The Stuff

Reading Jonathan Safran Foer’s Op Ed “How Not To Be Alone” in this morning’s Sunday New York Times, and considering a few of the conversations that I’ve had recently, brings me back to some of the topics that continue to be a focus of this blog, as well as part of the general business of LiveWork Studios LLC. 

Not being much of a science fiction reader myself, I can only assume that, somewhere, there exists a sci-fi sub-genre that views the pinnacle of man’s technological advancement as a sort of return to Eden.  If there isn’t, there certainly should be.  This, to me, is the most powerful change that technology has to offer:  the power to rid our lives of stuff.  I know that this is a strange aspiration for someone who has dedicated themselves to the design, production, and maintenance of stuff, but it is truly one of my greatest fantasies:  a world of transparent technology, where we can enjoy the simplicity and beauty of nature and space, without sacrificing our safety, comfort, or our ability to travel and communicate. 

Aside from my work as a designer and builder, my other life as a firefighter may, in fact, represent the ultimate commitment to the world of things.  As firefighters, we ostensibly risk our lives to save other people, but we all know that a large part of the job simply involves saving other people’s stuff.   As a dual certified firefighter/paramedic, I can take some consolation in the old EMS joke that says:  “Paramedics save lives.  Firefighters save furniture.”   An over- simplification, to be sure, but not entirely untrue.

I am not a lover of things.  In fact, it could be said that I have an almost pathological disdain for stuff and its tendency to accumulate around me.  This is not to say that I am a neat freak or a minimalist in any traditional sense of the word.  Not by a long shot.   I’m fully aware of the ways in which the stuff that surrounds me has a tendency to make me crazy, and yet, surround me it does. 

My commitment to the physical world is largely as a producer and participant.  I realize that some degree of consumption goes with the territory, but I’ve always been among the most reluctant of consumers.  There is a certain hunger that I have which can only be sated through the production of physical things - a disease of sorts - but I can truly say that I have no nostalgia for the objects produced after they leave my hands.  Perhaps this is because every finished product feels like just another failed attempt at perfection:  an ideal to which we can get ever-closer, but never arrive.  Our approach is by halves, at best.  So what is the ideal towards which I’m striving?  The truly transparent design.  Total simplicity.  Total functionality.  Total economy of material and form.  A chair that is only there when you want to sit down. 

It is towards this ideal which the latest advances in materials and production technologies have brought us another half-step closer.  The power of the desktop 3d printer lies not in its ability to print a new part for your toaster when it breaks, but in its eventual ability to make you a piece of toast, followed by a new pancreas.  This, to me, is true minimalism.   Not the precious curation of a few festishized objects. Just “stuff when you need it, nothing when you don’t.”  Of course things will not naturally evolve in this direction.  Not in a society so centered on stuff and its production, marketing, sale, and distribution.  Not only do we have to convince people that less truly is more, we have to convince them to pay more for it. We have to convince them that the biggest status symbol of all is to arrive without a car and nothing in your pockets.  Like a hobo.

Of course this pastoral idyll is a long way off, and there is still plenty of work to be done for the industrious designer/builder.  The guiding principles, however, remain the same.  Simplicity, economy, elegance.  Or the old firmitas, utilitas, venustas (firmness, commodity, delight).  These are the central tenets of a design philosophy that is, at least to me, based on problem solving.  It is this focus, which has lately been the issue that I’ve had such a hard time articulating in my discussions of design and designers and the issues I seem to have with them.  I’m just not going to be impressed by another fancy-looking teapot.  Certainly not one made in a factory in China.  There are still plenty of teapots out there, and many of them are perfectly good.  Truth be told, I just don’t care all that much about tea, but I’ve owned a few teapots in my time, and only one of them has consistently pissed me off (it dribbled more than it poured).  Teapots are simply objects that lend themselves to elegant and novel forms, so designers naturally gravitate toward them.  Meanwhile, every can opener and garden hose sprayer I’ve ever used has been a complete piece of shit. 

So there, I think, lies my issue with the current crop of up-and-coming designers.  They’re object fetishists – collectors of their own output.  It shows in their carefully arranged sartorial choices, and in their hipster/minimalist (minimalipster?) aesthetic.  Clean typography.  A round logo with some sort of “X” or plus sign in the center.  Beautifully wrought versions of things I don’t want.  More and more stuff.  It makes me hyperventilate a little just to think about putting all of that stuff into my house, much less, having to pay for it.  At this stage in my life, I figure I’ve already got all of the stuff that I need.  I have enough places to sit, a couple of salt and pepper shakers, and even a teapot.  So, if I’m going to spend a lot of money on a new piece of stuff, it had better replace at least one of the things that I already have, and it had better do its job well enough that I will want to throw away something that is – for the most part – perfectly good.  Of course, things that I own that consistently piss me off are at the top of the list for potential replacement, but I’ll consider anything that does a better job, in a nicer way, in less space than the stuff I already have.

Despite all of my carping about young designers and their outfits, I had a perfectly delightful interaction with the young designer Creighton Berman at the Wanted Design exhibition in New York a few weeks ago.  Berman was there demonstrating his design for a pour-over coffee maker.  “Manual” is a simple, elegant design that treats the daily ritual of coffee preparation as a slower, more thoughtful, deliberate process. Both literally and figuratively transparent, Manual speaks to my simple love of coffee as well as my laziness and disdain for most countertop appliances.  Envisioned as a sort of ‘manual’ appliance to be left out on the counter, Berman’s designs also solves the usual pour-over problem of where to put the hot, soggy, drippy filter after you’ve brewed a cup since the filter holder remains undisturbed by your removal of the cup from its center.  Berman demonstrated the value of his approach by making people free cups of coffee and talking to them while it brewed.  After a busy and rainy couple of days, a well brewed cup of coffee and some honest and interesting conversation made for a real highlight of our convention-going experience.  It’s so simple you never would have thought of it yourself.