For no apparent reason

At the moment when the most relevant questions in design would seem to be – What can we do in a pandemicWhat we do about systemic racism? – I find myself preoccupied with what seem to be irrelevant questions. Call it avoidance. Certainly, call it privilege. But for no apparent reason, my thinking has taken an introverted turn.  I’m interested in how design – both formal and informal – combines intention, time, materiality, and how together they solicit attention, even epiphanies.  I’m interested in the tension between the designed and the perceived, which, of course, are both the same and not-the-same things. For example, the presence of a book designed by Lorraine Wild and the act of reading the same book exist in tension with each other.  The book is the same but not the same. And given that the book was designed digitally, the accidentally pixelated image of the cover below, right, is also the same but not the same book. (Alas, the cover was not designed by Wild but by the publisher’s designer.) 

Thinking Design through Literature, designed by Lorraine Wild, 2019
left to right: cover, spread, accidentally distorted cover

My long-term preoccupation with approaching design from a place of first principles has recently sent me down the rabbit hole of phenomenology. As I understand it (or misunderstand it), phenomenology is a philosophy that examines the background conditions of experiences that make the world manifest or apparent. It has specific relevance to design and architecture in that it is fundamentally concerned with perception. 

My Virgil on this journey has been my friend and New School colleague, the philosopher James Dodd.  It was this short passage that drew me in:

The questioning germane to phenomenology…aims at something implicated in both use and context, but which only truly emerges in…an understanding that realizes the possibility of reflecting on a life of meaning that is not reducible to use and context, but which is ultimately governed by a characteristic surplus.

James Dodd, Phenomenology, Architecture and the Built World, 54.

He got me at “surplus.” This isn’t the “surplus” that is often loosely referred to as ‘aesthetics.’ Phenomenology attempts to show us how that surplus is experienced and what it might be made of.  It looks at the dynamic of our engagement with the built world, one that involves the movement of the body and the sensations it registers, even and especially, before thought takes over.  

Photo credit: Stefano Mirti

By way of illustration, Dodd uses the example of a bench, which he describes as the embodied knowledge of its maker.  The bench has intentionality; it frames possibilities of encounter. The bench not only puts its surroundings in a frame, it is also a catalyst for experience.  And I would argue that the word ‘catalyst’ is an especially apt description of design because it recognizes the necessary incompleteness of everything made. This incompleteness not only leaves room for our experience but also creates what Dodd describes as an intersubjective visibility, which occurs when two or more subjects—for my purposes, the designer and the person(s) using what the designer made—recognize the value in a space, an object, or system of things. Importantly, this happens not just in the present but also across time and history. Something built or designed centuries ago also has the capacity to trigger an intersubjective experience. For what it’s worth, I parse “intersubjective” accordingly: The sensations created, left, and found by people are the “inter” or the intervening media of experience, and the humans on each side of the experience (the maker and the responder) are equal “subjects.” It is this mutual recognition between and among subjects that can lead to an epiphany:  Epiphany not as a recognition of an abstract idea but epiphany as a rift in the normal. Epiphany as an awakening of a more fulsome consciousness triggered by an object or space. 

Mediterranean Gifts, necklace detail, Anna Barbara, 2015

Let’s take another example: a necklace called Mediterranean Gifts. Designed by Anna Barbara, it’s made of washed-up bits of glass that Anna collected on the beach near her family’s home in Calabria. (She is actually based in Milan.)  The fragments, whose edges have been softened by the tides, are encased in a very basic mesh tube. They appear to float within the tube, jostling each other when moved. The sense of floating is compounded by the lightness with which the curve of the mesh rests on the skin. The stones and the mesh sit in tension, wavering between two states: the necklace as an object and a collection of objects. What we see is a gathering together of elements that allows something else to be present, namely a surplus of ‘meaning.’ And those elements are more various than just the materials: There’s also the intentionality of the designer; the friendship I have with the designer; the long history of Calabria as a point of entry for refugees, who in Anna’s experience, are the true gifts of the Mediterranean.  

So returning to where I started, there is no one apparent reason that brings this necklace into appearance. Instead there are many volatile and often latent elements that contain the possibility of radically igniting the imagination and of fueling a sensation (not a concept) of epiphany.  And if you’re still looking for relevance, I again offer Dodd, who writes: “The built experienced as rendered in so many directions for what we can be, can only be a world of the imagination. The imaginary here is thus not a flight…from the world but the most intimate secret at the heart of all human encounter (269).”  To be part of that encounter through design is no small thing.

N.B. These thoughts were shared at HighGround 2020. HighGround is a design colloquium hosted by Katherine and Michael McCoy. This was the first to be done on Zoom for obvious reasons, a.k.a., COvid.

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