November 19th, 2005

operesque

Design magazine

"When did Momus get a degree in design?" asks a slightly curious thread on I Love Everything, "he writes more about that than he does lyrics."

The questioner (none other than James Lucas, aka Rroland, the analog synth wizard whose album I released on American Patchwork in 2002) has a point. Although this month I'm very much in music mode (two songs completed in two days, yesterday's being "Dr Cat", a horribly catchy melody about friendship sunk into a field recording of the Berlin U-Bahn), I am writing a lot of design journalism. And when I visited the Triennale in Milan last week I was reminded of how that interest started.

Although I wrote songs when I was a kid, I didn't really come back to it until I was 20 or so. In my late teens I thought I was going to grow up to be either a journalist or a designer. I used to sit in the art room at the Edinburgh Academy, reading from their big stack of copies of Design, the British Design Council's magazine. Design no longer exists, but in the Triennale library I found bound copies from the late 70s, exactly the time I would have been devouring it.

It made for fascinating reading. First of all, Design wasn't as glamourous as I remembered. Filled with rather grim 70s office furniture and lighting ads, the magazine featured articles written in the clumsily serious tone of a polytechnic art lecturer or a minor trade publication subsidized by the Department of Trade and Industry (which I suppose is what Design was).

Nevertheless, I found familiar sights which gave me a Proustian rush; the exact bold 70s curtains that used to hang in my bedroom at 9 Drummond Place, an issue about Green Design, and an issue about Japan.

"Japan is not really 'East' anymore, it has become as Western as the Empire State Building," wrote an RCA furniture design student called Bob Baldwin, his tone surprisingly Marxyesque. "What I found was that Japan has accepted the values of the Western rat race with almost blinding vigour: the results of this approach, in design at least, are very similar to our own. I did not see anything contemporary, except architecture, that was inspiring or fresh. The industrial design, graphics and furniture were generally very ordinary and on a par with similar British products... I cannot help thinking that products there have become largely uniform and safe because of the singular Japanese disease of consensus."

We have to remember that this is 1978: the British motorcycle industry is being wiped out by Yamaha, Suzuki and Honda, and its car industry will shortly be transformed into an assembly line for Japanese-designed vehicles. In less than a year Sony will launch a little gadget called the Walkman. Yet, according to Design magazine, the problem with Japanese design is not only a lack of originality, it's a structural absence of hierarchy:

"Pentagram was visited by a [Japanese] designer. He appreciated their methods of working but they were not thought applicable in Japan. The main difference lay in decision making. In Pentagram it is very definitiely boss over juniors; in [Japan] it is spread out with discussions and consensus as the key."

Despite the jeremiads, it was Design magazine rather than Japanese design that, a couple of years later, disappeared off the face of planet Earth. Almost without trace: the website of its parent, the Design Council, doesn't even mention its existence.