Duke University Alumni Magazine

by Kim Koster

Creative concepts: Herbst Lazar Bell, the maker of "Zuzu's Petals," above, describes its digital assistant as a "cyber-creature," while a new toothbrush, below right, brings form and function to a daily task
Photos: Sandbox Studios

While the most au courant consumer products were once available only to a few and at a premium, the past few years have seen a democratization of design

urvaceous office workstations that surround their users in a free-form fashion. Color-saturated hand tools for electricians. Computer hardware in flowing lines and bright colors, from Apple's iMac and iBook to Sun Microsystem's Java unit and 3Com's Palm Pilot. Oral-B's grip-fitting, soft-gel-handled CrossAction toothbrushes. These everyday items are among the samples on display at the first National Design Triennial, "Design Culture Now," presented by the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York.

Farther down Fifth Avenue, another design exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art examines "A Century of Design." This spring it began with Art Nouveau and ran through 1925; its current incarnation presents design from 1925 to 1950. The Met's retrospective discussed Art Nouveau as a stylistic movement in which artists and designers replaced the prevailing Victorian doctrine with organic and nature-based forms, "exploring new directions, whether realistic or abstract, exuberant or restrained, curvilinear or geometric." While Art Nouveau was more about style than substance, the words could apply to the works in the wood-paneled rooms of the 1898 Andrew Carnegie mansion that is home to the Cooper-Hewitt.

User-focused: The shopping cart above is convenient and safe, with drop-in baskets and a kickstand;
Photo:Steven Moeder

Prowling through the Triennial, design critic and author Edward Gomez '79 takes in its myriad design samples, recalling those precepts of Art Nouveau as he thinks aloud. "In the nineteenth century, the British art critic and artist and aesthetician John Ruskin wrote very emphatically about the importance of nature as a source--the ultimate source--for the inspiration of the artist," says Gomez, walking around the display of "Zuzu's Petals," a handheld, personal digital assistant for students, with its electronic components coming together to form a colorful plastic flower in a pot. "I think what we're seeing, with the computer we just saw, and the toothbrush, and the nonrectilinear, more ergonomically conscious design work in this show, is a more conscious awareness of nature and the human body as a source, as a reference point. And that's very important, because there's a point at which classic modernist design becomes so preoccupied with purity of form, which is very geometry-based, that it starts to refer more to its own sources, to its own aesthetic, as opposed to the outside world."

This analysis is part of an ongoing conversation Gomez has been engaged in, both on this particular day and for several years--a thoughtful, intellectual take on a topic that has become hotter than hot. "Design" is now a buzzword, an intangible "something" that distinguishes one product from another, attracting attention and customers. Many volumes on product and industrial design were listed among the century-retrospective books that came out last year. Not long ago, the only publications featuring design trends and products on their covers were art- or advertising-oriented, but now Time magazine has put a mass-media stamp on the concept, featuring "The Rebirth of Design" on its cover two weeks after the National Design Triennial opened. And while the most au courant consumer products were once available only to a few and at a premium, the past few years have seen a democratization of design, with the latest concepts--from teapots to toilet brushes --arriving at such mass-market retailers as Target and Ikea almost as quickly as at expensive and exclusive showrooms.

Gomez has been tracking, documenting, and participating in design trends for many years, from the multiple perspectives of author, teacher, critic, and designer. He earned a master's in communications design at New York's Pratt Institute, where he has taught in recent years. Once a senior editor at Metropolitan Home magazine, he has written on art and design for many publications, including ARTNews and The New York Times. He is contributing to a book that will accompany a retrospective of Yoko Ono's art and, from his design studio in Hudson, New York, he edits and publishes The Hudson River Herald, a small environmental-issues newspaper.

All of these occupations and preoccupations come up in a lengthy conversation at a small neighborhood diner in the Carnegie Hill neighborhood of New York's Upper East Side, just a few blocks from the Cooper-Hewitt. Gomez is clearly passionate about his subjects, intensely interested in the many ramifications of developments in the design world, and spins out his thoughts in long, discursive sentences. From time to time he'll fork up a few leaves of his Greek salad, but that forkful is likely to remain suspended for a minute or two while he finishes making a point. Copies of the inaugural issue of The Hudson River Herald lie on the table with copies of design magazines, which he occasionally leafs through in search of something to illustrate his thoughts.

