The Battle between Ethics and Aesthetics

  • Update:2012-04-24
  • J.W. Drukker,University of Twente, The Netherlands
  • Source: Zhuangshi
Paper, Presented to the International Conference on Design Criticism,
“Consciousness, stance and method: How could design criticism be possible?”
Lanzhou University, Lanzhou, Gansu province, P.R. China, June 16 – 20, 2011.

Apologies by the author to the Conference attendants.
This paper is especially written for the Conference on Design Criticism, Lanzhou University, June 16 – 20, 2011. The views expressed in it, whatever they are worth, have never been published before, based as they are on the lecture notes for my course in design history at the University of Twente. So far for the good news. The bad news is that I had to prepare this paper on such short notice, that literature references in this version have been limited to a minimalist degree. The author wants to apologize for that. A revised and more elaborately documented version will be submitted in due time to Zhuangshi. In one respect, however, this article is unique. According to my best knowledge, it is the first scholarly article in the world that has illustrations in its footnotes (See: Footnotes 6, 11 & 17 here after). Finally, the illustrations in the main text do not refer to particular parts, but are intended to demonstrate in a general sense the radically different results one gets, following a functionalist versus a postmodernist design paradigm. JWD.

This paper analyzes the differences in what constitutes ‘good’ and ‘bad’ design from a functionalist and postmodernist perspective. First I try to demonstrate that functionalism, the dominant design paradigm for the greater part of the 20th century, is deeply rooted in the worldview of humanist modernism, presented here as a pseudo-religion. It appears that functionalist criteria for ‘good’ design follow directly from these roots, and are therefore essentially of an ethical nature. The implication of this is that functionalism is considered by its adherents, not as a ‘temporarily fashionable’ style, but as a universally valid system: The criteria for a ‘good’ product in the functionalist sense are thought to be independent of time and place. This claim of universal validity was successfully challenged by postmodernism since the last quarter of the 20th century. Postmodernists deny that functionalism holds a universal message for all mankind. In their view functionalism is a culture (like many others) that came up in the Western world together with the start of the Enlightenment, had her climax somewhere halfway the 20th century and since then (like all other cultures, after some time) showed signs of decadence and decay. Although this undermining of the functionalist ‘claim of universal validity’ has to be taken seriously, based as it is on sound arguments, it should not be overseen that the basis of the postmodernist critique stems from a fundamental change in what is considered to be the essential feature of a product. In functionalism – no great wonder! – this essential feature is supposed to be its function. In postmodernism it is its ‘meaning’, where ‘meanings’ are supposed to be culturally determined. In other words, postmodernism starts from the hypothesis that the appreciation of a product is culturally determined. So, postmodernism holds essentially an aesthetical viewpoint instead of an ethical one in its judgment on what is ‘good’ and ‘bad’ design. The implication of this is, I argue, that, although postmodernist critique thus effectively undermines the claim of universal validity of the functionalist design paradigm, there is a price to be paid for this. The postmodernist fundamental that ‘meanings’ are culturally determined – implying that one and the same product will radiate different meanings in different cultures – implies that postmodernism can aptly be seen as ‘the general theory of relativity on the interpretation of the world’. For that reason, it can be concluded that postmodernism effectively challenges the functionalist paradigm, however, without providing us another solid, and clear cut set of rules on how to discern between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ design. As far as we have been blind for the relativity of the functionalist design paradigm, postmodernism, replacing the functionalist ‘Form Follows Function’ by ‘Anything Goes’, may have opened our eyes, but in the end, it leaves industrial designers also pretty empty handed…




1 Humanist Modernism as a Pseudo-Religion
Seen from a comparative, meta-religious viewpoint, all religions are pretty much identical. For example, they all provide an answer to the same four questions: How did creation come about? Why are we here on earth? How should we behave according to the Creator’s intent in this sublunary world? And what happens to us when it’s all over?
I admit, this seems a pretty weird start for a paper on design criticism, but, believe it or not, if you stay with me we shall soon be re-immersed in the question what criteria constitute ‘good’ and ‘bad’ product design.
It’s not just the questions that religion answers that are all the same; the way the answers are structured are strikingly similar, too. All religions postulate one single source of true knowledge, in the form of an omniscient authority: God, the world’s creator, the only one who knows the answer to the four questions. All religions also postulate that God has made His knowledge available, somehow, to the human race, most often in the form of a number of holy texts. Finally, all religions have some sort of priesthood, religious specialists whose tasks include interpreting the holy books, translating them into rules governing the behavior of the faithful.


