Tim Parsons calls for a sharpened awareness of irony in design—not as a whimsical device for lame gags but as an effective tool of critique.
The buzz-words and objects that appear most frequently in the design media at any given time tell us much about prevailing attitudes. The rise of "design thinking," "social innovation" and "service design" all point to designers trying to stretch their remit away from the shaping of products towards a more direct manipulation of behaviour. In the realm of products, the talk of the Milan Furniture Fair was Chairless, Alejandro Aravena's strap that braces your knees and back when sitting cross-legged on the floor. A redesign of a device used by Paraguay's Ayoreo Indians, some of the proceeds of its sale go towards fighting their cause in a dispute over land-rights. It may be uncomfortable, but it comes with the psychological consolation of having avoided the wasteful production, distribution and disposal of yet another designer chair. Another project that embraces good-old fashioned common sense is the winner of this year's prestigious Designs of the Year award given at London's Design Museum, a re-design of an electrical plug by Min-Kyu Choi, designed to fold flat and be easier to pull out. In fact, taking into account the past winners of the award—Shepard Fairey's Barack Obama posters in 2009 and Yves Béhar's work on the One Laptop Per Child project in 2008—it's hard not to conclude that this age of austerity has heralded a new appreciation for 'worthy' projects.
So often irony is painted as anti-progressive, yet its ability to offer cutting critique is a positive when aimed at the right targets.
Fantastic though some of these achievements are, a strong culture must embrace a broad and eclectic range of voices. After all, it was the excessive moralising of its leading lights that undermined Modernism. From the cartoons of William Heath-Robinson (in particular the series How to Live in a Flat) to the outrageous objects of Memphis, irony proved itself to be a pointed and effective weapon to puncture Modernism's sanctimonious superiority. Yet in recent years "ironic design" has developed a dreadful reputation as an attention-seeking tool for wannabe star designers. Their "clever" objects fill our newspaper supplements, litter design fairs, and pop up on every design blog going. Just as celebrity culture no longer requires stars to be able to sing or act in order to be famous, designers, it seems, no longer have to justify their shallow and showy offerings. To many, this is tantamount to pollution and the sooner it is replaced with design that actually tries to improve things, the better.
A cartoon from How To Live in a Flat, by William Heath-Robinson, 1936. Source: Gus Morais.
Following this tack, Charlotte and Peter Fiell, in their introduction to Design Now, state their agenda to "challenge the moral apathy that exists in much mainstream design today." They accuse design experts of "consciously (and probably cynically) taking an opposing stance to the precepts of 'Good Design' in the mistaken belief that this is an edgy avant-garde position." It's worth noting that the Fiells' description of "Good Design" in Design Now ("a concept based on a rational approach to the design process that encompasses the following criteria: durability, unity, integrity, inevitability and beauty.") could have come from the Bauhaus, and with the exception of "beauty" it mirrors the sentiments of Herman Miller's founder D J DePree. While much good work emerges from designers following such principles, this appears to be representative of a conscious effort among some commentators to paper-over the positive lessons of Post-Modernism, the effective use of irony being one.
So often irony is painted as anti-progressive, yet its ability to offer cutting critique is a positive when aimed at the right targets. Take for example the first entry in grand master of Italian post-war design Achille Castiglioni's Complete Works by Sergio Polano. As a student faced with a brief to design a Fascist Cultural Centre, Castiglioni, presented an architectural model made from slabs of cheese. The yellow tower-blocks, their naturally occurring holes suggesting windows, offer an effect far greater than if Castiglioni had simply refused to participate in the project on ideological grounds.
My contention here is that the dismissal of much so-called ironic design is actually based upon a misunderstanding of the term and the kind of work it should apply to. Of the glut of kitsch and whimsical joke-products we are naturally tired of, many are not ironic at all, and those that are, do not use irony intelligently. Secondly, as I hope to demonstrate, using irony in design need not be an empty gesture and can, instead, enrich and stimulate the landscape of objects we live with.
