PRINT December 1987



AN UNDERLYING ISSUE IN DESIGN—previously only present as a kind of ghost haunting it—has come up to the surface: who is more powerful, the designer (or artist, or inventor), the merchant, or the buyer? In fact we see this drama not only in design, but on a number of fronts: it seems shocking even to bring up the question in the context of the arts, where the hierarchy has always been so idealized, but in the age of the blockbuster and of the consumer it is a question better not avoided. In the mundane world we read of merchandisers and shoppers acting out a constant tug-of-war, the merchandiser trying to manipulate or persuade the shopper into buying but also aware of his or her vulnerability to public taste—some things just won’t sell, no matter how well advertised. There are several ways to approach analogous but not duplicate tensions in the world of design. One is to complain that the consumer has too many “votes,” that the designer has to sacrifice personal inventiveness to popular taste. In this view, the consumer constantly impinges on a domain we like to think of as autonomous—the designer’s creativity. There are, however, other places to go with this dynamic between consumer and designer, with paradigms of the consumer other than aggression, competition, and obstacles to creativity.

An average house or apartment may have a few or an enormous number, perhaps hundreds, of objects both large and small, both kitsch and refined, both bought and miscellaneously acquired, both necessary and not; it is a form of warehouse, an accumulation, the sedimentation of each of our lives. Some of us redo it every few years, others let the heap build. Most of us are our own interior designers, some of us are indefatigable collectors; all of us are saying something whenever and whatever we choose or choose not to buy.

A few of the objects we accumulate are truly useful, beautiful, or both; many are useless and ugly. But that doesn’t matter. Their uselessness, and the record they constitute of what may later look like our errors in judgment over the years, are important evidence of our beliefs and pleasures. Exploring, shopping, and buying from the various markets, browsing through the proliferation of catalogues, looking in shop windows, collecting art, observing the tastes of other people—many of us are tied not so much to money as to something more subtle: a sense of discovery and the emotion of possession. What a pleasure it is to bring home an object, a painting—to possess it, look at it, put it where one can see it.

What interests me about possession here is not mere acquisitiveness. For the act of buying something is also an indirect expression of design, a way to feel that one is designing one’s life. Accustomed as we are to living with objects thought up and made by others (by designers, artists, artisans, and, of course, by corporate industry), to buy on the basis of one’s own selection is to feel that one is expressing one’s tastes, standards, personal beliefs. It is to define the goods one buys as unfinished, as components waiting to be adapted to one’s own personal environment.

Whether or not one is really choosing freely, whether or not there is a difference among most products of the marketplace—these questions are the monkey on the back of this ode to the potential creativity of one’s job as a consumer. But bearing in mind the necessary qualifications of this argument, one can still say that the system of objects, the deposit that bit by bit surrounds us—from clothing to furniture, to paintings, to linens, to books, to kitchen stuff, to sculptures, to records, to prints—is in some sense a personal statement, a “spoken” design. The market as a system of objects becomes a means of expression, an enormous palette of colors for the human projects of style, change, difference, transformation, competition, distraction, giving, love, guilt, etc. With these expressions comes at least the possibility of choice; we protect for ourselves the use of the two important words yes and no. Creativity responds well to creative responses to it.

Alessandro Mendini is an architect and designer who lives in Milan. A former director of Domus magazine, he has published widely on design. He contributes this column regularly to Artforum.

Translated from the Italian by Meg Shore.