Design Matters

Photo by Jim WashburnIt seems you can hardly be in a social situation these days without meeting someone who tells you she or he is a designer.

As in "I have designs on you?" you might wonder because they are a suspect lot, these designers, always jotting crabbed notes and scribbles in a sketchpad held close. What are they up to? What's the big deal about design?

Let me explain it for you. When art and function get together for a Ramos Fizz on the company tab, that is design. When you buy one product instead of another, the reason is probably design. That sleek B&O stereo? That sleek new iMac? That sleek Porsche Boxster? That sleek new cathedral? They all look that way because someone designed them. Designers like sleek.

To hear a designer explain it, the words on this page aren't why you're looking at it. I could just be writing zygote zygote zygote zygote all across the page, and from a designer's perspective, it would be the same to you because what's really drawing your attention is the design of the type font and page layout.

I don't care. Design away. I get paid the same whether I write zygote zygote zygote or "The government is systematically depriving us of every right we hold dear, and here we are talking about type fonts."

But to so many newspapers, those are the Fonts de Leon, in which publishers immerse their rags in hopes of reclaiming their old vigor. The Los Angeles Times, as reported in these pages recently, is going through a major redesign. And I can see their thinking: When the nation is threatened by terrorists from without and a power-grabbing regime from within; when the political world is in turmoil and the physical world flails in its death throes; when corporate leaders are so accustomed to getting away with criminality they've grown sloppy in covering it up, while throwing tens of thousands out of work and buggering the economy—why would anybody be interested in the news in a newspaper? Give 'em a bold new border and a snazzy masthead and run Garfield on A1.

With the world going to hell, does design matter? I wondered this aloud the other night, and my wife, Leslie, chimed in with her perspective, which she often does whether I'm wondering aloud or not.

"Hair design is important," Leslie said. She is a barber.

"Why so?"

"Because it's good for society for you not to look like a fuck, and a good haircut that fits you and your lifestyle has a trickle-down effect. A bad haircut can wreck the next few weeks of your life, attitude-wise. Nobody wants a sourpuss with a bad haircut coming in their office. But with a good haircut, you feel happy, lucky and sexy and you spread goodwill."

And there is a kernel of truth in her hair. Design does matter—and pretty much for the reasons she stated. Even if the world was living in harmony, you'd feel bad if you looked like a fuck. And as we struggle on through the Bush, we need all the more reason to feel good about ourselves and to claim at least some bit of space around us as a vestment of self and sanity.

You cannot shut out the world via redoing a living room wall in lava rock. You also need to get out there designing the world, working for social and environmental change, taking those issues to heart in your daily life by treading lightly on nature and railing loudly at injustice. Otherwise, your attempts at kicking back in your nice lava rock lanai would be for naught, as you would have the nagging feeling you didn't deserve to be there. But once you're doing your modicum of good work, you deserve and need a bit of dash and style in your surroundings. As Emma Goldman said, "What good is a revolution if you still look like fuck?"

So you must lively up yourself with stuff that isn't just stuff, but designed stuff. You can easily spend a ton on name-designer furnishings, but even Target stores these days have loads of designer housewares, from fanciful lamps to shapely toothbrush holders.

Hey, would you excuse me for a moment?

Okay, I'm back. I had to move the drip feeder hose on my front lawn, and I thought, while I was at it, that I'd place it in a meandering-river snake-god pattern on the lawn. "Hey, look, I'm a designer," I realized, only subsequently realizing that moving an operational drip feeder also gives you that swanky "Hey, look, I just peed down my pants" appearance.

Such pitfalls aside, you should think about being your household's own chief designer.

Consider the OC-born Fender Stratocaster. Yes, I know, I'm always considering the Fender Stratocaster, but damn if it wasn't one of mankind's great meldings of form and function. When Leo Fender and his pals were designing it back in 1953, there wasn't anything on earth shaped even remotely like it. It was outlandishly visionary: part curve of a foot's instep, part rocket ship, and only in the scantest degree looking like a recognizable guitar.

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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