The Age of Design
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The Urban Man loves the cleverness of recently-created objects. I appreciate the clean angles on small electronic devices and the cantilevered glass rooftops of postmodern architecture. I admire the voluptuous stainless steel curves of cappuchino makers, the brushed aluminum of sci fi vacuum cleaners, and the industrial pizzazz of a new SubZero fridge.
I like to go to museum gift shops and browse among especially witty things...usually painted orange.
In fact, journalists now tell me that we have entered an exhilarating Age of Design. They write breathless articles about the clean feel of iPods and the twisting towers of new museums. Endless commentaries discuss the look of new movies and the proper color combination of the food served on the black glass plates in chic restaurants.
Maybe you didn't know we'd entered the Age of Design. Maybe you though we were still in the Information Age. But here in the Western world, the excitement of the Information Age is already over. Mere information has become unlimited, mass produced, and mostly free. Nerds are no longer interesting, and even the media is becoming a commodity. Books are downloadable. And ideas themselves are being exiled to blogs.
Soon, only the packaging will matter. The beautiful computer. The truly exquisite handheld device. The lovely film. In the Age of Design, when content becomes cheap goods, only aesthetics will add true value.
In fact, I have read a dozen articles telling me that the coming decades will be ruled by the people who create elegant, postmodern objects in the same way the last three decades were ruled by Bill Gates.
Now, like everybody else, the Urban Man wants to get in the next big thing. I missed the Age of Faith and the Age of Reason, but I did okay in the Information Age. And lately, just like some Baroque king or Japanese prince, I've begun to look for a deep, spiritual satisfaction in each well-made object which appears on my horizon.
Sometimes, I think even I could create something lovely to touch or see.
So this afternoon I go to the library and check out a heavy bag of books about the principles of design. Then I take them with me to a beautiful place: the Japanese pavilion out at Descanso Gardens.
Here it's gone cloudy and a sense of delayed Autumn fills the air. The maple has turned and a chill moves among the tall oaks. But I've come on serious business. On a rough stone table, I spread out volumes like The Basics of Design; The Masters of Innovation and Smart Products That Changed The World.
I've also smuggled in a chai latte from Starbucks, and I take a long pull before I begin to read about tonal variation and juxtaposition, asymmetry and field effects, perceived mass and subliminal structure, linear dynamics and visual tension. I examine pictures of an especially Bauhaus toaster, a Buck Rogers iron and a scotch tape dispenser that looks like a cross between an iMac and a small elephant. Each one has been designed to within an inch of its life. Each one is worthy of a half page in a Sharper Image catalog or a half second cameo in a Star Wars film.
I lay aside my latte and think: Surely, I am a clever man. Surely I could design a clever modern thing. Say a very hip...coffee cup. Maybe an inverted cone balanced on a large flat disk, or a large flat disk balanced on an inverted cone. I could give it an unusual perceived mass or a tense visual arc. And certainly, I could paint it orange.
If the Urban Man really understood beauty, I think, he wouldn't have to make things make sense anymore.
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