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Secondhand best: the point of not designing at all - click opera
February 2010
Thu, May. 10th, 2007 12:00 am
Secondhand best: the point of not designing at all

About ten years ago -- in the trendy "iMac cybercafés" of London, anyway -- you couldn't escape Tom Dixon's floor lamp, the Jack Lamp. It was part of a wave of neo-organic -- yet very slick and finished -- neo-lounge design sweeping Western Europe. While Dixon was doing it with lamps, Future Systems were doing the same in architecture, Droog Design or Ron Arad in furniture. Klein Dytham did it, and Jon Ives turned Apple around with it. The Swiss Re skyscraper, and a similar one in Barcelona, brought the look belatedly to city skylines. For a few years everything in my house was a lozenge, a blob, a spore, a pod. It made you think of designer drugs, or Kubrick's 2001, or computer-modelled DNA helixes. It was so 21st century!

But actually, it wasn't. It was what the 20th century thought the 21st century would be like. In fact, post-9/11, amidst apocalyptic global warming warnings and pre-resource wars, a different set of concerns are defining what things look like. Words like "sustainability" and "ethics" pop up again and again. Tom Dixon himself, now creative director at Finnish design company Artek, told Tyler Brule at the Salon del Mobile in Milan recently:

"One of the themes that's running through the stuff that we're doing is -- I dunno, that overused word of "sustainability", really. The way we're tackling it is by even going to the point of not designing at all. So buying back all of the old Artek furniture from the last 70 years. Trying to go to schools and hospitals and buying up or swapping or exchanging furniture so that we build up some of the Artek furniture in our stock that's got some patina and some history. I think that what's quite nice about the Artek furniture is that it grows old gracefully. My favourite Artek is a twenty or thirty year old Artek."

As a result, the Artek pavilion in Milan, designed in papier maché and cardboard by Shigeru Ban, showcased old Artek stools the company had bought back. The more shitty and degraded these stools were, the better. As the 2nd Cycle page of their website explains:

"This was a brand new stool sometime in the 30s. It only just found its way back to Artek, when one of our own Korhonen craftsmen brought it home. Where it's been in the past 70 years, we can only guess by reading tiny clues, like the green paint subtly appearing through the chipped coat of red... Some might think that this stool looks old and dodgy. We think it's never looked more beautiful."

"The dents, the scratches and the patina tell their never-ending story," continues the Artek website, gushingly underscoring a parallel between their own "timeless" furniture and Picasso paintings. (Art, of course, accumulates value as it ages, unlike trash like cars and computers.)

Now, you don't need to sell the idea of patina to me. No invocations of wabi sabi necessary; I'm totally on board this shabby juggernaut already. My whole world is defined by dirt, wear and tear, recycling, imperfection and impermanence.

At a barbecue in Gorlitzer Park last weekend I got talking to an Israeli girl about generation gaps which are also class gaps. Our parents think they're higher class than we are because they have newer furniture, clothes and so on. What they don't realize is that we think we're higher class than them because we've moved past consumerism as the be-all and end-all of life. We wear our secondhand clothes -- and present our retro furniture -- as a badge of honour, a cache of cultural capital. You don't spend your way to a better future when spending is precisely what's going to cancel the future!

In Berlin, at least, the style of the progressive bourgeois class is totally defined by patina. Most cafes for these people have mix-and-match retro chairs, shabby and comfy. People's houses have 50s, 60s and 70s furniture, often communist ostalgie pieces, each one with a tale to tell. The less you paid, the cleverer you are.

In Berlin, at least, this is essential class signalling. What distinguishes a cool cafe from McDonald's, or a cool house from a house furnished by Ikea, is patina. Busy working people often admire your handpicked thrift clothes apologetically: "I'd love to wear that kind of stuff, but I just don't have the time to hunt it down, so I just buy new." New has become second-best, secondhand best. It may be hard to explain to your parents, but to your peers it's second nature.

