A Tale of Two Bookcases

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Let’s begin with two bookcases.

Both are made of simple, sturdy pine, expediently joined together. One will likely be familiar: It’s the primary unit of the Ivar shelving system, which has been manufactured by the Swedish megabrand IKEA since the late 1960s. Its name rhymes with that of the company’s founder, Ingvar Kamprad, who died in 2018. It retails for $69.

The other shelf, distinguished by its diagonal braces, is part of the Autoprogettazione furniture system developed by the Italian designer Enzo Mari. It’s a word difficult to translate (“self project,” while not particularly grammatical, comes close) but easy to explain. Mari wanted to put the means of production back where he thought they belonged: in the hands of the people. He therefore conceived a family of forms that could be made by anyone out of cheap lengths of pine and some nails, using the simplest of joints.

If the resemblance between these two bookshelves is striking, the ideological disparity between them is far more so. Kamprad had been a Nazi sympathizer as a young man, beginning his close association with Sweden’s fascists in 1942, when he was 16. After the war, he remained a political conservative, and of course, the company he founded is now seen as the friendly face of consumer capitalism. Mari, by contrast, was a committed Marxist. Upon his passing last October, he was widely hailed as the conscience of design, someone who had spent his life castigating his fellow product designers for their craven subservience to the profit motive in no uncertain terms. “What producers make today is shit,” he said in a 2015 interview, “because they eat shit…. I worked half my life to ensure that the world would not be what it is today.”

How is it possible that two bookshelves, all but identical in appearance and construction, can exemplify both left-wing critical design and the world’s most successful capitalist furniture-manufacturing strategy? That question becomes more provocative still when one considers both the Ivar and Autoprogettazione as manifestations of modernism, the movement that emerged in the 1920s with a program of egalitarian functionalism. Kamprad’s famed manifesto, “The Testament of a Furniture Dealer” (published in 1976, just two years after Mari’s DIY plans), is the quintessential expression of those themes: Create a better life for the many; do more with less; simplicity is a virtue. Mari, too, espoused those values. He created hundreds of designs, always simple in conception, practical in use, and affordable in price—children’s games, plastic vases, pencil holders—manufactured by big brands like Danese, Artemide, and Zanotta. Even Italians who don’t know his name know his work. It is the stuff of everyday life.

Mari’s death was particularly cruel in its timing. A major exhibition of his work, orchestrated by the international superstar curator Hans Ulrich Obrist, had opened just two days earlier at the Milan Triennale, while Italy was being convulsed by the coronavirus pandemic. Apparently Covid-19 is what killed Mari, age 88, along with his wife, the critic and curator Lea Vergine, who died the next day at 82. A tragedy this momentous is bound to make you think. If even the most respected critical project of the most respected critical designer looks all but indistinguishable from a product made by IKEA, how credible is the whole prospect of politically engaged design? It was perhaps this quandary that the artist Rirkrit Tiravanija had in mind in 2004, when he created a version of the Autoprogettazione dining table and chairs in beautifully polished stainless steel. Apart from the material, Tiravanija faithfully followed Mari’s instructions. Yet he ended up with something that resembled the hypercommodity sculptures of Jeff Koons.

Design is so bound up with the process of value creation that even the most idealistic project can be claimed by the marketplace. As of this writing, one of the few Autoprogettazione tables built under Mari’s own supervision was available on 1stDibs for $22,500. If Mari’s experiment has any bite left, it seems to be observed mainly in the breach. As Paola Antonelli, a curator at the Museum of Modern Art, commented, “Because it was such a rigorous project, any interpretation that strayed from the principle became a way to also show the weakness of the system.”

Of course, some might say that Mari had it all wrong and Kamprad had it right: that, practically speaking, designers have to dance to capitalism’s tune, so they may as well learn to like it. There is certainly variation across the discipline. Graphic design in particular lends itself to gestures of protest, from punk album covers to handmade banners. But architecture and product design, where the big money is, have always been service businesses. And what they serve is profitability. Mari himself was sustained by commissions from Danese and other companies. He did try to infuse every one of his products with humanistic values and make them affordable. But he was still making commodities, and it pained him. In the above-quoted interview, he mused, “My wife, who is an intelligent woman, totally despises all design. Even what I did.” But what other option did he have?

