essay: thoughts on originality

being original was very important to me and my classmates when we were in parsons school of design in the late 90’s. however, i came across an interesting article on design addict a few years back. it opened my eyes and formed part of my aesthetics. with the author’s permission, here is the original piece:

 

An essay by Koen De Winter

 

Many people, both on the active and on the consuming side of the design community, share a restless fascination for “originality”. This fascination is more than the usual form of design entertainment provided by design magazines and exhibitions. For nearly a century, originality has been closely linked to creativity. It is often seen as the inevitable result of that creative process. As in other creative activities like writing, composing and sometimes cooking, it has also become the ultimate criteria for the use of creativity in the development of products. There is little doubt about the fact that even in Western culture this longing for originality is a relatively recent phenomena. Tracing its origins is a task for social anthropologists and not the purpose of this essay. One constructive hypothesis is that the willingness of the modern movement to establish new standards and break with the past “at any cost”, has not only generated new standards but also a new vocabulary in which “new”, “original” and “innovative” have been redefined. Instead of defining the character of an object, they started to define original as a quality. To some extend art historians have re-written Western European art history in function of the innovative role different artist played in their times, but there is not much evidence that this was indeed the real motivation at the time.

Skill and craftsmanship, mastering perspective and depth, conformity to the requests of the patron and professional competitiveness were more important motivations than the search of originality. Even in the early XXth century originality did not play a role in the relationship between Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso when they both were the pillars under the cubist movement. In fact their collages and paintings of that period are almost identical.

Over the past thirty five years, which coincides with my years of practicing industrial design, I have been intrigued with our continuous search for originality, our fascination and admiration for its results, and with the fact that reaching an “original” result has never been questioned against the real aim and goal of our profession: user satisfaction. In fact, promotion of design, originally intended to enlighten the public on the benefits of useful and beautiful products, has slowly become a promotion of originality at any cost including the neglect of one of the pillars of the modern movement: making good and beautiful industrial products accessible to all; along with the neglect of informing the users about good, useful and environmentally responsible products.

 

The general question of the value of originality to the user was never put to me as bluntly as during a working visit to a Chinese porcelain factory near Swatow. Twenty or so years ago I had travelled there to produce prototypes of white porcelain tableware. Not knowing exactly what to expect at the end of the journey I had made the prototype moulds before going there. My intention was to cast prototypes at the factory, test them and improve the moulds locally. While working on the teapot the Chinese workers kept asking me why I did not bring them “the model” to work with. It took the diligent interpreter and myself a few days to come to the conclusion that what was meant with “the model” was in fact the existing teapot that people were using in north America, i.o.w. the market of destination. When I explained to them that I was the designer of this teapot and that it was different from the teapots that already existed, they reacted promptly by refusing to work on it. Their reason, as it was translated to me, was that I was doing something ethically wrong. Their argument was that, no matter how good a product was designed and made, it would still require some kind of learning process in order to use it well. Once this knowledge was acquired you do not want to spend time learning to use another one, you just want to use the same and thus, buy the same. Making something different was just wasting people’s time. The explanation was illustrated by numerous references to the existing chinese teapots and all the traditions that were related to them. My demonstration, for example, on how the lid of my teapot would stay on even when you empty it to the last drop, was dismissed with showing how difficult it was to turn the same lid upside down, a universally understood sign in Chinese culture that the teapot is empty and that you would like more tea. In my own defense I also referred to the large variety of Yixing teapots, but the few workers that knew about this Chinese marvel explained that these were not made for the purpose of making tea but to show off skill and craftsmanship. After a lively exchange it was obvious that the only thing I could do was to return to my hotel. A name we had given a building not by its standards, but by consensus and courtesy to our chinese hosts. My main problem was not their unwillingness to work on the prototypes but the fact that I had to agree with them. Reflecting on my situation I came to a compromise that I presented to my co-workers the next day. It was a basic trade-off.

