Friday, June 22, 2012

Breaking Bauhaus

I think it started with me about 5 years ago, when I read an article assigned to me in class on the importance of ornamentation. It used the term "making it special", and wound out a narrative of how ornamentation is important to religion and culture.

The next point of inflection came a few month ago. Like many, I read a number of blogs, and one of my guilty pleasures is the gadget heavy blogs like Gizmodo and Engadget. The writing is typically breathless and severely ADD. There is always the underlying tension of Apple's products and the benchmark they provide for good design.

At least one writer has decided as an arbiter of good taste to parrot what they perceive to be Bauhaus virtues, which boils down to the use of shiny white plastic and brushed metal (okay, I am simplifying). There is little discussion on all the ways Bauhaus had impact; the focus is primarily on products. This is to be expected, for it is easier to critique things that we use every day, without really digging deeper into why something works or it doesn't.

I am not here to criticize Bauhaus, despite my title - for anyone in design would be silly to not acknowledge it's importance to 20th and 21st Century design. But people in design know there are many schools of design, some influenced directly by the clean aesthetic, some not. All have their place.

Consider typography, and all the permutations of how it is used - more so than ever due to the facile nature of digital copy. Anyone with a copy of Photoshop can wield lettering, for better or worse (I consistently argue for the better).

Those that "know what they like", and celebrate Bauhaus, without ever going through the painful process of designing something that people will use, will assume that it is all about "stripping away what is not important". How obvious is that! Let's design an iPod this morning, and then take the rest of the day off!

The problem is that - again - using the example of typography - is that Bauhaus at it's worst becomes bland, blank and cold. It doesn't move you. Glass-sided buildings with no ornamentation - the materials are pretty much it, not much more. Contrast this with buildings that do make a statement, where ornamentation is part of the necessary aesthetic of "making them special".

I think it is time for those who celebrate consumer goods to get a better grasp of what good design really is. It is much more than materials and placement. It is more than "just leaving out what is not important". It is a much harder thing than this. It is making something that will be valued, something that makes an impression, something that can bring a smile to someone's face. Ornamentation is crucial here - these are design elements that are not there for simply pure functionality - they are there because it appeals to us in a way that is uniquely human. Bad Bauhaus denies our humanity.

This is why there are no truly Bauhaus automobiles. Automotive design hooks into both sides of our brain. I love automotive design for this very reason. It is not purely about functionality and efficient use of materials and structures, it is about how it makes us feel. Zagato's designs in the 60's were waaay out there at times, but their best work defined styling elements that others would pick up in their own cars. Virgil Exner's designs for Chrysler in the 50's where designed to be over the top; floating pieces of automotive sculpture that appropriated design elements from such sources as jet fighters. The cars at their best looked like they could actually fly.

And this is why it hurts my brain now to hear evocations of Bauhaus in everything consumer. Those who consider it the last word in design (real designers do not) are not paying attention. They are simply echoing stuff they read somewhere. Design is more than materials and efficiency - it is about form, time and motion. This is more than the curve in the back of an iPad. It is more than making something banal but clean - it is - about making it special.