Grey areas

When Frederico Duarte asked me if I’d be into having a conversation about social design in Portuguese, I was instantly game. Over email, we had a fun back and forth that became a section of the Portugal e África: Melhor Cooperação, Melhor Desenvolvimento [“Portugal and Africa: Better cooperation, better development”] book, a publication of the ACEP — Associação para a Cooperação Entre os Povos. This was the first time me and Frederico collaborated, and it was an immense pleasure to finally pen something with him. The full book can be seen at the ACEP website in PDF, or it can be ordered at info@acep.pt. After the jump, the full conversation between me and Frederico — unfortunately only available in Portuguese.

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The Tipping Point


Sketches for the Tip Ton chair, by Barber Osgerby. Photo by Felix Friedmann, courtesy Disegno

The first issue of design, architecture and fashion magazine Disegno includes my 3,000-word essay on Barber Osgerby’s Tip Ton chair for Vitra and the process behind its making. It was a challenge and an honour to write this piece, and I was very pleased with the result. The magazine can (and should!) be bought here, and the full feature article can be read online over at Disegno Daily. An excerpt after the jump.

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Legerdemain


The entrance of Fernando Brízio: Inhabited Designs, at EXD’11/LISBOA. Photo: Luís Rocha.

I recently contributed to the companion brochure of EXD’11/LISBOA’s retrospective exhibition of the work of the contemporary Portuguese industrial designer Fernando Brízio. Titled Legerdemain, my essay sought to understand Brízio’s posture and design production, placing him in context among other international designers of his generation. I originally wrote in Portuguese, and the text was translated to English by the lovely Rute Paredes. Thanks to Frederico Duarte for valuable insight!

Fernando Brízio belongs to that generation of Portuguese product designers who, upon finishing college in the mid 90s, found themselves in a difficult and paradoxically privileged position. This is a generation of pioneers. Pioneers because, for the first time, they are free from the outdated moulds of the profession, which until then had been mostly limited to consultancy work for the industry and market. And pioneers because when, in 1996, Brízio finished his course in the Faculty of Fine Arts of Universidade de Lisboa, Portugal was a country coming to terms with the reality of its first decade after joining the EU. The influx of European investment was taking a long time to bear fruit, industry and competitiveness were weakened by the open markets policy and design was still unable to find its place in industry. As such, the most recent generation of designers would have to carve out a place for themselves.

Fernando Brízio would therefore become a designer the way you were a designer in the 90s: by being an author.

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Learning from the bricoleur


Image: Zwelethu Mthethwa, Untitled (from the series Interiors) (detail), courtesy of the MAD blog.

Disegno is a new design magazine that seeks to bring back long form critical writing and reflection to the design field; it appears in the form of a website, a biannual print magazine, and a series of events. I wrote my first essay for the Disegno website on how contemporary designers seek to emulate the figure and spirit of the bricoleur. As one of the magazine website’s Lessons, I traced back the origin of this term and its current implications, as seen in examples as the Museum of Arts and Design’s recent exhibition “Are You a Hybrid?” curated by North-American designer Stephen Burks, which I also critique. An excerpt is below:

Fascinated by the craftsmanship behind these creations,Are You A Hybrid? is trapped within the boundaries of formalism. Burks’ simplistic presentation of a powerful creative force is representative of the limited Western perception of the figure of the bricoleur. It also implies that this creative impulse can be appropriated and emulated by Western designers, reducing it to a formal trend. But what escapes Burks and much of the Western design world is the true essence of the bricoleur, which cannot be copied or crystallised. Because this creative impulse lives in a state of permanent flux, the stillness of the museum pedestal will only extinguish it. Because this maker only exists in the periphery of society, bringing him to the centre will thwart him.

The Western design world’s selfish fascination with the bricoleur seeks to tame and incorporate this elusive spirit within the discipline’s moulds. But it should instead observe and learn from a creative process that, unlike design, is unskilled and indifferent to conventions and standards. This tenacious, resistant spirit, intrinsic to emerging design scenarios, is already helping the discipline grow and reshape in developing nations. It is now up to the West to catch up.

The complete piece can be seen over at Disegno, as well as some reading suggestions if you’re interested in the topic.

Two billion laptops to “revolutionize education”: the One Laptop per Child


Children interacting with the OLPC. Photo: OLPC

In anticipation of my presentation next week at Present Tense: The 2011 D-Crit Conference, here’s an investigation on the progress and shortcomings of the One Laptop per Child initiative, which I wrote as part of my masters thesis “Design Crusades: A Critical Reflection on Social Design.” Register for the conference here and come see me talk May 4th at 5.30pm!

There is something about Nicholas Negroponte as he nonchalantly steps onto the stage of TED in February 2006. In dark suit trousers, cotton turtleneck and dark pullover draped over his shoulders, he exudes a cool determination, channeled into his fierce gaze, his resolved step, his compelling words. “This is not something that you have to test,” he says at one point. “The days of pilot projects are over, when people say, ‘Well, we’d like to do three or four thousand in our country to see how it works.’ Screw you. Go to the back of the line and someone else will do it, and then when you figure out that this works, you can join as well. And this is what we’re doing.” The audience laughs and applauds enthusiastically as Negroponte proceeds to unveil and circulate a prototype of the One Laptop per Child (OLPC), the project he chose to dedicate the rest of his life to.

