A spectacle of hipness


Read the original Dutch essay here.

On the fifth shelf of the bookshelf in the hallway I keep an ever-growing stack of magazines. My somewhat out-of-control collecting mania forbids me to throw them away – after all, you never know when that dusty pile might come in handy…

And admittedly, those moments are rare, but not non-existent. Because in that pile I found two copies of Knack Weekend Black: Design. One dates from January 2019, the other from April 2022.

The cover of the 2019 edition depicts a remarkable scene in which a pure pastel yellow, semi-transparent, streamlined chair plays the central role. The front legs of this chair stand in the legs of equally pastel pink trousers, and together the chair and trousers are in an abstract lilac-purple and cobalt blue space. The background suggests depth, but at the same time looks flat and painted. Knack edition number two also shows a contemporary still life – although it is slightly less abstract. With the robust round table in silver aluminum, the cube-shaped coffee table with a mirrored surface, the four bright royal blue Bold Chairs with their fluffy sausage-shaped structure, the polished concrete floor, the long light strips on the curved walls and the plants – the many plants – it features several staples of contemporary design interior.

I am now leafing through both magazines again. A few things immediately stand out. One, that there is a very specific aesthetic in the majority of the images, and it mainly consists of soft colors – think white, beige, gray and pastel. And two, that a funky accent is allowed – but preferably in one of the primary colors. I see a characteristic palette of materials, which is limited but diverse, and seems to consist mainly of concrete and lacquered aluminum, or wood and colorful plastic. I see how round and angular are combined as much as possible, how the organic shapes of the objects contrast with the straight lines of the spaces in which they are placed.

Most of all, I see the staging of the images, and how they stage fashions and trends in a theatrical way. Today’s design is new yet recognisable, likes to mix sober with bright, is original yet accessible, contemporary but not everyday – ‘hip’. The images look playful and spontaneous; they seem naive because they pretend to be unsophisticated.

So, above all, design is photogenic. Design today is a spectacle of hipness.

For foreign readers: Knack is a Flemish magazine that publishes a Black edition every so often as a weekend supplement. Sometimes the theme of ‘fashion’ is highlighted, other times ‘design’ is discussed, or there is an edition dedicated to ‘food’. These Knacks are of course not the only designer magazines, but they are widely distributed. They reach a large proportion of Flemish people and put (Flemish) design in the spotlight. The magazines aspire to be a bible for those who want to live a fashionable life, and therefore provide a good summary of what nowadays is considered ‘design’.

The notion of ‘design’ in itself is not easy to describe. Literally it means ‘design’ or ‘shape’, which we can understand as a description of something that already exists, or as a description of something that should exist in the future. In the past, ‘design’ was mainly classified under the heading of crafts. ‘Design’ was ‘craftsmanship’, and the designer was the literal manufacturer (or ‘maker’) of the object. Every seam, every fold, every groove of his product was the result of an endless search for the perfect shape. Each finished product was unique, because it was subject to the human hand, and above all, subject to time and chance.

Today, ‘design’ can no longer be defined without the industrial revolution in mind, and the term seems to be mainly being slimmed down to ‘industrial design’. After all, a design is no longer simply what is created in the physical production process, but what is created on the designer’s desk – or in the design program. In other words, ‘design’ today mainly precedes the product that will ultimately be produced mechanically in large volumes, copied, distributed and sold. Industrial design is then the design of objects that are intended to be produced serially. The final product is numerous, it is one of many that are all identical.

Designers, if they aim for maximum sales, must create objects that appeal to the widest possible audience. Because their works are usually offered in high volumes, they try to deliver products that can and will be wanted by as many people as possible.

But how do you ensure that something so abundant sells well? How do you ensure that your piece stands out among all other commodities? A first answer to that is quite simple: you pay attention to its aesthetics; you ensure that it produces attractive, stimulating images and then distribute those as widely as possible.

The image fetishism with which much design flirts today, and which Knack also demonstrates, is in my view a direct result of the industrial revolution. (This idea will return later in this text, when discussing Guy Debord.)

Before I go any further, I must make an important comment about ’the widest possible audience’. The fact that designer pieces are produced in large quantities as commodities has indeed ensured that they can be sold at a slightly more ‘reasonable’ price. Yet these objects are still very expensive – or at least very often over-priced. Despite the ability to produce cheaply en-masse, significant financial hurdles remain, depriving a large part of the population of access to designer objects.

