Against Design Fads: Why Do We Use Materials That Are Inappropriate For Their Application?

by César Bejarano on August 14, 2016

Designers are inherently creative. And with creativity comes a thirst for knowledge and experimentation. We think:

“How can we make this object better? How many ways are there to solve this problem and which one is better? What can I do with this material to push it further?”

And those are excellent questions. Necessary questions. However, some designers ask themselves the wrong questions. Questions like:

“How can I get this object or design to get a lot of attention? How can I become more popular as a designer?”

And their answer often leads them in the same direction, creating a design idiosyncrasy. A fad. A fad is a temporary fashion, notion, manner of conduct,etc., especially one followed enthusiastically by a group. But good design is not temporary, it’s not ethereal. Good design is good from inception and remains that way as time goes by. So, can good design come out of a fad?

I think it can. Sometimes somethings will fit perfectly into the fad, but came to be that way for no other reason than it was just the correct solution for that particular thing in that particular time. The right reason. This right reason has more probability to achieves timeless design as a result, and timeless design is a guideline of good design.

There are many fads in industrial design, like in any other type of design. They come in different shapes, sizes, colors and materials. Literally. But there’s one that I feel has been abused, and it’s a shame, because as an architect, I have a deep appreciation for this material.

Concrete

Concrete is a material that works very good under pressure. It’s very strong, so it’s used in construction, to make resistant buildings. But like any material, it’s there to be experimented with. So obviously, industrial designers did.

One of the pioneers in design with concrete is Swiss born industrial designer Willy Guhl, who began experimenting with Eternit, a trademark for a brand of fibre cement that is wrongly used as a generic term. With this fibre cement, Willy made two planters: The Elephant Ear and Time.

Elepahnt Ear by Willy Guhl Elephant Ear by Willy Guhl Time by Willy Guhl Time by Willy Guhl

Concrete is not a crazy choice as a material for a planter. In fact, concrete works perfect for planters. It’s strong so it won’t break with the pressure the soil exerts on the pot. It holds some moisture in, so the soil will draw moisture from the concrete, and pass it along to the plants. And it can be molded into different shapes easily. So this wasn’t a very risky experiment, but still, it was one of the first, so it’s still an experiment that deserves merit.

In 1954, Guhl designed his Loop Chair for outdoors, also made of Eternit. Another successful experiment in design: Outdoors furniture needs to be resistant. Concrete is resistant and even gets more personality as time passes and it’s exposed to the elements. It chips, grows mold, and changes color. But it remains. Also, the chair is very thin, which makes it lighter, in case it needs to be moved from one place to another. Furthermore, its simple design means manufacturing is easy and cost effective. So, personally, this particular application of concrete works, and even if it didn’t, it was an experiment that needed to be made by someone at some point. The Loop Chair has its merit just for being one of the first experiments done with concrete. The fact that it’s actually a successful experiment gives it more merit still.

But I think there’s a time to experiment, and a time to apply the knowledge acquired by the experiments. And for me, it feels like the experimentation phase is over for concrete. We as designers have a responsibility to know the advantages and limitations of each material, so we can use them accordingly and concrete has been with us for such a long time that all sorts of things have been made from it that by now, we must have a good understanding of how it works, and when and where we can apply it legitimately and naturally, without being frivolous and forcing our whims on the design.

Loop Chair by Willy Guhl Loop Chair by Willy Guhl designed in 1954

So how is it that frivolous or good design comes to be? I assume there are other reasons, but an important one comes from the designer’s motivation and purpose. As stated earlier, a good designer will ask him or herself questions that focus directly (and indirectly too) on the design or object and its relationship with the user:

“How can I make this better as an object and at the same time improve it’s interaction with the user?”

The designer acts selflessly for the greater good. The good of good design. On the other hand, a not so good designer will ask:

“How can I make a name for me as a designer? How can I use my designs to get me a lot of attention?”

They can be seen a bit as narcissists whose priorities are backwards. Their intentions are not to make a timeless, functional, beautiful design. Because sometimes, for practical purposes and because it’s natural, all that we humans perceive, all that we focus on is attractiveness. Designers know this, so they focus solely on making something that’s exclusively pretty. They know (because they are one) that we humans are notoriously shallow creatures and beauty sells. And it gets talked about. So they completely disregard other important things like function, or in this case, the properties of the material they chose to work with. Is the material a right fit for the job? Does it have the properties needed to fulfil its objective? Will it work like it’s supposed to or better?

Sometimes, for some designers, this just simply isn’t important. As long as their work gets a lot of attention, they are happy. The goal for them was never to make something incredible (of course this is always the goal for a designer, but it has to be the MAIN goal, not a secondary one), but to get attention. And it’s easy to get attention. As easy, for example, as taking one material that is made specifically for one thing and applying it to another. This easy hack (I think it’s an appropriate word) can leave most of us in awe and wanting more.

It’s in our nature to be curious. We like new things. Things that surprise us. Novelties. And the value to a novelty, obviously, is that it’s new. So we like to be the first ones in the know. And the novelties becomes social currency, which nowadays is so important that it’s second only to money. So if we come upon something that we perceive as cool, or that we know others will perceive as cool, we want it, and we want to share it with others. We want to let them know that we found this cool thing that (hopefully) makes us cool by association. And so shallow design, little by little, becomes a plague. And worst. It becomes generally accepted as good design. If we see it everywhere, it must mean it’s good, because popular is always good right? I don’t agree.

