Malene Skaerved & Peter Sheppard Skaerved-a conversation
In 2005, we attended a debate organised by Blueprint Magazine at Christchurch, Spitalfields. Our reaction turned into to a written conversation, and it was suggested that we might turn it into an article for the magazine. However, when we realised how much was going to be removed to from the conversation to make it fit the parameters of Blueprint (and no complaint against them), we kept the piece to ourselves, part of the long running conversation about the way we live, what excites us, from writing to saucepans, from music to fenceposts.
TWO OUTSIDERS DISCUSS 2005
Malene Sheppard Skærved, a writer and filmmaker, and Peter Sheppard Skærved, a violinist and educator, went to the Blueprint Awards for Production Design. They were surprised at what they experienced. Here is an excerpt of the discussion they have been having since then.
Malene: I was not prepared for the bloodthirsty nature of the discussion at the Blueprint Award. Nipa Doshi had warned us before we went; ‘They will say our work is not production design’. Doshi Levien was indeed the odd one out, a two- person company up against established giants, Industrial Facility and Priestman Goode. Soon the evening turned into something reminiscent of the petty putdowns of a school debate.
Malene: One (male) speaker objected to design that displayed any kind of emotion and appeared disgusted by the very notion of love. He implied that these were merely evidence of a lack of technical understanding. In addition, he reserved particular venom for multiculturalism and launched what turns out to be his stock tirade against women, gays, and ‘other subgroups’ (Blueprint Issue 229), being not male, white, straight and ethnically British – whatever that is.
Peter: It was shocking that anyone could stand up and say that basic human values and needs could and should be seen as unimportant in product design.Looking at the audience it seemed an odd place to voice such opinions. Unfortunately, I think that such cant represents a very real trend; the legions of reaction are on the march, whether cloaked in specious irony as here, or in the daily vitriol that sections of the media pour on any value that can be derided as soft, liberal or so forth.
Malene: Nipa Doshi and Jonathan Levien work both as artists and makers – which is what appeals to us – they put their personalities and feelings to use in producing objects for mass-production. Their prodigious creativity is underpinned by great technical knowledge and insatiable curiosity; the results are exceptional. Their designs for Tefal and Habitat embody both beauty and practicality, which makes buying their work feel like purchasing one-off pieces. Their astonishing Welcome Trust windows revealed the subtlety of their art. They are, unafraid to use their own pasts, their very personal cultural and emotional makeup to intuitively lead their design. This lends all their work a comforting sense of narrative, which tempts the user or the viewer to find their own stories in the pieces.
Peter: I was interested to hear equivalence voiced between the artistic sensibility with the female, the homosexual, and all the more so that this went unchallenged by the audience. They sat meekly whilst the very notion of artistic values was attacked as weak, or as ‘sensitive’. Such an evident fear of Art is the anxiety about its power, which serves, in part, to give voice to human frailties and aspirations. In this, the male speaker (see above) revealed far more than he surely wanted. As a musician, I have grown up with the notion that beauty is not an issue of ‘prettification’, but of Truth. His approach apparently says; do not plan for the future, for longevity, even for durability, but for immediate obsolescence. In fact, design for yesterday, and throw it away tomorrow – ‘don’t worry; we’re going to take some more of your money for the same thing in a year anyway…’ We all remember the love we felt for our first Walkman, computer, mobile phone, car, and so on, but as they are being replaced so rapidly, that initial love is subsumed into a neurotic desire for the new. Our world might be becoming more materialistic, but I sense creeping disquiet that consumers have to waste their money replacing things all the time.
Malene: I noticed that the speakers tended to structure their presentations from small objects to the larger, as if somehow bigger design is better, more significant. Furthermore, the disdain of the beauty in Doshi Levien’s work, merely pointed up the sterility of both Industrial Facility and Priestman Goode’s designs. Comments such as ‘this knife will feel like cutting a woman in half’, made it obvious that their products were primarily aimed at bachelors and bored executives. In general, it is difficult to see how women fit into British industry as designers or consumers. Since the event, I have been logging my own reactions to one product or another. In general, I find that I am forced to overlook the presentation and feel of products. I have long been bothered by the male design concept Molton Brown makeup. Although I appreciate the quality of their products, the bullet-shaped cases for the lipsticks have kept me from buying them. Similarly, the phallic shape of Umberto Giannini’s shampoo bottles made me switch to another brand, despite loving their contents. I find it upsetting and offensive to have my femininity ignored by designs that pay lip-service to masculinity, most especially in products women use in an intimate manner. None of the designs presented by Industrial Facility or Priestman Goode made any effort to reach out towards women; even the packaging for’ Boots no. 7′ disappears on the shelf, is without personality. When you are spending money on yourself, you don’t want to be erased.
