Design Dust-Up

Design Dust-Up

Hella Jongerius's five-figure Polder Sofa. (Courtesy Moss)

Over the weekend, the NYT’s Week in Review ran a scattershot call–“Design Loves a Depression” by Michael Cannell, former editor of the paper’s House & Home section–for design to “come down a notch or two.” Enter the Grand Poobah of contemporary design, Murray Moss, who savagely rebutted Cannell’s claims in a guest column for Design Observer cleverly titled “Design Hates a Depression.”

Cannell, tripping blithely past Philippe, Zaha, Miami, Dubai, Rem, his 12-year-old doorstop S, M, L, XL (for no discernible reason), and that “apotheosis of indie cool” Brooklyn, zeroed in on an $8,910 chair by the Campana Brothers, a $10,615 couch by Hella Jongerius, and a 2006 marketing shtick wherein Dutch designer Marcel Wanders had his girlfriend swinging from a chandelier to support sales of what turned out to be a pretty popular series of over-sized lamps.

Cannell compared this while-Rome-is-burning frivolity with the sober productivity of Charles and Ray Eames during those “hard times”: the American postwar boom. A stern message followed. “However dark the economic picture,” wrote Cannell, “it will most likely cause designers to shift their attention from consumer products to the more pressing needs of infrastructure, housing, city planning, transit and energy.” Here’s hoping product designers don’t get to do all the bridges.

Moss pounced: “Design loves a depression? I can assure you that design, along with painting, sculpture, photography, music, dance, fashion, the culinary arts, architecture, and theatre, loves a depression no more than it loves a war, a flood, or a plague. Michael Cannell’s article is regressive and mean-spirited, and it demands a response.”

Moss briefly celebrated the “design renaissance” of the past decade that he has helped to significantly propel forward, before mounting to a devastating sneer:

Mr. Cannell proposes that the design world “come down a notch or two.” Is he suggesting that these great works should adapt something that in his personal opinion would be a more “democratic” pricepoint? What would that number be, exactly, and who would arbitrate it as accessible? (Perhaps they should be priced as the proverbial Nixonian Good Republican Cloth Coat?) When he says “come down a notch or two,” does Mr. Cannell mean that Design should retreat from its current expansive, ambitious, fearless, exploratory, guild-breaking, all-encompassing plateau, from its hard-won re-positioning in the Arts? And revert back to what? To the perceived mid-century notion of efficiency and comfort? What regressive, back-in-the-box, frozen-in-the-mid-20th century absolutist utopian modernist “democratic” criteria for evaluating contemporary design is Mr. Cannell proposing from his alleged “front row seat” on design?

Withering vitriol aside, the truth is that both sides have a good argument. The price tags on design are out of whack, and yet the qualities of good design encompass far more than function as it was defined in 1933. Problem-solving has become far too complex for any glib call to arms.