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Thu, Sep. 27th, 2007 09:52 am
The disappearance -- and reappearance -- of the ordinary

OK is a shop on Berlin's fashionable Alte Schönhauser Straße which sells cheap but carefully-selected 3rd world goods -- "objects of everyday’s life are presented which might not compete with common german product quality standards, but which fascinate by means of design and creativity," says the shop's website. "Whether handcrafted or industrially mass produced, all items are originally produced for their local markets. None of the producers intended to export these goods to the West".



That foreignness was apparent to me yesterday when I snapped this packet of combs at OK. I think they're made in India. What interested me was the brightly-coloured plastic, the unusual and elegant form of the combs, but also the tremendously generic and honest labeling of the packet. Marketing in the West rarely calls a spade a spade, a comb a comb, or standard quality "standard quality".

Describing the difficulty of buying a cup of coffee in the West, literary critic Stanley Fish complained in the International Herald Tribune recently about "a drink with more parts than an internal combustion engine", whose elements have to be specified by the customer in a painfully-acquired Starbuckian babble: double shot, skinny, breve, grande, au lait, all packaged in a size system skewed, illogically, to bigness. Short, Tall, Grande, Venti goes the scale, with no regular, standard or normal in sight. You could say, in fact, that the Starbucks philosophy is the opposite of the rush to middle ground seen in politics (a trend which eradicates choice). In the coffee business, in contrast, the trend is to make the middle ground disappear entirely, and sink the consumer in a mire of options.



After noting the refreshingly "standard quality combs" at OK, I saw a book at ProQM which seemed to click with the theme, and to suggest that -- as so often happens -- 3rd world pragmatists and the anti-design theoreticians of advanced nations are thinking alike. Super Normal: Sensations of the Ordinary is a new book by Naoto Fukasawa and Jasper Morrison. It's a compilation of text and photos of 204 everyday objects which exemplify what Fukasawa and Morrison have called "super normal design".

Super normal design means design which, instead of trying to stand out by making a statement or being "stimulating", blends into the background, becoming unobtrusive but indispensable. (It's no surprise that Fukasawa has worked for Muji, whose "no brand goods" aspire to exactly this sort of unflashy normality.)

"When people hear the word “design,” they think “special”; creating “special” things is what everyone, designers and users alike, assume design is all about," explains Fukasawa. "In fact, both sides are playing out a mutal fantasy far removed from real life. I’d like us to explore whatever we might conceive as Super Normal. I take an interest in collecting such things. I want to share the fun, the pleasure of reconfirming an appeal in things we’d disregarded as “naff.” Not that I propose sticking “Certified Super Normal” product design award labels on things. It’s much more of a quietly seen unseen, a refreshing surprise that awakens the person who had thought of looking for something obviously special in design by instead reconfirming what we already hold important and so perhaps letting us break free of our current design paradigm straitjacket. When I’m true to my feelings, I really “get” Super Normal."



Writing in the International Herald Tribune about the pair, Alice Rawsthorn defined the element of critique which makes this a sort of anti-design: "Both Fukasawa and Morrison resent the mediatisation of design and the tendency of young designers, in particular, to fall into the trap of creating superficially spectacular objects to generate media coverage, rather than to be used. They are equally critical of the tendency of designers and manufacturers to churn out a new version of existing products, simply by restyling them to make them seem more exciting, without considering whether or not they are needed." (The International Herald Tribune had good reason to cover Super Normal; their newspaper was included as an example of good Super Normal design in the Super Normal exhibition which forms the basis for the book.)

There's a protestant dimension to the concept of Super Normality (only Swiss graphics and a monochromatic photo would do for the cover of the book!), but also a reference to the "satisfying economy" built into a lot of Japanese thinking about design, from the Muji concept through the new Japanese art I've dubbed Supereveryday.

You could relate Super Normal to the concept of shibui, defined by novelist Trevanian (who calls the aesthetic "shibumi") as "great refinement underlying commonplace appearances... a statement so correct that it does not have to be bold, so poignant it does not have to be pretty, so true it does not have to be real."

Wikipedia defines shibui as "events, performances, people or objects that are beautiful in a direct and simple way, without being flashy... a particular aesthetic of simple, subtle, and unobtrusive beauty. Like other Japanese aesthetic terms, such as iki and wabi-sabi, shibui can apply to a wide variety of subjects, not just art or fashion. Originating in the Muromachi period (1333-1568) as shibushi, the term originally referred to a sour or astringent taste, such as that of an unripe persimmon. Shibui maintains that literal meaning still, and remains the antonym of amai (甘い), meaning 'sweet'."

With Super Normal, we reach a number of interesting paradoxes. That the 3rd world and the design avant garde of the 1st world might be thinking along the same lines. That normal might be the new special, and that standard might be better than exceptional. That the marketing vocabularies of couture and pret-a-porter might have traded places. That it's precisely the bland middlebrow middle classes who want to call everything "extraordinary", and that it takes someone quite aristocratic to want to champion the virtues of the normal and the standard. That utility might secretly be a decorative value too. That things stand out by blending in. That the designer, having won the right to be a superstar auteur, might suddenly want to be a butler.