Standard encyclopaedia knowledge counts five world religions. But if one looks at the fundamental questions that every religion answers, one could reasonably hold that there is a sixth, that is systematically ignored. This cannot be ascribed to its size – it probably has more adherents than Christianity and Islam put together. It is caused by the fact that it is simply a rara avis in this context, based on an even more fundamental criterion. It is a religion that has moved ‘God’ out of the centre, replacing Him by ‘Man’, so in that regard one could better term it a pseudo-religion. What I am referring to is the world view that has come to play an increasingly dominant role in Western culture, at least since the Enlightenment. It is known under the epithet humanist modernism ? modernism for short.
Modernism takes science as the only source of true knowledge, so God the Creator and All-Knowing Authority has been sent off stage with a bang. This ‘bang’ should be taken literally: modernism replaces the first verses of Genesis with the Big Bang, whereafter knowledge can only be acquired by doing physics research to see what happened next. The way this knowledge is revealed to humanity is essentially different from the way the other, ‘real’ religions conceive it. All religions assign to knowledge an immutable, eternally valid, revelatory character, while modernism has it that knowledge unfolds gradually over time. This is the core of the ‘progress hypothesis’, according to which Einstein’s Weltanschauung not only differs from Newton’s, it is actually superior, in the sense that Einstein presents a better explanation of the way the world works than his predecessors. The same holds for the modern physicist, of course, vis à vis Einstein.



Modernism has gained enormously in popularity in our culture, at the cost of the traditional religions. Its immense popularity often causes us to lose sight of the fact that, in existential terms, this Weltanschauung loses out to any of the ‘real’ religions, no matter how persuasive its empirical underpinnings. The central point here is that, in contrast to what the adjective might suggest, humanistic modernism is utterly pitiless, in the most literal sense of the word. After all, if the world about us, ourselves included, is the result of the blind laws of nature, then inevitably there is nothing, outside ourselves in the entire universe that concerns itself with us, not for a single second. In fact, modernism only answers one of the four fundamental questions that the others all answer, the first one: ‘How did creation come about?’ The only thing it can say about the other three is either that they are senseless (How can you behave according to God’s intentions when there is no God?), or else that they are not empirically testable and therefore belong in the realm of metaphysical speculation, that is, outside the realm of genuine knowledge. As soon as God passes through the vanishing point one inevitably also loses hope for a place in heaven after one’s present life. Obviously, in this form, humanistic modernism offers little in the way of guidance for human actions. Moreover, it is a total failure at offering comfort when one is confronted with an existential fear of death, which is one of the fundamental functions of a ‘real’ religion. What use is a conviction that tells me I am the absolutely random result of a gigantic explosion and an infinite number of causal relations, all of them driven blindly by the laws of physics, all of them spread out over billions of years. And then it just closes with, ‘O yeah, about that fear of death? Sure, nasty feeling. People have that. You know, you shouldn’t trouble yourself about it too much. That would be best. Good luck, pal.’
Modernism’s adherents, of course, have also encountered this striking lacuna in their world-view, and they have searched feverishly for ways to darn the most obvious existential holes in the modernist sock, and they have done so in the following way.
The fundamental supplement was sought in technology. The reasoning is that technology forms the entirety of science-based methods and techniques that can serve to alleviate human wants or serve their needs – which comes to the same thing in this context. Since technology is based on scientific insights and because science ineluctably leads us to ever-higher levels over time, technology, too, develops onwards and ever upwards. And there we have it: Abracadabra! It’s the good old progress hypothesis once gain. The possibilities offered by technology are ever better able to satisfy human needs over the course of time. Scientific progress, which underlies technological progress, thus means that our children will live better lives than we do, and that their children in turn will do even better. The implication is that heaven, which initially seemed to have accompanied God down the modernist drain, has now re-entered through the back door. Now, though, it looks very different from the way other religions depict it. Not after this earthly life, but during it. Not now, but in the future. In the eyes of someone who is firmly convinced of his post-rapture union with a shining Heavenly Father this will undoubtedly be a total frost, but you can hardly deny that this sort of thinking offers a spark of hope to humanistic modernism.



The funny thing is, despite God’s disappearance, the second question that initially embarrassed modernism (How can one act in accordance with God’s intentions?), now suddenly can be answered. The future paradise on earth, of course, is only achievable if everyone cheerfully cooperates to achieve it. In other words, only if you genuinely believe that science and the technology derived from it, is indeed the only, unique way to a better future and you act accordingly. If modern people allow themselves to be led in word and deed by a strict rationality, freed of all forms of metaphysical speculation, only then can they contribute to a better future. Those who are unable to do so (sadly) are obstacles to progress.
So where is this extended monologue on comparative religion leading, in a paper on design criticism? There are two reasons for it. In the first place, the 20th century’s most influential design philosophy, functionalism, is seamlessly interlaced with humanist modernist thinking. The functionalist design principles can only be understood if one understands the modernist world-view. The intimate relationship between functionalism and modernism is underlined by the fact that the term functionalism has never been taken on board in architecture. Exactly the same design principles, which in product design are known as functionalism, in architecture are called … modern architecture.
Secondly, the inseparability of humanistic modernism and functionalism provides at least a plausible explanation of why the functionalist design principles lost their dominance in the last quarter of the 20th century. For, in large part this was due to contemporary sniping at humanistic modernism. I will come back to that point further on.

