‘Design for common good’ – Battle of Novelty versus Need. By Kshitija Mruthyunjaya
Charles Eames once said, “innovate as a last resort.” As I sit amidst a swarm of fashion, beauty and tech window displays at Leonardo da Vinci-Fiumicino Airport in Rome waiting to board my flight to Delhi, Charles Eames’s famous quote seems redundant. I see hundreds of passersby stood by these windows either wishing they could afford a particular new item in store or contemplating their next buy based on advertisements that “pretends to perpetuate the illusion that something is new, innovative and exciting when it isn’t.” Focusing on “style rather than substance executed under instruction by others,” the impact this cyclical action has on our planet is not unknown.
The term "anthropocene has become an environmental buzzword” and Kluiving, an expert on the topic describes it as “a new geological era in which humans are creating much more stress on the earth's surface and atmosphere than all natural processes combined." Despite the warnings, why are users, producers, designers, manufacturers and other actors obsessed with all things new and as London based journalist and consultant Hugo McDonald questions “Where do we draw the line between innovation and novelty?” We have projects in all fields of design that are solely based on newness for the sake of newness and merely a spectacle of concept aiming to fuel conspicuous consumption, thus giving power to the ‘wants’ of the industry and not so much the needs of the world. Through this kind of symbolic violence citizens consider unjust conditions/actions as normal and even come to value the oppressive.
Every year in April thousands of people flock to Milan to attend design week. If Salone del Mobile is one part of the design week which is the main design fair at Rho Fiera, Fuirosalone runs in parallel, which is a host of events in collaboration with Milan city council offers support to “companies, agencies, private people or associations for the conception, creation and promotion of events during design week.” After its past criticism toward the design fair, Salone del Mobile launched a new manifesto in 2018 following “good design for a bad world” initiative. It is evident from the exhibitions last year and this year that this agenda has been applied to some projects if not all. Design Collisions: The Power of Collective Ideas, a collection of 15 projects curated by Laura Traladi is one such example where co-design was used as a tool to oppose “divisionist, nationalist and isolationist narrative.” The bilingual glossary given at the start of the exhibition set the tone for the exhibition with meanings of various words including the terms design and collisions where design was defined as “translation of ideas into feasible projects” and collisions as the “dynamic encounter between particles which determine an exchange of energy.”
The criteria for the selection of the exhibited projects were not based on newness but the impact it has on society. Upon entering one is presented with works of activist Marinella Senatore, whom I had a chance to meet during a talk at MiArt festival just before Milan design week. Her work merges art, dance, music, and photography to “enable the public to generate a potential for social change.” She founded The School of Narrative Dance in 2013, a free school that is based on non-hierarchical principles where she engages with local groups to create new narratives in education. It is based on “inclusion and self-cultivation” that allows individuals to share their knowledge and build new ones to enhance participation in communities.
Talking hands based in Trevisio in Italy are also engaging communities in subverting the idea of newness, but in their case they are tackling the most “urgent topic in our society” that is migration. An initiative started by graphic designer Fabrizio Urettini, they involve and accommodate asylum seekers and refugees to express themselves through handwork to tell a story. The beauty of this project is not so much in the products (like textiles, garments and furniture) themselves but the positive social impact it has created in Treviso where refugees previously were not accepted. One of their projects called Alta Visibilita aims to subvert high vis jackets usually associated with refugees who would have received it after participating in a road safety course by the local police. The project was a collection of reversible high vis jackets “with one of the two sides decorated with African fabrics” to raise awareness on the group of individuals that are usually ignored by the society. Here we can see how an already existing garment was customized to portray inclusivity and give it a new identity. Blue Carpet, an embroidery project that moved outdoors (parks) once a week enhanced and formed new relationships between migrants and locals who would spontaneously participate in the project. Thus communication between locals and migrants increased transforming the mood from disengagement to “curiosity and interest.”
Dyloan Studio who focuses on circular economy use innovative technique of heat-sealing to transform old garments into new. They do this by clustering together different actors to encourage co-creation by involving companies that produce raw materials, yarns, fabrics, and designers that work with new technology, professionals, students and other experts. The two outfits exhibited as ‘before’ and ‘after’ showed how the options of reinterpreting an old garment can be infinite.
We might have seen projects like this before but it is crucial to highlight actions such as above, where designers identify “fractures in society” and provide shared solutions that are not based on newness for the sake of newness. One can argue that it is human nature to desire for all things new. But this is not an excuse to use newness as a superficial tool. It is this frivolous nature of novelty that drives most projects these days, which is detrimental to our society responsible for “clogging oceans with trash rather than a potential way of clearing and cleansing them.” Communication and education is key to channel newness towards the urgencies of our society. We can see from above examples how practitioners are using their knowledge and skills and combining it with activism in order to give newness a valid role in our system. Here notion of new is a part of the project and not the driving force, thus making newness worthwhile.