately an answer. Critical design in effect problematises the questions – it is the opposite of the easy solution and the answer might end up as another question. As we become less and less certain of the idea that there are concrete answers to any given problem, it is the questions that will remain. And it might well be designers who are posing them.

Edwin Heathcote is the FT’s architecture critic

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