2 The Ethical Roots of Functionalism: Bauhaus and the Proletariat
It is difficult to fix exactly when functionalism started its triumphal march. With hindsight it takes no effort to determine that functionalist ideas were evident as early as the 19th century: just conceal a picture of Christopher Dresser’s claret jugs and tumblers in a series of Late Bauhaus icons and I can guarantee that only a trained historian of design will voice any suspicion. Nevertheless, it would be perfectly justifiable to maintain that the outlines of functionalism first became clear in the Bauhaus. Moreover, that did not happen immediately after its foundation in 1919, but at the earliest after 1923, which is when Gropius issued his lecture ‘Kunst und Technik: eine neue Einheit’ (Art and Technology: A New Unity). This famous lecture was the first to locate technology at the centre of design, thus presenting a clear, immediate vision of the modernist world view. The institute flourished for only a little more than the decade, from 1923 to 1933, before the Nazis finally killed it off as a corrupt breeding ground of Judaeo-communist-anarchist agitation. Nevertheless, this brief period, in what was indubitably one of the most chaotic design courses in history, brought forth one of the clearest, most coherent design philosophies, one that would come to dominate the entire Western world right up to the later years of 20th century.



This design philosophy can readily be summarized by starting with the ultimate goal to which the Bauhaus aspired. Oddly enough, this had nothing to do with design as such; it was fundamentally ethical in nature.. It was the view of the Bauhaus that all design capacity (including architecture as one of its highest forms) served but a single purpose: the spiritual elevation of what was referred to then, in all innocence, as ‘the proletariat’. The first stage on the path consisted of improving the material conditions under which the majority of the population lived. We may consider that naïve, but then we would be ignoring the fact that the majority of the population in the early 20th century commonly lived in utterly degrading conditions, even in a relatively prosperous Europe. In real terms (i.e. expressed as comparable purchasing power) in the Netherlands of the 1920s, certainly not a socially backward era, the average hourly wage was less than one fifth of the present level. The average life expectancy at birth was scarcely more than 50 years. Nowadays it approaches 80 years.
In the eyes of Gropius and his disciples, the artist/designer (titles that were not differentiated in those days), had only a single purpose in life. He was the visionary guide, revealing to humanity the path to a better future. With unerring precision he knew what the workers’ paradise of the future looked like. It was a strictly rational society, dominated by technology. This was the essence of Gropius’ 1923 lecture and it explains why from that time László Moholy Nagy, whose work was characterized by a total fusion of art and technology, came increasingly to dominate the Bauhaus curriculum. Technology lay at the root of factory-based mass production and it was this alone that permitted high-quality consumer goods to be produced at such a cheap price that they lay within reach of the working class. This same attitude was to culminate in a stormy series of events in the Bauhaus after 1928, when the ultra-left Hannes Meyer succeeded Gropius as its director.

3 Design Criticism from a Functionalist Perspective

Figure 1: The Ten Commandments of Functionalism

The core of functionalism is that the design process is derived from a number of principles, that can be summarized in ’Ten Commandments’ (See: Figure 1). Mechanized mass production requires a product designed so that standardized components can be assembled simply and easily. Functionalism translates this requirement into a design language based on elementary mathematical shapes (plane, cube, sphere, cone, etc.), or else organic forms, as in the Scandinavian variant. These organic forms may well have been the original inspiration, but they were radically abstracted to such a degree that any indication of nature’s capriciousness has been eliminated. Functionalism also states that the only thing that really matters in design is that the product is best suited to the job it is supposed to do. The problem of discovering what this job is, is answered by a method of reasoning that would appear to be directly derived from the catechism of humanist modernism. Every product, from airplane to teaspoon, as it were, has some idealized, characteristic form. The product perfectly does the job it is supposed to do. Now, it may well be that this ideal cannot be attained given the present state of our technology, but the many technological improvements that accrue with time can be applied consistently to the design, so the ideal is approached ever more closely over time. The functional requirements that a product must fulfill can be set down exhaustively by research into the functioning of similar, existing products in their own user environment, together with the behavior and wishes of the various user groups. The result is a Program of Requirements (PoR) which has to be compared with the existing range of technological options. This in turn gives rise to a number of concepts, one of which will be selected based on how closely it approaches the ‘ideal’ product derived from the PoR.