Peter: …although as a man, I often do not so much find myself erased as forced into crude archetypes. For instance, when I try to choose shaving products, I find that I have no choice between ‘super macho sports car’ packaging and ‘sensitive, shy and retiring’. I felt equally alienated by kitchen and utensil designs which seemed to be aiming at a certain kind of man – one which I cannot recognise in myself. All these designs incorporate cleaning or storage concepts, but have forgotten that they might need to be used, or encourage use. The kitchen did not invite you to cook, but rather to pack it away in the closet and ‘order in’
Malene: Fashion has always tended to encourage a kind of herding behaviour whilst pushing towards new trends. In America, this is best represented by the allure of the picket fence, here the semi-detached comfort of suburbia; people will always find ways to show how to fit in. Fashion can simultaneously show us how to be part of the crowd, whilst giving us the feeling, even if it is only an illusion, something beyond the everyday, pushing our boundaries and raising our expectations at the same time. As a filmmaker, I am used to money controlling our business, but it has always been something that the creative side of the business is apprehensive of, wary that it so often destroys the worth of the product. Artists have to continually remind themselves that marketing, critics and academics are not makers; they only know what was selling yesterday. Although money is necessary for a commission, I was surprised that there was not more of a reaction from the production designers against the panel’s analysis of their field. Design can do more than just being pretty or new, it can enhance life. Nipa Doshi said it well when she explained their Tefal line for world cuisine; a pot might remind you of your mother cooking whilst also giving you the advantages of new technology. In film, it is generally acknowledged that the audience can only accept one change from the ordinary or they will lose their footing. Sometimes, of course, our inability to change leaves us using anomalies from the past. Our computers still use keyboards designed to slow down typists so as not to jam the mechanism. But perhaps we cannot relate to something new unless it reminds us of what we had before. We are curious, wanting the new and unexplored, but sometimes unwilling to learn something different if the old still works. When shower gels were first introduced in the States, no one bought them, not knowing how to wash without a bar of soap between the hand and the body. For a period of time, the bottles came with sponges to get people used to the idea of a fluid soap. Design needs to be made for today with a reference to the past. If it only aims to the future it will either confuse us, or as we cannot predict tomorrow, be outdated before it is sold.
Peter: Jonathan Levien pointed out something which had never occurred to me. He saw a link between the curves of my violin and the actions necessary to play it, the virtual carving of complex arcs and curves in time and space. Just by looking, and thinking with his ‘rock of eye’, he intuited the relationship between bowing a violin and dance, as well as with many other disciplines which require choreographed movement. This relationship is one of the reasons that this technology has survived the vicissitudes of time and taste over nearly 500 years. A musical instrument is an ideal combination of the object to love and the object to use.
Malene: I do not understand the fear of Art that seemed to be in the air that night. Why should it not be possible for Art to arise from the combination of production know-how and creative vision? Why shouldn’t product designers be artists?
Peter:…of course, in the past, the Artist was the scientist, the maker, the inventor- Milton’s ‘Tuscan Artist’ is Galileo looking at the moon through his telescope.
Malene: But with this fear of Art, comes a frantic desire to box it up, label it, put it in its place, smeared as ‘sensitive’. As a consumer, I don’t think that it would have ever dawned on me that designers shouldn’t be sensitive, expressive people. I would worry if they were not. After all, we live with their work – it would be bizarre if they aimed to provide us with things not filled with humanity, if you like, ‘Art-free’.
Peter: The classicists’ ‘primal hut’, if we suppose for a moment that it ever existed, was built for the future. We want stability and durability, even if we are going to change our lives tomorrow – in fact this gives us the sensation that we could. Adventure is when we are looking for something else, exploring the unknown. If we go into the chapel of Kings College Cambridge, we can look up and see the amazing fan vaulting, floating the roof up over Rubens’ altarpiece. Traditionally, this is referenced as evoking that which came before the primal hut, the forest roof-the long-lost canopy of Altdorfer. When this building was made, the ancient forests surrounded every city, so the church echoed what was right outside. The adventure lay in tweaking the familiar and sending it heavenwards.
Malene: We have come full-circle, to ask the same old question: ‘What is Art?’ Art stretches us, but can seem frivolous in a world of war and starvation. The border between art and craft is blurred. In the West, we seem to have forgotten that it is not the stereo that counts, but what you play on it. A kitchen itself is pointless, unless you cook for yourself and others in it.
Peter: I will ask the same questions as I did that evening at Christchurch. What is production design’s relationship with longevity? Can something which is only to exist for a moment have a future? Does the future need the past?
© Sheppard Skærved 2005