After seeing the beautifully peely-wally Berlin Biennial last summer (a zeitgeisty barometer of a show, organised mostly by Maurizio Cattelan) I went flathunting in Neukolln (where I now live), "the only area where I could find decor shabby enough to satisfy my craving for patina, which is, finally, character, personality, history, texture". I also wrote a bunch of stuff about how globe-trotting immigrants and creative class post-materialists share tastes as well as neighbourhoods.

Of course it all gets very complex and contradictory. The creative class in Neukolln are slumming Slow Lifers, whereas the immigrants are on the up-and-up, enterprising, hard-working, stressed. One group is pre-materialist (in other words, aspirational and ambitious), the other post-materialist (so over Rolexes and bling). They pass each other midway without so much as a nod.

There's also a fascinating paradox in the attitude to work -- the dignity of labour -- that emerges in the patina aesthetic. Sure, old stuff is cool because you can see how it's been worked and reworked. You enjoy -- and fetishize -- labour in the piece. Other people's labour. People you never met, people far away in space and in time. Dead craftsmen, previous owners. Yet you opt out of consumerism, and buy pre-owned stuff, as part of opting out of precisely the kind of productive culture that created this stuff in the first place. You admire, from your Slow Life, the "fast life" of someone overworked, back in 1920, or over in China.

This is a sort of commodity fetishism by proxy. It can veer close to sexual fetishism. My new article for AIGA Voice is called Confessions of a Magazine Pervert, and it looks at all the glossy coffeetable books that have appeared recently to celebrate old magazines. "Sniff these books," I lamented pervily, "and you’ll get a big whiff of expensive new printer’s ink rather than the vinegary sea-smell of vintage paper. But in other respects they’re as good as a trip to Dorama."

Dorama is a Tokyo secondhand mag store. But I could as easily have talked about Cow Books, or the aesthetic of ku:nel magazine.

Let's go back to Tom Dixon's Artek pavilion, basically a trade show filled with old stuff rather than new. "Going to the point of not designing at all," Dixon calls it. Not-designing is the new designing! Not-consuming is the new consuming! I buy it!

No, I really buy it. Some of the great actions of our time have been non-actions. Think of Duchamp giving up art for chess. Think of Cage letting nature, or the fall of the dice, determine his compositions. Think of Eno "producing" U2 by telling them to take a holiday. (If only they'd made that two weeks permanent, Bono could have saved us from global warming by now!)

Yes, doing nothing really is doing something, and something good. If only Bush had done nothing after 9/11! Seriously, the world would be a better place now.

And what about Sarkozy? His big idea -- the one that got him elected, we're told -- is that people in France should do more, and earn more. His subtext: if we work harder, we won't be supplanted by immigrants at home, or the Chinese abroad. In other words, here's the right wing opposite of the left wing creative class solidarity with immigrants. Instead of Slow Lifing down to immigrant levels of income (if not immigrant levels of work), Sarkozy wants the average French person to be more like an immigrant -- and, as a result, banish actual foreigners -- or their imports -- from France. Don't you see? I want to live with them, but not be like them. Sarko wants me to be like them, but not live with them.

A Guardian article called Goodbye to la belle France? sees Stuart Jeffries hoping -- as I do -- that Sarkozy's Anglo-Saxonization of France is a sham and will fail. France lives a slow life, with short working hours, good longevity levels, high benefits, and great quality of life. Why on earth would trading this for the lifestyle of overweight, overworked, overstressed, increasingly classed, quick-fry, quick-die, win-or-lose Americans and Britons be any sort of advance?

The fact is, the quicker you achieve bling culture, the quicker you're going to abandon it, come out the other side. Over the peak, down the slope, back to sanity. We see it when celebs like Madonna make their inevitable "fame and money doesn't make you happy" albums, and we see it in all the post-protestant cultures (Holland, Finland, Germany) currently embracing post-materialist values. Ronald Inglehart nailed it in his book Culture Shift in Advanced Industrial Society:

"Inglehart's thesis, restated repeatedly throughout the book, is that a gradual but steady and profound shift has been occurring in the basic values of the mass publics of the more advanced industrial societies. The shift is away from the long predominant preoccupation with material well-being and physical security and toward greater concern for the quality of life, more self-expression, greater sexual freedom, and interpersonal relations that are less formal."