This is the complex legacy of modernism. To understand how it could animate Mari and Kamprad alike, it’s worth taking a step back to the moment of conception, when it was in lockstep with radical politics. The Russian Constructivists embraced abstraction because it was free of the trappings of class hierarchy. They viewed design as the source code for a brave new world, making utilitarian, uniformlike clothing and uncompromisingly austere ceramics—material culture as a tool of radical egalitarianism. Meanwhile, in Germany, designers at the legendary Bauhaus infused machine-age functionalism with a similar sense of urgency. Their famous proclamation that “less is more” was not a mere aesthetic preference. It was a rational defense against conspicuous consumption, a strategy to ensure participation for all.

At birth, modernism was an equal opportunity movement that tried to meet its public on level terms. Its quashing at the hands of reactionary regimes—Stalinism in the Soviet Union, Nazism in Germany—only reinforced its credibility as a politically progressive style. Already in the 1930s, however, this association was getting lost in translation. As the historian Kristina Wilson explains in her book Livable Modernism, American industrial designers in the ’30s were introducing tubular steel and machine-age styling and marketing it to suburban consumers, albeit hesitantly. Wilson describes how modernism came first to the kitchen and bathroom and was only gradually adopted in the living room and bedroom.

But it was not until the postwar era that modernism really began its confusing double life. Still considered the lingua franca of the avant-garde, modernism’s foundational principles were taught in progressive art and architecture schools from Cambridge and Cairo to Tel Aviv and Tokyo. The Bauhaus was reincarnated in Chicago, where faculty from the original school had gathered—a design-world parallel to the displacement of Frankfurt School intellectuals to California and New York. Yet modernism was also becoming the language of authority, broadly applied across the political spectrum. Back in 1932, the Museum of Modern Art had proclaimed modernism to be the “International Style”; in the postwar years, that prediction came true. Hardly a country on earth, no matter its political system, was without its repetitive concrete-and-glass housing projects—which recommended themselves for their cheapness, if nothing else.

This had never been the intention of the first generation of modernists. According to Walter Gropius, the founding director of the Bauhaus, standardization in architecture was desirable, but mainly because it left needed resources for customization. “Suppression of individuality is always shortsighted and unwise,” he wrote in 1924. Postwar architects didn’t get that memo. The result was that a program originally developed to improve the lives of the working class was applied thoughtlessly, to dehumanizing effect.

To muddle matters further, modernism also became the approved corporate style of the postwar decades, exemplified by firms like IBM (whose principal design consultant, Eliot Noyes, had studied with Gropius at Harvard). Furniture companies like Herman Miller and Knoll made the Bauhäuslers’ dreams a reality, finally putting designs that had originally been realized only as handmade prototypes into commercial production. Yet in those pre-IKEA days, such modern objects remained relatively expensive status symbols, which opened up an obvious line of attack. In his 1981 book From Bauhaus to Our House, Tom Wolfe lampooned modernism’s progressive bona fides. In one hilarious passage, he mocked the lingering pretense of avant-gardism surrounding the Barcelona chair, designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Lilly Reich at the Bauhaus and produced by Knoll beginning in 1947:

The Platonic ideal of chair it was, pure Worker Housing leather and stainless steel, the most perfect piece of furniture design in the twentieth century…. When you saw the holy object on the sisal rug, you knew you were in a household where a fledgling architect and his young wife had sacrificed everything to bring the symbol of the godly mission into their home. Five hundred and fifty dollars!

As so often in his career, Wolfe had his finger right on the pulse, for 1981 also marked a sea change in design history. It was the year that saw the launch of MTV and the DeLorean, as well as Boy George’s first appearance on Top of the Pops. Clearly, austere rationalism was about to be shoulder-padded aside. In design, the bellwether event was the inaugural presentation by Memphis, a Milan-based collective named for an ancient city by way of a Bob Dylan song (“Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again”). Memphis designs were the antithesis of Mari’s earnest objects. They were not just commodities but hypercommodities—exuberant, camera-ready props for an outrageous lifestyle. They even had names borrowed from luxury hotels: the Plaza vanity, the Hilton trolley, the Bel Air chair.

