Object Subject 2019: Introduction

Jana Perković

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This issue of Fusion Journal comes out of the second Object Subject national design writing conference, held in Canberra on 7-9 November 2019. The conference focused on the cultural, social and ethical concerns in design, calling on the design sector to take seriously their social and environmental responsibilities, and bring critical thinking and ethics to design practice. Design practitioners, writers, curators and academics were invited to give voice to the ethical concerns that power their practice, which ranged from giving shape to newer, more sustainable materials and minimising waste, to finding ways to honour a multiplicity of liminal identities within the often-exclusive design communities.

Writing about the inaugural Object Subject design conference in 2017, Rachel Coghlan wrote: “I thought there was a bigger and more nuanced story to write about the past, present and future of design”. The role of the conference today is to create a public dialogue about the role and impact of design, a sustained inquiry that goes beyond the glorification of a single covetable object and pays attention to the social processes, material extraction, and cultural effects of design. This is a big call to make in a country that regards aesthetic concerns with (often open) hostility. As architect and critic Robin Boyd wrote in 1967: “Solemn Australians think that an interest in design is a superficial and trivial interest. This is actually an improvement, they used to think it effeminate and vaguely immoral”. It is paradoxical that a nation that prides itself of being practical, pragmatic, even materialistic, would simultaneously be so intent on ignoring the consequences of our material production.

As I write in my account of the editorial agenda of Assemble Papers (p.9), design writing too often focuses on the shiny objects and celebrity designers, which leads to a misunderstanding that design is something elitist, expensive, and only for rare occasions. The truth is that everything that surrounds us has been designed by somebody, from the chair on which I sit as I write this, the keyboard on which I type, to the lamp that provides me with light, and the window that brings in fresh air. Good design gives dignity to our days, while poor design makes our lives small, cramped, uncomfortable, wasteful and unsustainable. As I am writing this, the world is straining under Covid-19, revealing the weaknesses of uncomfortable homes, unwalkable suburbs, fragile supply chains, overstretched food systems. More than ever, we are becoming aware of the price we pay when our daily lives have not been designed to be sustainable in the long term. More than ever, we are becoming aware that, when we design our lives to consume more resources than the world can carry, we are asking for very good luck. More than ever, we need design to think long-term, to think for seven generations ahead, to bring about humble, durable, sustainable solutions for our everyday needs. This issue of Fusion Journal collects some ways for thinking better about how we design.

Materials are a good place to start. As Seetal Solanki, a leading voice in today’s materials research, writes in her keynote paper (p.4), materials are an expression of our needs. They articulate how we relate to one another, to our bodies, and to the universe. We have inherited design that overconsumes and overpollutes. Right now, the skills we need are to create better materials, more realistic to the Earth’s capacity to hold us.

This concern with materials is also central to two other papers. Geoff Isaac critically observes the use of plastic in product design in the light of an ongoing environmental emergency, arguing that the responsibility of product designers is twofold: influencing the uptake of more environmentally friendly materials, but also, crucially, they “must create a movement that challenges the dominance of petrochemicals as the main source of plastics” (p.18). From recycled plastics and bioplastics, to new techniques such as additive manufacturing that reduces the amount of material needed (and therefore waste), Isaac alerts us to the many invisible decisions that go into product design. In “Self-Narrating Cloth”, Jessica Priemus uses her experience as the owner of an ethical fashion brand as a springboard to dive deep into textile construction. Closely reading the materiality of handmade cloth, and observing in the textile imperfections the movements of the hand that made it, Priemus proposes a material literacy, which, “despite almost universal participation in textile use” (p.30), appears to be waning.

Detroit-based artist Lauren Kalman’s work echoes Solanki’s observation that materials articulate our relationship to our bodies and to each other. Kalman works with decorative crafts both directly (as a jeweller and metalsmith) and critically, as a video and installation artist interrogating the social uses of adornment. In “Crafting Dissonance”, Kalman dissects adornment and decoration as socially situated practices full of complications – one of the targets of her critique is Adolf Loos’ colonial, racist and sexist dismissal of ‘ornament as crime’ – but also looks at how jewellery more intimately shapes our conceptions of the body by hiding and transforming its physiological reality. “This intellectual and physical restraint proposed by these movements and writings, which have so impacted contemporary thinking, is in conflict with the physical and emotional realities of the body,” Kalman writes (p.51).

The final two papers leave the design object behind to foreground the process. Anita Kocsis looks at prototyping as central to the process of collaborative co-creation: “The activity of prototyping, and the inherent actions, approaches and social dynamics of team-based problem solving elucidates how participation in its many facets has currency as a future-facing skill” (p.60). Specifically, Kocsis highlights how prototyping facilitates an iterative communication process through material objects – and how these lo-fi, rough objects transmit information across disciplines and create shared meaning.

Collaboration is also the focus in the final paper by Fanke Peng, Leanne Chow and Nhat Tran (p.71), who analyse two postgraduate collaborative projects that apply service design for social good. Using structured problem-based learning and the defined steps of design thinking, the authors unfold the entire process of co-design, one step at a time, discussing the added complexity of stakeholder engagement. These two papers expand our knowledge of the structured processes necessary for team-based problem solving, which in emergent and niche disciplines often remain tacit knowledge. As our problems increase in complexity, and designers are called upon to participate in ideating solutions, having a lingua franca for interdisciplinary team-based problem solving, as well as finding processes that support both divergent and convergent thinking, becomes an ever-more crucial skill.

I would like to end with a quote from Seetal Solanki: “In order to address the planetary scale problem and climate disaster, humanity needs to address its own internal imbalance. Our relationship with consumption is taking an enormous toll on our planet, which is in fact the evidence and external reflection of an incredibly damaged relationship with ourselves. Ultimately, in order to understand ourselves, we should first understand that our values interlink with our beliefs, which steadily influence our habits” (p.5).

Ontologically, design is a peculiar discipline: it reflects and expresses our culture and values, but it is profoundly material. The practice of design is irrevocably tied to manual work, to an understanding of the possibilities and limits of material substances, to production processes spanning manual tools and complex machinery, and to the ability to pragmatically exist within social processes ranging from interdisciplinary teams to large companies. Solanki is right to point out this causal chain – from our values and beliefs, to our everyday habits, to the planetary problems which we now face. As we continue to reflect on the ethics of design, these reflections have to make their way back into our design practice – and into the practice of our everyday lives.

About the author

Jana Perković is Editor at SPACE10, a research and design lab on a mission to create a better everyday life for people and planet. SPACE10 researches and designs innovative solutions to some of the major societal changes expected to affect people and our planet in the years to come. Previously, Jana was editor of Assemble Papers, a magazine exploring the culture of living closer together, published by ethical housing developer Assemble. She remains involved with housing innovation, and is a currently looking at global innovation in ethical, sustainable and affordable housing as a PhD candidate with Connected Cities Lab at the University of Melbourne.

To cite this editorial

Perković, Jana. “Object Subject 2019: Introduction.” Fusion Journal, no. 18, 2020, pp. 1-3. https://fusion-journal.com/object-subject-2019-introduction/

First published online: July 2020

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