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Utopian Dreams: Failures and Successes

Posted: April 25th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: spring 2011 | No Comments »

Designers have the ability to solve problems with their creations.  One of these problems to solve is the betterment of the society they live in. The philosophical beliefs and ideas a designer has about the current condition of their habitations can bring about the creation of designed utopian societies that are often expressed in the form of architecture for communities. Designers use their views of the condition of their current environment to create utopian societal concepts for the future that push their ideological agendas. Although these utopias often fail to be successful in the way the designer had originally intended, they are usually adapted and integrated into contemporary society becoming successful in a different way.


The post world war eras were times of reassessment of the living condition in urban environments. In the 1920’s in France, officials had been trying to deal with the squalor of the growing Parisian slums, and Le Corbusier sought efficient ways to house large numbers of people in response to the urban housing crisis (Huxtable). He believed that his new, modern architectural forms would provide a new organizational solution that would raise the quality of life for the lower classes. Le Corbusier designed and built a community of fifty-one homes in Pessac, a town near Bordeaux, in France that was meant to be a laboratory of new domestic, structural and esthetic ideas (Huxtable). The structures had a “raised ground floor, wide windows, roof terraces, open facades and open plans… corners could be breached, openings placed almost anywhere and made much larger, spans increased and walls treated as screens, rooms [were] opened to each other and to the light and view”.[1]

However this project was commonly seen as a failure, because of the occupants’ rebellious rejection of Le Corbusier’s doctrinaire modernist esthetic and elitist ideas, as they restructured and redecorated the homes (Huxtable). But French architect, Philippe Boudon wrote that “The Quartiers Modernes Fruges were not an ‘architectural failure’. The modifications carried out by the occupants constitute a positive and not a negative consequence of Le Corbusier’s original conception. Pessac not only allowed the occupants sufficient latitude to satisfy their needs, by doing so it also helped them to realize what those needs were.”[2] “The project’s strong identity absorbs almost anything.”[3] An observer can discern the features of the original structure from the changes that were made to it (Huxtable). Even though the structures designed by Le Corbusier are not being used in his original intention as a “machine to live in”[4] they are successful in the fact that adapted and assimilated well.  The project is a true expression of how life and art accommodate each other.


After World War II, there was a renewed sense of progressivism in industry.  The 1939 World’s Fair, held an exhibition with the theme of “Building a Better Future”.  The General Motors building exhibit featured the utopian creation designed by Norman Bel Geddes.  Futurama, as it was called, looked at the concurrent traffic and congestion problems of the 1930s and tried to fix it with a plan for 1960. The exhibit constructed an ideological agenda through streamlining, which was “intended to soothe the tensions between the rich and poor and between labor and capital by suggesting harmonious slum-free society sustained by commercialized science and technology.”[5] Geddes’s Futurama was a diorama covering 36,000 square feet featuring sparse examples of futuristic innovations such as scientific orchards, a giant power dam, and a fourteen-lane superhighway system and a Le Corbusian metropolis (Henthorn).

Although GM used Geddes’ model to promote their business and never intended to make it a reality, he wanted his vision be fulfilled. Geddes tried for years to get support for his vision of utopia but it was never realized.  However, the urban freeway and the idea of a city structured for the use of automobiles were both taken from Geddes’ model. “Indeed, two seminal documents of US government freeway policy at this time…did not copy Bel Geddes’ schemes, [but] they did propose massive freeway construction in and around the cores of America’s central cities.”[6] The ideological theories of using the freeway system to have a cleansed city—free of slums—was never actualized but the idea of creating the highway system to ease congestion was.


Looking for new ways, fix the problem of class division and pressure of growth in Brazil in the 1950s, the idea of Brasília was formed.  The city served to open the center of Brazil to new development, relieve the pressure of growth from the burdened old Capital Rio de Janeiro, and create a renewed sense of Nation pride by building a modern twenty first century city (Oscar). Niemeyer didn’t want his city to be a “recreation, on the Brazilian plateau, of an equivalent to the bourgeois life of Ipanema or Leblon, but the creation of something new, egalitarian, and powerful, with its roots in a shared sense of adversity.”[7] Brasília’s plan, designed by the urbanist Lúcio Costa, is shaped like a bird or an airplane (Williams 123). It’s wings, contain fifteen km of residential buildings and are bisected by a five km Monumental Axis containing the seat of government, the president’s office, the ministries, the national theater, and the bus station (124).