The consequence of this strictly scientific interpretation of the design process is that the functionalist ethic is also derived from scientific criteria. The foundation comes from an ancient dogma of the theory of knowledge, Ockham’s razor, which has it that, when one has to choose between two theories, each of which makes exactly similar, equally precise predictions, one chooses the simpler of the two, expressed in terms of the number of hypotheses involved. If Theory A says that gravity is what causes apples always to fall down and never up, and Theory B maintains exactly the same, adding that gravity is caused by mighty aliens from another solar system, then Theory A is preferred. After all, Theory B saddles us with matters that we do not need to explain how apples behave. Moreover, they might really get in the way as we carry our reasoning further. If one translates Ockham’s razor into product design, then at one blow one has captured the functional design mantra: ‘Form follows function’. A product’s functioning should be clear solely and exclusively from its design. Based on this arguments, the ten commandments of functionalism can be translated in four fundamental “Do’s and Do-Not’s for the designer.
1. Use your materials honestly. In other words, concrete must look like concrete, steel like steel. And please, marble shouldn’t look like wood.
2. Aspire to the greatest simplicity of form and colour. In other words, build the product in the simplest way from elementary, basic shapes. Limit the range of colours to an absolute minimum: the yellow / red / blue and white / black / grey of De Stijl are enough.
3. Make the product’s functionality as transparent as possible. In other words, derive the product’s form directly from the construction underlying the functions the product should fulfill.
4. Let your design be guided by a strictly observed minimalism. In other words, eliminate everything from the design that does not contribute to the product’s function. Always recall that a well-designed product can be appraised at a single glance. More is too much and less is impossible. By extension (this tale gets monotonous), there is an absolute prohibition against ornamentation. At best it does nothing to contribute to the obviousness of the function; at worst it distracts one’s attention from it. So away with it, with a single swipe of Ockham’s razor!



The scientific-technological foundation of functionalism also dictates the dogma of universality. In the modernist’s view, rationality is a generally applicable principle in the theory of knowledge. Of course, some ethnic groups (at that time – without a trace of embarrassment - called ‘primitive tribes’, such as Pygmees) don’t seem to hold much truck with rationality as the ultimate source of our knowledge of the world, but that’s only a matter of time. Just let progress exert its beneficent influence and before you know it, every Pygmee will be every bit as rational as an MIT professor. In functionalism this translates into a firm conviction that well-designed products are universally well-functioning products, independently of the context within which they are used. It is this idea that explains why functionalism is as blind as a bat when it comes to cultural and ethnic differences in the way products are used and valued; they are simply not taken into account in the design process. This was the design philosophy that was bred in the Bauhaus in the 1920s, reaching maturity in the successor to the Bauhaus, the exalted Hochschule für Gestaltung in Ulm.
However, during the 1970s functionalism lost its dominant position, the most important reason being that the belief in modern large scale technology – and therefore: humanist modernism, - came under attack for a number of reasons. The inextricable linkage between functionalism and humanistic modernism in fact implied that functionalism could not remain untouched when modernism ultimately came under fire late in the late 20th century. The end of functionalism brought with it a crisis in product design, sparked off by a critical design movement that operated under the banner of postmodernism. In the next section, I will try to elucidate when, and why, modernism suddenly became old fashioned.



4 When (and why) modernism (and so: functionalism) became obsolete
Nowadays it seems more or less fashionable to speak disdainfully of the Hochschule Für Gestaltug Ulm. The primary explanation for this would appear to be many decades during which the Ulm doctrine exerted a crushing dominance over design education. Ulm was the blueprint for all leading European design schools, from the Design Academy and Delft University of Technology in The Netherlands, the Domus Academy in Italy and the Royal College of Art in Britain. It was Ulmian functionalism that for decades ruled the entire European design scene with an iron fist, from typewriters to nightlights, from percolators to pillar boxes. That, of course, aroused irritation, strengthened by the fact that the Ulmian ideas were not entirely free of arrogance, stemming from its meddling attitude to equate aesthetics with ethics. Anyone who preferred a velvet-clad ‘Granny’s- sofa’ from a multiple furniture store to Martin Visser’s ‘BR027’ was not just someone with poor taste, within the eyes of an Ulmian, but actually an inferior, pitiable and backward person, who had not yet seen the light of a shining future, controlled by modern technology. At the very least, such people needed a heavy dose of cultural re-education. Exaggerated? Barely. An early issue of the magazine Goed Wonen (Good housing), the journal of Dutch functionalists in the 1960s, contained an article, describing the (certainly petty bourgeois) mayoral chamber in the town hall in The Hague. One could see, the reviewer coolly observed, that the designer of this tasteless ensemble must have been a Dutch Nazi during World War 2.
To a certain extent is it understandable that functionalism is still discussed today in the same way as the family will discuss a legendarily autocratic paterfamilias, with a mixture of tenderness and revulsion. Yes, grandfather certainly had style, but heavens! He really could cut loose. Good job he’s dead as a doornail, for grandma’s sake at least, if nothing else. This passes by the fact that functionalism, together with the rousing success of humanistic modernism, has made the modern Western world what it is. That we are not so charmed by that now, comes from two things: we regard the phenomenon of mass consumption as so matter-of-fact that we ignore it; and it took so long for functionalism to penetrate to the underside of the market that one only gains a good picture of the relationship between functionalism and mass consumption if one is prepared to look at it from a great historical distance.



