Welcome, Members of Parliament

Welcome, Members of Parliament. This blog is designed to act as a student forum for anyone enrolled in my classes at a Dallas-area proprietary college, former students, and/or others who find our conversations interesting. The Parliament will be moderated to ensure civility and relevance. The directions we take, the paths we follow, and the concerns we address are all up to you.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Design and Stuff

For my first Summer quarter post, I was inspired by an article in Good about whether or not it's possible for designers to save the world without creating more stuff. Material objects are, after all, the focus of our design programs at AiDallas. What would to design mean if we weren't focused on creating objects?

One of the major revelations to come out of my first week of classes (and I don't know why this hadn't occurred to me before) was that in the ancient world, people made things carefully because they couldn't just go down to their local Buy More and get a replacement when something broke. There probably wasn't much garbage to pick up, because early economies weren't based on disposable objects. Everything was designed with its purpose in mind, and the designs (as we learn from Uhlmeyer's Rule of Technological Development #312) endured when technologies changed. That's why the early ceramic jugs in neolithic Turkey looked just like the baskets they had replaced as water carriers.

In our art & design history discussions during these first two weeks of classes, we've talked about the notion of "art for art's sake"--the nineteenth-century idea that "fine" art was qualitatively better than "applied" art because it was made for no purpose other than its beauty. But the Greeks and Romans made beautiful things that all had uses: funerary or heroic statues, painted pottery for drinking wine, temples for worshiping gods, etc. The words they used for art (techne and ars) both contained the idea that the objects be well-crafted, skillfully wrought.

Archaeologists love ancient dumps (middens) because they contain clues about the people who occupied the sites under study. But those dumps rarely contain objects discarded whole--only broken bits of things. Acoma Pueblo native Americans actually gather old potsherds to add to new pots made using traditional techniques, wasting nothing. In fact, the reason Indiana Jones isn't a believable archaeologist is that he just takes whole objects out of context--something no reputable scientist would ever do. The real guys in the safari hats get their kicks out of finding bits and pieces that can be put back together to give us an idea about what they originally looked like and what they were used for. Just about the only time we find collections of intact artifacts is when they've been buried by some disaster, like the eruptions of Mt. Vesuvius or Thera.

I hadn't realized before this week that the archaeology exercise my humanities students do (figuring out what random objects in a box might "mean") is more realistic than I'd imagined, because the stuff in the boxes is all twenty-first century junk: miscellaneous bits of useless crap randomly put together, just like what future archaeologists are going to find in our landfills. Cheesy little toys from Happy Meals, broken crayons, miscellaneous buttons, and junky jewelry are going to tell our story more potently than a museum full of art works.

In the opening photograph, all of the items pictured could be recycled; instead some idiot (or idiots) left them in a pine forest somewhere. The plastics will be there just about forever--and somebody designed every one of these objects.

So here's the question: how do fashion, interior, web, graphic, and other designers create without just adding more junk to the growing mounds of waste on this planet?

Image credit: Photo by Michelangelo-36, via Wikimedia Commons.