The city was never discarded as unusable, but there are many critiques to the design. The most common critique was that “civic life is something it conspicuously lacks and that its absence is a conspicuous failure.” [8] This is meant that the city seemed to alienate the people living in it. A further issue as Niemeyer recognized in 1963, was that the city exacerbated the social problems it was supposed to solve (131). The city’s spatial arrangement imposed a brutal regime on the poor, obliging them to live far from the center in a semi legal periphery and to endure a long and painful commute (131). There is evidence, as well, that the city “increasingly reproduces the bourgeois civic life that it was supposed to replace.” [9] But the city is successful in the way that it gave Brazil a striking, new capital to equate Brazil with industrialized and developed countries.


As the world kept developing, and we became aware of the issues involved with wasting resources there came a need to consider environmentally friendly ways of living. The Cosanti Foundation began building Arcosanti, an experimental town in the high desert of Arizona in 1970 (Arcosanti). Arcosanti is based on the concept of arcology (architecture + ecology), which was developed by Italian architect Paolo Soleri. An arcology, is the integration of the built and the living, so that they act “as organs would in a highly evolved being. This means many systems work together, with efficient circulation of people and resources, multi-use buildings, and solar orientation for lighting, heating and cooling.”[10] Arcosanti was designed to house 5000 people, have compact structures and solar greenhouses that would occupy 25 acres of a 4060-acre land preserve.

While the city provides a good place for the discussion of environmentally friendly ways of building and living, the city for the most part is a dud. At the present stage, “about 3% of the city has been built in the last 30 years, and about 70 people, not 5,000, live there.”[11] Instead of being a city for people to live with the land, it is instead, an educational site where people can learn the architectural “building techniques and arcological philosophy, while continuing the city’s construction”[12] as well as create the clay bells that Soleri is known for.  The lack of funding is a major component of what kept this project from developing further but the city is still successful in the way of teaching strategies that one could use to create a more environmentally friendly city, providing working examples of these structures and giving a place where nature and people come together to have a full community.

Faced with countless societal problems that for the most part are never fully solved, designers have tried to find ways to make a more enjoyable society for everyone.  These concepts, based on the ideologies of the designer, are frequently presented in the form of utopian societies achieved through the structure of architecture.  But the idea of a utopian society is a set up for failure, due to a steady variable: human nature.  It is human nature that accounts for the downfalls, as well as the advancement of society.  Without this variable, there would be no advances that lead us to better societies. Although utopian societies will not be the solution to our problems, designing them is an important step that allows us to take the successful parts and use them to get closer to the overall betterment of society.




Works Cited


“Arcosanti : Project.” Arcosanti: Home. (accessed April 17, 2011).


Ellis, Cliff ‘Lewis Mumford and Norman Bel Geddes: the highway, the city and the future’, Planning Perspectives, 20:1, 51 – 68


Henthorn, Cynthia Lee. “Weapons of Mass Persuasion.” In From submarines to suburbs: selling a better America, 1939-1959. Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 2006. 47-49.


Huxtable, Ada Louise. “LE CORBUSIER’S HOUSING PROJECT- FLEXIBLE ENOUGH TO ENDURE.” The New York Times (New York City), March 15, 1981. (accessed March 28, 2011).


“Oscar Niemeyer – Brasilia – The Capital of Brazil ::” architecture online – arcspace is an architecture and design magazine that features today’s most creative projects as well as the most influential of the past.. (accessed March 28, 2011).


Steffen, Alex. “Worldchanging: Bright Green: Recycling Arcosanti.” Worldchanging: Bright Green. (accessed April 18, 2011).


Williams, Richard J.. “Modernist Civic Space and the Case of Brasília.” Journal of Urban History 32, no. 120 (2005): 120-137.





[5] Henthorn, Cynthia Lee, “Weapons of Mass Persuasion.” 47-49.

[6] Ellis, Cliff, ‘Lewis Mumford and Norman Bel Geddes: the highway, the city and the future’, 51 – 68

[7] Williams, Richard J., Modernist Civic Space and the Case of Brasília, 129

[8] Williams, Richard J., Modernist Civic Space and the Case of Brasília, 121

[9] Williams, Richard J., Modernist Civic Space and the Case of Brasília, 131

[10] “Arcosanti : Project.”

[11] Steffen, Alex. “Worldchanging: Bright Green: Recycling Arcosanti.”

[12] “Arcosanti : Project.”

