"PRETTY" FURNITURE? HOW QUAINT | January 9th 2008
What's with all the ugly new chairs? The cartoonish lamps? Cliff Kuang tries to explain why someone might spend tens of thousands of dollars on a coffee table that looks like a wad of nicotine gum ...
Special to MORE INTELLIGENT LIFE
Special to MORE INTELLIGENT LIFE
In contemporary design, the word "pretty" can take on a pejorative cast, as in, "oh that's pretty," meaning lighthearted, fashionable, trivial, superficial, dumb. Sometimes designers throw scare quotes around the word--"it's 'pretty'"--and then things are okay again. Maarten Baas, for example, has a Smoke furniture collection in which he takes dignified old chairs and chars them with a flame-thrower. The intent is clear: "pretty" is a dead tradition, which the designer has resuscitated with a wink.
But consider some designs that have been trickling onto the market, after being spotted at fairs in Milan or ICFF: Wieki Sommers's vase, a mish-mash of Delftware that's lumpen at the top and bottom, with a refined but seemingly melting mid-section; FredricksonStallard's Table #6, which looks like a wadded piece of nicotine gum, complete with a wet-teabag hue; Ineke Han's Fracture range of furniture, with plaster-stripped exoskeletons that suggest the orthopaedic casts of friends you signed in middle-school; and Martin Baas's Sculpt line, which has the off-kilter shapes and massive price-tags you'd expect in Pee-wee's Playhouse after the good man won a Mega Millions jackpot.
Each of these objects is charming and quirky in its way. I'd also argue that they don't stand merely against traditional notions of what's good-looking or tasteful--rather they are all wilfully ugly.
Artists have all sorts of escape-hatches that let them avoid making prettified things (cubism, minimalism, etc). Indeed, much of art involves a struggle against conventional aesthetics--an effort to discover unexpected beauty. Moreover, artists, working with objects that have no intrinsic function, are free to pursue their own impulses. So what happens when design--functional by definition--attempts similarly to push past familiar notions of beauty?
Let's take the examples that I've provided, which were very easy to find (I simply went to some popular design blogs and picked the stuff that seemed most odd). In each case, the rough, slapdash quality of the forms plays against the extreme savvy of the fabrication. FredricksonStallard and Martin Baas are both quick to point out that their pieces depend on complex computer programs; Ineke Han's chairs are made possible by novel plastic, plaster-cast bandages, cast over a polystyrene core; and Wieki Sommers joins refined traditions in an offhand yet studied way. All of these pieces seem to pair a goofy junkiness with a complex, insanely expensive method of fabrication. Look around at design chapels (such as Moss in New York), and you see these types of tensions everywhere.
Critics bemoan what they broadly label "kitsch" in design. I can empathise with them, but there's something more bothersome at play. Irony in design isn't just a matter of being fashionably arch. It reflects something deeper about what design is, and what it can or can't be. Two aspects of design have always kept it separate from fine art: it must have a practical purpose and be able to be mass-produced. Ambitious designers are scratching at this cage, but they're also competing for the same audience.
The buyers of these designs are often the same sorts of people that buy paintings at Miami Basel every year. If you are a designer looking to impress consumers with deep pockets and expensively asymmetrical haircuts, it makes sense to subvert ordinary assumptions of what design objects can be. If you're asking someone to buy a $20,000 couch instead of a $20,000 painting, shouldn't the couch have a Big Idea behind it as well?
But what is the meaning found here? Is a clever joke--expensively told, with eyebrow raised--the only option designers have for avoiding "pretty" design? Are ugly chairs and bizarro tables the only way to inject concept into objects? And now, one of the darker question of our self-conscious era: is irony the recourse of those with little else to say?
(Cliff Kuang is a writer based in New York.)