Many of those thoughts have emerged from his most recently completed book project, which charts current developments in the topic at hand. The four-volume New Design series (Rockport, 1999) takes a global look at what Gomez considers to be some of the best work from Paris, Tokyo, London, and Los Angeles during the past several years. Each book has its own tone, mirroring that of each city--consumerism in Los Angeles, cultural concerns in Paris, pop elements in Tokyo, and a sense of an energetic hybrid of all three in London.

When this is pointed out to Gomez, he responds both as critic and teacher. "Immediately you hit upon something that I think design historians right now are watching with great interest. Given the prevalence of the computer, which has become the single most powerful tool in all the design arts, there's some concern among creative people that maybe the visual language of design will become more homogenized around the world," he says. "But local stylistic tradition and local aesthetic ideas are very strong and resilient sometimes, and the conditions in which design is produced still vary from place to place."

This idea of a local sensibility guarantees that the Paris book and the Tokyo book could never be mistaken for each other, and Gomez is keenly aware of the distinctive influences in each culture that keep design fresh and different from place to place.

In New Design: Paris, for example, he notes in the introduction that there is a strong link between graphic design and fine art, with advertising posters drawing attention to "everything from clothes and dairy products to film festivals and social services." Indeed, France has long been known for the affiche culturelle, the poster that announces cultural events; these posters continue to showcase the best of the country's graphic design work.

Looking four-ward: Each book in Gomez's series captures the distinct energy of its subject city

New Design: Tokyo, on the other hand, examines what Gomez calls "the strong and distinctive Japanese design sensibility," and particularly the impact felt on Japanese design when the Apple Macintosh was introduced in the 1980s. While designers around the world use the computer as a tool, "what Japanese designers do with it and bring to it may differ considerably" from Western designers, he writes. The energetic, pop-art use of color and animation that sometimes looks like "daunting visual clutter" to the uninitiated Western eye can instead be completely clear to the Japanese audience. And what we see as irony might instead come from a pure sense of fun.

Today's London is held up in its New Design entry as a source of creative energy and enthusiasm that "is helping to build a vision of the much-ballyhooed 'new' Europe with more ingenuity and flair than even some longtime Britain-watchers may recognize," Gomez writes. Whether through the work of inventive typographers in the magazine field, the thriving of post-graduate design programs and small design studios, or the support of government cultural initiatives, London design has helped "raise consciousness" on a public scale "about what visual communication, at its best, can and should be--and what it can and should do."

Consumerism, in entertainment and merchandising, lies at the heart of New Design: Los Angeles. Bright labels for sacks of pancake mix or cosmetics bottles lie just pages away from trade-show displays and website banners. Restaurant signage and catering company logotypes jostle up against CD packaging and television commercial layouts. In the introduction, Gomez points out the hold the desktop computer now has on graphic design and the innovations it has enabled since the Macintosh was introduced and designers began blending "traditional (now old-fashioned) photomechanical techniques of print production with the new digital technology's abilities" to manipulate and compose text and images and pages. It is also taking design into the fourth dimension, as websites add time and motion to the artistic landscape of visual communication.

While the computer may enable new levels of creativity and cross-cultural discourse, Gomez says it can sometimes cause a decline in overall aesthetic quality. "On the one hand, it's not true that just because you have a computer, you're instantly a graphic designer. On the other hand, the fact that the desktop computer now is as powerful as it is allows even the casual typist to create documents that include charts and graphs, photographic images, drawings, and color. In some ways it enables the individual in a way that typists at the beginning of the century, when typewriters were still new, could never have imagined.

"So, suddenly everybody is enabled, to a certain degree, because of the tools. It becomes more imperative than ever to really prepare people who want to do professional-quality graphic design, to equip them with the knowledge that they need to undertake that work."

The workstation above simplifies desk organization
Photo: Effective Images

What the leading talents in the book series have in common is a thorough understanding of the basics of design--knowing the rules before they begin breaking them. Gomez has taught such rules in his courses at Pratt, from centuries-old French guidelines for arranging type on a page to strict modernist principles about the use of color and space. "I compare it to a really good jazz musician," he says. "A good jazz musician improvising will sprinkle a piece with so-called 'blue notes' that are off-key but sound right in the context of whatever that performance might be. They sound perfect--they're not wrong notes, they're right wrong notes, and it's hard to play the right wrong notes. You have to be at the top of your form."

