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A Plea: Design With Conviction, Or Don't Design At All

Does the world need another plastic chair or container house? The Apartment's Stefan Boublil urges designers to stop riding past achievements and act with purpose.

While driving the other day, I decided to throw caution to the wind and turn on my parents’ Spotify, i.e., the radio, only to hear Madonna’s voice emerge, treading ever so subtly on the lyrics of her 2008 "Give It 2 Me": "Got no boundaries and no limits. If there’s excitement, put me in it. If it’s against the law, arrest me. If you can handle it, undress me."

I cannot sufficiently express how disingenuous and tacky that half-hearted drivel sounded to me. Thing is, I had believed her when she told us, all those decades ago, that she had been through the wilderness but somehow made it through, and that like a virgin touched for the very first time, her fear was fading fast…

Those were the words of someone with more than a rhyming dictionary handy but something to declare, something inside that begged to escape, an unquenchable thirst to announce her vision of the world to the world. Listening to her now, clinging to predictable expectations of herself, I could not shake the sadness I felt about her apparent lack of conviction, and it got me thinking about others in the chosen and over-rewarded fields of art and entertainment. Did Steven Spielberg really care about the journey of a foreign national stuck in The Terminal as much as he made us believe he did about extraterrestrials? Was Damien Hirst ever as certain of the importance of For the Love of God, the diamond-encrusted skull worth $100 million, as he was, 13 years earlier, about The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, the formaldehyde-bound white shark that kickstarted a movement and, at the time, sold for less than $100,000?

Sometimes, upon reading about this or that on the Internets, I get the feeling that few people are serious about what they do anymore. Maybe it is because of age, maybe because of success, but the lack of conviction seems to be a virus spreading through too many professions faster than a promiscuous Gwyneth Paltrow. And there is no better example of such apathy than in the design industry.

What are we to think about yet another plastic chair from Philippe Starck, another re-used container from Lot-Ek, another minimal movie poster from freakin’ everyone? Do these and other designers not create from visceral need anymore? Is design not of greater impact when it is the result of a serious principle applied by a serious person with serious skills? It seems to me that design lacks conviction of its own.

Now, far be it for me to devalue consistent style. What I am smacking down is rather the lazy climb on one’s own shoulders that is often called a "career" for today’s designers. There is so much to accomplish in our time by people who see themselves as the designers of the world that there is no excuse for Karim Rashid to apply yet another curve to another vase, for Marcel Wanders to laser-cut a lace pattern into a rug, for me to make another black apartment. It just doesn’t seem serious, and I, atypically, find this lack of seriousness disturbing.

What I mean by serious in this context is the designer’s seeming disappearing instinct for immersion in any one path that she deems so deeply interesting and/or important that she may find not mere opportunity but understanding of the medium. Conviction is a willingness to invest the time into said path so that we investigate and interpret what we have found to be true or false and act on those principles. That is what designers must express, every day, with faith and confidence: That what they are doing is indeed important, if not to others, at least to themselves–-a quality still hard to find in the aisles of design fairs the world over.

This rant, in fact, is not so much a smackdown of those who seem to cash checks earned on little more than autopilot as a love letter to the Béhars, the Boyms, the Hechts, the Ramses, the Fukasawas, who I imagine getting up in the morning with a mission, certain of the seriousness of their purpose. They are the ones we can count on to tackle such worthwhile projects as giving poor kids affordable glasses to making thought-provoking art, from rethinking the alarm clock’s impact on a day to eliminating the seldom-used parts of a citrus juicer. They are the ones we can trust to take their vocation dutifully so that we don’t end up looking at half-hearted products in our kitchens, cities, and landfills.

Design with conviction or don’t design at all, please. We can be serious and funny. We can be serious and jackasses. We can be serious and not change a bit. But please be serious and let us care enough to take the time to understand our world, not simply be observers or pragmatists. Let us even be serious about frivolity. Let us be serious about everything but ourselves.

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