States of Design 04: Critical Design

Attacking the dogmas of contemporary consumer culture, Critical Design undermines the default notion of design as an affirmative, commercially-oriented practice that shies away from thorny ethical issues.

This article was originally published in Domus 949, July/August 2011

Design is life, and it is therefore history. Steeped in the human condition, ideally a few steps ahead of it—and hence a political act—it follows the course of events and at critical junctures is compelled to take the lead and show the world a different way forward. Ettore Sottsass was famously eloquent on this topic, declaring in the late 1960s that design "is a way of discussing society, politics, eroticism, food and even design. At the end, it is a way of building up a possible figurative utopia or metaphor about life".[1] Indeed, at different turns architecture and design have raised red (never white!) flags and creatively proposed corrections under different manifesto umbrellas.

Long before the term Radical Design came to define the Italian movement of the 1960s, architecture and design had at times advocated a departure from the past and proposed radically new ways of living, designing and building. The 1960s were rife with impressive exercises in utopia that rivalled the best novels and movies not only for production-design values, but also in philosophical imagination. From Archigram's breathing, talking and walking cities to the mind-expanding pneumatic existence envisioned by the Viennese group Haus- Rucker-Co, all the way to Superstudio's and Archizoom's soaring megastructures hovering over nature and history, the late 1960s were the triumph of creative utopia. Building over the past without obliterating it, however, did not seem possible in the 1970s, a moment of worldwide crisis and violence. Even dreamers from the previous decade turned to the metaphor of a cleansing, cathartic fire, from the Californian Ant Farm, best known for driving a Cadillac into a wall of burning TV sets in 1975, to Alessandro Mendini's unforgettable pyre of the Lassú chair in the same year.
Top: Haus-Rucker-Co (Günter
Zamp Kelp, Laurids
Ortner and Klaus Pinter),
<i>Environment Transformers,
Fly Head, View Atomizer and
Drizzler,</i> 1968.<br />Above: Gayla Rosenfeld, <i>Headscarf</i>
(the project was developed
within the Industrial Design
Department and Bezalel
Academy of Art and Design.
Top: Haus-Rucker-Co (Günter Zamp Kelp, Laurids Ortner and Klaus Pinter), Environment Transformers, Fly Head, View Atomizer and Drizzler, 1968.
Above: Gayla Rosenfeld, Headscarf (the project was developed within the Industrial Design Department and Bezalel Academy of Art and Design.
Much more has happened in design between the 1970s and today. Moments of activity and agitation have alternated with moments of style-induced torpor—for example much of the 1980s, until it was all shaken up by AIDS, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and a progressive awareness of the looming environmental crisis, to name just three macro occurrences.