If there is confusion around the use of irony in design, it's no surprise to learn that there is also some confusion as to its precise meaning in written and spoken English. This brings to mind an excellent routine by comedian Ed Byrne in which he meticulously dissects the lyrics of Alanis Morrissette's song Ironic, explaining why each statement she makes contains no irony whatsoever. Byrne quips "the only ironic thing about that song is that it's called Ironic and it's written by a woman who doesn't know what irony is!" So what is it? The Oxford English Dictionary describes irony as "An expression of meaning, often humorous or sarcastic by use of language of a different or opposite tendency." It is the breadth of this definition that leads to the confusion. Real irony, as Byrne makes clear, requires more than stating the opposite to what is desirable: "Rain on your wedding day is not ironic. [That's ironic] only if you're getting married to a weather man and he set the date."
A vintage Mickey Mouse phone.
Likewise when designing, it's easy to use different or opposite design language to that which is expected but it doesn't make the result ironic. A Mickey Mouse telephone clearly uses a different language to that expected in telephones. However the key difference is that ironic design, applies the 'inappropriate' language in a knowing and therefore 'appropriate' way. Andrew Stafford's plastic 'Swiss' doorstop shaped like a wedge of cheese is an example. There is a well-observed link between the material (plastic), the form (cheese) and the function (door wedge). It's not just that cheese can come in wedges but that it is often referred to as being 'plasticy.' It's more surreal than ironic and it's definitely whimsical, but importantly, its connections makes sense. As Ralph Ball and Maxine Naylor points out in their book Form Follows Idea, "Selective contradiction can add rich conceptual texture, elusive magic and sensations hard to define in words." Ball's lamp produced by Ligne Roset entitled 'One day I'll design the perfect paper lampshade' is an illuminated wire waste paper basket filled with screwed up sketches of lampshade designs. Sticking a light-fitting in a wastebasket would not have been enough. The sketches, and the title help elicit the ironic image of the designer toiling away at his desk while next to him he has inadvertently created what he has been searching for.
'One Day I'll Design the Perfect Paper Lampshade' by Ralph Ball.
That refuge of the lazy journalist Wikipedia helpfully augments the dictionary definition of irony by stating that it is "a situation, literary technique, or rhetorical device, in which there is an incongruity or discordance that goes strikingly beyond the most simple and evident meaning of words or actions." Irony requires a recognition of something (a state of affairs, people with shared values, a sign, a symbol etc.) so that by being presented with its opposite in particular circumstances, its ridiculousness is somehow revealed. It is only when something comes into collective focus (such as Modernism's determination to turn our houses into machines or laboratories) that it becomes possible to use ironic design to lampoon it. It is the perfect tool for puncturing excess. Just as Post-Modernism punctured Modernism's po-faced seriousness and moral superiority, the austere image and dry wit of Droog Design punctured the mindless frivolity that Post-Modernism ushered in.
With nothing to kick against, washed up designers have used the main tools of irony—the ready-made and the borrowed form—in a meaningless spree of narcissism.
Yet since then, the targets for irony in design have become less clear and its tools have, through overuse, become less powerful. Since Duchamp influenced designers to consider the ready-made as part of their lexicon (Achille Castglioni and his brother Pier Giacomo being among the first to make use of it), they have gleefully explored the possibilities of the archetypal form re-purposed in a new context. Early examples such as Castiglioni's Mezzandro stool (the one with the tractor seat) and the Toio up-lighter made from a car headlamp and fishing rod, were part of the aforementioned process of poking fun at the seriousness of much design of the period. They also celebrated the design of their components in which utility was been placed before superficial styling. Back then, the ironic double-take was created simply by this contrast of aesthetics. Half a century later and we've become so used to this game that it has all but lost its power. Even designers who make intelligent choices about which ready-mades to use and for what purpose can have their work tarred with the same brush as those who make clichéd gestures and are naively pleased with themselves for discovering the approach for the first time.
Top: Achille Castiglioni's 'Mezzadro' stool for Zanotta. 'Equus' cup and saucer by Bodo Sperlein for Lladro.
The same is true of the practice of borrowing form and re-casting it into new objects, explored on Core77 by William Bostwick. Clichés abound from wax candles shaped like light bulbs or candlesticks to the re-casting of anything in white glazed slip-cast ceramic. The vast majority of this work has no meaning beyond its own novelty and is a depressing reminder of the lazy thinking of its creators. Bostwick shows that some designers are moving away from the straightforward re-contextualising of form into more twisted and surreal mutilations and juxtapositions such as Bodo Sperlein's Equus collection for Lladro, which sees horses limbs becoming handles for a tea service. However, like much of the work that uses ready-mades, there is no clear poetic or ironic reason why these disparate elements should be brought together. The round peg can be forced into the square hole but it is neither appropriate nor particularly interesting.
