Are we stuck in a design rut?

In his essay You Say You Want a Devolution in the January issue of Vanity Fair, Kurt Anderson wonders if America’s days of cultural innovation are behind us, noting that although “the world has become radically and profoundly new,” thanks to e-mail, mobile phones and other technological advancements, the world’s appearance has changed very little since the late 80’s or so. “The past is a foreign country, but the recent past – the 00’s, the 90’s, even a lot of the 80’s – looks almost identical to the present,” he writes, pointing out that popular fashion and style have evolved far less than they did between past eras when “the characteristic surfaces and sounds of each historical moment are absolutely distinct from those of 20 years earlier or later: the clothes, the hair, the cars, the advertising – all of it.” Nowadays, Anderson notes, “It’s the rare “new” cultural artifact that doesn’t seem a lot like a cover version of something we’ve seen or heard before.” I think Anderson has a point. Take last weekend’s box office returns – the top 3 grossing box office films were the latest installments of the Sherlock Holmes, Alvin and the Chipmunks and Mission Impossible franchises. Hardly bold and original.

Why is this happening? Capitalism might play a role. Anderson points out that established companies such as Old Navy have a vested interest in maintaining a certain status quo, which is why jeans never seem to go out of style. Likewise, if Design Within Reach has anything to say about it, mid-century modern may still be hip long after the 2050’s have come and gone. It’s like fashion and decor have taken a page from soap operas and comic books. In both genres, the characters and stories seem to progress, but ultimately, the goal is a kind of sameness where everything is slightly different but reassuringly familiar. Superman’s new costume (sans the red trunks) is about as new and thrilling as an Eames chair upholstered in a colorful Ikat fabric. It might seem exciting, but it’s a minor innovation at best. Maybe Anderson’s right and American culture really did start to stagnate in the 80’s? Maybe having so many choices offered by so many companies invested in the status quo blinds us to potentially exciting and innovative ideas? Or maybe there are only so many new ideas that can be birthed from the alphabet of suitable lines, colors and textures that the cultural gatekeepers, stakeholders and arbiters of good taste have incorporated into the cannon? Does the ubiquity of sameness mean that the truly innovative aesthetic “novels” already been written? While globalization has given everybody access to new words and phrases, there are only so many possible “plots” or combinations. What do you think?

Extra credit: Is it possible to create a new alphabet of design without scrapping what’s already in place? If so, how?

Top photo from the September 2011 issue of Azure Magazine: Innovating design seems more common in Europe at the moment. For example, I’ve never seen anything quite like the room’s wrap-around shell, and I really love it. (The general idea kind of reminds me of the set that Alvin and Todd installed in their very cool Andersonville loft). 

Hardwood floors continue up a curved wall in this modern apartment in Spain from Materialicious. Still a minor innovation, but I rarely see this type of design in the U.S.

Perhaps technology will ultimately enable new and interesting designs for both interiors and exteriors. This building, from the September 2011 of Azure Magazine, was built with an energy efficient material that breathes. 

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7 Responses to “Are we stuck in a design rut?”

  1. I don’t have much to say regarding design, but I know of a truly innovative book . . . Jonas Samuelle’s Ghosts of a Tired Universe. The problem is, as you’ve said, the gatekeepers are opposed.

  2. Christopher Davis 20. Dec, 2011 at 2:24 pm

    That was an interesting article. One idea I’ve always had, and it’s referenced in the article, is we live in a turbulent world of rapid technological change and economic insecurity. Given that backdrop, people gravitate to nostalgic styles. It’s like comfort food. Mid-century design could also be popular not only because it’s now a historical style, but because it represents an era of American economic supremacy and security–again, it’s nostalgia.

    If you look back to the 1950s and 60s, the Western world, especially the U.S., had every reason to feel confident and they enjoyed unprecedented prosperity and security. You might be more willing to take design risks in that sort of world. Also, after 20 years of depression and war, people were eager to embrace the new and different.

  3. Yes, North America is stuck in a design rut. Read EcoGeek or other environmental newsletters and you will find that all the cool innovation and design, in architecture, transportation, and sustainable living, are all coming from Europe, Northeast Asia and South America. One commercial for the iPad tablet really struck a chord with me: it has an app where students can write with their fingers on the screen to draw “chalk” numbers for math drills. Not only is this NOT innovative, it is a resurgence of “pre-technology” – tablets were called “slates” back then…

  4. I think in the last decade with the fear of terrorism and the economic collapse there has been something very safe about examining the past but it’s coming to an end. I really feel that by the end of next year we will begin to see more innovation coming out of the US.
    This article was really captivating. Thanks for sharing.

  5. I forgot to mention that the article fails to note that the DIY movement has actually produced some interesting and innovative trends. Also, there has been tremendous innovation in American dining….tremendous. In terms of architecture, I would argue that public space has really moved forward….like the High Line and Millennium Park.
    Museums have also become more innovative…MOMA, Art Inst. and their shows have used technology to bring in more viewers.

  6. As Christopher Davis noted, I think it is related to technology. In ancient times (the 1980s) when I was in college, all the interior design publications were talking about the upcoming technology revolution and said we’d see “high tech/high touch”—as people got more and more connected with new technology, we would also get more connected with comfort. Hence, cabinets to hide our electronics, and a new romance with hand made items, and “cocooning.”
    As a result, the push for new has been answered by technology, so our design sensibilities have turned towards the more familiar.

  7. Designs are changing, just slowly.