In what follows, however, I want to argue that this inaccessibility goes much further than purely financial. In my view, design’s obsession with images and image contributes to social inequality at a much deeper level. I will therefore try to demonstrate, with the help of some important thinkers (Karl Marx, Guy Debord, René Girard and Georg Simmel), that conventional image-oriented design culture is not simply indifferent to lower classes, but also effectively and actively. However, based on the belief that an alternative practice is possible that can be accountable to society as a whole, I will close in discussing some examples of how things could be done differently.

As early as the 19th century, Karl Marx expressed his dissatisfaction with the processes set in motion by capitalist society, and more specifically with the widening gap between elite and proletariat. The Industrial Revolution promoted unprecedented social inequality, and the differences in prosperity have only increased since then. The workers become alienated from themselves, from their work and from the products of their labor, because capitalist society prioritizes economic value. Conversely, it leaves little room for the intrinsically valuable. Yet Marx still believed that capitalism could eventually compensate for the social differences it had created. Nearly a century later, Guy Debord – the French thinker who founded the Situationist International – wrote off Marx’s hopes as forever outdated.

A Debordian reading of our deeply capitalist world holds that the overriding alienation resides mainly in the passive consumerism that is imposed on each of us by the system.

Mass production presupposes and causes mass consumption. This mass consumption is in turn encouraged by mass media. Using the most well-thought-out marketing techniques, they continuously present us with images of what we think we need. The endless stream of impressions, sensations and suggestions that the media fires at us is a seductive siren song that is difficult to resist. The relationship between producer and consumer is therefore no longer one of supply and demand, but one of over-supply and subsequently the illusion of demand.

Guy Debord called the iconoclasm spread by the mass media the ‘spectacle’. (You are probably starting to realize here that when I called the beautiful pictures in the Knack a ‘spectacle of hipness’, I did not choose my words by chance.)

In the Société du Spectacle, our desires are no longer authentic: we are pawns of the system, passive buyers of capitalism. We desire what needs to be desired; what we should desire. Our desires are image-related, and therefore all too easily get stuck at the level of representation. Somehow reality always lags behind the visual, because the final object will never stimulate us in the same way, because the image has already preceded reality. Every possible attempt to fulfill these inauthentic, second-hand desires still leaves a void, which is immediately filled by new desires, generated by new images. (A good example of this is the short-lived euphoria of ‘retail therapy’.)

In my view, what a magazine like Knack does corresponds directly to Debord’s conception of the ‘spectacle’. However, this mechanism of ‘desire’ can be further analyzed. For Debord, desires, as described above, have a clearly compulsive character. And according to French anthropologist and philosopher René Girard, the relationship between desired object and desiring subject is indeed anything but linear. In other words, according to Girard, when a particular subject desires a particular object, a crucial third factor is at play.

Desire then does not arise merely from the presentation or contemplation of an image. No, desires are three-dimensional: they are mediated by a model. We can see this model as an idea that we ourselves want to live up to (or a person who personifies this idea) and as an example that is unconsciously imitated. Our desires therefore, following Girard, have a double meaning: they often tell more about ourselves, and how we (want to) see ourselves, than about the object we crave.

The thinking of the German philosopher and sociologist Georg Simmel allows us to flesh out Girard’s ‘models of desire’ more concretely and gradually link them back to the world of design. Because in his Psychology of Fashion he writes how the things we buy and the objects we crave have an instrumental value.

In the fashionable – and therefore in fashionable objects – a society makes its structure clear. For Simmel, individuals can therefore express their place within society by following the prevailing fashion. Consumers’ desires are mainly driven by expressive reasons: fashion can be used to gain status, to be ‘contemporary’, to claim a place in the world and even to climb the social ladder. Today’s hip design can therefore also be understood as an instrument for assimilation with the group or members of the group – our ‘models of desire’ – to which we model ourselves.

However, these fashions constantly undermine themselves, because once a trend is too widespread, once an object is too ubiquitous, it is no longer fashionable, and new fashions are needed. Novelties are posited by the select group – often a cultural elite – who repeatedly present themselves as a model of desire.

