The maintenance of everyday, a humbling design practice

ESSAY BY MONJA SIMON & TONI WAGNER. DISCUSSED IN DEN BOSCH, OCT 7, 2023

Preface

This essay is a result of two voices, sharing a similar background whilst being situated in two different places, wondering what happens if emerging thoughts are connected at different times, paces and words. The writing process of this essay opened up space to make each other understand, but also leaving room for reflection and answers. An open document and planned sessions on co-writing, co-editing and reacting to each other’s written words, nourished this essay and the idea, that the author and the created dialogue around design, is a multilogue.

Writing this essay and finding the right tone of voice was a struggle. Should it be formal/informal? Who are we actually addressing with these words? Who will understand these words? Who is going to be impacted by these words?

Both of us were raised and socialised in a rural area in the South of Germany on a farm. Both of us were the first ones to class-jump this background by pursuing an academic career. Both of us navigated a design education that did not value the backgrounds we emerged from, nor did we see the value of the practices we embodied on the farm. Design on the land is considered a luxury good that other people can afford. Not a practice that sustains and improves. We grew up with design as a maintenance and preserving practice. A practice of care, of plan-making, of executing, of keeping alive. 

Thinking about design now, as a term, a practice, a mindset, we think about how the first design definition that was presented to us in academia, was unable to question unequal eco-social structures, how our backgrounds influence our being, nor the responsibility we as designers would have. The educational system shapes a first understanding of how a designer is embedded within the reality of the world, they start to become an active participant. It presents a practical, solution-based, capitalist-informed approach, seeing itself as the dominant norm. Linked closely to people that frame the dominant thought it leads to a euro-centric, male gazed, gendered design education that often provides a narrow and exclusive vision of what design is and who takes an active part in it. 

Questioning the universal that design is presenting opens up a desire for radical, critical approaches, questioning our way of operating and sense-making. The practice of design should no longer be understood as an act of executing plans, ideas, and routines but rather by the linked interactions within thought, action, the body, and the world. Embracing that design is a dignified practice whose actions aim to change existing situations into preferred ones[1], highlights the importance of questioning our own situatedness and thereby our privilege in being a designer, fostering the question of who has the power to design a world where we all are designers, because we all are designed.[2]   


Part one: Experiencing Design as Struggle 

M: Design is responsible for shaping our environment. Design shapes not only the things we use every day but also the way we use and maintain them, the way we talk about them and the emotional value we place on them. Therefore all of this can and must be designed responsibly.[3] Design has been operating for centuries. Whenever people adapt to new living conditions, they deal with things, but mostly intuitively and subconsciously. For instance, when my family on the farm is creating new systems or building new structures, they adapt to the circumstances and conditions of the ecosystem around them. In these ways, design can be an agent of change.[4]

This sparks various questions like Who operates in the field of the design profession? Who can be called a designer? Nina Paim and Claudia Mareis claim in Design Struggles: Intersecting Histories, Pedagogies and Perspectives[5]that “design cannot change anything before it changes itself.”[6]Acknowledging that “historically, western design as a professional academic field has been a narrow and exclusive domain that often imagines itself as universal.”[7] Often a small number of mostly white, male cis-gender designers in the Global North project a vision of the world, where their design is good and the solution to the world’s problems.

However one can see designers as bridge builders between different systems of knowledge, facilitators between disciplines and creators of processes. 

I propose reimagining design as an unbounded and unfinished, non-linear and transformative practice, that approaches the world from within instead of claiming an elevated position.[8] Considering the situated field work on a farm as never finished, but maintained in cycles that will constantly need our attention and care, I consider farmers, working in close contact with the land, as designers too. 

T: It definitely is about questioning our own positionality, but also what spaces we as designers are navigating within (or want to navigate within) and originate from. There is this design habitus. A certain language that only designers understand and speak. By taking part in designing and creating everyday routines the current design practice is contributing to structural unsustainability. 

It is important to have critical dialogues about what we actually try to achieve within design, to challenge taught opinions and to create community. These parameters present various possibilities to enable designers to contribute to the development of a design culture that critiques, unlearns, and questions. It is about finding a way of practising design otherwise[9] to open up space to inquire which kind of structures we embed in the way we practise design. It is about shaping a discourse that invites different angles and voices that normally do not find hearing. Finding a way of starting a multi-dialogue for practising design not just otherwise, but equitable can allow the emergence of questions of how to disrupt, challenge and ideally transform structures. It is crucial to take the responsibility to open as many spaces as possible to empower designers (and non-designers) to have these dialogues. To describe how social identities, such as race, class, and gender intersect and overlap. Inviting the complexity of the world and human experience that shapes an analytical tool in practice. 

