If you’re an architect who's feeling bad because of the slumping building industry, think of this: at least you’re not an industrial product designer.
There’s a simple fact: People need buildings. Badly. All kinds of buildings. Buildings to live in, work in, worship in, go to school in. Always. To get the buildings they must have, people will often forgo purchasing the things product designers make. Think about it: You can buy second-hand just about any good that isn’t immediately consumed in some way, and no trip to Goodwill has ever made a product designer a dime. If it really comes down to it, and there's a battle between DVD rack shelves and a house to put them in, the house always wins, and not just because you sold all your DVDs to a pawn shop. Always.
So, quite rightly, the product designer intelligentsia is scrambling for ways to stay relevant. Metropolis’ latest issue focused nearly exclusively on product design, and contained several pieces on how to cope with the worsening economy. The best was by columnist Bruce Sterling, whose piece “Product Panic: 2009” pretty much nails the disruptive changing-of-the-rules-in-the-middle-of-the game disorientation of this ponderously multi-tentacled recession as seen through the mind of a designer.
Sterling’s advice in a nutshell: go with the color pink (it calms angry mobs of newly baptized Populists angry at Wall St., the President, the Treasury Secretary, Congress, etc.) and 99 cent iPod applications you designed in your garage.
The idea is to present the transition from the go-go consume-till-we-foreclose 90s and 00s to a down-market lifestyle based on value, sustainability, efficiency, affordability, and global equity—and to make consumers feel cool while doing it. “They should lower their own hand basket to hell in a brisk, sparkling fashion,” Sterling writes, “with socially just, triple-bottom-line products that are ‘globally inclusive’ and designed for the ‘lowest billion.’”
Perhaps his most promising idea is simply to appropriate what the “lowest billion” have been using everyday. “It’s high time for designers to plunder and upgrade the vernacular technologies of the Third World: wheelbarrows, bicycle rickshaws, rainwater barrels, window boxes, awnings, and mosquito nets; or weird and whimsical wind toys, bamboo-and-Mylar windup shortwave radios,” he writes. “If they’re cheap and blithe, you can’t go wrong here. You want to vividly display a host of eye-catching solar gizmos, while quietly installing some humble weather stripping, which has a terrific ROI.”
Sounds like fun! And there's probably a lesson here for architects looking to gauge today’s dour and repentant zeitgeist in their designs. I’m guessing vernacular building materials and methods (at least superficially) are going to get more and more attention, especially in residential buildings, which have so honestly and directly reflected the national psyche. Wood (especially bamboo) will be in, and hopefully my friend James Timberlake, FAIA, will be vindicated when hordes of people demand smaller houses that snap together like Legos. The firm MOS grabbed some headlines for their temporary party pavilion that partners Hilary Sample and Michael Meredith call “Afterparty”--its collection of basic, inexpensive materials and industrial, yet primitive forms are eerily evocative of an economic age that has combusted and burned to the ground. It’s more a self-conscious symbol of an age than a creature of the design and construction economy, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see its formal motifs become familiar.
Or maybe we’re in for an old-timey return to Depression-era cooperative proto-New Urbanist developments, like Greenbelt, Md. Banding together on (what was) the suburban frontier to baby-sit each other’s children and grow carrots sounds nice, but architects and urban planners are learning more and more about the sustainability advantages of urban density all the time. With their urban vertical farm designs, firms like Mithun and MVRDV have opened up the possibility of dragging a side of beef onto the 7 Train to barter for the aforementioned 99 cent iPod application. Yes, it’s an extreme juxtaposition. But at least you’re not a product designer. He or she just got paid in ground chuck roast.
(Pictured above, a model of MOS's "Afterparty.")