It's already happening in China, where the surprise bestseller is a modern adaptation of the philosophy of Confucius by Yu Dan. Her book has sold three million copies in four months. It's happened, thinks the Seattle Times, because Confucius can supply the necessary moral backbone and a set of benevolent values to offset "the dark side of the economic miracle that has led to a dangerous rich-poor divide, rampant corruption and rising social unrest".

"Just because you have a successful career does not necessarily mean you have made your dreams come true," writes Yu Dan. She tells the story of three field mice preparing for winter. "One gathered food, one built shelter and the third did nothing but play. Winter came and there was plenty to eat but nothing to do inside the hideaway. That was when the third mouse made himself valuable by telling stories from his days of fun and games."

A surprise ending? Not really.


Night of the Living Dave
Wed, May. 9th, 2007 05:03 pm (UTC)

What a great journal this is. Not being in France I didn't get to see much of the dialog between candidates but I thought that Sarkozy's "lead" after the final debate wasn't so much about immigration as it was gender and the essentialist "moodiness" argument, but then that's assuming that elections are real in the first place. Does anybody really know what voters want?

Sarkozy, of course, is the son of immigrants, I've noticed his cynicism about "foreigners" and foreign labor in first generation American leaders as well. It's like the reverse of a deflating bling culture, it's people who came out the other side while travelling through capital in the opposite direction. Rudy Giuliani, maybe the American politician with a personality most analogous to Sarkozy, would be nobody today if he hadn't famously pursued various Italian crime families through the NYC courts. To rise up from poverty supposedly gives you a mastery of how poverty works, and the ability to scare wealthy people with just the idea of it.

Voting for these people is erring on the side of perceived strength, but no one ever figures out until too late there there is no real strength involved. I'm assuming the Bonaparte analogy is probably played out already so I wouldn't go too far with it. But you know, he was a Corsican dandy who reviled the rich and told people to work harder and harder because it made him look good. Then he killed more French people then the fucking plague and completely wrecked Europe. Oops!

Night of the Living Dave
Wed, May. 9th, 2007 05:03 pm (UTC)

"than" the plague. Arg.

ReplyThread Parent
Sun, May. 20th, 2007 08:14 pm (UTC)
THEN the plaque came and proclaimed it acciDENTAL art?

Relax Dave,

"I'm smART enough to know you're making me feel stupid" was an enCOMEium of ADmiration for your research into the Vox Illuminati. No one else has done anything with the real teeth of your results.

I'm pretty sure that the perpeTRAITOR of the deceptive ASSpect of exposing the six degrees meme to kNOw LJ ADS & the Social CONtract is indeed the notorious ex ASSociate of NZ, Mr. Harry Stuckey aka Vox and a long time double ASSgent for nefarious governMENTAL agencies.

It seems like the most vital intel is disguised as spam and then CONveyed to the proper authorities?

ReplyThread Parent

I'm just another anonymous loser
Wed, Dec. 12th, 2007 07:47 pm (UTC)
seeding power to the govern MEANT?

GET SMART . . . it will take time to restore KAOS

ReplyThread Parent Expand

Don't be buffaloed into taking a byte
Thu, Oct. 11th, 2007 09:20 pm (UTC)
Re: Let me guess . . . this is laying down a faux predicate for . . . ?

i dont think you get to claim plauSYBIL deniablity?

ReplyThread Parent

Night of the Living Dave
Wed, Mar. 19th, 2008 07:29 pm (UTC)
Re: then the plague came and messed up my literate appeal

Every one of these comments you send gets reported. Wave to NPR, they're watching you make a fool of yourself.

ReplyThread Parent
Wed, May. 9th, 2007 06:07 pm (UTC)

Thanks, Momus. You manage to write sensibly about matters that many people cannot manage to write about without having their writing degenerate into nonsense.

I specialize in asking hard, naive questions. I have such a question for you. Our Macintosh computers... are they part of this consumerist bling, or are they something else?

Thu, May. 10th, 2007 01:01 am (UTC)

Not bling, simply an excellent OS...