"How would you like your coffee, sir?"

"Oh, normal, please, Jeeves, and hold the sugar."

49CommentReplyFlag

violet_hemlock
violet mendonca
Thu, Sep. 27th, 2007 09:07 am (UTC)
SUPER

I must say, I am struggling with 'categorization' at the moment in regards to 'design'. My own work is falling into the depths of 'design', yet I do strive for the utility in it I suppose. On a side note...I am reminded of the Raqs Media Collective, that seem to work more like a design/media team that tries to produce the 'Super Normal' in the work they do...

but HEY, with my messed up leg, I sure could use a nicly designed butler..

-"Oh Proqualters, fetch my monacle good man..."


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Thu, Sep. 27th, 2007 09:52 am (UTC)
Re: SUPER

It's interesting that a good butler is so different from Starbucks. Jeeves knows exactly how Bertie Wooster wants his eggnog (with brandy), and when to bring it. The idea is to give Bertie fewer and fewer choices or decisions to make. This is also the Japanese concept of hospitality. Never ask your guests what they want; anticipate their needs and fill them.

Imagine a Jeeves ruined by the American concept of choice. A Jeeves who had his own vocabulary for coffee, and sneered at you when you didn't know that "skinny" was skimmed milk. Imagine a Jeeves who kept interrupting you with 27 options for your coffee when you were thinking about what to wear to Guppy Mandeville's wedding tomorrow. It would be "Curtains for Jeeves" in no time flat, by golly.


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Re: SUPER - (Anonymous) Expand
rhodri
rhodri
Rhodri Marsden
Thu, Sep. 27th, 2007 09:25 am (UTC)

hello imomus. Your brain astounds me. Do you ever wake up in the morning and think "I can't be arsed to formulate theories today. In fact, I can't be arsed to even think. I'll just have a slash in the sink and go back to bed"?

Do you, though?


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Thu, Sep. 27th, 2007 09:40 am (UTC)

I actually do go back to bed after writing these things, Rhodri! (I used to slash in the sink when I lived in Chelsea in the 80s and the bathroom was at the other end of a shared house, but I don't have to do that any more.)

Typical day:

7am-10am: writing Click Opera entry.
10am-11.30am: back in bed with girlfriend, Land of Nod.
Rest of day: swanning about Berlin, enjoying myself and incidentally getting ideas for next entry.

Some days I feel like I have absolutely nothing to say, others I just get tons of ideas. Yesterday evening was particularly fertile; I scribbled stubs for about five entries. Just as well; from Monday I'm travelling for three weeks and the blogging will be more superficial.


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lobsterbelle
lobsterbelle
-
Thu, Sep. 27th, 2007 09:42 am (UTC)

Marketing in the West rarely calls a spade a spade, a comb a comb, or standard quality "standard quality".
Perhaps it would be an ULTIMATE HAIR DIVIDING SYSTEM.


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(Anonymous)
Thu, Sep. 27th, 2007 09:44 am (UTC)

This is a timeworn idea though, isn't it? The middle classes have flashy, nouveau riche tastes, while the peasants and the aristocrats come together as "authentic", the peasant with his functional clothes and old furniture, the aristocrat with his threadworn carpets and old furniture... it's an idea gets played and replayed throughout the ages, right down to Brad Pitt wearing jeans and t-shirts, because only really special people have the self-confidence to look normal, don't they?

"Anti-design" is a bit of an oxymoronic concept, though, isn't it? There's no such thing as a man-made object that's not designed.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Thu, Sep. 27th, 2007 10:00 am (UTC)

I don't take "anti-design" to mean "not designed". It means design which sees itself as an alternative to, and critique of, the design mainstream. It's the same with psychiatry and anti-psychiatry; they're meta-critiques, by professionals, of the trade. They're launched in books, exhibitions, newspaper interviews and in the professional praxis of the antis.

They can't help being paradoxical, because they're against the doxa, the established view. They also can't help contradicting themselves -- making a public stand against hype can never escape being, itself, a sort of hype. The normal is inevitably presented as "the new special" and the ordinary as "extraordinary", so all attacks on the special and the extraordinary must fail.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Thu, Sep. 27th, 2007 10:06 am (UTC)

the Starbucks philosophy is the opposite of the rush to middle ground seen in politics (a trend which eradicates choice). In the coffee business, in contrast, the trend is to make the middle ground disappear entirely, and sink the consumer in a mire of options.

There are signs that this may change. In an incredibly important story that's gone rather under-noticed, New Zealand has set up a Wiki site where its citizens can help draft new laws.

How would you like your new Policing Act, guys? Tall, liberal, draconian, skinny, ruthless, lax? For here or to go?


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electricwitch
electricwitch
For anything, oh! she´ll bust her elastic
Thu, Sep. 27th, 2007 10:34 am (UTC)

Yes but would Jeeves still be gay gay gay??

And would we still want to write slash about him?


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Thu, Sep. 27th, 2007 10:46 am (UTC)

You women only think about one thing!