M: I realised in the first years of my interior design studies, learning in spaces dominated by white old men, that the university space is not neutral, and the relationships that occur in the classroom, or the workshop, are not egalitarian.[10] Suffering from strong hierarchies within the university infrastructures and experiencing the power dynamics between me as a female student in a class of mostly young girls and the old professors teaching and evaluating us, motivated me to start questioning and critically engaging with design and education. Through the concept and framework of intersectionality, I could understand how various forms of inequality often operate together because of different aspects of a person’s identity or social category leading to unique and interconnected experiences of discrimination and privilege. As a white European cis-woman, I acknowledge having certain privileges but as I am from an unacademic family background I deal with certain disadvantages in my everyday. Experiencing that most of the time “the diversity of life-defining aspects [like] gender, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, religion, class, social background, physical or intellectual ability and more” are ignored or routinely flattened in design histories, pedagogies, practices and objects, results in a privileged and exclusive practice of design.[11]

My working-class background has never been considered a valuable place of research, even by myself, until I decided to investigate my social background in the German countryside. Being in the position of an inquirer, I listened to intergenerational stories of women with different social conditions and family constellations, acknowledging that all these realities and struggles exist, differ and therefore matter. This inquiry practice expresses how I see my responsibilities as a designer. Because the lived experiences of oppressed people play a crucial role when it comes to feminist knowledge building.[12] I see myself as a facilitator, in the example of Sauerkraut fermentation in the Black Forest, I looked with my ancestors into things that did work for them in the past when it comes to food preparation and survival in a less exploitative way of living. When fermenting Sauerkraut, my female ancestors worked with microbes to preserve food and while feeding them they could feed themselves throughout the winter. Their embodied knowledge about wild fermentation was essential for survival, this practice and the intergenerational transmission of knowledge of fermenting took place for centuries before being replaced by the industrial food system of today.   

T: Indeed, various knowledge systems and values are being excluded in design studies and the professional field. The art of class-making, a knowledge that was and still is passed on to us performatively[13] rarely played a role or was valued in our design education. As you experienced it, my working-class background was not considered valuable knowledge. I arrived in academia with a lot of shame. In my early years of studying design, I felt like a stranger to the field I inquired. I felt like an infant who learned how to walk, slowly understanding the jargon, movements and social codes to navigate within this strange world. It suddenly became about intellectual labour rather than the process of thinking with one’s own hands. I experienced prejudices because I came from a farm and aspired to be good in academia. “Being good” in academia back then meant for me to know the “form” and code of how something is normally done. Always using my energy to achieve the standards, the norms, and the understanding of what is being practised and formally practised, I could not tap into my creative potential but rather became an executing, imposter-syndrome-feared, shame-fueled, performer. 

Now I wonder what would have happened if I could have been authentic, meaning, not to fulfil any social expectations, but tapping into my practices, the way I write and see design. Valuing my background, my practices (even the ones not being considered as practices) and especially, finding my path of performing design. These differences and structural inequalities start from the knowledge of a situated context (mainly our own perspectives and lived experiences) and visualise non-standardized possibilities to question the status quo. 

M: For me knowledge is gained through practical experience, deeply rooted in our bodies and actions. This often contrasts with academic or theoretical knowledge, which is gained through formal education. That kind of knowledge is often overlooked, but crucial for the functioning of society and the preservation of the unavoidably entangled livelihoods and fates of so many kinds and entities on this planet.[14] On the farm, we care for things not because they produce value, but because they already have value.[15] Implying a broader ecological perspective suggests practising care and maintenance also extends to preserving the well-being of the environment and other living beings. In my family “community” is the highest principle of life. Living on a farm, meant taking myself back and prioritising the we, understanding how much I care for the animals and the land would affect my well-being in the long run. If an animal is not doing well, its survival is my responsibility. Every act is important for the collective we, including not only humans but also all entities that keep the farm thriving. 


Part two: Transitioning to new practices of design 

M: To address our desire for less precarious ways of working and living, while practising design in critical and transformative ways, it’s crucial to understand the ambitions for imperial modes of living. One of the main interests, when we research and write together, is seeing the urgency in questioning our desire: how do we work, what fields of references do we use by digging into our personal and social histories of our upbringing and the context we currently live in. Why are we able to do this critical practice, what role do our gender, our skin colour, and our geographical and social background play? 

