Debating the Design Depression: Austerity vs Extravagance

Sure, the economy’s on life support, and shelter magazines have been hung out to dry, but design is not dead yet.


Sure, the economy’s on life support, and shelter magazines have been hung out to dry, but design is not dead yet. The tallest skyscraper on the planet is rocketing into the stratosphere over Dubai, and $600 plastic chairs are waiting to be snapped up at the Milan furniture fair. But is there something wrong with that?


Should we move towards the aesthetic austerity that comes with increased economic responsibility, or can we still encourage the unfettered, platinum-kissed extravagance of boom times? It’s among the most heated debates in design circles, and this week figures from each end of the spectrum–Frank Gehry, King of Titanium-Tufted Architectural Excess (and designer of at least one of those $500 chairs), and Cameron Sinclair, Advocate for Architecture’s Relevance–faced off on public radio. Before going to the tape, let’s rewind a few weeks for some background.


In January, my fellow FC design blogger Michael Cannell blew open this can of worms with his The New York Times piece “Design Loves a Depression” in which he argued that “the design world could stand to come down a notch or two,” noting that designers like Charles and Ray Eames blossomed while working within the the material and economic constraints of recessionary times. It wasn’t but a day until Murray Moss, proprietor of the design store-cum-gallery Moss lashed back with his piece “Design Hates a Depression” where he said that designers don’t need frugal times to excel, and designers like Fernando and Humberto Campana should be celebrated for moving design far beyond function by producing objects like their $8,910 Corallo Chair. This would be a great place to note that Moss has since closed his much-heralded Melrose boutique in L.A. and also moved his administrative offices into one retail floor of his New York store, proving that design not only hates a depression, but in Moss’ case, could be causing some level of depression as well.


Over on her The New York Times blog this month, former Dwell editor-in-chief and current Sunset editor-at-large Allison Arieff attempted to bookend these arguments with the slightly more proactive “Designing Through a Depression.” She hints that designers should take this time to examine the more elemental needs of their consumers and how they might make more of an impact socially. Arieff calls out the Strida folding bike made for commuters as a good example of design in the new economy. This would be a great place to note that the Strida 5.0 retails at $800, far beyond the bike budget for most of us needing to sustainably get from point A to B, and hardly an epitome of design that could radically change the face of alternative transportation.


Based on those three pieces, it seems like the design world might be a teensy bit out of touch. But the doozy in the design/depression debate came when architect Cameron Sinclair, founder of Architecture for Humanity, which celebrates a decade of service this month, slammed everything but socially-responsible architecture in his piece for the Huffington Post, “The Architect’s Dilemma.” For Sinclair, the design AFH supports is the only viable design in these dire times, and all those starchitect-designed skyscrapers–anything that doesn’t align with AFH’s goals to create smart, sustainable, frugally-designed structures for those in need–is labeled as “architecture of excess.” Sinclair sounds almost giddy about those projects’ motionless cranes. “This constant craving to create jewels of desire in the urban fabric left the general public wondering what on earth we do. Now, with the global economy in tailspin, these exercises in object making have come to a crashing halt. For many of us, we couldn’t be more thankful.”


In a response posted quickly afterward, Frances Anderton, LA editor of Dwell and host of the public radio show DnA: Design and Architecture (disclosure: I’m a production assistant for the show), said the argument was irrelevant: “There is more than enough room for architecture that
inspires awe and wonder, yes, with its excess, and for architecture
that modestly serves human needs.” For the corporations, institutions and individuals that have the money, and want
to create these experiences for their audiences, shouldn’t they
still be able to make their grand design gestures? After all, as Anderton points out: “Without an architecture of
excess, we wouldn’t have Versailles, the Taj Mahal, the Eiffel Tower,
the Sydney Opera House, Bilbao, and many other monuments to mankind’s capacity for egomaniacal yet wondrous feats of imagination.” (Sinclair posted a rebuttal last Monday where he repeatedly spells Anderton’s name wrong, among other things…HuffPo, we know you’re not paying him, can you at least give the piece a copyedit?)


But what’s interesting about Sinclair’s position is the introduction of the word “ethics” to the whole design vs. downturn argument. He talks about a panel he was scheduled to appear on with Zaha Hadid on April 9 at the Barbican in London, describing what he hoped to be a “a sort of Ali vs. Foreman fight” between him and Hadid about the responsibility of architects and designers. Hadid–a notorious no-show–stood him up, sending a minion in her liege, and the other architects in attendance took the opportunity to slam her work as well as her morals; Sinclair even said “When I heard… [Hadid] would be a part of the debate, I was quite shocked about that. It’s like asking Robert Mugabe if he’d like to speak about human rights.” Yikes! All these good vs. evil, boxing-bout metaphors seems to me like Sinclair wants to equate Hadid’s beautiful blobularity (a concept for an arts center in Abu Dhabi is shown here) to something like designing cigarette advertising.


Yesterday, Anderton gathered both Sinclair and Frank Gehry on DnA: Design and Architecture to settle the score (perhaps Hadid is simply too unreliable to book). But while Sinclair gave a great overview of AFH’s program and impressive network of 40,000-and-counting architects, Gehry unapologetically gave what is perhaps the most earnest commentary of the entire debate. Gehry claims
that this sudden turn toward modesty is simply a trendy movement among young architects who haven’t yet found their voices. He even calls green design “fetishistic,” saying that
sustainability has gotten so precious that bad architects are hiding behind their LEED certifications to gain leverage with clients (Gehry said he learned energy efficiency from studying teepees).


While Gehry’s point is certainly something to consider, I would say that there’s not only room for low and high, accessible and impossible, frugal and outrageous, but a widespread embrace of both. A shift has occurred, and our enthusiasm for the many, many well-designed water-transporting devices for Africa is the same (if not
more than) for the handful of zany skyscrapers like the cool, punched-out facade of Rem Koolhaas’ CCTV
. That’s thanks to all the makers, companies, organizations and institutions who have tirelessly evangelized the value of good design in our culture. And the same amount of credit can be given to Sinclair’s gritty, hands-on solution to affordable housing, or Gehry’s phenomenal transformation of the tiny industrial city of Bilbao, or Moss’ witty wares placed preciously under glass, warning us “do not touch.”

But is it indeed immoral to design something overly large, overly decadent, overly expensive in these dark times? Should Hadid be publicly tried for her design crimes? Should the auto designers with sleek yet oil-dependent cars on their drawing boards be damned to design hell? Frank Gehry for wanting his fantastical Atlantic Yards to become a reality? Moss for pushing something like Hella Jongerius’ Polder Sofa ($10,615)? The whole of Milan this week for perpetuating such a concept? And where do we possibly draw the line?


Are we really all supposed to retreat to our no-impact
scrap-metal housing, tinker with our solutions for ending global
poverty, and keep saving those radical design concepts until the stock market tells us it’s okay to let them see the light of day? Or should we design breathtaking monuments that acknowledge our advances in technology in the hopes that we might inspire ourselves out of this mess? And who will be the judge? Cameron Sinclair? Frank Gehry? You? Designers, clients, citizens: Let us know your thoughts in the comments.


About the author

Alissa is a design writer for publications like Fast Company, GOOD and Dwell who can most often be found in Los Angeles. She likes to walk, ride the bus, and eat gelato


#FCFestival returns to NYC this September! Get your tickets today!