I never thought, ever since I expressed my unique childhood wish to become a veterinarian, that design would ever figure on my list of things to do.
Stories are told primarily by the things we surround ourselves with.
Then again, even though I had fallen in love with movies as a teen, I only discovered that filmmaking could constitute a career after flipping through a moist NYU film school brochure at the foot of my cousin’s toilet, upon which I was attending to more important business. I’m not very quick. But I knew that I loved the meaningful ramifications of stories told near and far. And it dawned on me, after graduating and finding myself in Los Angeles, handing my soul out to all who would hold it, that stories are actually first and foremost told by the things we humans choose to surround ourselves with: our houses, our modes of transportation, our salt and pepper shakers, our phones, and our shoes. These things are our first opportunities to express who we are to the outside world. As consumers, we select what populates our shelves, closets, and glove compartments based on a variety of reasons, both arbitrary and rational, but we must not forget that all of this stuff resulted from decisions made by people just like us — designers — based on a variety of reasons, both arbitrary and rational.
To me, and a handful of practical purists, design was meant to serve people and make life easier, not just better looking. When designers succeed, the results do not need explanations, a narrative or descriptive tags; they tell their stories in how they work. The prize is not fame, fortune, or blog hits but the betterment of society through what might have been perceived, at first, as the peculiar placement of a handle on a cup but ended up changing how we sip, if not the world.
With such potential power in the balance, why then do so many companies manufacture things not because they found a better way or discovered something to add (or more to the point, subtract) but to move as much product as possible? We used to design things because we needed new functionality — I’m talking about objects like the wheel, fire, or cave door — but that’s no longer the case, because we have been overtaken by notions of perceived beauty to the detriment of what design should actually be about: how things work.
The realization that each day’s decisions are, in fact, part of a larger process was my impetus to start a journey into the world of design, instead of joining the fight against feline herpes.
How I Started Designing
My company, the apartment, was born from a thirst I felt to curate my life, first and foremost. I was never all that interested in design merely as a collection of objects, an illustration of the nonsensical argument that “he with the most toys wins.” Instead, I was captivated by the stories that great design could tell and how they could enrich the human experience. When we operated a retail design store in downtown Manhattan, the best day I had was when a family of three came in and started dancing in the middle of the selling floor to the music we always had blasting. They didn’t buy anything, just danced, unsolicited, unashamed, and undisturbed. The environment we had created had made them feel comfortable enough to lose their inhibitions for a moment and do what felt natural. How we designed the surroundings aroused a very simple and human emotion.
My company was born from a thirst I felt to curate my life.
The store fulfilled my need for a comprehensive and curated version of my life. I thought about the store’s inventory and display in a very selfish way: This is the toothpaste I use, this is the music I listen to, these are the movies I watch, and these are the chairs that I find comfortable. I am going to arrange them in a place I would want to live in myself, and see if it resonates with other people. And it turns out that it did, because the whole was greater than the sum of its parts. It was, ultimately, about the simulacrum of life that got customers? imagination fired up and got those people dancing and the cash registers, eventually, ringing. I began to understand that what was really important to them, and to me, was not so much the chairs but the feeling we provided, the context, too often the forgotten stepchild of the design process.
Getting Lost in Design
Design often gets lost in the details, and I, for a long time, got lost in design — in the mechanics of what was supposed to strengthen my point of view. I became disenchanted, and soon disinterested, as it became more an exercise in consumerism and less about self-definition. So 10 years into this process, I wondered, Why did I start this? Why am I doing this? Why do I bother? What I rediscovered was that from toothbrush to lifelong mate, the paths I had chosen had had an impact beyond the health of my teeth or my capacity for love, that the daily choices we all make are actually forms of expression.
Design and Decision Making
When is the last time design consciously figured in your decision-making as a matter of function, neither aesthetic nor status-based? There are countless opportunities to make choices during one lifetime, one every second, if not more. And we usually think that pondering such decisions at length — about the job, the house, the spouse — is an indication that a good decision is in progress, at the very least a thoughtful one.
Has your life been designed by you or your community?
The daily choices we all make are actually forms of expression. But ask yourself this: Do your final decisions actually reflect your educated selection or the values you’re expected to have? From the beginning, you believe in your parents? god, that their vision of good and evil is irrefutable, and you do not put your elbows on the table. Might the decisions you make be the result of cultural rites that have made their home in the communal mind and seeped into the folds of yours? How can you be sure that your final choice is not idealism that has been pushed on you, like so many bags of Cheetos on starving film students pretending that the shoot on Union Square is “catered.” Why? Then there is the community to which you have worked so very hard to belong and to which you feel, somehow, that you owe a debt of gratitude. You espouse its ideals as your own, you recycle, go to work, and exercise for 20 minutes three times a week. Has your life been designed by you or your community?
Designing my life, not just my work, is what I now strive for on a daily basis, sometimes succeeding, sometimes failing, but always making sure that the decisions at hand are my own. That is worthwhile design.
[Top image by Todd McLellan, from his terrific series of disassembled gadgets]