Best Made Company Axes.
There is a unique borrowing from the rural by the urban in design, both past and the present—Castiglioni's Mezzadro Chair for Zanotta and Best Made Company Axes exemplify this. At their roots, these projects exude a sense of self-sufficiency, informed by a romanticized sense of rural autonomy and resourcefulness. Still, objects that can provide the means to this self-reliance expose agency—the ability to deliberately and directly affect one's environment in an undisciplined, creative manner.
Encouraging agency has a three-fold effect. First, increased resourcefulness and self-reliance may help drive the ideological change necessary for "green" design to have the most impact. Second, it may encourage a growth of individual entrepreneurship in our slow economy. Third, such an investigation will lead designers to look for inspiration and opportunities where self-reliance is (or was) highly valued—the rural United States, for example—and to produce work that enters into underexplored, unique corners of American culture.
Staffan Holm Milk Stool, top. Patricia Urquiola Tub and Elizabeth Leriche Concept, bottom.
Trends derived from the rural vernacular perpetuate a romantic fascination with the self-sufficient lifestyle. Farm life, for example, implies such activities as milking cows, hunting fowl, and working in fields. As a response, designers have entertained fascinations with milking stools, shotguns, selvage denim, and rubber boots. These objects exude an air of autonomy; in the case of the Wellington-style boot: an image of the landed gentry. It is important to note that, unlike these projects, this is not a call for more "agrarian chic." Instead, rural areas should be examined just as they are (for better or worse).
In an attempt to discover how rural habits of mind and making could inform a design practice, I've been investigating the qualities of agency in a project entitled Objects of the Rural Vernacular.
What is American Design?
I began by exploring urban/rural dichotomies. Most of art and design dialogue is the concern of the urban. Access to 'high design' in rural areas is limited, with the exception of vigilant Internet activity. Design showrooms and progressive galleries are harder to come by than super centers and factory outlets.
It is not the objects available for purchase by a rural community but their way of life that warrants design investigation. Within this demographic are ad-hoc designers of agricultural tools and other necessities of plain living. Here "the everyday represents the site of actual use—the messy reality where designs are negotiated," as Andrew Blauvelt, curator of Strangely Familiar: Design and Everyday Life, explains.
Perhaps no one is more familiar with the whole of rural America than the late Calvin Beale, a demographer of 55 years with the US Agriculture Department. Beale often found that rural America is pictured misleadingly "as being for the most part barefooted hillbillies given to moon shining and quite disinclined to work for a living." He goes on to state many in this demographic are more aptly described as "the new gentry—people of professional skills and good incomes—and what might be called the new peasantry—'homesteaders' inclined to self-sufficiency and simple living. There is widespread interest in environmentalism, conservation, alternative fuel sources, rural aesthetic values, home food production, and local self-government." Products of these values and skills, defined by the vernacular of the rural living and made evident through their design, are all about agency.
This has the power to reveal something uniquely American. Rural objects often reveal design values that are, for the most part, uncommon to city living. How often does one encounter objects that personify humility, order, or modesty?
Autoprogettazione? By Enzo Mari.
Do It Yourself
There are other methodologies and standards that live outside of design proper but speak directly to an independent spirit. Do-it-yourself movements are a fantastic example of this autonomous and entrepreneurial nature. Participants are directly involved in the design process, including research, execution, and reflection. At its best, DIY offers an exchange. In return for their initiative, makers are empowered by a sense of agency to tackle problems on their own.
Blauvelt points out, however, that "DIY endeavors don't necessarily take a critical approach to design or reveal the underlying conditions of the everyday any more clearly. Such efforts are affirmative projects to the extent that they embrace certain conditions and situations but do not alter our relationship to everyday objects or challenge conventional ideas of design." But, much of our current understanding of DIY is the interpretation of late sixties texts, exemplified by the Foxfire series and the Whole Earth Catalog. These books are general in their instruction and provide thorough diagrams without design constraints; the reader is necessarily encouraged to deviate. Many of Blauvelt's concerns would be best addressed by seeking out these minute deviations and adaptations resulting from off-the-cuff pursuits.
Take Enzo Mari's Autoprogettazione?, a publication of how-to instructions for furniture from conventional materials and improvisation, as an example. It is evident through interviews in the reprinting of Autoprogettazione? that Mari never intended the work sacrosanct, but, like Creative Commons, used it to create a community of improv-designers. His justification was simply that "everyone must have a project: after all it is the best way to avoid being designed yourself." The goals of Mari's project are instructional: "the end product, although useable, is only important because of its educational value," or, in other words, because it encourages a critical approach.
Objects of the Rural Vernacular
From an investigation into rural traditions and DIY culture, I developed a series of objects entitled Objects of the Rural Vernacular. Looking at South Eastern Appalachian culture specifically, I tried to place objects from collected texts into a contemporary design conversation. Considering the application of industrial materials or manufacturing to objects is important, but the end product must involve users beyond complacent ownership. In short, some assembly and self-examination may be required.
Excerpt from Daniel Beard's Handy Book for Boys. Libertarian Raccoon Trap.
The series includes objects like the Libertarian Raccoon Trap, aimed at reminding users of the agency available to them through objects. In this case, the trap is the result of designing to circumvent village ordinances that impede the non-professional's resolution of a nuisance animal. This piece aims to neither harm the animal nor break the law.
The construction is based loosely on plans depicted in Daniel Beard's American Handy Book for Boys, but the materials used such as a lumber and found objects are more appropriate to the urban environment than those described in the book. The resources Beard calls for are more challenging to procure and in some cases illegal to harvest in a city. Instead joined and planed lumber, hardware store screws, and an outdated VCR replace what might only be found in a public park.
The series also includes an ethanol still, modeled after Appalachian moonshine stills, made by hand with traditional metal-smithing techniques. Ethanol stills are capable of producing either food grade ethanol (moonshine) or ethyl alcohol fuel, only a small change in the distillation column determines whether the product is food or fuel. Questions are raised regarding the legality of ethyl alcohol as either an alternative fuel source or libation depending on the intentions of the still user. In either case, consumers are involved in a process of converting a low value commodity to higher value product, albeit on a limited scale.
Finally, the Saddled Stool introduces to the series a more marketable object, a piece of furniture that also aids users in circumventing theft. The stool is composed of legs meeting a steel bracket with a quick release clamp mounting either a custom-made saddle or one of the user's choosing. Bicycle commuters removing their saddle for safe-keeping will find the armature a resourceful resting place, doubling the use of their saddle.
This conversation is an exchange between objects and users, as well as urban and rural systems. It is not outside of rural interests to participate in the contemporary design conversations typically relegated to design scenes in the cities. Objects of the Rural Vernacular is a model process that allows for the development of the new while preserving old, existing methodologies. Traditional knowledge, skills and practices can move beyond rural and village level production into sustainable practices or applied to industry, and when they do, should continue encouraging users to intervene, change, and directly participate in their environments.