Instead, what Gomez says he sees happening frequently is "people who think it's really cool to do something outrageous because of the dramatic, theatrical flair to it, and because the computer allows them to. But while it might look good, it can be very hollow, superficial."

What's more, he says, not only does the computer allow designers to get away with this superficiality, but it can also reinforce a creativity-stifling idea that there is just one way to achieve an effect. "Many times, the computer software that designers are using actually compels them to do certain things in a certain way," he says. "That's not to say you can't reap very creative rewards just from playing around with it--it's a tool, after all. But who's in charge, creatively? We're starting to see a lot of design that evokes the look of what designers have come to assume computer-generated design should look like."

Finally, Gomez says he sees design schools themselves as a possible part of the problem, bypassing technical skills or historical background because "students now have to spend so much time learning to use the computer--learning the latest up-to-date software programs for making graphic design."

There is an antidote, however: teaching students and full-fledged designers to realize that the computer is just one of the tools in their kit. "Before one can really make a good, artistic, effective, communicative statement in the language of graphic design, whether they use a computer or a pencil and a straight edge, they need the culture of design, what I call the culture and the knowledge of design. That's why in design education we need to be including design history and design aesthetics as very, very core components of a design curriculum."

Stylish service: Color saturation makes electrical tools from the Fluke Corporation stand out in an industrial crowd; attention to detail brings a handmade feel to music industry ephemera
Photos: Louis Fliger & Matt Flynn

Gomez says this grounding in history and aesthetics should be accompanied by a continued willingness to turn away from the computer during the design process. He uses one of the designers featured in New Design: London to illustrate his point. Ian Swift, a typographer and art director whose professional name is Swifty, "talks about the distinction between the analog and the digital, and he emphasizes that for him, the computer is indeed merely a tool. He's very capable of using it, and he recognizes its tremendous power. But he says he works out the bulk of his design on paper, and in his head, in hand-made sketches, whatever it takes, before going to the computer to execute the final version. He'll photocopy something--he'll photocopy it twenty times. He'll sit on it, step on it, rub it, smudge it. What he believes in is what I would call 'the touch of the hand.'"

There are times when Swifty will bypass the computer altogether, says Gomez, and will create a logotype or typeface entirely by hand. "It's very simple, very beautiful, and it's that understanding of the power of simplicity that I think makes him a good designer. Part of that is intuitive--that's where the artistry comes through. But part of it is that he understands the technical concerns, such as composition, balance, weight, color, all these things. Those are skills. Those can be taught."

Swifty is collaborating on one of Gomez's other projects, a new series of books. "One of them is what I call 'the big book'--Spirit: The New Art of Design," he says. "Swifty is interpreting my text visually, so the book is really going to be a visual essay. What I'm looking at is what I'm calling expressions of a new sense of humanism in the visual arts and design arts--art and design work that expresses some kind of spiritual value, that does reveal that 'touch of the hand,' that is unabashed in its presentation and celebration of craftsmanship, technical skill, emotional expression, attention to spiritual values.

"I'm interested in work that says something about or provokes some awareness of what it means to be human. And I say all that not as some kind of neoconservative reactionary who is dissing postmodernist critical theory, but as someone who feels that hardcore postmodernist critical theory, which has reigned supreme in the visual and design arts now for several decades, is exhausted. It has devolved into a merely superficial style--at least as it is practiced by the less design-literate creative people in the visual and design arts for whom it is nothing more than a style."

New work contains "a lot of attention to the body. There's more and more overtly spiritual references." And in Gomez's thinking, "spiritual" is not necessarily limited to "religious." There is the idea of moral value, which includes responsibility and accuracy in communicating a design, and also a more abstract but no less important notion of the artist's creation of beauty, and the audience's response to that creation. "I was walking out in this snowstorm, and a snowflake fell in my mouth and melted on my tongue," he says. "And I thought, wow, that's a haiku waiting to be written, and I was very moved by that poetic moment, and the awareness that I had at that moment of being alive. I know that sounds very hokey, but I was very simply aware of that, and I thought, where is the art that evokes that kind of experience that I just had? That snowflake, dissolving on my tongue as I walked across the street--show me something that gets that kind of response. Not another smirky, wise-guy, ironic commentary on how the mass media manipulates my thinking; I know that already. That's old news."