Initially post-War functionalism in its purest form was actually let loose on the wrong target group: the rich, sophisticated middle classes. Its purest expression was to be found in domestic and audio equipment made by firms such as Braun and Siemens, in Olivetti’s office machinery, in Volvo and Audi automobiles, every year gradually evolving towards technical perfection –“Vorsprung durch Technik” (Ahead of Competitors by Technology) as Audi advertisements had it -. Just take down any book on 20th Century Design or visit some random museum’s design collection and you will see that the manufacturers of the 1960s and ’70s were – and in many cases still are – the generally acknowledged design icons of their time.
If one just leaves it at that, then one is forced to question whether functionalism’s victory might not have been a Pyrrhic one. The Holy Grail, after all, was to improve the material welfare of the lower orders. And where does one encounter most of the Braun turntables, Siemens kitchen equipment, and Audi cars? In the museums, certainly, but in working class areas? Of course not! Most are inside and outside the fine houses of the ambitious doctors, idealist lawyers and left-liberal politicians in the capital’s more upmarket suburbs. Elevating the masses? Not likely! This was one of the main arguments voiced by the postmodern critics of functionalism, which started to gain attention in the 1970s. In less than a decade, arguments like these were to topple functionalism from its throne in professional circles.
The accusation is misplaced, however. It was exactly in the years when the critical outburst began that, for the first time in its history, Western Europe entered the era of mass consumption. This was when the vast majority of the population could afford a certain amount of luxury besides their daily needs. It would be difficult to interpret this as anything other than the practical realization of the old Bauhaus ideal. But, mind you, the old Bauhaus prophets – many of them orthodox communists – would probably be astonished to see the sort of political regime that ruled over the realization of their ideal.
“That may very well be so”, functionalism’s postmodern critic may respond, “but it’s one thing to interpret the era of mass consumption as the realisation of an ideal that evidently dates back before the Second World War, among certain advanced, modernist souls. Actually, though, that had nothing to do with a superficially democratic functionalism. This brand of functionalism was thoroughly elitist and the two bore no relation to each another.” But they did! Today, as you walk through the stores that are the greatest proponents of the modern mass consumption culture – the department stores, the DIY chains, the high street chemists – then your unprejudiced eye will see at a glance that the product designs are direct descendants of the functionalist icons of the 1960s. So yes, functionalism most certainly has fulfilled its promise to society, albeit in an environment that causes the refined gurus of style to sniff haughtily.



functionalism lost its dominance in professional circles as the universal design doctrine at exactly the same time as that same doctrine was astonishingly successful and patently obvious to anyone who was prepared to spend the afternoon in IKEA. This, of course, is an extreme paradox, but the explanation I have offered up to now would not appear to hold much water. Was mass production and so the loss of exclusiveness the only reason why functionalism lost its allure among the professional designers? Was that why its original avant- garde allure disappeared like snow in June? Was it simply that functionalism became common, vulgar, in the 1970s, which is why design critics turned their backs on it? That would be in flagrant contradiction to the postmodern critique that functionalism was in fact a covert, elitist design philosophy. When it finally lost it elitist allure, it just got dumped along with the trash! There must have been something else going on, mustn’t there?
Indeed, something else was going on. What in fact was happening was that in roughly the last quarter of the 20th century, when functionalism lost its allure among the professionals, its spiritual foundation, humanist modernism, was coming under sustained attack. It suffered some terrible wounds which, while not driving it completely from the stage, certainly delivered a blow to its persuasive power. While the 1950s and ’60s were marked by boundless optimism about the future, the 1970s gave way to scepsis and pessimism about the blessings of a world ruled by technology. The background to this reversal from optimism to pessimism can be found in a number of more or less independent occurrences. Together, though, they wielded a considerable influence on people’s vision of the future.
Warnings had been sounded even earlier, for those who had ears to hear, about the social hazards of technology run wild. Nor were they limited to the black futuristic humours of novelists like Aldous Huxley and George Orwell. In The Hidden Persuaders (1957) and The Wastemakers (1960), the American economist Vance Packard vented his spleen about the excesses of consumer culture. Rachel Carson, professor of biology at Columbia University, wrote in Silent Spring (1962) about the global poisoning resulting from the widespread use of DDT, the pesticide for which the Swiss chemist Paul Herman Müller received the 1948 Nobel Prize. Ralph Nader destroyed the Chevrolet Corvair in his book Unsafe at Any Speed (1962), driving the General Motors Board into such a frenzy that they spied on Nader for decades, trying to catch him doing something illegal. Nevertheless, these prophets did not exert much direct influence on society’s thinking at the time. The hymn of technological progress sounded forth fortissimo, drowning out the shrill discords of a few morbid prophets of doom.



