Design critic Alice Rawsthorn gave a lecture at the event Designing the Surface on 23 March 2017 that explored how our exposure to digital technology has transformed our perceptions of surfaces, in terms of their visual, tactile and political impact. Below the text of her lecture.
"Surface is a perverse word in any context. If you are described as having “scratched the surface” of something, you stand accused of being shallow, superficial, sketchy and of not having bothered to be as rigorous, thoughtful or thorough as you should have been. The word surface is particularly perverse when applied to design, because it reinforces all of the 19th and 20th-century clichés of design being a stylistic device, whose principal – if not only – impact is visual. Design is still routinely confused with styling, and described as “a visual medium”. It isn’t, of course. There is much, much more to it than that, but the stereotype has proved infuriatingly stubborn.
One problem is the weight of propaganda reinforcing the cliché. Not only does much of the marketing of consumer products depict design as a styling tool, but many of the most sophisticated design critiques of the 20th century did the same. Take Philip Johnson’s pioneering “Machine Art” exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, New York in 1934. Or the cultural critiques of design by late 20th-century philosophers and historians like Roland Barthes, Jean Baudrillard and (my personal favourite) Reyner Banham. Or the work of the late 20th-century artists who interrogated design most adroitly, such as Richard Hamilton and Ed Ruscha. Subtle and incisive though their understanding of design was, their primary interest was to explore its impact on consumerism.
At the same time, the economic pressures imposed on industry to maximise the benefits of the economies of scale achieved through standardisation, and an arsenal of ever stricter health and safety regulations, ensured that many products of mass manufacturing became progressively blander, and more homogenous over the years. Think of the difference between the “perfect” forms of industrial reproductions of, say, the 1920s furniture designed by Eileen Gray or Charlotte Perriand, and the endearingly clumsy idiosyncrasies of the original pieces.
Or consider the outcome of the Dutch designer Hella Jongerius’s decade of research into the role of colour, texture and materials in the furniture manufactured by the Swiss company Vitra. Part of Hella’s research process has involved analysing those elements in vintage pieces starting with the Plastic and Aluminium Series of chairs designed by Charles and Ray Eames during the 1940s and 1950s respectively. Hella discovered that decades of tightening health and safety regulations and advances in materials technology had improved the chairs from a functional perspective, but had unintentionally made them appear duller and more uniform. One of the most popular upholstery fabrics, for example, was originally made from yarns composed of fibres in subtly different colours. Over the years, the colours of the fibres had gradually been homogenised, not because of an evil corporate plot, but to conform to new safety legislations. Hella designed new yarns to make the surfaces of the chairs look and feel livelier, more spirited and closer to the Eameses’ vision.
But the concept of surface and design has changed more radically than this, largely because of the impact of digital technology on the way we perceive – and interpret – our surroundings. Let’s start with the visual dimension of surfaces, which has been transformed for a host of reasons. One is the distorting effect of white light on our perception of colour in the physical world. So far this is an issue that artists have tended to explore more vigorously than designers. The Irish-born artist Yuri Pattison investigated the impact of white light as part of his installation of a quasi-dystopian tech work space at Chisenhale Gallery in London in summer 2016.
Another factor is the impact of the erratic colour resolution on our computer screens on our perceptions of colour. A third is the influence of increasingly sophisticated digital renderings on our response to shape. Designers often complain that manufacturers put pressure on them to make actual products look “more like the rendering”, claiming that market research suggests consumers prefer this. One positive effect of this process is that the hideous retro skeuomorphic styling of the user interface symbols on our phone and tablet screens – that often identify apps with symbols of the very objects they are rendering obsolete, such as telephone handsets for call functions and paper envelopes for email – are being supplanted by so-called “flat” symbols. Not that the flat aesthetic is free from nostalgia, as it is inspired by mid-20th -century rationalist graphic design, but the references are at least less muddled.
Another issue is the impact of digital production technologies on the structure of surfaces, and therefore on their design affect. An example is the digital knitting process, which enabled Nike to introduce its Flyknit athletic shoes five years ago. Traditionally, athletic shoes were cut and sewn from swatches of leather or fabric, like most other forms of footwear Flyknit enabled them to the knitted from a single strand of recycled polyester yarn in such precise patterns that designers could create decorative effects at the level of miniscule knots, which thereby play a similar role in forming the surface as tiny pixels do on computer screens. As a result, we instinctively associate Flyknit sneakers with pixels, giving their knitted surfaces an eerily digital visual effect. As digital production technologies continue to evolve, many more products may follow suit.
Flyknit is an equally eloquent example of the growing importance of another quality in the design of surfaces – texture. One surprising but increasingly powerful outcome of our exposure to digital technology is that it has made us crave the intimacy and authenticity of sensual qualities, including tactility. At the same time, our experience of controlling so many digital devices with touch screens is rendering us more sensitive to the subtleties of texture and the pleasure of touch, thereby increasing its importance as an expressive component of surfaces.
One of my favourite examples is the Georg stool, which was designed for the Danish manufacturer Skagerak by the Swedish-Danish designer Chris Liljenberg Halstrøm. Chris is committed to using design to explore gender politics, specifically to challenge gender clichés by developing mass-manufactured objects, like the Georg, whose design can be interpreted in different ways by different people, each in accordance with their own, constantly changing gender identities. To this end, Chris’s work strives to be aesthetically neutral, by using gentle, unobtrusive colours and forms, and avoiding patterns or other decorative effects. Instead, Chris deploys texture to enliven each object and to lend character to it, on the grounds that our interpretation of touch is less prone to gender stereotypes. The billowing cushion is strapped on to the seat, subtly inviting the user to plump it up or down to whichever shape they wish, and by doing so to appreciate the subtle difference between the feel of its textured surface and the sleek, polished wood. Not everyone will read the Georg like this. It has won lots of international design awards on the conventional criteria of being visually appealing, beautifully made, comfortable and robust, regardless of its subversive political sub-text. But some people will understand that narrative and future advances in digital manufacturing will enable more and more of us to customize the surfaces of objects to suit ourselves.
Even so, touch is a fledgling field in design. We know instinctively how powerful it can be. Touching something that is too wet, dry, sharp, rough or slippery can be alarming, while pleasurable sensations of touch can feel delightful. But we have a limited vocabulary to describe it, reflecting the dearth of scientific research into touch. Adam Gopnik noted in The New Yorker that for every fifty papers on the science of vision in the last fifty years, there has been one on touch. That is changing. More papers have been written about the molecular and cellular basis of touch in the last decade than the preceding century, which should help designers to use it more sensitively, and the rest of us to appreciate its nuances.
Yet another increasingly important factor in redefining our relationship to surfaces is our growing knowledge of what is happening beneath the surface of design projects, in terms of their political and environmental impact, and our growing reluctance to ignore anything that impugns their integrity in terms of ethics and sustainability. Any pleasure we once took from looking at an apogee of vintage design beauty, like Roland Barthes’s beloved Citroën DS 19, is now marred by the knowledge that a car of its age is likely to be a gas-guzzling ecological time bomb.The same applies to an Apple device. Once you have read the exposés of Apple’s employment practices and environmental lapses. How can you look at its products without worrying whether they were made from conflict minerals by abusive sub-contractors? Or imagining them failing to biodegrade in a hellhole like this, the toxic Agbogbloshie digital dump near Accra in Ghana? You can’t, which is why whatever is happening beneath the surface is now as powerful in defining our perception of a product’s design quality as the surface itself."