T hough Memphis was certainly a group enterprise, both international and cross-generational, its acknowledged leader was Ettore Sottsass Jr., a creative genius one generation older than Mari and equally as passionate, though more or less in the opposite direction. Sottsass was not particularly ideological except insofar as he was a man of the counterculture. “I have always thought,” he once said, “that design begins where rational processes end and magic begins.”

Sottsass’s most famous design for Memphis, the Carlton bookcase, makes an instructive contrast with Mari’s Autoprogettazione. One of the main financial backers of Memphis was Abet Laminati, the Italian equivalent of Formica, and the company’s brightly colored, boldly patterned plastic laminates were featured on nearly every piece of furniture. (Talk about product placement!) The Carlton is like a salesroom sample booklet magically arranged into a serviceable object—though not that serviceable, as its diagonal shelves make a mockery of modernist utilitarianism. (Sottsass joked that books tended to fall over anyway.) If Mari had aimed for a design revolution from below, enacted through the participation of the general public, Memphis was aimed squarely at mass media: The objects’ true function was to capture attention—which they did brilliantly, thanks to the power of reproduction.

Despite its slick appearance, Memphis’s furniture was actually built in traditional artisan workshops. But that didn’t matter, because the pieces had their impact via magazines, not in person. As California’s Peter Shire, designer of the Bel Air chair, once remarked to me, “Memphis was of the media. There was never any trouble with color separations—it always reproduced true, because we were using synthetic colors in the first place. The priority was to go for the image.”

Yet if Memphis ran only skin-deep, that did not necessarily make it superficial. In emphasizing surface so completely, Sottsass and company implied a new theoretical position for design, suggesting that it now had to operate principally in the field of images. This way of thinking (a philosophical current that flows today through a billion Instagram accounts) came to be called “postmodernism,” a term that, while it caused plenty of confusion, also clearly signaled that modernism—at least as a viable avant-garde—was now firmly over. In its place came a somewhat paradoxical combination of liberation and self-critique. The most widely cited one-liners of the postmodern era were “less is a bore” (the architect Robert Venturi’s riposte to the functionalist credo) and “the death of the author.” Add those together, and what do you get? Maximalism unfettered by earnestness. The era’s most savage parody—a book that makes Wolfe seem tame by comparison—was Bret Easton Ellis’s 1991 novel American Psycho, featuring a serial-killing antihero who is obsessed with brand names and seems to possess no inner life whatsoever. (He does, however, have a Sottsass telephone.)

The term “postmodernism” first circulated in architectural circles and was also freely applied to fashion, graphic design, even music. (The emphasis on the mediated image also shows up in the names of bands and magazines of the era: Television, Visage, Talking Heads, The Face, i-D.) As the 1980s boomed-and-busted their way into the ’90s, though, modernism returned with a vengeance. Once again, it became the lingua franca of architecture and product design. The difference was that now everyone saw it clearly for what it was: just another style, no more inherently progressive than any other.

If modernism had once presented itself as a truth machine, a transparent window onto a better future, postmodernism was more like a shattered mirror, which might prompt self-reflection but offered no hope of a single coherent worldview. To its detractors, this mindset seemed not only apolitical but positively amoral—a repudiation of designers’ fundamental responsibility to make a better world. But to this, the postmodern generation had a convincing rejoinder: Who are we to make a better world? Out went the whole idea of the designer as savior or seer, someone who knows what the people require even when they don’t. Ultimately, the legacy of the postmodern adventure would be pervasive doubt.

It’s taken a while, but this internal critique has proved to be just what design needed. As the dizzying, relativistic whirl of the ’80s wound down, a home truth came to be accepted: By the time something is designed, it is usually too late to determine its political effect. Commodities are principally the outcome of power relations, not the cause of them.