Things changed in the next few years, which had to do with a series of disasters starting in the late 1960s. These gradually made it clear that technologically sophisticated systems were far more vulnerable than anyone had hitherto supposed. Moreover, if something went wrong, the after- effects might well get completely out of control. To give just some examples: the most secure building in the world, the US Embassy in Saigon, was completely destroyed on 30 March 1965 by a bomb smuggled in by the North Vietnamese communists, the Vietcong. This gave rise several years later to the disconcerting realization that the world’s most technologically advanced army could not win a war against a primitive little band of guerrillas. Barely ten months after this attack it became known that a US fighter-bomber had crashed into the sea near Palomares in Spain, with four hydrogen bombs on board, all of which, sadly, were now at the bottom of the Mediterranean. This was only announced by the Pentagon several days later. On 18 March 1967 the Torrey Canyon, a 61,000 ton oil tanker, ran aground off the coast of Cornwall, UK. The English and French beaches were covered in oil within days. In despair, but at that time unfamiliar with this sort of environmental disaster, the UK government decided to have the RAF bomb the wreck with incendiaries. The absolute flagship of modern technology – Space Travel – also started to claim victims at that time. US astronauts Grissom, Chaffee and White died in a fire during a drill in their Apollo capsule. A month after the Torrey canyon went aground, the Russian Komarov crashed due to defective parachutes on the Soyuz-1 spacecraft, which failed at an altitude of 7 km. There were two gas explosions in that same year, in East Germany and in Martelange, Belgium, causing together some 100 deaths and many hundreds of wounded. A few months previously, for reasons that have never been explained, the Brussels department store À l’Innovation went up in flames. Narrow streets, filled with massed crowds of onlookers, meant that the fire brigade was able to attend the scene only after some hours. More than 10,000 m2 of the complex burned like a torch. Panic-stricken customers jumped from heights of more than 20 m, smashing into the pavement in full view of the crowds. The result was 325 deaths and more than 80 serious casualties. No matter how cynical it might sound after the fact, we should perhaps qualify the number of casualties as slight because the fire broke out on a Monday morning, when the Belgian shops traditionally opened late.
There had been technological disasters earlier, of course, but they were commonly regarded as regrettable incidents, bad luck, just the price we pay for progress. The mounting series of disasters in the late 1960s and after, coupled with their great seriousness, brought about a mind-shift. This change of climate was why the 1972 report The Limits to Growth had such a devastating impact. In general, the reaction was that, if the most eminent professors at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), technology’s Mecca, were commissioned by a club of industrialists and politicians, themselves scarcely sympathetic to hippie ideals, and, in their report warned against the disastrous long-term consequences of unbridled, technologically-driven economic growth, then something must be seriously amiss.