Instead, Gomez envisions a new design frontier, a place where technical skills and that spiritual "touch of the hand" come together. "I would say that what's really cutting-edge now is not only well-versed and design-literate, coming from a strong knowledge of what design is and has been and can be, but in some cases bucks the prevailing trends, too--stylistically, technically, in terms of theory and in terms of attitude."

To illustrate this notion, he points to his work on The Hudson River Herald, the small newspaper he started publishing in response to the civic and environmental threats he saw to his hometown and the Hudson River Valley by a proposed cement plant. He says he designed the paper "very consciously to evoke the look of the eighteenth-century, nineteenth-century broadsheet. It's not completely or intentionally a nostalgia trip, because if you look at the design, it's a very contemporary interpretation of a look that never intended to be 'a style.' I wanted to evoke the spirit of that community-based, community-service-oriented journalism, rooted in the tradition of the printer-publisher-writer-educator-community servant-town crier, all of those rolled into one. Yet I wanted to update it for our times."

That kind of update, a return to humanism that still looks toward the future, delights Gomez by turning up in much of the new work at the Cooper-Hewitt, where the Triennial does much to bear out his current thinking on what design should be trying to accomplish.

At one point, he stands before a wall covered in business cards, promotional materials, and CD covers, the work of Arizona designer Bruce Licher for the band R.E.M. and others in the independent music industry, all looking like they'd come from a job-printer using an old letterpress. "See, this is interesting," he says, comparing the evocative, informative yet comfortable feel of the publicity work with his goals and standards for his newspaper. He sees more evidence in numerous entries: architectural models from Auburn University's Rural Studio, where undergraduate architecture students work on projects for low-income families while using natural or recycled materials and organic forms; rough-textured wall-panel studies from the redesign of the National Museum of American Folk Art, which Gomez calls "unabashed" and "adventuresome"; and the Web work of the design firm Funny Garbage, whose own website features compilations of sketches and scraps and scribbles in sourcebooks, bringing to mind the analogous office-bulletin-board collages of design legends Charles and Ray Eames.

After a thorough immersion in the exhibit, Gomez walks a few rainy blocks to a nearby coffee shop, where he discusses the Triennial and its relevance to his current concerns. "It's encouraging in two senses. One, as a writer, because it vindicates my assumption, based on earlier research, that there's a story there. And, second, because on a personal level I want to see that the kind of work I'm interested in is indeed being produced. Because I think it's valuable and necessary, I'm glad to see that some people are exploring those themes and bringing work forward that explores those themes."

Sipping hot tea, he returns to the example of the complex shopping-cart prototype, with its lift-out baskets and comfortable use, and the other examples of ergonomic design embodied by everything from toothbrush to office chair. Paying attention to ergonomics, for instance, "was an attempt to be socially responsible, responsible to real human needs --which is valid because it's the flip side of design that comes from a more doctrinaire aesthetic point of view, that tries to make the designed object just about style."

So, even as a first glance at the design triennial echoes John Ruskin and the Metropolitan Museum's Art Nouveau exhibit in a celebration of the organic and the nature-influenced, design culture now has left superficial style far behind. The same colorful, curvy Swingline staplers and Oral-B toothbrushes on display at the Cooper-Hewitt are available at every corner store. Apple's iMacs are found more and more on sleek office workstations. We buy Michael Graves-designed kitchenware at Target, climb into funky Volkswagens and Toyotas, make cookies with ergonomic Black and Decker hand mixers, and sit down to work and relax in body-embracing chairs.

In short, today's stylish design is busy embracing service and substance, and it's reaching the public on an unprecedented scale. "Slick, high-tech looks for their own sake are out," Gomez says. "With an emphasis on styling that celebrates function, design that is inspired by and responds to how we move, think, and work in a postmodern world is in."

Share your comments

Have an account?

Sign in to comment

No Account?

Email the editor