This shift in thinking has prompted a refocusing for the discipline away from objects and toward what is know as design culture (la cultura del progetto, in Italian), the social matrix in which objects are conceived, executed, and distributed. The question initially posed in a spirit of relativism—Who are we to make a better world?—has now been reframed in terms of identity politics: And who exactly is this “we,” anyway?

It will not have escaped the reader that every work discussed in this essay thus far was designed by a white man. But the narrative can be shaped in other ways than an opposition between Kamprad and Mari, right versus left. Double back and look again, and you can find a more complex, nonlinear history. In this revisionist account, which is itself informed by postmodern pluralism—a look through the fragmentary rearview mirror—the global proliferation of the International Style is nuanced at every turn by local concerns. Among its compelling scenes: Turkish metalworkers at Istanbul’s Kare Metal Atelier in the 1950s, laboriously reshaping plumbing pipes and construction rebar into modernist furniture; the potters Maria and Julian Martinez in the American Southwest, developing their distinctive black-on-black ceramics on the basis of archaeological findings; Indian weavers making white khaddar (homespun cotton cloth) with the encouragement of Mahatma Gandhi. The focus shifts away from men like Gropius, Mari, and Sottsass to the women who sought to synthesize modernist rationalism with vernacular craft, such as Clara Porset in Mexico; Lina Bo Bardi, an Italian expatriate in Brazil (and staunch communist in her own right); and Charlotte Perriand, a native of Paris who conducted extensive research in Brazil, Korea, and Japan.

But rewriting history will only take us so far, as the central political question about design is just starting to be asked: Who gets to be a designer in the first place? When Venturi was awarded the Pritzker Prize in 1991, his partner, Denise Scott Brown, was not recognized; in 2013, a highly publicized petition was circulated demanding redress, with Venturi’s own vocal support. In 2018, the #MeToo movement came to architecture, with sexual misconduct allegations lodged against Richard Meier, the neomodernist who designed Atlanta’s High Museum and the Getty Center in Los Angeles. Stella Lee, one of Meier’s accusers, wrote in a New York Times op-ed that there was an even deeper problem in the discipline’s way of doing business: the low pay, the sleepless nights, the pervasive gender discrimination. “To really effect change,” she wrote, “we need to focus on culture, and where it is solidified.”

So far, that change seems to be slow in coming. The Pritzker jury refused the Scott Brown petition, though this has arguably harmed the prize more than the cause of feminism. (Shelley McNamara and Yvonne Farrell, of the firm Grafton Architects, did win the Pritzker last year, making them just the fourth and fifth women to join the list of laureates in over four decades.) Meier’s firm seemed to take shockingly little responsibility for his actions, allowing him to remain as its majority shareholder. Meanwhile, recent surveys indicate that women hold only 17 percent of the leadership positions in architecture firms and only 11 percent in design studios.

Matters are even worse with respect to ethnic diversity. The representation of African Americans in the profession is only about 3 percent (compared with approximately 13 percent of the US population). A group called Where Are the Black Designers? has formed to advocate for change and draw attention to practitioners who are active in the field. This year, I’ve been cohosting an interview series with Stephen Burks called “Design in Dialogue,” presented by the New York gallery Friedman Benda. One of our goals is to foreground the voices of women and people of color. Burks is the ideal partner, one of the few African Americans prominent in furniture and product design. When I asked him about his experiences as a pioneer, he focused on the problem of tokenism: “When one person breaks through, that doesn’t necessarily make space for a diversity of voices.” He also described a tendency to view ethnicities as monocultures, as if there were a single Black voice or point of view. When it comes to diversity, design doesn’t need just a few more positive role models; it needs a total sea change. The mirror may have been shattered, but the glass ceiling is barely showing any cracks.

Given the state of the environment, however, maybe we should just. Stop. Designing. Entirely. Or if we absolutely must continue—and this comes close to Mari’s position toward the end of his life—focus our efforts on damage limitation.

Here’s the thing, though: That ain’t gonna happen. I remember when Joris Laarman, a young Dutch designer whose wizardry and sophistication with digital tools is unparalleled, was asked how could he possibly justify making another chair. Laarman’s reply was simple: “That’s like saying there are plenty of songs already, so why do we need to compose another one?” It wasn’t a totally convincing answer, given that songs don’t end up in landfills. But as an observation about human behavior, it certainly rang true. There will always be an appetite for new culture, objects included. It’s just how humans are built, and there is no redesigning that.

