"Be Radical:" Dan Friedman’s 12-point Modernist Agenda Still Utterly Relevant After All These Years

Dan Friedman in front of his assemblage The Wall, 1985. Photo by Tseng Kwong Chi

Designer, artist, educator and writer Dan Friedman (1945-1995) moved seamlessly between the disciplines that made up his dynamic, though abbreviated, career, which serves as the subject of AIGA's exhibition "Dan Friedman: Radical Modernist." After studying at Ulm and Basel and then teaching at Cooper Union and Yale, Friedman developed a new rigorous but expansive design methodology that veered away from the prevailing influence of cool, rational Swiss Modernism and helped build the expressive, postmodern foundations of New Wave design.

But Friedman gradually became disillusioned with design in service to business and immersed himself in the vibrant East Village art scene, becoming an elder statesman to artists including Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Jeff Koons. He transformed his apartment into an eccentric, constantly evolving visual laboratory and poured his creativity into works of fantasy furniture, commissioned objects and “Post-Nuclear” assemblages—all exhibited in New York as well as Paris and Milan. As the art community became engulfed in the AIDS crisis, he devoted his design skills to AIDS activism, living himself in the shadow of the disease for a decade.

Near the end of his life, Friedman wrote and designed Dan Friedman: Radical Modernism. Here, he reaffirmed the idealistic early twentieth-century tenets of modernism, while rejecting its compromise as corporate style and advocating a more expressive formal language and humane purpose. Friedman’s eclectic career and unifying philosophy provide an inspirational model for today’s young designers, still challenging them to live and work with passion and responsibility and to improve society by embracing culture, diversity and fantasy.

In 1994, near the end of his life, Friedman offered this 12-point “radical modernist” agenda for life and work—as wise, optimistic and relevant as it was 20 years ago.

1. Live and work with passion and responsibility; have a sense of humor and fantasy.

2. Try to express personal, spiritual, and domestic values even if our culture continues to be dominated by corporate, marketing, and institutional values.

3. Choose to remain progressive; don’t be regressive. Find comfort in the past only if it expands insight into the future and not just for the sake of nostalgia.

4. Embrace the richness of all cultures; be inclusive instead of exclusive.

5. Think of your work as a significant element in the context of a more important, transcendental purpose.

6. Use your work to become advocates of projects for the public good.

7. Attempt to become a cultural provocateur; be a leader rather than a follower.

8. Engage in self-restraint; accept the challenge of working with reduced expectations and diminished resources.

9. Avoid getting stuck in corners, such as being a servant to increasing overhead careerism, or narrow points of view.

10. Bridge the boundaries that separate us from other creative professions and unexpected possibilities.

11. Use the new technologies, but don’t be seduced into thinking that they provide answers to fundamental questions.

12. Be radical.    

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Dan Friedman in self-portrait with hand-painted objects in his apartment, New York City, 1986

Excerpted from Dan Friedman: Radical Modernism, Yale University Press, 1994