DIRTY DESIGN
An exploration of
dirty design philosophy
by Marjanne van Helvert.
See other work here.



Content:
WHY DIRTY?
DIRTY DESIGN
THE DIRTY MIND
A DIRTY WORLD
THE DIRTY PAST
A DIRTY TIME
A DIRTY FUTURE

THE DIRTY PAST -
WHITE LAYERS of modernity

The landscape of the contemporary design world is not as smooth and white as some modernists imagined, but the influence of Adolf Loos's Ornament and Crime, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe's "less is more", and Le Corbusier's whitewash ideal is still very visible in the applied arts. Consider Apple's successful move from the early adopters of the personal computer to the mainstream electronics market by covering their machines in a shiny layer, or the way IKEA conquered the world with their chunky but minimalist design for the masses. Ornaments are still widely considered kitsch and bad taste. The preferred appearance of products is sleek and minimal. Clean modernist aesthetics have thrived in the age of mass-production and developed side by side with the mechanization and automation of industry.

Swiss/French architect, urbanist and designer Le Corbusier can be considered one of the founders of the modern aesthetic, bringing many design ideologies together in his influential modernist grand narrative. Taking cues from Ebenezer Howard's The Garden Cities of Tomorrow (1898) and Adolf Loos's Ornament and Crime (1913), among others, Le Corbusier devised a radical, all-encompassing theory of what the modern world should look like and how its inhabitants should look at it. And looking is the key word here. Le Corbusier's central point that shaped his idea of the modernist revolution, is that in the industrial age people grow from appreciating color and decoration, which are "of a sensorial and elementary order [...] suited to simple races, peasants and savages" to preferring harmony and proportion which "incite the intellectual faculties and arrest the man of culture" (Le Corbusier 1986 [1927], 143). The sensation of the physical material is replaced by the rational contemplation of form. Following Loos's argument to remove the decorative element from design, Le Corbusier argued that the modern surface that is thereby created is better suited to the more civilized modern man, and that this is a superior and universal aesthetic that we should strive for.

Yet this new, modern aesthetic was not the universal given waiting to happen in the linear development of cultural refinement that Le Corbusier made it seem. It can also be seen as both a very political reaction to the contemporaneous Art Deco style and the earlier Aesthetic Movement, which was considered effeminate, degenerate and decadent by the modernists like Loos and Le Corbusier, and as a quintessential modernist quest for abstraction through self-consciousness and focus on form and material.

Le Corbusier did not stop at the dismantling of prior aesthetic preferences, but he took the removal of decoration a step further when he argued for a white layer of paint to replace it. Calling decoration a mask that hides the true nature of the object and intending to cleanse the world of such perversity, he reasoned that by adding a white layer, the proportions of the object are emphasized and any sense of ambiguity is erased. (Wigley 1995)

But how did a visionary like Le Corbusier not see this as yet another mask? Is a white layer not also a kind of decoration? Can it not be that the white layer, like the decoration he so condemned, still hides the object as it really is, and might actually be abused to cover up the dirty realities underneath?

Today the whitewash of design objects continues, but it has parted with the ideal of the strictly visual and harmonious proportions that Le Corbusier recommended. It has in many cases come to stand for a chic, glossy finish that can be used on any kind of product.
Anything seems to instantly transform into a design object when it is covered with a shiny, not necessarily but often white, layer. Whitewash has become the illness it was supposed to be a medicine for: it has become the mask itself.

Clean, shiny, white design. It makes me want to throw a paint bomb into an Apple store. I have a hard time not adding dents and scratches to expensive cars, or writing my name on an empty white wall. Why do people consider that vandalizing, while the fumes of that same car damage my lungs and the earth's? Why is graffiti illegal, but giant billboards in public spaces are tolerated? Apparently, I have a very different view on what is dirty and what is clean. There is so much dirt that is covered up with shiny plastic layers, with smooth marketing stories, with glamourous advertising telling you that you can buy happiness, that you require forever more products to complete your life. The shiny white layer has come to stand for the dirty reality underneath it: waste, pollution, exploitation of nature and people, faulty designs and bad quality mechanics, cheap materials, planned obsolescence, scarcity, marketing budgets and monopolies. Material reality is thus inextricably linked to ethical reality in the case of product design; it is where aesthetics meet ideology.

I think the anonymity of mass-produced goods and their dominant surface aesthetics fuels indifference. If you cannot see what a product is made of, you forget about its material existence. If something looks shiny and new, you will not think about the toxic mine it came out of, you can dismiss the underpaid labor of an individual on the other side of the earth, and you can ignore the mileage and the months it took to reach you. These aesthetics are an ethical thing. Beauty is used to cover up dirt.

I would like to argue for expanding our aesthetic horizon and trying to see beyond the shiny surface that has been endlessly exploited by mass-marketing tactics. We need to involve the context into the appearance of objects, to include the material dimension into the surface design, to make them more open and traceable on every level. Obviously, something like this has already been happening in the realm of recycling and cradle-to-cradle design, but most of this is still happening on the scale of the alternative, as the hip and trendy way to go for the eco-conscious in-crowd, or by companies looking to tap into that considerable market with varying degrees of sincerity. These eco-narratives are in danger of becoming fashionable, one-dimensional labels, because they generally do not take into account the full scope of how the looks of a product, its production methods, its usage and its expiration are an integral system, and all of these aspects need to be confronted at once.

As the full consequences of a dirty design ethic and aesthetic inevitably go against purely capitalist motives, it might be doomed to remain alternative idealism. Yet our age seems to call for a new set of norms and ideals, as globalization and network culture is breaking down so many of our old ones. In the chapter A DIRTY TIME I explain why now might be the right time to put one foot into the dirty future.



Content:
WHY DIRTY?
DIRTY DESIGN - WHAT IS DIRTY?
THE DIRTY MIND - DURATION 4 LIFE!!1
A DIRTY WORLD - YOU ARE WHAT YOU DESIGN/BUY
THE DIRTY PAST - WHITE LAYERS OF MODERNITY
A DIRTY TIME - WHY NOW?
A DIRTY FUTURE - A DIRTY UTOPIA