T: Challenging the status quo as a critical mind, can be a complex and exhausting endeavour, especially in a world that requires you to perform a certain way. It may require effort, risk-taking, and a willingness to disrupt the familiar and accepted ways of doing things. By recognizing the patterns that precarise our work and life, ​​we can understand the factors that contribute to precarious work and living conditions like unstable employment, lack of job security, and inadequate social support, which can lead to financial and emotional instability. Becoming aware of these patterns, enables us to come up with other ways of doing, and by generating a sense of empowerment, that goes beyond ourselves. Collective action can be more effective than individual efforts. “Changing the way I work and live will not just help to de-precarise myself, but also others.”[16] The design world is in deep need of alternative forms of making, shaping, and practising. There is a lack of representation of how other practices can be considered design practices. As designers, we can work in our everyday lives towards a movement beyond precarity. But what orients our actions being in this world? We need to make space for design practices of critical inquiry and eco-social transformation.[17] It is about reimagining practices and acts that nowadays would seem quite mundane or almost boring. Being generous with each other, like we do right now, sharing this opportunity, sharing the space, sharing the money and by that inviting each other to contribute, rather than pursuing our individualistic careers. We combine radical care and community but also a critical practice. And by that, we aim to tell forgotten and excluded stories and re-introduce a mindset of maintenance. 

M: Inspired by Shannon Mattern’s study of maintenance, we also aim to mend the holes we experienced in our design education and to connect the voices we feel responding to and with whom we can reimagine how to design otherwise. I strongly believe that “to study maintenance is itself an act of maintenance. To fill in the gaps in this literature, to draw connections among different disciplines is an act of repair or, simply, of taking care — connecting threads, mending holes, amplifying quiet voices.”[18] This can also be a literal act of mending clothes together or creating opportunities to speak up for unheard voices around us. 

T: I agree. Engaging in these considerably mundane acts of maintaining something as a design practice is directly linked to acts of transformation: It embodies change, and innovation by the single attempt of preserving it. Seeing maintenance as an act of everyday engagement in worldmaking[19]Marina Vishmidt considers this practice an act of reproduction to ensure that an object or a relation continues to exist over time, despite time ravages on its existence and persistence.[20] Her making-mending approach inspired me to reinvestigate my own relation to maintenance and how (invisible) domestic practices like mending clothes have been a crucial part of my childhood, but also nowadays influence how I see design. Knowing the power of a needle I was taught to be responsible with my clothes and therefore repair and sustain them if they get broken. Beautiful designs occurred. I made something whole out of something broken by an act of care. It shaped the way I see and treat garments and also how I want them to express myself. The way fashion is practised nowadays is so detached from the bodies that wear it, even more, the bodies that produce it, that I see mending your own clothes also as a radical act of de-precarising not just yourself but also others.

M: To understand better and apply maintenance as a corrective framework, we need to acknowledge traditions of women’s work, domestic and reproductive labour, and all formal and informal acts of preservation. This includes all acts of cleaning, washing, cloth mending, cooking, feeding, child and elderly care just to name a few, and at all times, emotional labour. At the same time, we have to avoid romanticising the work of maintenance and repair. Rather learn from feminist critiques of the politics of care, especially the reliance on poorly paid immigrants and people of colour and look to maintenance practices outside the Western world.[21] These transformations are rather necessary to sustain a world we as humans can keep on living in as well as possible. For me, it is essential how feminist scholar and author bell hooks already expressed, that the margins must be seen as places of resistance, and an opportunity to learn from.[22] In practising design this is relevant when it comes to the question: Which living conditions do we take as a starting point and from which references do we take inspiration and give credit? Instead of looking for solutions, we should first ask questions from the standpoint of the other, the one who differs from the dominant norm.[23] It is important to stay in the discomfort of unlearning and be open to relearning and resisting the imposing canon of Western design. Likewise, posthuman feminist Rosa Braidotti proposes that feminism is a relational ethic where one cares enough about the world to look at the broader picture and try to minimise fractures with the mindset of repairing instead of extracting and damaging.[24]

T: I feel there is a need for open tools that empower various perspectives as well as practices in day-to-day working life. We need a value based practice, recognizing the interdependence within and beyond the professional field.[25] It is about sharing a space to voice struggles, build communities and find a way of unlearning and learning together. This practice lives by extending one’s supportive hand to others and by being vulnerable with each other. By cultivating de-precarizing value practices like fair payment, enablement, improvement of work conditions and skill sharing, a diverse set of relational patterns that exchange and support can be created. We place each of us as a key actor who makes and shapes this economy (and who can decide on how to make it daily)[26] enabling our force to challenge the status quo, experimenting, enabling, and by that supporting the cultivation of many ways of how to do and to think.