ReplyThread Parent
Wed, May. 9th, 2007 06:48 pm (UTC)

An excellent post, and with a refreshing perspective. Thanks for sharing it with us.

Coincidentally, I just visited Shigeru Ban's Nomadic Museum in Odaiba and was most impressed with his creative reuse of old shipping containers as giant Lego blocks.


Wed, May. 9th, 2007 07:26 pm (UTC)
I would add, post-Catholic cultures as well

Speaking at least from personal experience, the post-Protestant nations are, indeed, quite ethically advanced -- valuing individual freedoms while equally valuing the group. A friend of mine was involved in a long-distance relationship with a Norwegian fellow and she describes the culture as being so egalitarian, they had no word for 'please,' because that would ascribe higher status to the person being asked; likewise there were few, if any, formal ways of addressing people older than yourself - no "mr. or mrs.," just Tom and Sylvie.

France and Italy, despite their seeming Catholicism, are largely lapsed-Catholic nations, and thus leaders of the Slow movement -- likewise Spain, which went the further step of having to overcome a fascist regime. The Quiet Revolution in Québec not only threw off a backwards-looking, populist-capitalist regime in favour of a statist-interventionist one, but also largely shrugged off religion. Other cities in largely Anglo provinces statistically earn more and produce more, but at the cost of urban sprawl, stress, poor nutrition, over-work (or in the case of children, over-scheduling). I can't tell you how many times people have expressed a desire to move back here...


Wed, May. 9th, 2007 09:32 pm (UTC)
Re: Bobos in France

become more poor, which isn't necessarily a bad thing

Quite. This is what Berlin is all about. The city likes to declare itself "arme aber sexy" -- poor but sexy.

frogs are tired of having their cars lit on fire

This is quite the wrong reason to elect Sarko. Many, many more cars are now due to burn. The Guardian said this would be good for France, since the French tend to buy local and, unlike the British, actually have a car industry left. So those burnt-out cars will be replaced by Peugots and Renaults, which will help French industry.

Personally, I'd like to see all cars burnt. No, not burnt, that would be polluting. Melted down.

ReplyThread Parent

Thu, May. 10th, 2007 08:02 pm (UTC)
Re: Bobos in France

A bonny big stag dung blaze would provide the heat for tae melt them doon.
Why not melt all those working class polluters who use them to get to work too. Lets go back to mud, wattle and pestilence or alternatively a ruling elite of illiberal pretend lefties presiding over those working drones.
Thomas S.

ReplyThread Parent
Thu, May. 10th, 2007 08:42 pm (UTC)
Re: Bobos in France

Mud and wattle yes, pestilence, no.

ReplyThread Parent

Thu, May. 10th, 2007 09:20 pm (UTC)
Got a tattoo on my anus, I'm a trendy guy.

OK, excuse the ire. I do think the melted automobiles remark was a little generalising and incongruous with an otherwise excellent post.
I hadn't realised that post-materialism was a trend, I consider it more a life-choice.
My own adoption of this of this particular design for life has more to do with the placement of time over money in my value index than any ha'penny nod to green 'ethics' (that use of the word always seems such a contextual malapropism).
If post-materialism has become a trend - and is being given the nod by the likes of Maddie - is that not a little disconcerting to us thrift-shop, life-stylers, as trends tend to be swiftly overthrown by their rejective antithesis. We will go from uber-cool to hobo by about next October.
Regards - Thomas.

ReplyThread Parent

Thu, May. 10th, 2007 07:05 am (UTC)
Re: Bobos in France

"Sarko has a certain economic point in some of his speeches: in order to maintain an over all standard of living with shrinking numbers of workers you have to either grow your numbers of workers (immigration doesn't seem to work as well in France as in America -and forget trying to get the French to reproduce), or increase the productivity of the workers you already have."

Immigration works "well" in America???

You've got your history bass ackward: France has for centuries been a haven for immigrants and refugees from around the world (whether from labor shortages, post-colonial connections or otherwise).

