Buddy, can you spare design?

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There’s a raging debate in the US media about the call to bring design into account for its recent elitism. Echoing the recriminations over reckless financial dealers on Wall Street, Michael Cannell argued in the New York Times that the indulgent excesses of celebrity design will be a natural victim to the economic downturn. He says this is something to celebrate:

The pain of layoffs notwithstanding, the design world could stand to come down a notch or two — and might actually find a new sense of relevance in the process. That was the case during the Great Depression, when an early wave of modernism flourished in the United States, partly because it efficiently addressed the middle-class need for a pared-down life without servants and other Victorian trappings.

Naturally, there were many designers who took umbrage at these remarks. Murray Moss lead the defence in Design Observer to argue that one-off works like Campana Brothers $9,000 Corallo Chair represent great creative achievements that all should aspire to.

We are the fortunate benefactors, not the dupes, of design’s evolution since our recovery from the last Great Depression. We should defend that progression with resolve. We should push forward, in whatever ways are still possible, even more strongly. We should lock arms and support one another. And we should not hesitate to challenge those, like Mr. Cannell, who would somehow, mistakenly and punitively, equate the current global economic meltdown with design’s recent surge. We should, and will, refuse to go back into the box.

What seems missing from this debate is a sense of the creative possibilities of egalitarian design. This involves changing the social dynamic of design from individual distinction to collective identity. That’s kind of transformation has certainly been successful with online networking. We can only imagine what kind of promiscuous design it might foster.

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