In the 1990s—the era of blossoming political correctness and consequent hypocrisy—the purest motives could be overshadowed by the perception or the reality of a branding effort. It was, and still is hard for the world to believe in a multinational corporation's political militancy. Colors , the groundbreaking and still controversial monobrand (Benetton) magazine launched by Tibor Kalman and Oliviero Toscani in 1991, featured thematic issues on topics guaranteed to spark debate. Accused of being opportunistic and inflammatory, its most famous page is perhaps that featuring a black Queen Elizabeth (1993), in an issue about race, together with a Kaposi sarcoma-ridden Ronald Reagan in 1994, in an issue about AIDS. Separated from the Benetton brand, however, its ideas and message proved to be a powerful sign that the world was once again ready for strong and antagonistic ideas.
Alessandro Mendini,
<i>Lassù</i> (“Up There”),
performance, 1975.
Alessandro Mendini, Lassù (“Up There”), performance, 1975.
The term Critical Design was first used by Anthony Dunne in his book Hertzian Tales: Electronic Products, Aesthetic Experience, and Critical Design (1999) and later in his Design Noir: The Secret Life of Electronic Objects (2001), written with Fiona Raby.[2] Through their studio projects and work as educators at the Royal College of Art's Design Interactions Department (Dunne is the head), Dunne and Raby have formalised a new field of practice that follows in the footsteps of radical design and architecture from the late 1960s and 1970s, but also marries it with a viable, rent-paying career. Similarly reliant on film and performance to convey its message, Critical Design focuses on studying the impact and possible consequences of new technologies and policies, and of worldwide social and environmental trends, as well as on outlining new goals and areas of interest for designers.
The job of critical designers is to be thorns in the side of politicians and industrialists.
Left: Ralph Borland, <i>Suited for
Subversion,</i> 2002. Nylon, reinforced
PVC, denim,
padding, speaker, pulse-reader,
circuitry. <br />Right: SPUTNIKO!, Menstruation
Machine. Takashi’s Take.
The machine was developed
with research support from
Professor Jan Brosens at
the Department of Medicine,
Imperial College London.
Left: Ralph Borland, Suited for Subversion, 2002. Nylon, reinforced PVC, denim, padding, speaker, pulse-reader, circuitry.
Right: SPUTNIKO!, Menstruation Machine. Takashi’s Take. The machine was developed with research support from Professor Jan Brosens at the Department of Medicine, Imperial College London.
The Critical Design process does not immediately lead to useful objects, but rather to food for thought whose usefulness is revealed by its ability to help others prevent and direct future outcomes. The job of critical designers is to be thorns in the side of politicians and industrialists, as well as partners for scientists or consumer advocates, while stimulating discussion and debate about the social, cultural and ethical future implications of decisions about technology made today. "To do this," explain Dunne and Raby, "we need to move beyond designing for the way things are now and begin to design for how things could be, imagining alternative possibilities and different ways of being, and giving tangible form to new values and priorities. Designers cannot do this alone, though, and the projects here benefit from dialogues and consultations with people working in other fields such as ethics, philosophy, political science, life sciences and biology."[3] In the same essay, Dunne and Raby refer to futurologist Stuart Candy's categorisation of the way we separate futures among "probable", "preferable", "plausible" and "possible" futures. One of the most interesting zones for designers to work in is of course the "preferable" category.
Kieren Jones, <i>Personal
Micro-Farm: The Chicken
Project, Backyard Factory</i>
(‘Micro-fattoria personale:
Progetto polli, Fabbrica nel
cortile’), Royal Collage of
Art, 2010.
Kieren Jones, Personal Micro-Farm: The Chicken Project, Backyard Factory (‘Micro-fattoria personale: Progetto polli, Fabbrica nel cortile’), Royal Collage of Art, 2010.
In Foragers, one of Dunne and Raby's latest projects, the designers engage with a possible future in which food gathering is radically reconsidered. Faced with widespread anxieties about the future of farming and overwhelming evidence of a scarcity of arable land and resources to come, they have designed this scenario as part of Protofarm 2050 —a festival of ideas presented by the South African organisation Design Indaba in 2009. Rather than reconsidering the cultivation of land for food, the designers questioned if people could forage for food in the future, if humans can survive on that which is no longer considered edible or potable, and whether we can survive if we are reduced to our primitive state of hunter-gatherers. Instead of further engineering plant life, Dunne and Raby imagine engineering and "outsourcing" the gastro-intestinal tract. This would be achieved by using new equipment that facilitates the digestion and processing of barely edible resources that already exist around us—such as tough roots and cellulosic matter that many other mammals and birds subsist on and our forebears were able to absorb. Worn over the head or on the body, these devices extend the limbs, mouth or internal organs, acting as micro-processing units that assist our evolutionary processes. Loosely based on practical science and inspired by the potential of synthetic biology and biomimicry technologies, Dunne and Raby's imaginative, dystopian and provocative plan is an experiment designed to elicit discussion and debate.
Natalie Jeremijenko,
<i>Feral Robotic Dogs,</i> 2006.
Natalie Jeremijenko, Feral Robotic Dogs, 2006.
At the Royal College of Art, Dunne has developed a programme rich in practical skills as well as in theoretical approaches and interdisciplinary collaborations with scientists, philosophers and policy-makers, addressing emerging technologies ranging from synthetic biology to tissue engineering, and examining their applications in daily life. Among the many examples of remarkable student research, on these pages we show two in particular, both focused on our body. Setting the stage for The Race, Michael Burton explains, "We are alarmingly near the end of the antibiotic era. Bacteria and viruses are evolving faster than our scientific innovation. Trivial infections we had forgotten about will once again become fatal." The Race incites us to attempt to evolve with—or faster than—germs, bacteria and viruses, and to reconstitute some of the microbial heritage that has been wiped out by excessively hygienic habitats and lifestyles, thereby weakening our immune systems. By re-engineering the growth of our nails, for example, we can create a more rugged surface on which microbes may grow. By designing new hybrid animals and new ways to get close to them, we can optimise our exposure to their dander, hair and parasites, as well as to their healing capabilities. This is also the case with maggots, crickets and mantises held close in cages made of artificial or naturally grown hair.
Left: Brigitte Coreman, <i>Coffins
for the Stillborn.</i> The project
tackles the very delicate
issue of when life actually
begins. Stillborn babies have
no abode. The project raises
the question of how to give
form (and a ritual) to the
feeling of loss.<br />Right: Kieren Jones, <i>The Chicken
Project,</i> egg cup constructed
from fine poultry bone china
(1 chicken = 1 cup).
Left: Brigitte Coreman, Coffins for the Stillborn. The project tackles the very delicate issue of when life actually begins. Stillborn babies have no abode. The project raises the question of how to give form (and a ritual) to the feeling of loss.
Right: Kieren Jones, The Chicken Project, egg cup constructed from fine poultry bone china (1 chicken = 1 cup).
Michiko Nitta's Body Modification for Love project envisions a technique for growing selected body parts on one's skin, allowing you to sport your partner's favourite mole on your shoulder, your ex-girlfriend's nipple close to your pelvic bone, or a patch of living hair on your arm to remind you of your mother. This is a long-term commitment, of course, as the mole and nipple will grow and demand care and the hair patch will need to be cut and groomed. By embedding our emotional background into our own bodies, we could create "growing memories" to keep our recollections alive.

