Design Matters

You can sit on irony, but its hard and unyielding

It is important to recall that Leo Fender was one of the squarest guys on earth, a conservative, country-music-lovin', pocket-protector-wearing goober. Yet he designed what became the dominant instrument of the past half-century, recognized as such a masterpiece of design that one is in New York's Museum of Modern Art's permanent collection.

So just think what you might accomplish. There's no good reason you shouldn't take a stab at designing your own life. Sure, borrow items and influences from the pros, but make them your own.

My own early attempts at home design tended to involve old Fender speaker cabinets, topped by chipboard slabs or vintage Formica countertops, which is what passed for tables here. The next phase employed cast-off department store fixtures, which were sturdy, stylish and free. The next phase involved commingling swap meet finds with furniture that friends were desperate to be rid of. The result was a sort of jet-age bachelor pad meets '70s beanbag chair meets '40s rustic cabin meets lowrider-upholstered couch meets the Wolfman. That worked for a while.

More recently, and especially since marrying, I've been introduced to the idea of choosing and buying furniture we actually like. The result is still pretty retro, but what isn't these days?

So much of what used to drive design was the search to create the future. That was back when it was still assumed that each new generation would be better off than the one preceding it, before the bill for the ecological havoc we've caused came due. Now humanity seems pretty much to have abandoned looking to the future with any gusto.

So from toasters to Paul Frank's '70s-Japanese-cartoon aesthetic to the PT Cruiser and the new T-Bird, designers have been going retro. (Incidentally, screw Bill Ford Jr. for those smarmy "Sinatra would have approved" T-bird commercials; for all Ford knows, Sinatra would have approved beating him slappy with a lug wrench.) Some designers do retro with love and still find something new in the old styles. Some do it with smug irony. You can sit on irony, but it's hard and unyielding.

I'm not sure what our present household motif should be called. Among the gametes in the zygote that is our living room, there are Hawaiian koa-wood cabinets and tables, hanging acrylic grape lamps, some bamboo, a couch that would look good with all the Mission-style furniture we don't have, a chair covered in Mexican blankets, and a wallful of old album covers.

If this room says anything aside from, "Did you pee your pants?" it is, "Slump down a while. Relax. Remember that life is very worth living."

As there has been ever less comfort to be found in pondering our future, more people I know have turned to the past for their household vibe. That's why Hawaiiana has become so popular: when you really need to relax, you go with the experts.

The Hawaiians pulled most of their design style from nature, and maybe that is where design—and our urge to be designers—springs from. Consider all the things in nature that, whether via an unseen hand or evolution, seem to be perfect designs: the banana, the olive tree, the vulva, the clouds, a cat and so on. When we design, maybe it is our way of playing god.

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