System, Suspension, Seduction: Anne Bush's Critical Design Practice

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT

For the past decade, in addition to her contributions as a design historian, theorist, educator and profes sional designer. Anne Bush has created works of installation art that engage their viewers in a set of questions about the role of design in the construction of knowledge. Facade (1995). "Type" Specimen (1998), Trust (2002), and Library/Catalogue (2003) all fuse typography with a range of materials that have become fundamental to human interactions with each other and the environment-including banknotes and the basic tools of scientific research such as microscope slides, test tubes and books. With these installations, Bush constructs conceptual way-finding systems that operate on both large and intimate scales to orient visitors not only to the specific details of the spaces in which the works are installed, but also to the general systems of demarcation, classification and control that shape our comprehension of our world.

An example of rhe best design was before my eyes, the design of é seductive unity of person and machine, sensuility and playfulness, beauty of form and aptness of function. A sort affusion dream, the staging of this dream as reality and. at the same time, the most treacherous delusion.'

- Gert Selle

THE "UNTIMELY OPINIONS" GERT SELLE first voiced fifteen years ago in Design Issues recapitulate questions that have troubled designers since the consolidation of the modern design professions. From the founding rationales of the Bauhaus to Ken Garland's 1964 "First Things First" manifesto to the reaffirmation of that manifesto in 1999. designers and design theorists have engaged, but have certainly not laid to rest, the set of problems that prompted Selle's rather lugubrious reflections on the state of design in the culture of late capitalism. Of perennial concern has been the relationship between professional design practice, with its ties to industry and commerce, and the hegemonic political, social and cultural regimes in force in the world in which designers must work. How does a designer cope with the apprehension that a successful solution to a design challenge, the kind of felicitous union of formal beauty and intuitive functionality Selle so admires in the Olivetti Divisumma 18 (the tabletop calculator that serves as his double-edged "example of the best design") may constitute little more than the fulfillment of the designer's role as an under-sung minion of capitalist technocracy? And if we insist that designers are more than merely window-dressers in the malls of transnational capital, more than merely ushers in the theaters of postindustrial urban space, how do to we identify design's social surplus value, the potential for enlightenment, critique and even resistance and dissent, within design itself? How do we articulate-and, moreover, actualize in and as design-a critical design practice which "makes visible to perception and thought that which is considered invisible in design so as to understand it,"* or, as more recent formulations of the question have put it, links "the multiple degrees of separation between the everyday notions of meaning making and the specific decisions of designers"3 and effects "a mindshift away from product marketing and toward the exploration and production of a new kind of meaning?"4

A critical design practice worth its name would certainly have to be something more than a soy-ink-on-recycled-paper environmentalism and even something more than the outrage and good intentions of the "First Things First" manifestos. It would have to be something more, too, than wishful thinking on the part of theorists of design.

Ideally, the critical insights born of such a design practice would extend beyond auto- and meta-critique within the design community into the community at large, and the designed object or system would comprise, within the parameters of its function, a critical intervention into the larger social-culturalpolitical systems in which it plays its functional role. …