It is striking that one large group of society is not included in the Simmelian fashion system, namely the lower classes. This can be explained by Girard’s concept of interdividuality. If there is a great distance between the model of desire and the desiring subject, then there is ‘internal mediation’. For by desiring the same objects, subject and model influence each other and give impetus to the system. In other words: by copying the desires of their models, subjects increasingly become the equals of their examples, as a result of which the system has to redefine itself through new fashions and the models try to re-establish themselves and their position.

However, if there is a large distance between the two, Girard speaks of external mediation. Those who are financially (or emotionally, or physically, or…) unable to desire the same objects are not addressed by the constant supply of images of commodities and are flatly excluded from the system. The notion of interdividuality can therefore be used to demonstrate that most contemporary design, through its extreme connection to appearance, actually promotes an active exclusion of the lower classes. Design is exclusive. It confirms and perpetuates social inequalities.

The extremely attractive, stimulating ‘spectacle of hipness’ therefore exists by the grace of those whom it excludes. And that makes every socially committed designer’s heart bleed a little. Because when I call design today – as I did in the introduction – ‘naive’, I mainly mean that the discipline adopts an unsuspecting attitude and pretends to be unaware of any harm. The deceptive machinery that drives the society of the spectacle can – must (!) – therefore be put under pressure from time to time, in an appropriate, well-considered manner.

In 1967, Guy Debord already called for opposing the spectacle of his time. He named the remedy par excellence the ‘Situation’ – hence the Situationist International. ‘Situations’ are creations of disruptive moments full of life; they are experiences of authenticity, decisiveness and expressiveness, which enable people to break away from their everyday reality.

These situations are not necessarily eventful in nature. Its interpretation can still be object-related – as long as these objects manage to resist any possible form of commodification.

The momentary character of a situation, in the physical sense of the word, is particularly important. A momentum is then a condition in which a powerful action takes place, which spreads over a large range, thus making things possible on a large scale. ‘Situations’ are then moments of active reflection, of vitality and zest for action, of awareness and resistance to ubiquitous alienation.

Two important design moments – one from the last century and one from 20 years ago – meet the definition of Debord’s situations. Both furniture designer Enzo Mari and fashion designer Martin Margiela managed to create design that simultaneously challenges commodification, counteracts alienation, and above all: is radically inclusive.

Based on the observation that the world of objects is becoming increasingly saturated, and on the ubiquitous experience of Marxist alienation, Enzo Mari sent his Autoprogettazione into the commodified world in 1947. It was an ‘auto-project’ that essentially exists mainly as a manual for easy-to-assemble furniture, which can be put together using only rudimentary materials. The tables, chairs, cabinets, etc. that Mari designs require no prior knowledge, nor expensive materials, nor expensive machinery. The ultimate spectacle value of the products is limited in order to teach people something: in addition to a functional or aesthetic value, the furniture mainly has an educational value. Because the Autoprogrettazione are exercises that must be carried out individually, in order to generate personal understanding and insight into honest objects and in honest projects. The process of sawing, carpentering, looking, stacking and tapping not only results in a usable piece of furniture, but also, above all, in a moment of introspection and reflection, through activity and decisiveness.

Margiela’s sock sweater fits seamlessly with Mari’s Autoprogettazione. In 2004, the fashion designer added a tutorial to his A Magazine N°1 in which he explains how to make a DIY Margiela sweater at home with 8 pairs of socks and in 16 steps. The socks are cut and spread out, rearranged and stitched together. Since 2004, anyone who wishes, regardless of the number of zeros in your bank account, can own an original piece by one of the undoubtedly most influential fashion designers of his generation. Once again design is being redefined and consumer society is being challenged. Like Mari, Margiela clearly blurred – if only briefly – the robust boundaries between design process and design product, between maker and buyer, between rich and poor, and between exclusive and inclusive.

The fact that I present both projects here as an antidote to the spectacle does not mean that they should be used as a ready-made manual or ready-made recipe. That would mean the commodification of both projects – and that is at odds with everything they essentially oppose. (For example: an overly literal reading of Mari’s Autoprogettazione results in a commodified DIY kit system à la IKEA.)

What Mari and Margiela demonstrate first and foremost is that a radically inclusive design practice is indeed possible. I am therefore convinced that these examples – despite their similar content – are anything but exhaustive.

So it’s about looking for new examples, pursuing new ‘moments’, creating new situations. And this search requires curiosity, creativity, sensitivity, and above all, courage. And let’s be honest… Who better to take on this task than the designer himself?