Marjanne van Helvert’s book “The Responsible Object. A History of Design Ideology for the Future” published in 2016 by Valiz introduces a history of socially committed design strategies within the western tradition. At the beginning of this academic year, EKA Press published an Estonian translation of the publication entitled “Vastutustundlik ese. Disainiideoloogia ajalugu tuleviku tarbeks.” The book is translated by Keiu Krikmann and designed by Ott Kagovere. On the occasion of the translation, Marjanne van Helvert shares her research for the book, ideas on socially committed design, and on the book design.
Sandra Nuut: “The Responsible Object. A History of Design Ideology for the Future” is a design history book. What makes it different from other design history books?
Marjanne van Helvert: Most design history books focus on aesthetics and technological innovation. They are implicitly caught up in a neoliberal, capitalist narrative of consumerism and supposed free markets. “The Responsible Object” looks at some of the ideals and politics behind this canon, specifically ecology and emancipation. It does follow a traditional Eurocentric industrial design chronology but sheds some light on the ideologies that drove these designers and movements. Very often we remember the aesthetics but have forgotten the ethics behind them. The most well known example of this, the Bauhaus, is now mostly recontextualized as the origin of modernist “good taste”; its furniture pieces having become status symbols in elite homes. Yet back then it was part of a radical search for wealth distribution and the democratisation of decent homes and interiors. In design books, the ideas and ideals of the designer quickly fade next to the shiny picture of the now desirable and marketable object that’s selected for the canon.
SN: Before publishing “The Responsible Object” you wrote the critical Dirty Design manifesto. How are these two projects connected and what were some of the starting points for the research on the book?
MvH: The Dirty Design manifesto was my Bachelor’s thesis when I graduated from the Gerrit Rietveld Academie in Amsterdam in 2013. It was an angry rant against what I perceived as hypocrisy at work in the design field. At that point, ecology and social responsibility were not really part of my education as a designer, and neither did I see it represented enough in the professional field. I yearned for design to acknowledge both its dirty materiality (exploitation of raw materials; traces of labour; transparency about supply chains and waste; etc.), as well as its dirty ethics that are part of the profession (copyright; slave labour; moving production to areas with neither environmental regulations nor worker rights; planned and designed obsolescence; etc.). As I was writing the manifesto, I started looking for books on this topic, and for other designers that voiced similar concerns. I found many of the latter, but no publications that collected and connected them together, even though I felt like these concerns were very much part of our traditional design history canon. It seemed to me they were just ignored and forgotten in the current neoliberal and capitalist context. So I decided a book needed to be written that would shine a different light on the same old canon.
SN: The book touches on many themes, such as craftsmanship, techno-optimism, scarcity, labour conditions, repair, recycling, renewable materials, ecology, and more. How do you define socially committed design in light of the many contexts?
MvH: For a while, I was questioning whether I should focus on ecology or on social change with the book until I realised they are inextricably connected. I consider ecological initiatives a failure if they do not take the social context into account, and vice versa. Look at the most noticeable global result of the climate crisis at this moment: the unprecedented and ever rising amount of migrants worldwide, who have to flee their homes and their countries because of extreme heat, flooding, drought, lack of clean water, local food shortages, etc. Designers from the past also often made this connection, whether it was William Morris investing in craftsmanship for its superior ecological and artistic outcomes as well as it benefiting the workers, or the Bauhaus designers turning to efficiency and functionalism in times of material scarcity in the Interbellum. I define socially committed design as design that is committed to genuinely improving people’s lives as much as possible. And here I don’t see a gadget or a new trend as an improvement. Though, to be honest, nowadays I’m wondering if this commitment hasn’t done more harm than good in the long run. Every technology or innovation has unexpected consequences, and many of them ecologically disastrous ones, and consequently horrifyingly damaging in social contexts as well. Still, I think if we make up a balance of what we need to live a fulfilling and comfortable life and what we can sacrifice as unnecessary, and how we can widely distribute the means to reach this level of comfort, the designer might have an important role to play in this transition. It’s a role of reimagining, redistributing, repurposing, and reusing, rather than inventing and innovating. By the way, I’m well aware that this is not a very popular point of view.
SN: How did you go about selecting contributors (writers and thinkers)?
MvH: I talked to many people in my network and asked for recommendations, but about half of the authors I found online on the basis of their previous publications and texts. I made a list of topics for chapters and then looked for experts on these topics. Many of them I have never met in person. I had no experience at all with initiating and editing a book, so I improvised all the way through the process.
SN: Why and how did some star designers end up in the book?
MvH: I wanted to show them in a different light, to make clear that much of our very western industrial design history canon is not just a smooth upwards story of glorified consumerism, but a collection of oppositionists, activists, communists, hippies, and yes, also libertarians, with a variety of opinions on how to make the world a better place (through design).