With hindsight, though, we can view these incidents, which initially greatly reinforced vague unease about the control of large-scale technology, as relatively innocent harbingers of the bizarre sequence of technological disasters and near-disasters that would start to terrify the world after publication of The Limits to Growth.
In 1976 the Hoffmann-La Roche chemical plant in Seveso, Italy, blew up, releasing vast quantities of a highly toxic dioxin derivative. The authorities initially ignored the event. The city was eventually evacuated and closed off behind barbed wire, but only after several days of mass deaths among pets in the neighborhood and countless hospital admissions due to headache and nausea. A team of American specialists advised that all greenery on the 70 hectare site should be incinerated, after which the city should be razed to the ground. That, however, would only be possible after three years, for the simple reason that the area could not be entered before that time. The reason why the Americans knew so much about this relatively obscure dioxin poison was not entirely devoid of cynicism, either. Dioxin, under the code name Agent Orange, had been sprayed as a defoliant over the jungles of North Vietnam to reveal the Vietcong troops below. In October it appeared that more than 1000 of the 10,000 medical cases investigated among the residents of Seveso were suffering from degeneration of their internal organs, mainly liver and kidneys. Towards the end of 1976 it was found that the toxin had spread over a far wider area than had been predicted. Countless drums of dioxin from the disaster area turned up during the 1980s in waste depots in France and Belgium. How they got there could generally not be discovered. In March 1979 a coolant pump failed in the Harrisburg nuclear reactor on Three Mile Island, due to a chain of human failures of judgment or incorrect actions, leading to what the US government characterised as the worst incident in the history of nuclear power. Nevertheless, it remained a near-disaster because 100,000 people were evacuated in good time and the reactor was ultimately brought back under control. The power station, now closed, could be inspected after a year had passed and the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture and the Federal Environmental Protection Agency were able to conclude that there had been no damage to human, animal or plant life. Then we have the 3 December 1984 explosion in the American Union Carbide-owned plant in the Indian town of Bhopal, which even today is known as the worst industrial disaster ever. The nature of the disaster was comparable to the Seveso incident, but its consequences were far more serious. Three days after the explosion there were more than 8000 deaths from acute toxicity and more than half a million wounded, mainly people who had been blinded. In 2004 it was estimated that the disaster had caused 20,000 fatalities. The near-disaster at the Three Mile Island nuclear facility in 1979 was widely used as propaganda by opponents of nuclear energy but, oddly enough, it also fitted into the arsenal of its proponents. After all, had this not been a practical display of how a defect in a nuclear plant did not inevitably lead to a fatal meltdown, despite a concatenation of human errors? So the reactor certainly could be brought back under control. That view was destroyed at one blow on 26 April 1986, when a safety exercise (!) in the Chernobyl nuclear plant in Russia exploded, once again due to a series of control errors. In the days that followed it started to look like the dreaded meltdown was actually going to happen. The radiation released had twice the intensity of the notorious atmospheric nuclear tests in the 1950s. Shortly after the disaster, considerable increases of deposited nuclear material were measured throughout Europe.



In light of all that has been written above, it should come as no surprise that there was a sudden flourishing, in the 1970s and after, of countless anti-modernist, anti-technology movements. These are the years of mass demonstrations against nuclear energy and the siting of cruise missiles in Europe. These are the years when intellectuals, calling themselves Maoists (with absolutely no trace of self-mockery or irony), under the influence of an utterly irrational, anti-technological ideology, rejected out of hand all news of the countless victims of the Cultural Revolution and Pol Pot’s collective re-education of the Cambodian people under the Khmer Rouge. These, it was held, were merely imperialist lies. These are the years when we saw the aftermath of the failed neo-Marxist student protests of 1968, which themselves had a virulent anti-technological undertone. As the students slogan in Paris had it, ‘l ’Imagination au pouvoir!’ (Power to the imagination!) Suddenly, the western world filled with violent urban guerrillas: the Italian Red Brigades, the Weathermen in the USA, West Germany’s Baader-Meinhof Group, and the Japanese Red Army, all of them led by frustrated left-wing intellectuals and all of them dedicated to the overthrow of Western technocratic capitalism. And once again, the onslaughts of the urban guerrillas of the 1980s were merely the forerunners of the terror that confronts us today.



The powerless astonishment with which the political establishment initially reacted to these anti-modernist movements also eventually fed the less radical movements that had cause to doubt the technological utopia. This in turn strengthened anti-modernism throughout the western world. Strikingly, it was those intellectuals who had previously been the stoutest defenders of humanistic modernism who turned into adherents of a radical anti-rationalism. On many university campuses, both in Europe, and in the United States, one could suddenly see, between the pale blue jeans and tweeds, the red and orange of the followers of the Indian guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh.
This is the world that sank functionalism: the close interrelationship between functionalism and modernism inevitably meant that when modernism became obsolete, it sealed the fate of what for decades had been the holy creed of European design.

5 Design Criticism from a Postmodernist Perspective
Within a few short years, design lost what for convenience I shall here call its social democratic, Bauhaus-Ulm roots. So what did we get in its place? Postmodernism, of course. And what might that be? This is by no means easy to answer, because postmodernism is highly eclectic. In essence postmodernism denies that modernism holds a universal message for all mankind. It states that modernism is a culture (like many others) that bloomed in the Western world together with the start of the Enlightenment, had her climax somewhere halfway the 20th century and since then (like all cultures after some time) shows signs of decadence and decay.
From a viewpoint of design criticism it is important to stress the central role that semiotics play in postmodernist thought. Products are seen, not primarily as carriers of ‘functions’, but as carriers of symbols or ‘signs’ that are decoded by its users. In this decoding process ‘signs’ transform into ‘meanings’, but … to what meaning a given sign is transformed, is supposed to be dependent on the cultural background of the user- decoder, which implies that one and the same product will radiate different meanings in different cultures. In other words, postmodernism starts from the hypothesis that the appreciation of a product is essentially determined by the meanings the user attaches to it, while the exact relation between signs and meanings on their turn are culturally determined. The consequences of this stance are twofold: First, as appreciation discerns between notions as “likeable, beautiful, meaningful” versus “disgusting, ugly, boring”, postmodernism holds essentially an aesthetical viewpoint instead of an ethical one in its judgment on what is ‘good’ and ‘bad’ design. Secondly, as the interpretation of signs is equated with the interpretation of the world around us, postmodernism can aptly be seen as ‘the general theory of relativity on the interpretation of the world’.