M: Braidotti expands on the fact that we all need to work together to rebuild our shared understanding of possible posthuman futures that will include solidarity, care and compassion.[27] Following the logic of interdependence to ask ourselves What modes of practising design and thinking do we belong to? is for us a place which is not frictionless, nor tensionless. The feeling of being in-between two worlds, we struggle to feel belonging to the academic world and yet at the same time we don’t belong anymore to the farmer’s maker culture we grew up with. Every day we are trying to find alternative ways of living and working where we can connect and empower people while creating an environment in which many can flourish. Starting with an ethics of care, which implies reaching out to others and welcoming all activities to continue to maintain and repair our world so that we can live in it as well as possible[28] is one path to cultivate a way of living aware of our interdependencies with the more-than-human others in this world.[29]

T: The process of unlearning and learning is influenced by the core principles of emergent strategy: a) Small is good, small is all b) Change is constant c) There is always enough time for the right work d) There is a conversation in the room that only these people at this moment can have e) Never a failure, always a lesson.[30] Transforming the energy that we currently use to focus on capital growth can instead be the force that we need to go to the root of the problems that we face. Identifying no easy solutions but rather a complex and compassionate engagement. 

We see that Emergent Strategy can work as a powerful mindset to analyse one’s complex and intertwined relations within the making of the world. Feminist and Transformatist Adrienne Maree Brown framed this strategy as “the way [that] complex systems and patterns arise out of a multiplicity of relatively simple interactions.”[31] Noticing the small everyday actions and connections can create complex systems and patterns that can become ecosystems and societies as well as plans of execution. It is accessing knowledge that assures us that these everyday actions, the domestic practices, how we organise ourselves, how we eat, live and love, how we consume, how we care, and how the maintenance of the everyday, can transform the ways we approach transforming the world.


[1] Claudia Mareis, Nina Paim, Design Struggles: An Attempt to Imagine Design Otherwise, in Design Struggles: Intersecting Histories, Pedagogies, and Perspectives, ed. Claudia Mareis and Nina Paim (Amsterdam: Valiz, 2021), 14.

[2] Arturo Escobar, Designs for the Pluriverse: Radical Interdependence, Autonomy, and the Making of Worlds (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2018), 133.

[3] Anette Bertsch, Was ist Design?, form, August 2023, 10.

[4] Alice Rawsthorn, Was ist Design?, form, August 2023, 8.

[5] Claudia Mareis, Nina Paim, Design Struggles: An Attempt to Imagine Design Otherwise, in Design Struggles: Intersecting Histories, Pedagogies, and Perspectives, ed. Claudia Mareis and Nina Paim (Amsterdam: Valiz, 2021), 11-21.

[6] Mareis and Paim, Design Struggles, 19.

[7] Mareis and Paim, Design Struggles, 11.

[8] Mareis and Paim, Design Struggles, 18-19.

[9] Mareis and Paim, Design Struggles, 11.

[10] Griselda Flesler in conversation with Maya Ober and Anja Neidhardt, NOT A TOOLKIT: A Conversation on the Discomfort of Feminist Design Pedagogy, in Design Struggles: Intersecting Histories, Pedagogies, and Perspectives, ed. Claudia Mareis and Nina Paim (Amsterdam: Valiz, 2021), 217.

[11] Mareis and Paim, Design Struggles, 11.

[12] Flesler, NOT A TOOLKIT, 218.

[13] Paola de Martin, Breaking Class: Upward Climbers and the Swiss Nature of Design History, in Design Struggles: Intersecting Histories, Pedagogies, and Perspectives, ed. Claudia Mareis and Nina Paim (Amsterdam: Valiz, 2021), 60.

[14] María Puig de la Bellacasa, Matters of Care: Speculative Ethics in More Than Human Worlds  (London: University of Minnesota Press, 2017), 1.  

[15] Maria Puig de la Bellacasa, Matters of Care in Technoscience: Assembling Neglected Things. Social Studies of Science 41, no. 1 (December 2011): 100.

