James Ludwig is the director of design for Steelcase. In a relatively obtuse, verbose, and postmodern presentation at GEL, he talked about approaching products as objects, the history of space, and how form doesn’t always need to follow function. What follows is a partial transcript of his comments:
For the last 17-18 years, I’ve been pursuing something about the meaning of things and the context of things, the meaning of space. My idea is really about meeting an object and how an object can be. That extended body — objects do have a life of its own — makes it important as a designer to remain true to that object.
Why do some things seem banal and some things seem compelling? One idea really is that an object can’t remain neutral. The neutrality of an object is synonymous with the banality of an object. Objects gain sense when viewed through a cultural lens. What is meaningful? Dislocating the sense of the familiar, you can get something that disturbs your sense of what you think it is.
The idea of the compelling object and what those experiences mean really drive the work. It’s about disturbing the sense of familiarity. It’s about mining the aspects of object natures and challenging the idea of the hyperreal. We need to deal head on with reality. Perception and our cultural institutions actually drive meaning into these things.
Building in Berlin, it’s next to impossible not to encounter some important sense of history. A building can serve as a witness to highlight what went on there. We recognize ourselves in the physical world we live in. Space should express that. Objects really drive those experiences.
Those programs need to be authentic and real. We need to challenge those metaphors. We talk about technologies inventing their own tragedies. Architecture is at a point of engagement to mediate these points of engagements.
Rituals are also important. And shapes are driven by the inherent nature of things. It’s not a pure functionalism, but you need to give form to the function. These systems themselves need to find their own language, be they a build up of forms or necessary forms themselves.
At Steelcase, we don’t just make desks and chairs. We came to the common idea of transforming the idea of the work experience. Rather than being driven by pure task, something more subtle and meaningful can be communicated in those spaces. Is there a way to achieve clarity there?
Pure functionalism doesn’t drive these things. These autonomies of the objects are formal responses themselves. We always objectify our objects. Why do we do that? We assign a whole sense of otherness to space. What determines beauty? A flower is a beautiful thing, but spray it with a can of primer, and it becomes a different thing.
We desire objects to be something else, to be meaningful. Illusions give the world of objects a romance of itself. What’s next? Now is a positive time, but the model of modernism that’s brought us to this point is simply not sustainable. Playing it safe can cause a lot of damage. We have to find things that help us find the edge.