This is my fifth post inspired by one of the essays in the book “Design Anthropology – Object Culture in the 21st Century” by Alison J. Clarke. This chapter “The anthropological object in design: from Victor Papanek to Superstudio” is written by Alison J. Clarke (the mastermind herself).
I, like many, many others, have always found the designs by the iconic Charles and Ray Eames to be inspiring (to say the least).
The older I got and the more involved in the design community I became, the more I understood and appreciated the beauty of form and function in sync. I developed a lasting fascination with innovative and functional household and kitchen products and a love for simplistic, modern furniture and architecture. I think this appreciation came about mostly through my habit of what I would call “obsessive observing and analyzing” of my surroundings (and with that, it’s objects) and by exploring what the great designers who came before have accomplished.
So very fittingly, this chapter by Alison J. Clarke “explores the historical relation of design to anthropology, its objects and methodologies” and she points out that the tools and objects we use in our lives are much more meaningful once understood in the context of the user and society. Clarke explains that “objects and tools represent a particular field of investigation; they lend themselves much better to being used as keys in the interpretation of complex relationships. Objects are the direct witness of the creative drive.”
It is well known that the Eames’ had a very anthropological approach to their design and Clarke refers to design historian Pat Kirmham, who knew that they were influenced by the mixing of objects of authentic origin and popular culture. “The Eames’ changed the way people thought about objects, largely by presenting them in new ways and by encouraging different ways of perceiving, grouping, and displaying them […] they used toys and everyday objects to illustrate design principles […] and they emphasized the need to understand the contexts in which material culture was produced and used.”
In another happy coincidence, I am currently reading “An Eames Primer” by Eames Demetrios, who is Charles and Ray’s grandson. In this book, he “offers an in-depth look at the couple’s prolific legacy – one that has placed them among the most important American designers of the twentieth century.”
My husband and I both share an immense respect and admiration for what Charles and Ray Eames accomplished and for the life they led. I love the Eames’ belief that “design is a process, rather than a single outcome – a process that’s never really over.” The Eames’, in my eyes, were real Design Ethnographers. They believed that you learn by doing and that through the process of one project a new project is often born (“each iteration offered another opportunity to hone the material tighter and tighter”). They understood that photography was an integral part of the design process as it was a way of discovering and exploring. And even when a task required new skills, the Eames office would “rather learn how to do it themselves than send it out.”
The author of this chapter suggests that “there has been a seismic shift in design culture of the last decades, whereby ‘users’ and methods of anthropological inquiry have emerged as the key means of deciphering the nuances of object/subject relations. But the anthropological object (…) has long been the critical designer’s favorite muse.”
Eames Demetrios has a unique perspective on Charles and Ray’s work and life; he truly understands their slogan ‘innovate as a last resort’. Nowadays, many people throw around the word ‘innovation’ and call on companies to strive for innovation above all else. But I think today’s understanding of the term ‘innovation’ doesn’t take into account the things to be learned from the Eames’ approach. To them, “the danger of innovation was the chance of losing the wisdom that had gone into the development of the idea to that point.”
A critical designer therefore understands that our everyday objects can only be truly understood within the context of the user and he gains wisdom from the process of developing an idea or product.