“Advertising Through Spectacle”

Posted: April 25th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Uncategorized | No Comments »

The World’s Fair, which was invented in 1851, looked to bring countries together by sharing their technologies and manufactured products. As time progressed, the fairs became more about the future and utopian themes. These fantastical displays were funded by large corporations who could make the World’s Fair creators dreams a reality. However, this also fueled a more capitalist based focus and gave the Fair commercial-based undertones. In the 1939 New York World’s Fair, GM’s “Futurama” concepts took off with ideas for the future that were entirely unimaginable for its time. While selling and presenting this idea, General Motors and other participating companies in this particular Fair intended to sell their name by creating spectacular concepts which would be memorable to visitors. This was accomplished often by inviting visitors to understand the workings of a company’s product. The display of the process taken by companies such as GM became more than an educational device, it was in essence a way of advertising and masking their corporate agendas through dazzling displays for the brand to sell themselves to viewers.

Ford Cycle of Production was one of the larger attractions of the Fair. Ford created a turntable 100ft in diameter weighing 152 tons which floated in twenty thousand gallons of water. The grand invention told the “story of how the automobile industry spreads employment” and traced the raw materials from their origins to the making of the car. It intended to demonstrate how machinery makes cars at affordable prices and also creates jobs. The countless amounts of people who saw this a day generally did not come away from the exhibition remembering all they learned from the process that was revealed. What they did recall was the great manifestation of such a large display¹. By awing the crowd with this seemingly futuristic technology, Ford successfully plants a positive association with their brand and the future. According to Meikle, “most…delighted in the mechanics and scope of the display itself…each display functioned as an advertisement intended to leave vague impressions of a corporation’s enterprise and public beneficence1.” What Ford created for the World’s Fair was more of an advertisement to sell their company name than an actual educational device. In other words, though the public was happily whisked away by the extravagant displays, there still remained the sponsor’s underlying corporate agendas. In Henthorn’s words, “Business sponsors offered to solve social problems with a superficial, commercial outlook, attempting to showcase the moral fiber underlying the faceless corporation marked with a less than honest reputation.2” GM as well as the rest of the big corporations involved interwove themselves into this vision of the future simply to further their own profit-driven incentives.

Another example of a process made into spectacle at the World’s Fair was the Chrysler Pavilion of 1964. The Pavilion consisted of five islands linked by bridges which were set in a six acre lake. Four of the islands portrayed different aspects of Chrysler’s work such as engineering, production, styling, and operations while the fifth contained a large theater for a continuously running puppet show. Sights included a 100 foot long engine with a dragon as a crank shaft, a zoo of metallic monsters and a giant rocket on the lake3. One of the main attractions of the Pavilion was the assembly line ride. Visitors would ride in suspended car bodies with mechanical workers lining the loop which immersed them in the process of assembling the Chrysler car. These over-the-top, futuristic creations generally had the intention of displaying how parts of a car worked, such as the working engine one could walk in to or the ‘car of the future’ which allowed viewers to examine the car from below. The pavilion’s “educational and merchandising aspects were generally disguised within an amusement park sensibility.4” While a few visitors may have learned a thing or two about cars, the Chrysler Pavilion was more like a carnival of sorts that dazzled visitors and remind them of how innovative and grandiose Chrysler was, thus selling its brand. Again, Chrysler was one of many businesses involved in the exposition “designed from the get-go as a commercial enterprise for both itself and its exhibitors.5” The 1964 World’s Fair “served as a pronounced endorsement of American-style consumer capitalism³” more than any other Fair had in the past. Chrysler, along with other big names, used this Fair as an opportunity to market itself.

Though it is not part of any World’s Fair, Epcot’s Test Track at Walt Disney World is a ride sponsored by General Motors that opened in 1999 which had the exact same notion as Ford and Chrysler of selling itself through impressive technology and sensational experiences. Test Track simulates an excursion through the procedures GM uses for testing its vehicles. It takes one through all sorts of testing for tires, car doors, an anechoic chamber, environmental chambers with temperatures as high as 110F and as low as 10F, and also a corrosion chamber. Riders are also exposed to different road surfaces and wind through a cone course with the anti-lock braking system off and then on. After experiencing a near collision with an oncoming semi-truck, riders are sped around a track at 65 MPH, making it the fastest Disney theme park attraction ever built6. This is once again an example of turning something educational into something of a marvel. Those who ride the Test Track may be exposed to the processes of how GM tests their vehicle, but what matters most is the wow factor of the fast ride and thrilling elements. Riders leave the park remembering that GM is something special in comparison to other car companies. As it did in the World’s Fair, GM uses Walt Disney World as a way to make profit off of the public. Walt Disney World is vaguely similar to a World’s Fair in that it holds an idea of Utopianism through splendor. This idea, however, is slightly tainted once more by the corporate motives of GM to use this ride as a way to commercialize themselves.