Although I had to agree with them that a new product requires learning and that this particular kind of learning is a waste of time, I argued that having ideas on improvements is a universal phenomena, as current in China as anywhere else. In order to avoid changing things, you have to ignore these good ideas. In fact you are wasting the time of the person that has been thinking about that particular improvement. It came down to a difference in culture. One culture wastes one activity the other chooses to waste the other. After some discussion about the merits of my statements the spokesperson for my co-workers announced that they were willing again to work on these prototypes. The announcement came with a warning. He said: “Yes, it might come down to a difference in culture, but remember, with your vision you will never be happy, you will never de satisfied with the products you live with.”

The whole incident raised two obvious questions: are we limiting our search and application of original solutions to those characteristics that are real improvements, real innovations. Second, are the user and the public well served by original designs and if not, then to what extend has design become a self-serving activity in which creativity has been reduced to a way of achieving originality. The first one has to be answered with a honest no. We do not limit our involvement in the design of products to real or perceived improvements, we usually try to work well beyond established archetypes and rarely is all the acquired knowledge around a particular product used and applied in the next innovative design. One can simply look at chairs and the amount of uncomfortable ones that have been designed and produced in spite of all the valuable support of research done since the first electromiographics of Bengt Åkerblom, by A.C.Mandal (“The Seated Man” March 1981) Grandjean, Hüntung and numerous others. One could quote the bible text:”…Man does not live from bread alone….” and extend it to the argument that: “…We do not make or use chairs just to sit in them…”

The question then becomes: does one exclude the other. Does the pursuit of proper function limit the expression, does it curtail the possibility to include other considerations and does it ultimately destroy the “gestalt” or the presence of the object. There are in recent design history numerous examples of products where this is indeed the case, but excluding the possibility of reconciling both seems an insult to the creative process.

Without the use of steel sheet roughly welded into the shape of a traditionally very comfortable chair and without an obvious disrespect for function, Ron Arad’s “size ten” would not be such a significant parody on a chair and the comfort that it provides. But, in a world that can only be understood with the help of a minimal amount of classification, his parody is part of the same category as Claes Oldenburg’s Soft washstand (1965) and not of design. Another historical example might ad some dimension to the argument. Gerrit Rietveld’s red and blue chair is certainly as emblematic as the house he designed for Mrs. Schröder on the Prins Hendriklaan in Utrecht. Both the house and the chair became the strongest images of the Dutch “De Stijl” movement. But even Gerrit Rietveld compromised when he designed the furniture for the house. The chairs have curved seats and back rests and the overall coloring is dark brown. Even people interested in furniture design and it’s history prefer to ignore them and would not consider them as “emblematic” for the architectural movement “de Stijl” as the “red and blue”. One has to draw the conclusion that the fact that both Ron Arad’s chair and Gerrit Rietveld’s “red and blue” are chairs is only a distraction. It does not change the fact that one is part of art history the other of the history of 20th century architecture, not of design.

No matter what our definition of design is, there are a few undisputable ways in which innovative designs serve society generally well. The most prominent one is when new insight in function has been given physical form in a product that is the embodiment of that new knowledge. When the Norwegian Peter Opsvik designed the “balans” chair, based on research done by his compatriot Hans Christian Menghoel and to some extend anticipating the results of Dr A.C. Mandal’s research on the seating position, it did result in an original design but it was first and foremost the expression of the new insight, resulting of this research. It might not have reached the social acceptance that the designer anticipated, but it was designed and produced with the intention to serve the user. Originality in this case was not a goal, it was the result of a new understanding. As it often does, the originality of the product might in fact have harmed the general acceptance of the kneeling/seated position that is better and healthier.

There are many examples of products that are not the result of a search for originality, but of an innovative effort. Technological innovation often generates a similar level of originality. Eero Saarinen’s fiberglass re-enforced polyester chair was an obvious example of a radical departure of the established archetype.

A departure that was so emblematic for what could be done with this new combination of materials that it resulted almost inevitably in an unusual shape. The same can be said about Ray and Charles Eames use of laminated wood. Most of these innovations have been acclaimed by insiders and some have been very successful with the consumers, but innovation, even carefully thought out have never been a guarantee for user satisfaction.

