The ironic object

The October 1981 issue of Domus surveys the work of Philip Garner, an American designer with an affection for futuristic appliances — especially the automobile — and a longing for push-button utopias.

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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.
Top: Philip Garner, Closed Circuit Vanity, table and make-up mirror. Above: Left, Philip Garner, Woofer, portable radio for dogs, 1981. Photo by Cari Zappo. Right, Grocar, mini DIY automobile, built over a simple shopping cart. From the pages of Domus 621 / October 1981
Top: Philip Garner, Closed Circuit Vanity, table and make-up mirror. Above: Left, Philip Garner, Woofer, portable radio for dogs, 1981. Photo by Cari Zappo. Right, Grocar, mini DIY automobile, built over a simple shopping cart. From the pages of Domus 621 / October 1981
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.
Philip Garner, series of rollerskates. From the pages of Domus 621 / October 1981
Philip Garner, series of rollerskates. From the pages of Domus 621 / October 1981
"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.
Garner's designs tell us about a society that cannot be objects alone, but also by articles which forcefully express certain aspects of American society
Left, Philip Garner, sitting shower, intended for activities such as "writing, napping, reading, playing solitaire". Right, Philip Garner, TV chair, where an obsolete TV side table is enhanced with a chair, 1981. Photo by A. Rapoport. From the pages of Domus 621 / October 1981
Left, Philip Garner, sitting shower, intended for activities such as "writing, napping, reading, playing solitaire". Right, Philip Garner, TV chair, where an obsolete TV side table is enhanced with a chair, 1981. Photo by A. Rapoport. From the pages of Domus 621 / October 1981
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
Left, Philip Garner, construction for <em>Home Video</em> magazine, 1981. Photo by Dennis Pursue. Right, Philip Garner, "breakfast of champions", in order to simultaneously watch and eat TV.  From the pages of Domus 621 / October 1981
Left, Philip Garner, construction for Home Video magazine, 1981. Photo by Dennis Pursue. Right, Philip Garner, "breakfast of champions", in order to simultaneously watch and eat TV. From the pages of Domus 621 / October 1981
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.
Philip Garner, Backwards Car "I chose the two-door Chevrolet Biscayne for this project, for its exaggerated aerodynamic style. I removed the interiors and then reinserted them in the opposite direction, dealing with all the necessary mechanical alterations myself. (...) According to the California Police, it was only a 'customised car'". 1974. Photo by Jeff Cohen. From the pages of Domus 621 / October 1981
Philip Garner, Backwards Car "I chose the two-door Chevrolet Biscayne for this project, for its exaggerated aerodynamic style. I removed the interiors and then reinserted them in the opposite direction, dealing with all the necessary mechanical alterations myself. (...) According to the California Police, it was only a 'customised car'". 1974. Photo by Jeff Cohen. From the pages of Domus 621 / October 1981


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".
Philip Garner, Backwards Car, sketches. From the pages of Domus 621 / October 1981
Philip Garner, Backwards Car, sketches. From the pages of Domus 621 / October 1981
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
Philip Garner, Cycliner. The application of metal laminate to a 1950s bicycle allows for styling and graphic enhancement of a standard bicycle. "The missing link between the bicycle and the automobile." 1974. From the pages of Domus 621 / October 1981
Philip Garner, Cycliner. The application of metal laminate to a 1950s bicycle allows for styling and graphic enhancement of a standard bicycle. "The missing link between the bicycle and the automobile." 1974. From the pages of Domus 621 / October 1981
Philip Garner, Bellowshoe, sketch. From the pages of Domus 621 / October 1981
Philip Garner, Bellowshoe, sketch. From the pages of Domus 621 / October 1981

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