A design can be said to be good according to some criteria. For me, it’s very simple. Design is good when:

  • It is beautiful
  • It respects the planet
  • It is timeless
  • It has a purpose
  • It works for everyone

In order for these criteria to apply, a number of things must happen, and one of those is that the material has to be right for the purpose it’s intended to. A good designer will never force his or her whims on a project (of course in some cases, forcing a whim on a project can lead to a genius solution, but we are not discussing exceptions to rules).

And concrete is definitely not always right for the job. But some designers take a different approach. They think:

“Why not make concrete work and look exactly how I need it?”

So they alter it and transform it into something that is not concrete. Concrete is a mixture of a coarse aggregate (e.g., gravel), a fine aggregate (e.g., sand), cement and water. When this mixture dries, it hardens like a rock and retains the shape it was given. This is the nature of concrete. It’s a hard, coarse, heavy, strong material. Is concrete flexible? Definitely not. So what’s going on with the Luna concrete iPhone skin by Posh-Craft and Realize pictured below? Is this concrete?

Luna-Concrete-iPhone-Skin-4 Luna Concrete Skin for iPhone posh-craft-x-realize-luna-concrete-skin-for-iphone Inspiration for design or just an obvious connection made after the design?

The image with the moon (above) brings me to another point. Trivial designs with concrete are shallow, hence they shallow concept behind it, if any. Is a concept (strong or weak) necessary in order to make good design? I don’t think so. But designers mistakenly sometimes think of ourselves as artists. And design is not art. Design has a function other than to evoke feelings. And in our confusion we want to give meaning to everything we create, even if we know we just did it for the sake of it, for the experiment, for the pleasure. So we come up with mediocre concepts after the design project is finished. The iPhone skin is called “luna”, which means moon in spanish. Is it likely the skin was named before it was produced for the first time? Maybe, but I would bet is was named after the realization that it looked like the moon’s surface with all it’s air bubbles (craters, allegedly) and imperfections. Imperfections that are natural in concrete. The connection between the surface of the moon and something made out of concrete is too obvious.

How about these concrete cat beds? Does the concrete bed have any resemblance to the Hepper Pod Bed for cats at the bottom?

e15db537228661.5739acd01514a Concrete Cat Bed by Geerke Sticker Hepper-Cat-Pod-1 Cat Pod Bed by Hepper

When this was brought to light, the designer’s response was:

Geerke Sticker

This is a very obvious and poor explanation, justification or concept (whatever you want to call it). But there’s a need to explain the design. And when we want to give an improvised meaning to something that wasn’t conceived with a meaning in mind, the results can be counterproductive.

The example below is a packaging for a balm called CNCRT (concentrate) designed by Japanese designer Yoshifumi Yokohama, who says:

“CNCRT is a solid packaging like a concrete building. During this project we also found inspiration in buildings created by TADAO ANDO.”

CNCRT Packaging by Yoshifumi Yokoyama CNCRT Packaging by Yoshifumi Yokoyama

And these are some buildings by Tadao Ando, also Japanese:

Tadao Ando 1KOSINO-HOUSE

Can this really be said to be inspiration? Or is it just our mixup between art and design acting up? We force a concept on anything and everything we make because we are afraid we’ll be deemed as superficial designers, when in reality there is nothing wrong with superficial design. Not as long as it’s accepted for what it is and doesn’t try to pose as something more deep and intellectual.

Another example is the concrete smartphone stand designed by Oitenta pictured below:

Oitenta Concrete iPhone Stand Oitenta Concrete iPhone Stand

Is concrete really the best material for this project or is it just a whim by the designer. Surely the latter one, since the also overused geometric shapes suggest that Oitenta likes to follow trends. Is the coarse concrete right for an iPhone stand? The iPhone has a delicate aluminium exterior that is easily scratched. The designer’s solution? Seal it with a polyurethane varnish. So what’s the point of using a material if it’s inherent properties have to be disguised and artificially handled so it works as we need it to?

Concrete’s beauty lies in it’s honesty. It’s a material that is at its most beautiful when it’s at its rawest form. When it’s left alone and its features like texture and color shine through. Below, a concrete version of Le Corbusier’s Arm Chair. In it, we can see concrete being honest.

Concrete Arm Chair by Stefan Zwicky Concrete Arm Chair by Stefan Zwicky

Concrete chair by Stefan Zwicky based on Le Corbusier’s famous Arm Chair.And we can also see that concrete is not the right material for the job. However, this chair should be viewed as a sculpture, a work of art. Not design. Here’s that mixup again. Stefan Zwicky, the maker of the chair, is a designer working in Zurich. In his website we can find multiple furniture and object designs, including this chair. And we can find it under the word “design” in the menu.

But design is not art. And we better learn and start telling the difference soon because the line between design and art should not be blurry. It should be crystal clear. And only when we learn that is when we will be able to produce good design. Design with purpose.


About the Author : César Bejarano – César is an industrial designer by profession, and an architect by title.  He is Mexican and he’s de designer of Cara de Planta, a DIY vertical gardening system, among many other things.  He’s also the editor of Against Design, the blog where this article was originally published and a collaborator with Smashing Magazine and some Medium publications.  Feel free to contact César here.

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