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


A Dirty World -

When I was confronted with someone who represents the world of exclusive Dutch design, I couldn’t help myself. On a visit to his studio, Thomas Eyck, a “publisher and distributer of characteristic and exclusive contemporary design products”,
was talking about an 8000 euro copper and silver saucepan designed by Aldo Bakker. I asked him if any of his clients actually use the saucepan as a saucepan (i.e. on the stove, with sauce in it), or if it usually ends up in a cabinet, well lit and on display, untouchable. In other words, what is the use of this thing: is it a utensil, a sculpture, a status symbol? The answer was that no one really uses the pan as a pan, although Eyck said he did have a client who claimed to use his 3000 euro copper mixing bowl of the same series for the envisioned purpose of mixing.

In this chapter I will use the incident with the saucepan in an attempt to shed light on my discomfort with the capitalist structures at work within the world of design, and the conventions they create by conjuring up illusions of perfection and wealth to cover up the dirty complexity that is the world we live in. We are all susceptible to what the philosopher Karl Marx, in his book Capital (1867), described as commodity fetishism, due to which objects acquire a mystical quality of exchange value that is completely unrelated to their use value or material value. This virtual layer of monetary value represents one of the more elusive ways in which design objects are able to hide their material and social realities.

So how can a saucepan that will not be used as a saucepan be so incredibly expensive? Even though it is purposely made to work wonderfully as a pan (copper being a splendid heat conductor, the object being masterfully cast in one piece, as Eyck explained), its high monetary value actually prevents it from being used as such. The owner will never risk damaging the object and lowering its worth. Hence, the designer has created an object that pretends to be a marvellous pan, precisely in order to be transformed into a "useless" commodity through the act of trading it for monetary goods. The monetary value, the price of the thing, thus becomes more important than the thing itself. Specifically this monetary value is what gives rise to controversy, and it is also what prompted me to take a populist stance toward Bakker's saucepan. Why is this thing so extremely expensive that no person of average means can ever afford it? Who are the elitists that think they are worthy of such opulence? Didn't we abolish this sort of thing when we put Marie Antoinette on the guillotine and plundered Versailles?

In the capitalist system, design objects turn into commodities, which means they have a monetary value that transcends the amount and type of material the work consists of, the amount of time it took to manipulate that material, the (intended) scarcity of the product, or even the mastery of its maker. This is what Marx called the fetishization of the commodity: when a product of labour becomes a commodity (something that can be traded for monetary goods), it becomes a symbolic replacement of the social relations between the traders. It comes to stand for an array of values and connections, for a hierarchy between objects and also a hierarchy between people. A clear example of this is clothing brands. A Ralph Lauren polo shirt could be made in a similar factory in China as a shirt sold at a street market, but consumers pay for the virtual value of the brand and for the status it gives them when they wear it.

A status symbol is in the first place a valuable thing that shows society the wealth of its owner. This seems to be the case with Aldo Bakker's saucepan. The object blatantly refuses its assumed purpose precisely because of its monetary value, and thereby pulls up a curtain of mist around its material and conceptual existence. It does not seem to be related anymore to the qualities of materiality and craftsmanship it possesses. All of its potentially meaningful connections to the world around it cease to matter once this illusion of trade value is applied.

Of course, this saucepan is not only an expensively made utensil put into an art gallery context. It also has an artistic dimension, both in its physical shape and in its concept. Design sits somewhere on the sliding scale between art and purely functional products or consumer goods. The contemporary philosopher Boris Groys even stated that "art, in general, is nothing but failed or dysfunctional design". So when we talk about the value of a design object, we cannot suffice with Marxist theory alone.

Art, that thing we do as soon as we can hold a pencil, as soon as we learn how to speak, to write, to dance, both in the development of the individual human being as in the evolution of the human species as a whole. Once we master control over our ways of expression, and are able to think about things consciously, we start to make seemingly useless drawings in an attempt to find the perfect composition, we sing random songs of praise and sorrow, we write whatever comes to our minds, and we move in mysterious ways. We all do it, and have always done it, at any moment in history, in any place, in any dire situation and in any ecstatic one.

To make art is a most natural, human ability. It results from our evolution into conscious beings. Like religion, it emanates from being able to think about ourselves and our surroundings. Statuettes of female figures from the Paleolithic era, which are some of the earliest forms of art now known in human history, were conceived around the same time as spiritual behaviours such as rituals and burials developed. Our consciousness makes life a whole lot more complicated to comprehend, and we need and have always needed to do something with the questions, the feelings it inspires. And so we build cathedrals and dollhouses, we write innumerable books, we sing operas and nasty folk songs, we imagine the fashions of the future and the past, we make paintings in caves, on pieces of paper, on subway trains, we dance dirty until love will tear us apart, again.

And thus our culture developed with our growing capabilities. We learnt how to build the highest and loftiest buildings, and devised ever new materials, techniques and machines, we expressed taboos and outrageous behaviours in front of audiences and made way for tolerance and progressive changes, we excelled in describing complex ideas and in archiving them for future generations, and we danced, well, we danced because it was fun.

So why was I questioning this saucepan? Does it not also have its undeniable place in this enumeration of human creativity? As we were discussing the matter with Thomas Eyck, teachers and fellow students, arguments were made that this sort of product does not stand on its own, balancing the tip of the ivory tower for the sake of being up there, but that we could look at exclusive design objects as forming the top of a pyramid, in which novelty and audacity (ideally) trickle down and influence the mass production and popular culture that make up the widespread base of the design society. The same reasoning that I used above to argue for the intrinsic importance of art in the development of humanity, can in principle be deployed to defend the existence of the exclusive saucepan of Aldo Bakker.

I do not think it relevant here to judge this particular saucepan on its aesthetical or its potentially novel and audacious qualities, and its consequent level of success in the pyramid of saucepans. Nor do I have a problem per se with design objects turning into commodities, or if I did, it would be part of a personal reluctance to agree with the capitalist system as a whole. The essential thing that the incident with the saucepan shows is that many design objects tend to hide their commodity status. They cover themselves in mystifying layers of meaning; they take refuge in illusion. Their trade value seems the most obvious characteristic, but one that is not talked about. This saucepan is designed to hide behind qualities that would make it a really good pan, and its representatives will tirelessly emphasize these qualities and never speak about the equally present qualities that make it a commodity first and foremost.

The fabrication of fantastic objects and stories, the quest for perfection, the desire for the wondrous and the impossible, it is all part of our ever continuing design of the world and its future, but we are no longer illiterate serfs that bow to the splendor of the divine oppressor, to the one that shows his superiority by exorbitant real estate, dramatic costumes, bejewelled headgear and speedy vehicles. Or are we? If we purposely remain blind to the fetishist layers of the commodity, if we keep hiding what the status symbol really is, we lose touch with the material qualities and the very real social, economic and environmental context of the object. The lure of the commodity and the desire to make or own ever more fantastic ones is both a fascinating human trait that enables us to create beauty and excellence, and a deceptive quality that institutes distance between the ideological and the material reality. It is a complex position we find ourselves in, but one that we should recognize and celebrate instead of ignore, one that we, both as designers and consumers, should take responsibility for.