an individual for a small group (wobbling solutions, part 5)

Colin Chapman, Lotus 7 (1957/1972)

In the previous class, we examined the universe made out of people who work for themselves. To stay within our given topic, we have deliberately skipped the archetype of “single for the single” (the person who masturbates). This is not because of prudery, rather because if we were to add this variable in the general discourse, we would have to write a book (probably, a series of books) specifically aimed to this subject forgetting everything else (23).

Speaking of “masturbation” and having as reference the horizon of the contemporary world in the production of physical artifacts, we have to spend few paragraphs writing about the world of auctions and limited series (applied to design). In design field it is a recent phenomenon, coming out with great resonance and media coverage (anyhow shattered by the great crisis of 2009).

The “limited series for auctions” model breaks the classic modernist paradigm (the designer is the gentleman who designs products for large industry which will then produce, communicate and market those products for the mass). The designer is no longer some kind of Dieter Rams (who worked for Braun for more than thirty years shaping industrial design as we know it). Neither is Giulio Natta synthesizing polypropylene plastic, opening the way to the world (filled with all kind of plastic objects) as we know it.

Dieter Rams, Braun products

To design is no longer related to understand how to vulcanize rubber and how to transform it into mass-production (Charles Goodyear, 1839), or to follow the experiments of Charles and Ray Eames with fiberglass and its uses for household equipment (1950 approx).

Charles and Ray Eames, Lounge Chair

According to this new paradigm (design is made for auctions), the designer is the gentleman who produces (usually independently), an unique pieces or a limited edition of few pieces for a public carefully selected (usually very rich). The place where the designer meets this public are international auctions and top-level exhibitions and art fairs.

If you have read any design magazine in recent years, it is a world you should know well. Hella Jongerius, Kram/Weisshaar (24), legions of former students of the Design Academy Eindhoven (blinded by dreams of fame) (25) running in the footsteps of Maarten Baas and other supposed masters. The fact that this model has been finally crashed in 2009 global disaster, it is in itself a nice side effect of the crisis.

Maarten Baas, recent works (from Milan Furniture Fair 2008)

The cause of this crash are obvious and not particularly significant in terms of theoretical speculation (26). More interesting for us to go to check if there are possible analogies with similar mechanisms in different periods and places.

In absolute terms, the ideal type of individual who works for a small group is the “specialized craftsman” (not to be confused with the “generalistic craftsman”).

A typical example of a “generalistic craftsman” is for instance an Italian baker (he sells his bread to a small group of persons determined by geographical proximity). At the opposite, a fine example of the “specialized craftsman” is for instance Eugenio Marinella. Mr Marinella in 1914 decides to rent twenty squared meters in the Riviera di Chiaia (Naples) to set up his business related to the production and sale of fancy shirts and ties. In this extent, the specialist craftsman is a gentleman who produces top end goods for a very limited group of clients.

Neckties from E. Marinella ltd

The wannabe famous-designer, just graduated from the Royal College of Art in London (or any other similar institution) generally misses the correlation between the mechanism of the “one for few family” and its time-line. If you want to work within the “one for few” paradigm you need time-lines incredibly long. Putin and Tony Blair fight for a fanciful Marinella necktie after almost one hundred years after the start of the Marinella ltd. If Don Eugenio would have set out to become worldwide famous in few months (as the young ambitious designer generally desires), it would have been a disaster.

The mechanism upon which the individual starts to work for a small group, later expanding its field of operations (reaching a broader audience) is plenty of famous examples. Colin Chapman who set up the Lotus car business, Isamu Noguchi, who engineered the first Japanese paper lantern with electricity, John Maeda developing Design by Numbers… …they all work in the same exact way.

Isamu Noguchi, Akari Lamp

Worth to mention is this curious fact that this is the same system used by the person who lives in a shanty town willing to build a proper home for himself and his family.

The child who builds a toy in the favela is contiguous to his father who builds the house for the whole family (they work with similar design principles, materials and methods). What is is radically different is the “how”. The child works for himself, his father works for his family. The second character (the father) has to include in the overall design equation the concept of “other”: he has to negotiate his own idea of need and desire with the ideas of other people.

If we were to analyze those artists who work for a narrow niche of people (the finest example is the artist who decides to look far ahead, trading an immediate success for a broader recognition over the following decades), one of the most relevant examples to look at is Marcel Duchamp, or – if you prefer literature to visual arts – James Joyce (27). Joyce and Duchamp are the masters of the XXth century, but even in the course of previous centuries, we have a lot of incredibly relevant productions of this kind (think for example Hieronymus Bosch).