In my own attempt to improve on the well established form of Bjørn and Bernadotte’s “Margarethe” mixing bowls produced for decades by Rosti A/S, we looked at hours of video-taped use of mixing bowls. The knowledge acquired from this patience-challenging exercise was that, except for short interruptions, most users would hold the bowls under different angles. We used this observation to develop for Rosti A/S a new melamine mixing bowl that rested on a separate slightly flexible ring that served as a steady, anti-slip base under any angle for the slanted bowl. The result was innovative enough to be chosen “Product of the year” in Frankfurt, “Best of category” by ID magazine in New York and be acquired by several museum collections. Contrary to other examples, the users it was intended to serve rejected the concept and preferred the familiar “Margarethe” bowl or any “reasonable facsimile”. It is a well known fact in design circles that innovation or originality is not necessarily reciprocated by the consumer.

Prof. Dr. Serges Gagnon of the Université du Québec à Montréal’s definition of design is most likely the shortest one: he defines design as “the cultural appropriation of technology.” Implicit in this concise definition is that the evolution of any object is first and foremost conditioned by changes in technology. But equally important is the fact that design is defined as an appropriation process. In other words it is a way of adopting technology in our culture by accepting it’s influence as well as by influencing it. The same can be said about two other factors in the equation: culture and function. Philippe Starck’s lemon squeezer is not the result of the use of an innovative technological process, nor does it show an innovative thought on the function of squeezing juice out of citrus fruit. It derives it’s originality from a new perception of the place a product has in our late twentieth century culture, and it’s strong sculptural presence witnesses of that newly gained importance. It is difficult to deny the importance that these three catalysts of change: technology, function and culture have for design and for society in general. Originality derived from innovation in one or more of these three factors seems important and therefor justified. The level of acceptance reached within a society that has based it’s sense of security on familiar things and known environments is in these cases not very relevant.

 

Evolution on the other hand has a very successful record. There are numerous well documented cases of products that have evolved sometimes slowly, sometimes rapidly, but never abruptly. These products seem to have in common that they serve the user better and are more generally accepted. Some of these products were born in controversy around disputed paternity. Mutual improvements on each other’s designs has made it difficult to attribute de design of the cantilever chair (1926) to Mart Stam, Marcel Breuer, Gerhard Stüttgen, Anton Lorenz or even M.Baugniet. The now popular Vitra version of Verner Panton’s chair (1960) started several years earlier as a news paper and chicken wire model designed by Panton’s compatriot, Gunnar Aagard Andersen (1953). A very similar prototype in wire and newspaper was produced by Poul Kjærholm in that same year. That Andersen’s sketches started 1952 seem to indicate that he was indeed the first one to formulate this innovative shape. In re-designing it for industrial production, Panton raised the backrest to a more comfortable height. As mush as eight years later Steen Østergaard’s stacking chair of 1968 showed similar roots, although he made the base lighter by cutting a large part of the central curved surface.

The very successful polypropylene briefcase designed by Canadian designer Michel Dallaire is not only very close in shape to the more than ten years older briefcase by Peter Raacke, but it includes a number of improvements on the closing mechanism that made the re-design worthwhile.

 

In fact most industrial products, from electrical razors to cars, from sailboats to computers, are the result of small step evolution. In most cases the users have been given a better chance to understand and follow the different steps of this evolution. Not surprisingly, they are also accepting the results, no matter how advanced they are compared to comparable products. One could just compare the instrument board of a common car with that of a kitchen range. Or the comfort of a car seat with the chairs the same consumer is using at home. In light of that success the question about the practical and ethical consequences of overrating originality seems to be more than justified.