[16]  Bianca Elzenbaumer, Design(ers) beyond Precarity, in Design Struggles: Intersecting Histories, Pedagogies, and Perspectives, ed. Claudia Mareis and Nina Paim (Amsterdam: Valiz, 2021), 320.

[17] Elzenbaumer, Design(ers) beyond Precarity, 318.

[18] Shannon Mattern, Maintenance and Care, Places Journal, November 2018, accessed August 28th, 2023, https://doi.org/10.22269/181120.

[19] Marina Vishmidt, Pure Maintenance, accessed January 21st, 2023, https://southasastateofmind.com/article/pure-maintenance/.

[20] Vishmidt, Pure Maintenance.

[21] Mattern, Maintenance and Care.

[22] bell hooks, Choosing the Margins as a Space of Radical Openness, Framework: The Journal of Cinema and Media, no. 36 (1989): 15-23.

[23] Flesler, NOT A TOOLKIT, 207.

[24] Rosi, Braidotti, Posthuman Feminism, (UK: Polity Press, 2022), 9. 

[25] Elzenbaumer, Design(ers) beyond Precarity, 321.

[26] Elzenbaumer, Design(ers) beyond Precarity, 322.

[27] Braidotti, Posthuman Feminism, 8. 

[28] Bernice, Fisher and Joan C. Tronto, Toward a Feminist Theory of Care, In Circles of Care: Work and Identity in Womens Lives, ed. Emmily K. Abel and Margaret K. Nelson (New York: State University of New York Press, 1990), 40. 

[29] Elzenbaumer, Design(ers) beyond Precarity, 321.

[30] Adrienne Maree Brown, Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds (Scotland: AK Press, 2017), 41.

[31] Brown, Emergent Strategy, 3.


Bibliography

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Brown, Adrienne Maree. Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds. Scotland: AK Press, 2017. 

Escobar, Arturo. Designs for the Pluriverse: Radical Interdependence, Autonomy, and the making of Worlds. Durham NC: Duke University Press, 2018.

Fisher, Bernice. Tronto, Joan C. Toward a Feminist Theory of Care. In Circles of Care: Work and Identity in Womens Lives, edited by Emily K. Abel and Margaret K. Nelson. New York: State University Press, 1990. 

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Kaiser, Mareice. Wie viel: Was wir mit Geld machen und was Geld mit uns macht. Hamburg: Rowohlt Polaris, 2022. 

Mareis, Claudia. Paim, Nina. Design Struggles: An attempt to Imagine Design Otherwise. In Design Struggles: Intersecting Histories, Pedagogies, and Perspectives, edited by Claudia Mareis and Nina Paim, 11-22. Amsterdam: Valiz, 2021. 

Also quoted from this edition ↴ 

Elzenbaumer, Bianca. Franz, Fabio/Brave New Alps. Design(ers) beyond Precarity: Proposals for Everyday Action. In Design Struggles: Intersecting Histories, Pedagogies, and Perspectives, edited by Claudia Mareis and Nina Paim, 317-330. Amsterdam: Valiz, 2021.

Flesler, Griselda in conversation with Maja Ober and Anja Neidhardt / depatriarchise design. NOT A TOOLKIT: A Conversation on the Discomfort of Feminist Design Pedagogy. In Design Struggles: Intersecting Histories, Pedagogies, and Perspectives, edited by Claudia Mareis and Nina Paim, 205-225. Amsterdam: Valiz, 2021.

Martin, Paula de. Breaking Class: Upward Climbers and the Swiss Nature of Design History. In Design Struggles: Intersecting Histories, Pedagogies, and Perspectives, edited by Claudia Mareis and Nina Paim, 60-83. Amsterdam: Valiz, 2021.

Mattern, Shannon. Maintenance and Care. In Places Journal, November 2018. Accessed, 28 Aug 23, https://doi.org/10.22269/181120.

Olufemi, Lola. Feminism Interrupted: Disrupting Power. London: Pluto Press, 2020. EPUB. 

Puig de la Bellacasa, Maria. Matters of Care in Technoscience: Assembling Neglected Things. In Social Studies of Science 41, no. 1 (December 2011): 100. http://doi.org/fsm9c4.

Puig de la Bellacasa, María. Matters of Care: Speculative Ethics in More Than Human Worlds. London: University of Minnesota Press, 2017. 

Vishmidt, Marina. Pure Maintenance. South as a State of Mind, accessed January 1st, 2023. https://southasastateofmind.com/article/pure-maintenance/.