America, on the other hand, has a long history of discrimination against immigrants, from its inception until the present day. get your facts straight:

--in 1790 the U.S. Congress declared Naturalization "for Whites Only"

--the first wave of Irish immigrants in the U.S. in the early 1800s were called "niggers inside out" by anglo-Whites in America, and were also viewed as a threat because of their Catholicism. In fact, they weren't even considered white by census takers, effectively lumped in with the African Americans of the time.

--the Indian removal acts of the 1800s; their lands stolen outright and they were resettled on "reservations." The Carlyle Indian "School" where Indians were sent like prisoners, their hair cut off, made to wear military uniforms and forced to speak English.

--after the Chinese came to the U.S. to work on the Transcontinental Railroad, they were rewarded with the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act.

--1924, the National Origins Quota Act, which ended all asian immigration to America.

--Tydings McDuffie Repatriation Act of 1935, essentially forcing Phillipinos to return to the Phillipines; this was later declared unconstitutional.

--the long history of discrimination against Mexicans after the Mexican American War, and the repatriation and deportation campaigns against them, U.S. citizens all, during the Depression years.

--Anti-Semitism in America, after the immigration of Jewish people throughout the 1800s, continued on even through WWII and beyond. Need we be reminded of Henry "the Jewish Problem" Ford's vicious attacks against them in America, Charles Lindberg's attacks, and even speeches given by U.S. Congressmen and the president of Harvard college calling for "quotas" against Jews in America.

The list goes on and on and on. So, no, immigration has not worked "well" in America historically. Immigrants have been scapegoated and attacked since the beginning of the republic--it, of course, continues to this very day.

France has only had problems in the past few years beginning after two unarmed North African teens from one of the poor wards of Paris died while playing cat and mouse with the French police. And then afterwards when Sarkozy himself chimed in and called the poor who lived in those ghettos "scum" who should be cleaned up with a "power hose." Now that's what I call honoring all your citizens. The French voters have chosen a macho dickhead, who is, ironically, himself the child of immigrants; so I guess you could say, in the case of Sarkozy, France does have a real immigrant problem of sorts on their hands now.


ReplyThread Parent
Wed, May. 9th, 2007 09:30 pm (UTC)
Merde alors

I marvel the French. The sophisticated wabi sabi, amour du monde. Zarkozy was described here as a Bonaparte going nowhere and Royale as a Joan d'Arc whose dream ended at the stake.

Is it all a metaphor for design and the way of consumerism today?

Great articulation Nic!



Thu, May. 10th, 2007 09:28 am (UTC)

Sarkozy is not abrogating the 35 hour work week. He's simply making it possible for people to opt out of it - not terribly different from Royal's proposal. The vast majority of people (in the public sector in any case) will stick with a 35 hour working week.

Sarkozy picked up xenophobic votes from the National Front, to be sure, but the Sarkozy vote was not primarily about immigrants. It was about three things: uncertainty about Royal, who ran a mediocre campaign; a desire for an authoritarian figure in times of troubles; and perhaps most importantly, unemployment. The French bet on a huge roll of the dice that "Anglo-Saxon"-style neo-liberalism will solve their unemployment problems. (Which of course it might do, but only at the enormous cost of degraded public services and social solidarity, as in the UK.)

As a freewheeling bohemian with no family to support, you constantly underplay the problem of unemployment in countries like France and Germany. You paint a picture of a slow life "belle France" living la douce vie, but that's very much an outsider's perspective. The vast majority of actual French people, whether on the left, centre, or right, see France as a country in crisis. Unemployment is a very big part of that crisis - the fact is that for most people, their job is an enormous part of their identity, as well as their passport for supporting a family. Take that away and you're faced with an enormous social (and of course financial) problem. Added to that is the frustration of people in crap jobs who feel unable to quit them through fear of not being able to get anything else. Ironically, it's people like you who are actually benefiting from all that misery, since unemployment = less spending power = depressed economy = havens for bohemians who often pay no income but benefit from costly social infrastructures nonetheless.

(I'm not suggesting Sarkozy's proposed solution to the unemployment problem is the correct one, because it isn't. Nor were Royal's Keynesian proposals. I think we need to look to models like Denmark, where they have been able to introduce labour market flexibility while maintaining a strong welfare state.)