A more recent example of using process and spectacle to advertise is the Oil Pavilion at the 2010 Exposition in Shanghai. This Pavilion was created by three of China’s oil industrial giants: China National Petroleum Corporation, China Petrochemical Corporation, and China National Offshore Oil Corporation. The exhibit focuses largely on oil’s role and importance to the city and human civilization in the past, present, and future and follows the Expo’s theme of “better city, better life7”. The first section, “Driving Wheel of Human Civilization”, explains the genesis of petroleum and its significance in the rapid development of cities. “Indispensable in Modern Life” then delves into the relationship of petroleum to everything in our modern world and its omnipresence in our life. Lastly, “Serve a Better Future” stresses the trends of petroleum and petrochemical industries going technology intensive, environmentally friendly and producing low carbon. It ends on the note of “…extend[ing] the city dream of a green life.8” While the Oil Pavilion presents all of these ideas in a smooth and clear manner, the real attraction is the exterior of the Pavilion itself. The rectangular block is entirely covered in a four thousand square meter electronic screen which shows videos and changes patterns based on music played by the near by spring. The dazzling awe-inspiring structure has won two Guinness World Records for the triangular LED screen which is the world’s largest screen using polycarbonate sheet technology and for the Four Dimensional film “Oil Dream” that runs on the screen. Regardless of the ingenuity of the actual information of the exhibit itself, this wondrous structure caught the eyes of millions of visitors and definitely left an impact on all who went. The oil companies involved in this project has received considerable recognition for this future-forward technology thus advertising their brand exactly as they meant to. What they obviously fail to mention in these awe-inspiring exhibits, however, are all of the negative implications of continuing to use oil as we do. These oil companies paint the image of a better, greener future involving oil, while “most energy experts consider the eventual peak and decline of world oil production to be an inevitable reality,9” along with a good majority of the rest of the world. Regardless of the facts, the oil companies involved attempt to weave oil into the idea of a “better city, better life” and use fantastical displays to accomplish this.

Each display discussed returns back to the idea of presenting a sort of process or understanding of their company’s and field’s workings. They all do so in a grand, sensational manner with the intent of leaving an impression on those experiencing the space to remember who it was that presented it. The Ford Cycle of Production displayed their origins and workings on a scale of something that had never been imagined before, while the Chrysler Pavilion caught people’s attention with the extraordinary spectrum of attractions like the giant car, large engine, and assembly line ride. The Fast Track by GM invented an exciting and thrilling way of experiencing their car testing, and the Oil Pavilion utilized the newest technology available to ensnare visitors with their large LED displays and lights. The examples listed all demonstrate businesses’ underlying tones of corporate agendas intending to sell their brand with the spectacle of their creations, and while they attempt to imply involvement in bettering society as a whole the reality of their intent is solely commercially based.

1Jeffrey L. Meikle, “Twentieth Century Limited: Industrial Design in America, 1925-1939”, p.199

2Cynthia Lee Henthorn, “From Submarines to Suburbs”, p.47

3Editors of Time-Life Books, “Official Guide New York World’s Fair 1964/1965”, p.214

4Ileen Sheppard, “Remembering the Future”, p. 174

5Lawrence R. Samuel, “The end of the Innocence”, p. xx

6Wikipedia, <>

7Expo 2010 Shanghai China Pavilion Archive <>

8Oil Pavilion of 2010 Expo <>

9John Collins Rudolf, “German Military Braces for Scarcity after ‘Peak Oil’”, The New York Times <>


Also, a video of the Oil Pavilion:


Works Cited

Henthorn, Cynthia Lee. “Business’s Hygienic Counterpoint.” From Submarines to Suburbs: Selling a Better America, 1939-1959. Athens, OH: Ohio UP, 2006. 47. Print.

Meikle, Jeffrey L. “A Microcosm of the Machine-Age World.” Twentieth Century Limited: Industrial Design in America, 1925-1939. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 1979. 199. Print.

“Oil Pavilion of 2010 Expo.” CNPC. China National Petroleum Corporation. Web. 18 Apr. 2011. <>.

“Oil Pavilion – the Official Website of Expo 2010 Shanghai China.” Expo 2010 Shanghai China. Web. 18 Apr. 2011. <>.