Both projects display the distinctive traits of an RCA Design Interactions curriculum: poetry, an attempt to celebrate and amplify human rituals and habits using contemporary technology, high production values (the works are usually presented not only as objects, but also as perfectly crafted short films, performances and/or visuals), and a strong philosophical stance about possible and preferable futures. Schools have always been the epicentres of transformation in design discourse and in the design profession. Besides the RCA, the Design Academy Eindhoven also has a strong background in Critical Design. I will never forget its 2006 show at the Milan Furniture Fair, entitled Post Mortem. Director Li Edelkoort, who ran the school from 1998 to 2008, and the instructors at the school, who include some of the most interesting and experimental European designers, asked students to work on the theme of death. As amazing as that show was, no less arresting was this year's, in particular a project by Brigitte Coremans called Biodegradable Coffins for the Stillborn.
Dunne and Raby, <i>Faraday
chair,</i> 1994-97. The <i>Faraday
chair</i> provides shelter from
electromagnetic fields
invading our homes.
Dunne and Raby, Faraday chair, 1994-97. The Faraday chair provides shelter from electromagnetic fields invading our homes.
The world of design education has been highly influenced by these experiments in Critical Design, and in the past few years other courses have been launched worldwide. Parsons in New York in particular deserves a mention, not only because its new Transdisciplinary Design course sits rightly at the confluence of design, technology, performance and experimentation, but also because its founder Jamer Hunt is one of the most acknowledged critics from the Critical Design universe—as well as a precious interlocutor on this essay. Not every example of Critical Design comes from schools, however. Some come from the very nature of the designer, as is the case of the late Tobi Wong, a born provocateur and a designer imbibed in New York's art world. Wong's rose brooch made of bullet-proof material exemplifies a stance forever in balance between satire and art. Ralph Borland's Suited for Subversion, a civil-disobedience suit to be worn by street protesters to protect themselves from police batons, is also a conceptual statement, drawing attention to the risks that a protester has to face in order to defend his or her convictions. It features a wireless video camera mounted over the head to act as a witness recording police action, and a speaker in the centre of the chest to amplify and project the wearer's heartbeat, or also to play music or chant slogans. In a group action, when many people are wearing these suits, one would hear heartbeats increasing as tension and excitement mounted, like a natural soundtrack arousing the crowd. At the same time, the heartbeat exposes the vulnerability of the individual.
<i>Ballistic Rose</i> (in
bulletproof nylon) 2004,
design by Tobias Wong for
CITIZEN:Citizen.
Ballistic Rose (in bulletproof nylon) 2004, design by Tobias Wong for CITIZEN:Citizen.
All these examples, even the most apparently nihilistic ones, are characterised by deep empathy, trust in a possible better future, and a belief in the demonstrative power of well-designed utopias. Critical Design's descendance from 1970s' Radical Design, with its attention to political and social issues, is acknowledged. However, because this contemporary version is not trying to scandalise the establishment with every breath it takes, it has more staying power.

The revolution it is attempting is from within the system, less vehement perhaps, but more knowledgeable and disruptive. If it was air in the pneumatic 1960s and fire in the burning 1970s, what is the element of today's design criticality? Maybe soul, if it can be called an element.
Paola Antonelli
Critic and curator, MoMA
Michael Burton, <i>Hair
Harbourer</i> (from <i>The Race</i>
series), 2007. He exploits
the genetic condition of
hypertrichosis (excessive bodily hair growth) to create
symbiotic habitats for insects,
parasites and bacteria,
prefiguring a throwback state
of the human animal.
Michael Burton, Hair Harbourer (from The Race series), 2007. He exploits the genetic condition of hypertrichosis (excessive bodily hair growth) to create symbiotic habitats for insects, parasites and bacteria, prefiguring a throwback state of the human animal.
1. As reported in Peter Dormer, What is a Designer?, in Design Since 1945, Thames and Hudson, London 1993, p.10.
2. See a whole exhaustive page of Critical Design FAQ .
3. Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby, Between Reality and the Impossible (Entre la Réalité et l'impossible) , in Téléportation, catalogue of the 2010 SaintÉtienne International Design Biennal, p.105.

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