Conceptual Design: Building a Social Conscience

In 1917 Marcel Duchamp, under the pseudonym “R. Mutt,” submitted a urinal to the New York Society of Independent Artists. Despite the Society’s statement that it would accept work by any artist who paid the six dollar fee, the “readymade” was rejected. “Whether Mr. Mutt with his own hands made the fountain or not has no importance,” Duchamp wrote in his magazine The Blind Man. ”He chose. He took an ordinary article of life, placed it so that its useful significance disappeared under the new title and point of view—created a new thought for the object.”

With that puckish, unpromising piece of provocation was born one of the most productive currents in 20th century culture, Conceptual Art. Forty years after Duchamp’s urinal made its first splash, the shock waves of its influence were still spreading. John Cage picked up the theme, and by the 1960s composers such as Lamonte Young and Cornelius Cardew were making conceptual music: (“Tune a brook,” wrote Cardew, “by moving the stones in it.”)

But has there ever been “Conceptual Design?” At first glance the question looks silly; all design is “conceptual” in the sense that it depends on the conceptualization of problems and solutions. But how could the rarefied, ridiculous intellectual games of a Duchamp or a Cage work in an applied art, a field where briefs and clients, not critics, collectors and curators, define the parameters?

Even those hostile to the idea of “Conceptual Design” might want to agree that some branches of design are more “conceptual” than others. Graphic design might be more “conceptual” than furniture design, for instance, and design teaching might be more “conceptual” than graphic work. If we accept Duchamp’s definition—the replacement of an object’s “usual significance” by a “new thought”—then every startlingly original design is in some way conceptual. It’s conceptual when Philippe Starck takes George Carwardine’s classic 1932 anglepoise table-lamp design and reproduces it, blown up huge, as a floor-lamp for Flos.

But to be truly “conceptual” in the way that Conceptual Art is, design would have to cut its ties with objects, materials and practicality. The concept would have to become sufficient, in and of itself; the idea would have to be the finished design.

Are we seeing something like this happening in design? I think we are. There’s a generation of young designers who, almost a century after Duchamp, seem to share something of his spirit. In recent months I’ve interviewed young designers like Åbäke, Alex Rich and Redesigndeutschland. What I notice about their work is that it shares a quality I can only describe with words like “conceptual” or “immaterial.” Rather than products, these people are designing situations, intervening in existing arrangements, framing everyday activities in ways that make us think of them, unexpectedly, as “design.” And although they’re often satirical in tone, these designers share a concern with ethics and responsibility; one of the reasons the design they make is so often immaterial is their sense that the last thing the world needs is more objects, more consumer goods. The widening ripples of Duchamp’s gesture blend, in their work, with the repercussions of a gathering concern around issues like sustainability, community and responsibility: to be conceptual is, after all, to be thoughtful.

The first Åbäke piece I saw was design you could eat: a “trattoria” they organized this May as part of the Berlin event Designmai. The food was delicious, but there was also the sense that the designers, even as they prepared yogurt with mint, olive bread, tomatoes, radishes and mozzarella for an invited audience of about 40 people, were making a “performance” in the manner of contemporary artists like Rirkrit Tiravanija (who served Thai vegetable curry at 303 Gallery on New York’s Spring Street) or Susan Ciancolo (who made an installation called Run Restaurant at Alleged). Their latest projects include setting up a “plant exchange” at London’s Columbia Road Flower Market.

Redesigndeutschland, based in Berlin, Germany, mock design’s hopeless, triumphalist fascination with standardization by proposing a universal photography portrait format, a decimal organization of time, and a new unit of measurement, the RIN. Alex Rich is a British designer now based in Tokyo. He likes to describe what he does as “gentle intervention”. When I interviewed him for ID magazine recently he told me he’d collaborated with Åbäke on a London project which involved “reverse-vandalizing” the benches in an East London park. Without a client, and without the permission of the local authorities, Rich and friends mended several public benches which had been reduced, by vandalism, to bare concrete struts. In another “action,” Rich made a series of T-shirts reproducing murals visible from the entrance to Finsbury Park train station in North London. He then asked actors to stand around the subway exit wearing the shirts, hoping that commuters would be surprised—and perhaps charmed—to see T-shirts bearing a reference to something local instead of something distant or global. Rich’s themes overlap with ideas familiar from conceptual art movements like Situationism, Psychogeography and Appropriationism. But, says Rich, “appropriation and intervention are not really the same thing. Appropriation means taking over ownership; intervention means leaving something in the public domain.”

If what we’re seeing really is the impact, a hundred years on, of Conceptual Art on the discipline of design, it’s nice to see that, in the interim, something has been added to Duchamp’s playful mischief-making: a social conscience.