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This article was originally published in Domus 621 / October 1981
Ideas, design and creations by Phil Garner: an expression of the limits and neuroses of American society
Glancing through Home Video magazine the other day, I came across some designs by Garner for a "new generation" of video machines. It was a pleasant surprise for me to see the creative capacity of this American designer still as active as ever. In the late 60s Garner was already working hard at the design and creation of objects, décors and instruments that might easily have been given the facile label of "radical" or "anti-design".
In fact, though Garner's work does have points in common with European radical trends, he stands apart for his declared love of advanced technology. This technological sophistication he applies to amazing works, sometimes ironic, at other times provocative. The Garner of the 60s, then, expressed the crisis of a generation never breaking away completely from the postwar and still existent American utopia of an automatized world.
We need only look at his mini automobile (the Grocar) built up from an ordinary supermarket trolley. The vehicle has all the characteristics of a large-scale project, as if for one of those gigantic models you see on America's roads. But it expresses all the alienation of the consumer about the needs of the future. It is a mini car which possesses all the efficiency of modern design without sacrificing the self-expression.
"A series of sophisticated mechanical components have been provided for the sturdy frame of the Grocar: an elegant body and a range of optional gadgets, all sold in special boxes containing instructions for easy assembly". The language might be taken from the most banal sales pitch for consumer goods. The aim of the exercise is not revealed until the end: "the cart can be easily obtained from the nearest supermarket". The word "obtained" reminds us of a whole tradition of ideas and projects from the late 60s and early 70s for winning back and transforming the established system of objects and spaces.
Many then believed that such
change was possible — Garner
is still working at it! But his
projects rather than transform
the society in which he lives
tend to display its limits and
its hidden neuroses. This we
can find confirmed by his
in his autobiography.
Garner's designs thus tell us about a society that cannot be objects alone, but also by articles which, unique though they are, forcefully express certain aspects of American society. Ugo la Pietra
I grew up during what might be called the "Neo-Futurist" period in America, the time just after World War II which saw a frenzied effort to recapture visions of utopia. The means for this was blatantly materialistic and the inspiration came from a combined desire to expurge the horror and hardships of the war plus the need to quickly put the massive defense industry to work producing consumer goods.
It was during my formative years when this phenomenon reached its peak and the images of industrial design and science fiction became almost synonymous. Automation was to produce a world so breathtakingly efficient as to virtually eclipse the ruthless and barbaric side of man's nature. Of course, it was easy for a child, especially one intensely interested in mechanical things and endowed with a certain sense of theatrical style to view this eventuality without skepticism. I soon became the consumate " techno-romanticist".
My disillusionment came, along
with everyone else's, in the sixties
but I never lost my affection for
futuristic appliances (especially
the automobile) nor my longing
for push-button utopia. I merely
added an awareness of the
absurdity of such things to my
repertory. My work today is based
on these notions.
I feel fortunate to have grown up in post-war America for I don't believe the same situation existed anywhere else in the world or perhaps ever will. Philip Garner