The lingering doubt for many about this kind of work is that it has rejected any solid statement of values. Against the backdrop of the "War on Terror" and the economic crises designers have had a fresh reminder of their relative impotence. In the light of dramatic world events, some have become figures of fun for overstating the importance of the mundane and for their apparently elitist attitude to quality (see IKEA's spoof designer Van den Puup). With nothing to kick against, washed up designers have used the main tools of irony—the ready-made and the borrowed form—in a meaningless spree of narcissism. The roots of this lie in the way irony was used in critiques of Modernism. In her rigorous dissection of irony, The Guardian newspaper's Zoe Williams explains that it has been manipulated to echo Post-Modernism:
The Post-Modern, in art, architecture, literature, film, all that [design included], is exclusively self-referential - its core implication is that art is used up, so it constantly recycles and quotes itself. Its entirely self-conscious stance precludes sincerity, sentiment, emoting of any kind, and thus has to rule out the existence of ultimate truth or moral certainty. Irony, in this context, is not there to lance a boil of duplicity, but rather to undermine sincerity altogether, to beggar the mere possibility of a meaningful moral position.
Williams argues we're not the first age to use irony but "we are the first to use it in this vacuous, agenda-free and often highly amusing way."
Studio Job's Robber Baron Table.
Yet, in design, the joke has been wearing thin for a while. The lack of a clear moral position can be seen in the relentless output of star designers like Marcel Wanders and Studio Job. Their work is littered with supposedly "ironic" gestures yet close scrutiny tends to reveal a disappointing ambiguity regarding what they actually stand for. Take the notorious 'Robber Baron' collection by Studio Job. The website accompanying its exhibition as part of the Telling Tales show at London's Victoria & Albert Museum explains that "The Robber Barons were those ruthless 19th-century American industrialists who amassed - and spent - vast fortunes." The preamble leads us to think the collection will be an ironic critique of excess, but the press release from Moss who first presented the work claims it both "celebrates and shames both Art and Industry". The V&A website continues "The objects in this collection, decorated with imagery drawn from heavy industry and warfare, may appeal to the Robber Barons of today: power-hungry despots, oligarchs and bankers." Hardly ironic to make excess for today inspired by the excess of yesterday. Even the normally catholic Icon magazine described it as "a supremely strange and troubling set of furniture."
While we need worthy projects to take us forward, irony is a stabilising force.
Besides its vacuous use, a key reason why so-called ironic design has become despised by many critics is that it has been overexposed in the design media. It is particularly suited to the way much design is consumed today—through images in magazines and blogs, where quick and amusing ideas win the most hits over substance that requires explaining. Whereas in previous years we may have suspended judgement about a design upon seeing its image alone, knowing that a full appraisal of it can only come through use, we are now much more ready to pass sentence without that vital interaction. You might argue that ironic, surreal or poetic design encourages this by placing the focus of attention upon how we read the object rather than what it's like to use, yet if the design is good, that aspect will also have been considered. These objects have become victims of their own surface based engagement, but we must remind ourselves that there may be more to some of them than meets the eye.
In general one senses that far more engagement is needed both by those attempting to be ironic using design, and from those viewing the work. We should ensure, first of all, that we don't misuse the word—that ironic design actually contains irony. Designers must search for the right reasons for joining uncommon forms and functions. These intelligent connections, once made, give us a moment of insight or of pleasure that transcends the corny pun of which we quickly tire. Secondly designers need to refocus on applying irony to what it's best at—puncturing the excesses we find disturbing in our society—and avoid empty gestures. That said, we also need to give would-be one-liner products a chance to prove themselves beyond their visual appeal, through use. Finally, those who have come to dismiss the value of irony in design might reconsider by thinking of a healthy design world as a microcosm of life. While we need worthy projects to take us forward, irony is a stabilising force. Every field needs internal mechanisms that facilitate reflection and evaluation—this is what satire offers to politics. Those who criticise ironic design for being "design for designers" would do well to consider that perhaps that is no bad thing, and if done well, provides an essential component in the debate about where we should be heading.
Tim Parsons is a product designer and lecturer based in London. He is author of Thinking:Objects - Contemporary Approaches to Product Design published in 2009 by AVA Academia and writes a blog entitled Object Thinking. Visit his website at www.timparsons.info.