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james.ward.myopenid.com
james.ward.myopenid.com
Thu, Sep. 27th, 2007 11:48 am (UTC)

There's a cartoon called SuperNormal which features a character called Eric Normal, who "may wear a Spandex suit and a home made cape, but the only thing super about him is his total normalcy"


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desant012
||||||||||
Thu, Sep. 27th, 2007 12:50 pm (UTC)

Here's one of my favorite examples of really straight forward design:



At the Northeast US supermarket Pathmark they used to have a "no frills" product section where the package design was absolutely nothing but pure white with black letters describing the product. like "cigarettes" or something. not even any pictures.


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lemur_man
lemur_man
crunchy jazz
Thu, Sep. 27th, 2007 02:43 pm (UTC)

There are a couple of chains in Canada offering 'no name' products, but with red on yellow.


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(no subject) - (Anonymous) Expand
akabe
akabe
alin huma
Thu, Sep. 27th, 2007 01:13 pm (UTC)

i also think your implied anti-americanism is a bit unfair here since some of the most brilliant examples of beautiful and functional (non-)design are actually american.

Uncle Bill's Sliver Gripper for example makes anything Muji look painfully and awfully over-designed by comparisson.


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lemur_man
lemur_man
crunchy jazz
Thu, Sep. 27th, 2007 02:46 pm (UTC)

I see a parallel in the Swedish idea of lagom ('just right/sufficient/good enough'), which would invite a comparison between Muji and IKEA, although the latter's stuff is no longer all that utilitarian.


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akabe
akabe
alin huma
Thu, Sep. 27th, 2007 02:53 pm (UTC)

this guy i talked to once wanted to to a thing where they'd completely exchange a swedish with a japanese 7-11. excellent idea but alas they couldn't get the right support.


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(Anonymous)
Thu, Sep. 27th, 2007 03:05 pm (UTC)

Just to nag a bit.

shibui is an adjective, and as such is not a concept.
The corresponding noun is shibusa (shibui-ness) or, as Trevanian would have it, shibumi ("mi" being "taste").

And Starbucks absolutely baffles me.
Who would have imagined 20 years or so ago that a whole new generation would grow up who sees no problem with drinking overpriced American coffee (a contradiction in terms to a European of my age) out of plastic cups?
My adopted country of Japan used to have a lively and widely varied kissaten culture, now almost entirely bulldozed away to make room for ever more Sutaabakkusu outlets.


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akabe
akabe
alin huma
Thu, Sep. 27th, 2007 08:33 pm (UTC)

But for Japan's biggest coffee chain, Starbucks has posed few problems. Doutor has managed to ride the Starbucks revolution with an expert's eye for profit, using its deep understanding of Japanese tastes and trends to subtly tailor its activities towards the market it knows. Starbucks has successfully imported an American phenomenon to Japan; Doutor has molded a uniquely Japanese phenomenon. And some analysts believe that Doutor's strategy will be raking in the cash long after the Starbucks shine has worn off. ..


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qscrisp
qscrisp
Thu, Sep. 27th, 2007 04:27 pm (UTC)
Shibui

Shibui is a favourite of mine, but I think it's actually far harder to define than the above definitions make it sound.

I think, for instance 'direct' is probably misleading. I've had shibui defined to me by Japanese people as (amongst other things) a taste for things usually associated with an older age group than your own.

I've also heard Dickens described as shibui. If there's such a thing as geek chic (which apparently there is), then I like to think of shibui as geezer chic.

I've written a little about my own conception of shibui here. No idea really if I'm more on the ball here than Trevanian or less. I don't know anything about him. Here's a bit of what I write on shibui:

If Mishima’s prose is as vivid and brilliant as the colours of a Chinese temple, Kafu’s prose reminds me instead of sunlight shining through the paper panels of a Japanese sliding door. It seems gentle, subdued and monotonous, with a certain sadness about it. But what at first seems a monotone reveals itself gradually as something sophisticated and multi-layered, with a mysterious flavour that lingers stronger and stronger after the first taste.

Also, on the subject of a lack of middle ground, or standard quality, I went to a reading given by J.G Ballard a few years back, and one thing that stuck in my mind is him saying, "Of course, all flats are luxury flats now."


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(Anonymous)
Thu, Sep. 27th, 2007 05:11 pm (UTC)

Given, it is muted; but they had to stick that damnable "New!" on there.


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cap_scaleman
cap_scaleman
cap_scaleman
Thu, Sep. 27th, 2007 05:35 pm (UTC)

Super Normal makes me think... IKEA... But how many of these objects presented in the book Super Normal: Sensation of the ordinary are massproduced respectively crafted by hand? Normal isn't really folk, now is it?


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reflejos
reflejos
erasmo spicker
Fri, Sep. 28th, 2007 12:45 pm (UTC)

And, ¿who buys IKEA?


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(Anonymous)
Thu, Sep. 27th, 2007 09:06 pm (UTC)

Ah-ha! Right on Nick, this is a thing that I visually admire and think about most every day. You should send me a copy of that "Super Normal" book for x-mas...afterall that would be a very normal thing to do for a friend during a standardized holiday. Please and thank you.
oxoxox,
John Flesh


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