Design-fantasy and design-vanity

15 May 2009

This is a nice bookshelf. Doesn’t it look nice, with its 9 books and its trendy little lamp and preposterously cute little yellow fruit bowl with only perfectly green pears in it?

I’d buy that bookshelf. I’d buy it and take it home, and with this picture in my mind I’d look forward to how nice and uncluttered my space would look once the shelf is set up in my apartment. And then I’d get it home, and lovingly arrange all my stuff in it, and be completely disappointed.

Why? Because I don’t have 9 books, I have 200. I have stacks of magazines I like to keep, and photos of friends and family, and I have random things I like that are not trendy lamps or preposterously cute fruit bowls, but that I like to look at nonetheless. And like most people, I don’t buy 10 pieces of the same kind of fruit all at once.

I know this is a photo from a magazine (Dwell), and that the goal is to sell bookshelves. And for this purpose, the styling in this photo is clearly effective. But the copy alongside the photo suggests that this bookshelf is designed for the way people really use bookshelves, with accommodations for taller and shorter books in different kinds of piles. If that’s really the case, then the promise of this shelf is to make an ordinary pile of crap look orderly and beautiful, which would be a remarkable feat and would merit a lot of magazine space and attention. The photo does nothing to affirm the verbal claim, however, nor does it do anything to educate the user on how they might arrange their stuff to make it look more aesthetically pleasing. If anything, this photo tells us that this is not a functional piece of furniture, but rather a very large decorative element. Like the closet ads that show perfectly organized systems of entirely blue clothes, or pristine kitchens that are gorgeous if you have a full-time staff on hand to wipe the smudges off the stainless steel every hour, these are design fantasies, completely removed from real people and real life.

Designers love beauty. It’s a goal, stated or implicit, of most designers to do work that makes the world more beautiful. But sometimes we fall so in love with the beauty of our own work that we put on blinders to the context in which it will live. We fabricate circumstances to make the work seem beautiful, focusing on how it will look in showrooms and photos, not how it will live in apartments and homes. These exercises flatter our vanity, but they are mostly self-delusion. If we were serious about making the world a more beautiful place, we’d start designing a bookshelf by bringing in a truckload of normal people’s stuff. We’d seek to make the furniture recede and the beauty of the things come forward, or design something that puts the furniture in real harmony with the contents. And once we’d designed this, we’d want to show the achievement with the ugliest mess of stuff we could find. Because if it were truly beautiful, it would shine through whatever we throw at it, and we’d have nothing to hide.