From this ultimately relativist worldview, it launches a devastating attack on functionalism, that can be illustrated by ‘Smashing the 10 Commandments of Functionalism’ (Figure 2, p. 18). Some comments are justified, it seems.
Ad 1. Whether a product is appreciated as good or bad, is essentially decided by its user, and so has nothing to do with the fundamentals on which its design is based. These fundamentals can be scientific, but they also may be derived from history, art, nature, poetry, magic, or whatever. Anything goes!
Ad 2. The appreciation of a product is determined, not by its functioning, but by the meanings it radiates to its user. Its functioning is simply one of the many meanings the products radiates. If a products performs well, it radiates as one of its meanings: ”This thing works nicely”.

[Figure 2]

Ad 3. Minimalist design is a constraint to filling a product with meanings, so minimalist design is simply boring, despite its preposterous pretensions.
Ad 4. That functionalist design is devoid of ornament, is an illusion. Functionalist products are full of ‘hidden signs’ that radiate ‘hidden meanings’ and that is, as it always has been, the essential role of ornament. Take for instance, the legendary German Porsche 911. Is this really a ‘neutral’ product, due to the lack of ornament in its design? Of course not! It tells everyone: I am a very exclusive, high quality, and very expensive automobile, and so you may aptly conclude that my owner is a very sophisticated and very rich man with a finely developed qualified taste for products in general and cars in particular.
Ad 5. The aesthetical experience of a product is based on the appreciation of a product by its user; the appreciation is based on the meanings the user attaches to the product; the meanings are produced by the user’s decoding of the signs the products radiates; the decoding is determined by the cultural background of the user. So, aesthetical experiences are culturally determined and differ from culture to culture.



Ad 6. That there is no unique ‘ideal type’ of a product, follows directly from the fact that the perceived quality of a product is determined by the appreciation of its user. A rusty, crooked frying pan may be valued higher by you than any brand new, high-tech, and absolutely better functioning alternative, because the rusty one reminds you of your beloved grandmother, who used to prepare bacon and eggs for you in the morning before you had to go to school. You still smell them, and see her before you, only when you hold this pan!
Ad 7. First: On the contrary! It all depends on the meanings the product radiates. If one its meaning is: “I am a very complicated and technically sophisticated artifact, and you, poor user, are too stupid to understand my functioning, so, I guess you will not be able to operate me properly”, the product will not be appreciated by its user. Secondly, this point follows directly from the previous one: Think again of Grandma’s frying pan.
Ad 8. To think that all men are equal, is a value-loaded utopian statement, cherished in some cultures, and NOT a universal matter of fact. Remember George Orwell: “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others”, and right he was, whether you like it, or not. By the way, as the interpretation of the world is done by decoding signs in that world, and as the decoding system is culturally determined, there are no universal matters of fact.
Ad 9. Functionalist mass production has flooded the world with meaningless products, while mass production is in fact technically outdated. With today’s technology of ‘customized mass production’, we can do one step in the right direction, namely to ‘individualize’ massively produced artifacts, and so add some ‘meaning’ to them. Yes, there is a task for the designer here, but his or her task is essentially an artistic, and not a technical one.

Ad 10. During the whole of history there have been elites in each and every culture. During the whole of history these elites have commissioned the finest artifacts, that survive to the present day for all to see as tangible and cherished materializations of a highly refined culture in the past. What’s wrong with that?
6 Conclusion
Postmodernism effectively challenges the functionalist paradigm, but there is a price to be paid for this, in the sense that it is NOT providing us with a useful alternative, that is, another solid, and clear cut set of rules on how to discern between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ design. Moreover, as postmodernism is fiercely anti-technological in character, it has little to offer to industrial designers: It fundamentally re-places ‘art’ instead of ‘technology’ as being the heart of design. As far as we have been blind for the relativity of the functionalist design paradigm, postmodernism, replacing the functionalist ‘Form Follows Function’ by ‘Anything Goes’, may have opened our eyes, but in the end, it leaves industrial designers also pretty empty handed…




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