Arguably, this is where design really comes into its own as a contemporary political instrument: It is our best tool for achieving an intelligent balance between the competing pressures of sustainability and desire. Another prominent Dutch designer, Hella Jongerius, took on this topic with the educator Louise Schouwenberg in their 2017 manifesto, “Beyond the New.” The document self-consciously echoes the utopian declarations of the historical avant-garde. “Terms like ‘authenticity’ and ‘sustainability’ become empty verbiage when the hidden agenda is still, as usual, economic returns,” they write. “Imagine a future where shared ideals and moral values point the way!” Jongerius and Schouwenberg go on to describe contemporary design as little more than “a depressing cornucopia of pointless products, commercial hypes around presumed innovations, and empty rhetoric.” (One can imagine Mari nodding in agreement, for once.) Finally, they call for a return to—drumroll, please—modernism! “We have lost sight of the higher ideals that were so central to the most influential movement by far in industrial design. The Bauhaus ideals—making the highest possible quality accessible to many people—were based on the intimate interweaving of cultural awareness, social engagement, and economic returns.” Jongerius and Schouwenberg aren’t advocating a literal return to modernist design, of course, but rather arguing that economic viability was a necessary condition, not a goal, and that novelty for its own sake was worse than worthless.

Though “Beyond the New” was published three years ago, today it is more persuasive than ever. The Museum of Modern Art’s Paola Antonelli and the critic Alice Rawsthorn have initiated a project called Design Emergency, drawing attention to the discipline’s attempts to respond to the intertwined crises of racism, climate change, and the pandemic. They point to epic projects like Boyan Slat’s controversial nonprofit, the Ocean Cleanup, which uses a gigantic floating boom to collect seaborne plastic waste and has finally seen some recent success after years of expensive failure, and the Great Green Wall, an 5,000-mile-long tree line that is being planted along the southern border of the Sahara. They also single out smaller-scale grassroots endeavors such as the work of entrepreneur Roya Mahboob, who has sponsored teenage girls in Herat, Afghanistan, to design and make ventilators, and the attempt of the 1,500 residents of Kamikatsu, on the Japanese island of Shikoku, to become a “zero-waste village,” recycling or reusing every single thing they use. (They are now reportedly at 80 percent participation and still working on it.)

Antonelli and Rawsthorn are both great admirers of Mari, but they are charting a vision for design that’s quite different from his. Their recent guest-edited issue of Wallpaper, devoted to the Design Emergency concept, was also stuffed with the usual advertisements for Dior, Chanel, Rolex, and other brands. Clearly, the assumption here is that if we do find a design solution to climate change, it will need to happen within capitalism, at least for the foreseeable future. This is not a bet placed on the radical overhaul of our political and economic systems, but rather on the potential for human ingenuity to make a better world.

Whether you find this line of thinking persuasive probably says a lot about your own politics. Speaking only for myself, I will say there is at least one cause for optimism: We have the advantage over previous generations of learning from their mistakes. Perhaps design really can reclaim the progressive vision of the early modernists while avoiding their presumptions about what people want and need, retaining a healthy self-skepticism, and working to increase its diversity, so that the sector more closely resembles the population at large.

Meanwhile, designers continue to navigate this tricky terrain, creating human meaning as they go. When Martino Gamper, an Italian designer now based in London, heard that Mari and Vergine had died, he created a pair of Autoprogettazione-style coffins. Like the furniture Mari conceived, they are made of cheap timber and common nails. It was a way, Gamper said, to pay tribute to two great figures and hold them in his mind for a while. “Creating an object for someone you care for and love could be an interesting process for all of us—sawing and hammering, and remembering the person,” he explained. They say that the personal is political, and that certainly applies to design at all stages of its production and consumption. Gamper’s gesture is a potent reminder that the reverse can also be true. Design is an intimate part of all our lives. We are wedded to it, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, till death us do part.