Rudolf, John Collins. “Study Warns of Finite Oil and Economic Crisis –” Energy and Environment – Green Blog – The New York Times, 9 Sept. 2010. Web. 18 Apr. 2011. < perilous-oil-crisis/>.

Samuel, Lawrence R. Introduction. The End of the Innocence: the 1964-1965 New York World’s Fair. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse UP, 2007. Xx. Print.

Sheppard, Ileen. “Icons and Images: The Cultural Legacy of the 1964/65 World’s Fair.” Remembering the Future: the New York World’s Fair from 1939-1964. New York: Rizzoli, 1989. 174. Print.

“Transportation Area.” Official Guide, New York World’s Fair, 1964-1965. New York: Time, 1964. 214-16. Print.

Wilkins, George. “Test Track.” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Web. 18 Apr. 2011. <>.



“Change Society”

Posted: April 25th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Uncategorized | No Comments »

Change is the key word to stand by when anything is being designed. Whether the design is directed towards an entire country or simply a personal item, focusing on economic, social, and environmental costs should all be the driving factor, rather than producing based on consumerism. However, with industrialization, designers naturally support industries and help the sales of goods, through the shaping and packaging of consumer products in order to appeal to a buying public. Many designers have questioned this role of simply serving industry and are reconsidering what design should focus on now. American journalist and author, Warren Berger said, “What design actually can do, it can solve problems on a case-by-case basis around the world. As it does that, it changes the world, because it changes the reality for people wherever the situation is happening.” [1] Thus, all design should focus on changing society rather than producing wasteful and obsolete goods to stimulate demand.

When design does not intend to change society it persuades people to buy things they don’t need.  In the late 1900s, Ken Garland explained it as an “empty drive of consumer culture.” [2] Garland declared that there should be a change in both priorities and purpose, and that a good designer should make their works useful to the public, while also addressing educational, informational, and practical needs. [3] When this does not take place, excessive waste is created. In Made to Break by Slade, Giles it is stated: “In 2005, 100 million cell phones were discarded in the United States, which produced 50,000 tons of reusable equipment, and another 200,000 tons for dismantle and disposal in regards to PCs.” [4] Therefore, design should change society now more than ever. Since consideration of economy, environment, health, and safety has been put on the backburner for so long, it is the designer’s job to not only focus on positive change but also attempt to make up for the time and resources that have been lost.

Companies such as Brita are performing in this way. In 1966 Heinz Hankammer understood that water is our key source to life but that impurities needed to be removed in order for it to be an even healthier resource. [5] In the process of designing a filter that would remove these harmful impurities, Hankammer examined the AquaDeMat filters in garages throughout Europe that dematerialized water for car batteries. From this he was able to create a filter that is now the basis of any Brita product. Hankammer investigated and designed products with the intent of positive change. Along with that he already had a solution in support of the green movement that would come a few years later.  According to the Brita’s official site, today, “One Brita pitcher filter can effectively replace as many as 300 standard 16.9-ounce bottles. One Brita faucet filter can effectively replace as many as 750 standard 16.9-ounce bottles.” [6] By producing and selling reusable water filter products, whether that is a pitcher or a single water bottle, it is evident that consumerism was not the fundamental idea on which Brita items are built on, but is a result of people desiring to take advantage of the change.

Project H Design, started out with a small vision of change that led to larger, unexpected, changes along the way. Emile Pilloton desired to improve a poor education system in a rural, run-down area known as Bertie County. Now it is a newly designed community. “Design for social change,” is Project H’s design attitude so the team implemented design aspects in numerous ways through the school system which could then be used as a vehicle for community development. [7] Three aspects are focused on: design for education, redesign education itself, and design as education. All of these changed, and are still changing, the Bertie community for better. With recycled materials, the school was physically renovated, and teaching materials were renewed. Then, Project H considered how the school was being administrated and to whom. Fundraisers were held to provide a computer for every home that has a child in school.  Next, Project H asked how the school could be a catalyst for the community. Finally, students were assigned projects that reached outside of the school’s walls. The projects are directed towards things that the community needs. In woodshop, for example, students conduct research, design concepts, then build and test projects that will be put into the community. In three years, they plan to complete an open-air farmers’ market, shelters for the school’s bus systems, and improve homes for the elderly.  Summer jobs are offered and the students are even invited to be employees with Project H. The change of this community started with one design team that wanted to better the education in their hometown. When designers sincerely start with “changing society” as their motivation a chain reaction naturally occurs and inspires others around them to do the same.

