Thursday, 4:13pm
28 June 2012

Predicting a natural look


Li Edelkoort and Lisa White<br>Co-art director: Anthon Beeke<br>Flammarion, &pound;35, US$50<br>

Ideas and insights do not always come from the places you might expect them to. Anna Pavord’s book The Tulip (Bloomsbury, £30/£8.99), is a fascinating, if repetitive, account of the history of tulip cultivation aimed at the Country Living/Country Life market. Yet the tulip story reverses many assumptions about design. Most designers are trying to eradicate faults and make better versions of things that already exist. The tulip growers, however, took faults that appeared in old or weak bulbs and attempted to replicate them in new stock, because these faults produced beautiful striped and flamed patterns.

Perhaps the design process is, after all, the pursuit of an aesthetic rather than any of the more functionalist goals claimed for it. Certainly the plant breeders who pursued the patterned tulip had the ideal (the aesthetic) long before they had the horticultural techniques (design skills) necessary to deliver the elusive blooms. When they achieved their goal, no matter how briefly, the flowers would be displayed singly in special containers and presented as objects of contemplation.

The nature of that contemplation is lost to us now, but we can imagine that for the seventeenth-century aesthete these blooms represented both the mystery of nature and the skill of man.

Today, the aesthetic is rarely claimed as a motivation in design. Design ought to look good but the aesthetic is regarded as a sort of namby-pamby category belonging to the world of consumption rather than production – more Oscar Wilde than Oscar Niemeyer. With the arrival of the virtual world, that may be changing. Design might even disappear – that is the thesis of Li Edelkoort’s magazine, Bloom. She, like Wilde, believes that first and foremost we must live our lives beautifully. Reading between the lines of this hardback – ‘inspired’ by the magazine – the designer is seen as a kind of artisan realising the ideas of the trend forecaster, as Edelkoort styles herself. The idea and its creation are separate.

For Edelkoort this idea of creation is made possible by the fantastic potential of the computer – or at least that seems to be what is being said in Bloom. As we enter a life of ever-increasing virtuality, where actual new designed things are needed less, what people will need in their lives are beautiful, natural things rather than artificial designed objects.

As well as proposing that we replace our desk tidies with air plants, Bloom also predicts that we are entering a modern equivalent of the period of Art Nouveau. On the one hand this isn’t surprising, given the magazine’s forecast that we are entering a new aesthetic age. (This was also the claim of Art Nouveau.) Bloom says the new creativity is based on nature – ditto Art Nouveau. On the other hand, since the 1980s there has been a steady drift from the rectilinear design of Modernism, via a confusion of revivalist styles, toward a design method that is increasingly based on esoteric models of organic form. As with Art Nouveau, a general curviness has emerged. No one knows why it is important, but they’re sure it is. Could it be, as Bloom implies, that nature and new technology will converge to produce an entirely new creative paradigm, and that our current period is the awkward pupa of an emerging butterfly?

Both The Tulip and Bloom have interesting views presented in a language that Design, with a capital ‘D’, is unfamiliar with. Their overview is so different from the microcosmic concerns of design writing that seeks universal significance and world change in the latest gadget.

It may be that all contemporary design stuff is as dead as steam engines and oil lamps, and that designers are not the creators of the future. Of course, this new order of things puts the trend forecaster at the top of the creative heap, for they (as Ruskin did for design in the nineteenth century) will steer our aesthetic choices. In the case of Bloom these will be away from the objects of design fetishisation, such as the desk lamp, toward a fetishisation of the natural – or nuggets of stuff that stand for the natural – such as roots, bulbs and tulips.

The strange thing about Bloom is that these thought-provoking ideas come couched in the breathless bimbo optimism of cosmetic reviews. Perhaps one day we will regard the prose of twentieth-century design as as pompous and paternalistic as we now view Ruskin. It’s not how you say it, but what you say that’s important.