Marcel Duchamp, “Fountain”, 1917

Finally, before to move on, a last thought on this issue. In the past, several relevant ventures did start using this operational mode (individual for the small group). This mechanism now seems gone. Is this because of the typical process of compression and distortion of the variable “time” of our times (think for example to “Big Brother” TV format, converting everyone in a celebrity in few hours) or is there more?

Hieronymus Bosch, “Garden of Earthly Delights”  circa 1504

23. From a market perspective, if we assume that 75% of world production of pornography is referred to a solipsistic user, the market related to this specific niche is definitely enormous. Although not easy to calculate, it is estimated that in 2006 about 97 billion dollars were spent in the business (globally). Other interesting figures can be found on:

In general terms we can say that while the topic of masturbation isn’t the best one for academic symposiums or convivial meetings with friends, at the same time it is one of the driving forces of global trade. Also, not to be forgotten, with significant effects in the world of design and new technologies: we should remember that one of the main reasons why the VHS format won the battle with the (better in any respect) Betamax was related to the fact that VHS was the choice of porn industry (because of the low cost of movie production).

Before proceeding further, two links introducing another incredible arena where porn industry meets design (at its best):

> realdolls

> guy and dolls (documentary)

Real Doll (detail)

24. Both of illustrious lineage (Kram was with John Maeda at the “Aesthetics and Computation Group at the Media Lab” at MIT, while Weisshaar was an assistant of Konstantin Grcic after his years at Central Saint Martins and the Royal College of Art in London), they achieved international fame as Kram/Weisshaar thanks to the “Breeding Tables” project (2003 / in progress).

Kram/Weisshaar, “Breeding Tables”, 2007

The “Breeding Tables” are a potentially infinite number of tables generated by a custom-made software. With this project the designers abandon the idea of “design” as a mass production of identical copies made from a single prototype, developing a process allowing the production of many different products using the full potential of information technology. Because of different input datas (shape, dimensions, materials), the algorithm develops a series of possible forms to choose from. Once the choice is made, digital files are sent to the company that will produce the desired version.

In a world obsessed with Chinese copying Western product, this concept is a significative step forward (since there is nothing to copy but rather an algorithm producing each time a different version of the table in question).

The “Breeding Tables” is a very ingenious concept that become a few years later (2008) the “Vendome” series. Commissioned by Design Miami / Basel, the concept of potentially infinite production of the “Breeding Tables” becomes “Vendome” or 99 numbered concrete tables, generated by a custom software programmed specifically for the purpose. In this case, the results are 99 tables Vendome, sold in the world of international auction and collections at an outrageous price. From the dream of infinity of the “breeding tables” to 99 numbered “Vendome”. What did happen?

Kram/Weisshaar, “Vendome”, 2008

25. It is curious how students of all latitudes and longitudes mismatch the concept of being “good” with the concept of being “famous”. In statistical terms (and therefore objectively correct), if you are twenty years old and want to gamble on getting “good” in a given field of human activity, you will achieve complete success. Once we set a given activity xyz, given enough years of practice and iterations, we will undoubtedly succeed, getting excellent at it. At the opposite, if you are twenty years old and you want to gamble on getting “famous”, this statistically bounds to bankruptcy. If we have a room with ten thousand students, only one of them might become famous (maybe) in a given field of activity. Not to mention this other fact that becoming “good” is a linear function (99%) of your skills, exercise and motivation. Whereas the mechanisms that regulate the getting “famous” machine are 99% controlled by other people.

As a corollary of this law (“Young man try to be good, not to get famous”) we have a world filled with good people who are not famous and famous people who aren’t good.

26. The only relevant thing is that the “Ponzi Scheme” (invented by Charles Ponzi in the early decades of the last century) is the typical design mechanism of “one for the big group”. Upon his scheme, mr. Ponzi in few months collected 15 million dollars cheating 40,000 people using his classic pyramid scheme (we all played it at least once: most of us in its children game version of sending ten postcards to the top people in the list).

Well, the Ponzi scheme can be intended as the “one for the big group” system. At the same time it is also “the big group for one person” as well (finally, the real principle of the scheme is to have one person getting reach with all the others losing a lot of money – as Bernard Madoff perfectly explained in the recent past).

27. James Joyce and Marcel Duchamp are the two key players of the team called “Modern culture of the Twentieth Century.” The Beatles are the third (with Andy Warhol and Luis Bunuel on the bench, having Stanley Kubrick and Jackson Pollock in the stand).

Stanley Kubrick, “Clockwork Orange”, 1971

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