SN: Based on your research, are there some socially responsible practices in the past that are forgotten today, but that could be revived?
MvH: I’m a big fan of the principles of Utility design from Second World War UK. It’s a form of design socialism and consumer rationing, invented in a time of material scarcity, that might find new relevance in our time of (local) material overabundance. Unfortunately, I think most people are not ready for limits to their freedom of consumption and waste, but I only see a viable future if those people that consume and waste too much for our planet to handle (that’s all of us in western Europe), severely moderate their use of energy and materials. Changing to a mostly plant based diet, avoiding air travel, moving to a smaller house, using bicycles and public transport instead of a car… These seem like sacrifices, but the truth is that if we don’t make them, the burden will fall on the most vulnerable people in the world who have hardly anything to sacrifice, as it already does.
SN: I hope you have now seen the translated copy of the book. The version in Estonian is designed by Ott Kagovere. He selected several fonts by designers for the book to involve the local design scene in the making of this new publication. Graphic designer Ruben Pater designed the original book. What was your collaboration like? What are some of the design decisions that speak to the subject of the book?
MvH: I love Ott Kagovere’s design! It’s different from the original but stays true to its humble nature. I also love the fact that local designers are represented. Really well done and in spirit with the content. Ruben designed the font for the cover and the orange spreads in the English edition especially for my book, which I thought was amazing. It has a sort of modular, DIY look. Overall I felt I could give him the freedom to propose anything because we talked a lot about it already throughout the whole process of research and writing. This book was the first time we collaborated, but I know Ruben very well since he is my ex-partner, so he knew quite well what my intentions were with the book and its design. I wanted it to be modest, the opposite of glossy, and text based rather than image heavy: the opposite of the average book about design. I also wanted it to be inviting and accessible and not look like a super difficult academic book. A book that even designers would read!
SN: There is a conversation between an activist and a sceptic about the future of design in the last section. The sceptic’s voice finds that technology has been glorified many times in the history of design, notably by the Modernists, Buckminster Fuller, and the Anti-Designers, but why isn’t technology solving our problems?
MvH: Because technology needs politics and social awareness and organisation to distribute it to people who can’t buy it. Technology in itself has never solved anything; it needs to be implemented and that is where ethical choices are made. Right now we choose to not distribute a lot of medicine to people who need it, for example. We also have refugees sleeping in tents, or even in the open air, as I’m embarrassed to say, right here in the Netherlands, but it’s not for lack of technology of course. It’s because we choose not to build them houses. Also, a lot of technologies have brought us to ecological crises: aeroplanes, cars, highways, plastic in the oceans and in our food chains (and our bodies), cancerous chemicals, nuclear waste and radiation, but also soil depletion because of high intensity farming, asphalt that absorbs heat in urban areas, modern concrete architecture in climates not suitable for it, so people are reliant on air conditioners. I can go on and on of course, but we probably all know these things. It’s such a taboo though, to say you’re not in favour of all technologies without question. You’re called a Luddite. I’m quite interested in the real Luddites, which was actually a proto labour movement rather than anti-technology terrorists. What they asked for was worker rights: some political intervention and ethics to go with all the technological innovation. Something that Silicon Valley critic Evgeny Morozov also calls for.
SN: In this catchy monologue conversation, there is also a line “designers don’t read books!”
MvH: Yes! That’s what some people told me when I said I was writing a text heavy book about ideology for designers. I thought it was funny to include it in the sceptic’s arguments. A lot of this dialogue is stuff that I talked about with others and with myself when working on the book.
SN: Do you know how many languages “The Responsible Object” has been published in so far? What are you working on today?
MvH: The Estonian edition is the first! I’m super happy and honoured by the efforts that went into it, and am very curious about who its readers will be. What I’m working on today is mostly education. I teach at the Rietveld Academie in Amsterdam and the Design Academy in Eindhoven, both in the Netherlands. In developing design theory programmes and practical assignments I’m always developing my ideas and immediately sharing them and testing them with the students. I like it a lot. The book felt kind of like a monologue where I had no idea what the reader would have to say, but now everything I do is a dialogue which makes it much more dynamic. I keep thinking I want to make another book out of it, but so far I don’t get any further than an article here and there. I’ve worked on some speculative fiction about human-object relationships, which was very exciting, as I executed them as lecture-performances, a new medium for me.
Marjanne van Helvert is a designer, researcher, writer, and author of the Dirty Design manifesto and The Responsible Object. A History of Design Ideology for the Future (2016, Valiz).
Published in a design journal Leida 25 November 2022
Eestikeelne tõlge intervjuust disainiajakirjas Leida