Three weeks ago I watched a movie, The International, with Clive Owen and Naomi Watts. It's a boys' flick about bankers, terrorists and ex-Stassi agents. Besides the glorious violence at the Guggenheim, what caught my eye was the movie's focus on design. To be specific, moviemakers used design to make a plot point: the world of the hyper-rich and hyper-powerful was depicted through the settings that involved high quality design and architecture.
While that's not a novelty, in our current economic state it is telling. While critics took note of the movie's timing and the casting of bankers as the world's new villains, the connection to design is never discussed.
Far removed from its origins in craft, design in the modern era has made a case for itself as the epitome of high culture. In the last decade especially, design of luxury furniture, cars and buildings became a symbol of success and more—a symbol of cultural superiority.
Modern design has come a long way from the early Bauhaus, which espoused industrial craft for the masses, to its current role as being a symbol of cultural refinement and elite society. Along the way, leading designers themselves became cultural icons and self-made brands. To cement their status, they learned to satisfy their clientele by providing the newly-rich with the trappings of cultural excellence.
Someone with a freshly-made fortune may buy a Rolls-Royce to convey that he has a fat wallet. The savvier rich know that buying an Aston Martin means more: that you not only have money, but you are sophisticated in your understanding of cars and design, and just might be as slick as James-Bond. In the same vein, a stodgy old luxury brand like Swarovski suddenly became a bon ton among the design elite.
On a policy and politics level, luxury design made it far easier to commission a fancy new museum than to cultivate a diverse urban richness that would nurture artists like Picasso or Warhol. And if you are a rising global power like China, seeking international recognition, you throw a big Olympic party and spend hundreds of millions on brand-name architecture for the 2008 Olympic games. Similar to the death of modern architecture, which was linked by Charles Jencks to the 1972 demolition of the Pruitt-Igoe urban housing project in St. Louis, the burning down of Rem Koolhaas' Mandarin Oriental Hotel beside his CCTV Tower in Beijing should be seen as the end of an era of design excess.
While designers of mass-market consumer goods have always had to answer questions about their role in a consumption-driven culture, luxury designers and starchitects never had to answer similarly tough questions. So here they are: In the movie, was luxury design the mean of providing the likes of The International's assassin banker with the appearance of cultural excellence? Was design providing, at a top price, a veneer of approval and acceptance for a widespread culture of greed? Was design "progress" in the 90s and 00s a mere decadent act geared to pander to the jet-set and provide a means of self-promotion to the creators?
Case in point: over 10 years ago I found myself in a nice, small and enlightening design store in Amsterdam. It showed many works of Droog, a Dutch design group dedicated (then) to its own "ready-made" design experiments. Few weeks ago they opened a store in New York's SoHo. Among the many objects featured is the Droog classic "Chest of Drawers" by Tejo Remy. However, the latest edition has been enhanced with a new fillip—a drawer containing a gold gun, a ruby ring, a pearl necklace, and a line of cocaine. The price? $142,000... A nice road was traveled from the tiny Amsterdam store in the early 90s to the luxury mall that is now Soho. It's a road many designers took or wish to have taken. A road paved by design for luxury and greed.
Gadi Amit is the president of NewDealDesign LLC, a strategic design studio in San Francisco. Founded in 2000, NDD has worked with such clients as Better Place, Sling Media, Palm, Dell, Microsoft, and Fujitsu, among others, and has won more than 70 design awards. Amit is passionate about creating design that is both socially responsible and generates real world success.