Thu, May. 10th, 2007 12:37 pm (UTC)

tangentially amusing find this morning, and perhaps quite useful: ikeahacker.blogspot.com

a friend of a friend here, unlurking. not a blogger (yet?) but signed up to comment.

right on with 'the cosmopolitanism of the poor', paul bowles reference and all, and likewise with 'going tribal in neubeca' - which i'm precisely in the process of myself, two years after your bushwhacking predecessor already pushed off... someday i'll ask you if you ever found out where he was headed ;)

and around the themes/criticisms in 'energy of awkwardness' and other resonances i've found here, we might have a lot to talk about if we could procure your presence at a show of mine...

ah, also right on (says this post-american): 'the problem lays a floral wreath at the grave of the problem'

so... thanks for articulating many of my most enduring musings and observations better than my non-blogging... um... physicalist(?!) ass tends to manage itself-- keep going :)

cheers, respect~
nathan fuhr

ah, btw, perhaps you're the one to ask if you know somewhere in berlin to get a good deal on tatami mats? 2nd-hand even, though i'm a tatami virgin so know nothing about their life-span/maintenance...

Thu, May. 10th, 2007 05:08 pm (UTC)

Hello Nathan! You have possibly the world's busiest and most impressive biography! Collaborations with Robert Ashley, Meredith Monk, and friend of Roddy Schrock!

When's your next show? I'm off to Japan for a month starting next week, but back to Neukolln mid-June.

Tatami mats... check out Futomania on Wienerstrasse, they make them there, but not cheap.

ReplyThread Parent

Thu, May. 10th, 2007 01:43 pm (UTC)

have you heard the new Bjork album - do you like it?

Thu, May. 10th, 2007 03:47 pm (UTC)

I've just listened to clips, and heard "Earth Intruders". I dunno, I think she's sounding a bit 90s now. The part of Bjork I loved seems to live on in Joanna Newsom. But I may end up loving some of the songs on "Volta", who knows?

Of her last two albums, the only songs I go back and listen to are "Ancestors" and "Generous Palmstroke". But I do like her "Drawing Restraint 9" soundtrack a lot. I don't like it when Bjork tries to be hard -- ie that Thatcherite side of her that came out on "Army of Me". That could have been Sarkozy's theme: if you don't go out and work longer hours for less pay, you'll meet an army of me!

ReplyThread Parent

Thu, May. 10th, 2007 03:13 pm (UTC)

heres a cunt that looks a wee bit like you....same background too


Thu, May. 10th, 2007 03:41 pm (UTC)

I do agree with your assessment of his premiership, Oxford Science Parks. Not the family resemblance, though.

ReplyThread Parent

Thu, May. 10th, 2007 05:20 pm (UTC)

Just got back from 'shopping' in central London. It's practically one shop: same interior decor, same ethos, same striped polo shirts and distressed denim (probably made in the same factory), same accessories, same coffee over similar newspapers and books. I'm sure the tables even have the interchangeable conversations and concerns, liberal capitalism milling 'people patina' down to mere nuances.


Thu, May. 10th, 2007 06:12 pm (UTC)

Overridingly sensible but with some contextual funkiness or stark naturalism, at a design level, thrown in. Even the aggro was dull. "You fuck your wife!" Shouted one driver at another. The old lady sitting beside me on the bus chuckled. She lived in the Yorkshire dales and was down visiting. "London is too manic." She shook her head. "That's just it." I thought. "It isn't." Or at least it has got the same machinic high-density mania it ever had. Same game, same diversions: is this why God made our heart beat? I thought.

ReplyThread Parent

Thu, May. 10th, 2007 10:51 pm (UTC)


Howl backwards, my dneirf
What else can you do?
The reversed frisson, ever-inward, past-midnight

Sitting under a dumb pocket of starscape,
At least it mirrors any unfillable.
Is it in you, them, here, now?

Dneirf, that which you wait for,
What did it resemble when you first tasted?
When you didn't need to know what you wanted.
A body to explain? Interest in the air, forwards and back.

You weren't meant to have that juice
When you did, dude. It was stolen
From a friend of mine. It was
This bad all along.

ReplyThread Parent