Negroponte is the founder and Chairman Emeritus of the MIT Media Lab, a recognized tech evangelist who in the previous twelve months had changed the course of his life. In January 2005, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, he announced the OLPC, a non-profit organization developing a $100 laptop that “could revolutionize how we educate the world’s children.” Sold to governments of developing countries, the computer would be distributed in mass scale to the two billion of kids in the developing world. Championing the idea of “learning by doing,” Negroponte subscribed to a pedagogical philosophy inspired by MIT colleague Seymour Papert, who defends that giving children computers aids their learning and allows them to explore on their own, outside of an educational system that is often times flawed.

The West promptly bought into and proceeded to finance this idea. In November that year, at the World Summit on the Information Society in Tunis, Negroponte sat next to Kofi Annan to show the first prototype of the little computer. It stood out with bright colors and minute proportions, a yellow crank sticking out to its side that popped out when Kofi Annan tried to turn it. This first concept was the work of Continuum, patched together to show to an eager audience. According to the Continuum’s Kevin Young, the process had to be fast, and there wasn’t much time for research. “We did speak with some educators in developing nations and talked about some of the challenges in that environment, but otherwise this was about trusting the designers’ intuition.”

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It’s African Time


Bibi Seck, Taboo stool. Photo: Bibi Seck.

Próximo Futuro/Next Future is the Gulbenkian Foundation‘s programme of contemporary culture dedicated in particular, but not exclusively, to research and creation in Europe, Latin America and the Caribbean, and Africa. Issue number 6 of their newspaper is now available online, and within it the essay I contributed exploring contemporary African design, titled “It’s African Time” in homage to Heath Nash’s fabulous piece. Here is a small excerpt of the Portuguese original—English translation after the jump:

Caracterizar o momento actual do design em África pode parecer, à partida, um esforço fútil. Este é ainda o continente onde a maioria da população continua a ter como preocupação maior arranjar uma refeição ao final do dia e onde 53 países — em breve 54 — diversos em população, tradições e cultura continuam a ser demasiadas vezes rotulados sob uma designação genérica. Mas o design contemporâneo existe, de maneira mais ou menos visível, e está em todo o lado, partilhando traços comuns em nações africanas distintas. O fascínio recente que os círculos de design ocidentais têm por África é apenas mais um capítulo numa relação com altos e baixos. Esse fascínio desdobra-se hoje em duas narrativas distintas, que encarnam duas maneiras essencialmente diferentes de olhar para a criação e produção de design em África. A primeira é a mais linear e glamorosa, e ocorre sobretudo no mundo exclusivo e limitado do design de luxo. A segunda é fragmentada e menos óbvia, mas infinitamente mais promissora.

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Tracing Ephemera


MTA token machine, used 1954-1975.

This essay was written for D-Crit’s “Researching Design” class by Steven Heller. Students are forbidden to use Google or any search engine in their research projects, and discover the joys of archives and libraries again. Starting today, I will be posting a weekly essay from my two years at D-Crit.

In a morning like any other morning, you might leave your apartment, walk two blocks to the subway, hope to find a seat in the crowded car and dodge standing passengers while getting out of the car into the station of your choice. The period of time you spend in the subway is uneventful. You read, listen to music, stare into space.

On that particular morning, I was staring into the void after checking out everybody’s shoes, when the PA announcer started trailing off the usual audio script. “Have a good day,” she said. “It’s Friday, almost the end of the week. Have yourself a good weekend, too. Don’t forget to take all of your belongings with you, and please mind the gap between the train and the platform”. This nice interlude woke me from my trance, and I noticed everybody on the train car was smiling.

“Even the conductors sometimes embellish the PA ads,” Doris Halle pointed out to me, over the telephone. According to Ms. Halle, formerly Chief of Corporate Design at the Metropolitan Transit Authority, the people that spend so much time underground in the New York City Subway, whether conductors, station agents or booth agents, find a way to make the subway system a little bit theirs, too. Whether a message written for the day on the station booth, or a sign posted on the platform columns indicating which way to go during a weekend traffic change, MTA staff adds on to the existing subway signage system, in complex, humorous, and whimsical ways.

These characteristics were first apparent to me when I looked at the token machines on display at the MTA Transit Museum. One of them stood out immediately. It was red and black, simple in its rectangular lines, and heavily customized during the period of 1954 to 1975, when it was in use. During this period, the fare amount increased four times, from 15 cents in 1954, to 35 cents in 1972, and several changes had been made to the amount that should be inserted in the machine. By adding tape, painting arrows or sticking hand-cut letters, the machine had evolved through time, becoming a hybrid object that told the story of the people that had customized it. The details were gritty and unkempt, but the additions had been done with care and some amount of logic. This was undoubtedly the product of the intense labor of some MTA employee.

Customized out of necessity, this token machine existed completely out of synch of the rest of the subway signage system. But when had the MTA staff first started intervening in the signage system? And had these interventions been consistent throughout time?
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