 

One more aspect of originality deserves consideration. In spite of the unquestionable efforts of most designers to develop their original idea into a mature,well proportioned and fully developed product, many of them could easily be improved both in function, in the use of proper materials and technology or in aesthetics. Perfect balanced form and attention to detail, as shown in „the chair‰ (JH 510) of Hans J. Wegner is unusual in any area of industrial products. If the purpose of our professional activity is to make products that serve the user better, why is it that we can not improve existing products.Why is it that we respect the original form even when improvements are obvious. If in one or more details it could serve the user better, or be safer or easier to make. Why is it that some kind of respect for its original form prevents us designers from making these improvements. The purpose is not to deny the first designer any of the benefits derived from having made the original, but to open the possibility for others to make a contribution in the areas of their expertise. In music it is quite common to compose variations on a theme of either some other composer or on a popular song. Modest P. Moussorgski composed the original „Pictures of an exhibition” as a piano concerto, but it became popular in Maurice Ravel’s well known orchestration. There are a few interesting examples in design. Although the first one is made in wood, the second in stainless steel blade and the last one in stainless steel wire, there is an un-mistakenly relationship between Kaare Klint’s “propeller stool” #8783 (1927), Poul Kjærholm’s folding stool PK-91(1961) and Jørgen Gammelgaard’s folding stool (1970) The relationship is not just that they are all Danish, or that they are all masterpieces. They are variations on a same theme. In this particular example, the benefit to the user is marginal, but there are numerous products that would benefit more from improvements than from re-thinking them completely.

Finally, the pursuit of originality raises the question about which part in any of our creations is the result of our own effort and which part is directly related to being “children of our time”. Even an exuberant, original and recognizable architecture like Antonio Gaudi’s is according to his own testimony, the result of his Catalan roots, of his search for Catalan tradition and cultural specificity. In other words, we would not create the things we create without standing on someone’s shoulders, wether that someone is one person or a group of people or a complete society. To some extent this too should be acknowledged when claim is laid on an idea or a concept. There are numerous examples of almost identical products designed by different people in different areas, without any knowledge of each other’s contributions. The only difference between a stoneware paper bag made by Harvey or the white porcelain one made by Tapio Wirkalla for Rosenthal is the material and the precision of the cast. One is not a copy of the other, they are the result of a similar creative reaction to the same source of inspiration. When Marcel Wanders dips a natural sponge in porcelain slip and fires it, he repeats a playful gesture that most ceramic students have done before him. The difference is that these playful products are kept until too much dust or lack of space at the next move encourages the owner to throw it away, and that the other receives the media support and attention of Droog Design and Rosenthal. But in both cases it belongs to all of us and can not be claimed by anybody.

 

In a period in which abuse of patent laws is rampant, in a time were the ignorance of patent examiners is used to lay claim and patent plants that have been known and used for centuries, one should be reminded about the fact that Elizabeth I (1533-1603) issued the first patent, not as an acknowledgement of an original idea, but as a way of bringing to the public domain the exclusive knowledge and craft secrets of the”glass-in-lead” window makers that received her patent protection. In the same spirit, the unwritten law of trade and crafts companionship was that you would be initiated in all aspects of the art or craft on condition that you would pass it on in the same way that it was received. Intellectual property’s moral justification is only as credible as the recognition that we are part of a society that is the result of a long process of cultural and technological development. This society has the right to be served well and, at best, it means that we can serve by making small, but innovative step in the right direction.


Koen De Winter 2002

 

One thought on “essay: thoughts on originality

  1. A C Mandal discovered balanced seating

    Actually, A.C. Mandal, MD, researched and designed chairs for balanced seating with downward sloping tighs before e.g. Menghoel and Opsvik. The first version of the book by Mandal was from 1975, and Opsvik has kindly called it his bible in a West Swedish newpaper and A C Mandal his housegod. Perhabs the word anticipated was used mistakenly. See http://www.acmandal.com.

    However, you wrote… Peter Opsvik designed the “balans” chair, based on research done by his compatriot Hans Christian Menghoel and to some extend anticipating the results of Dr A.C. Mandal’s research on the seating position, it did result in an original design but it was first and foremost the expression of the new insight, resulting of this research.

    Yours

    Torsten Mandal, M.Sc., Ph.D. student, consultant

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