Antenna Design started, as many do, with a hypothetical, “blue sky” proposal for a public space intervention concept in 2005 for New York City called the Sidewalk Series. It aims to improve the lives of those who reside in the city by installing furniture and fixtures on the streets, sidewalks, in parks, and around buildings. Antenna’s goal is to encourage people to step outside of their daily routines and interact “either between the artifact and people or amongst people mediated by the artifact.” [8] The Hugging Tree is an example of an interaction between the artifact and people. In a park-like area, “arms” would be installed on various trees, then when someone approached it, the tree would embrace and comfort the person. The Sidewalk Exchange shows how furniture would initiate interaction between people. Seats are installed on a wall with a chalkboard above each on which people write a message in order to initiate a conversation. As a result of these exchanges, the city would be connected and shaped by these spaces, and they would become a normal part of the urban experience. Through this project, designers focused on figuring out ways for people to break away from the stressful chaos that comes with urban life by encouraging residents to interact with the people and environment around them.

In 2009, with the collaboration of frog design and other firms, HIV/AIDS and TB epidemics in South Africa have been effectively addressed using mobile technology. After extensive research, the different firms created Project Masiluleke, meaning, “lend a helping hand.” Frog design claims it to be the most successful attempt yet in conquering the worst HIV epidemic in KwaZulu Natal, South Africa where more than 40 percent are infected. Since almost 90 percent of people in South Africa own a mobile device, Project M has used the technology to its advantage. As stated on their website, it encourages the “use of low-cost diagnostic test kits; to walk patients through the at-home testing process; and to guide people into care should they need it and encourage healthy preventative behaviors if they don’t.” [9] By designing a system that allows users to be tested and informed of results discretely, more were eager to respond.  The Economist said “This campaign helped triple the average daily call volume to the National AIDS Helpline, encouraging more than 150,000 people to reach out for information.” [10] These firms changed South Africa’s society by working with a medium that people already had.  In doing so, the feedback was phenomenal and showed that the best way to get a response from society is by genuinely wanting to help the society.

Jon Kolko, former associate creative director at frog design said, “Good design is design that changes behavior for the better…It encourages us to change the way that we live.” [11] When designers disregard this idea, society is not able to move forward. However, when designing every aspect of a product or system with the motivation to change society, more people are reached, more problems are solved, and fewer resources are wasted. This, then, is the standard of good design.


Works Cited:

“About Us: The Origins Of Brita | Brita.” Brita International. (accessed March 30, 2011).

“Antenna: Projects > Concept.” Antenna: News. (accessed March 6, 2011).

“Brita Water Filters / Dispensers / Faucet Filters: You Can Be Drinking Pure
Water.” Brita International. (accessed March 30, 2011).

Drucker, Johanna, and Emily McVarish. “Pop and Protest.” In Graphic Design History: a critical guide. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2009. 288.

“Jon Kolko On Design That Changes Human Behavior –” Information for the
World’s Business Leaders – (accessed March 6, 2011).

“Project H Design.” Project H Design. (accessed March 6, 2011).

“Project M | frog design.” frog design | Global Innovation. (accessed March 6, 2011).

Slade, Giles. “Introduction.” In Made to Break: technology and obsolescence in America. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2006. 1.

Tanneeru, Manav, and CNN. “Can design change the world? – CNN.” Featured Articles from CNN. (accessed March 6, 2011).

[1] “Can design change the world? – CNN,” Featured Articles from CNN, accessed March 6, 2011,”

[2] Johanna Drucker and Emily McVarish, Graphic Design History: a critical guide, (Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2009), 288.

[3] Drucker and McVarish, Design History, 288.

[4] Giles Slade, Made to Break: technology and obsolescence in America, (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2006), 1.

[5] “About Us: The Origins Of Brita | Brita,” Brita International, accessed March 30, 2011,

[6] “Brita Water Filters / Dispensers / Faucet Filters: You Can Be Drinking Pure Water,” Brita International, accessed March 30, 2011,

[7] “Project H Design,” Project H Design, accessed March 6, 2011,

[8] “Antenna: Projects > Concept,” Antenna: News, accessed March 6, 2011,

[9] “Project M | frog design,” accessed March 6, 2011,

[10] “Project M | frog design.”

[11] “Jon Kolko On Design That Changes Human Behavior –,” Information for the World’s Business Leaders –, accessed March 6, 2011,


Exploitation for Consumption

Posted: April 25th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: spring 2011, Uncategorized | No Comments »

John Millais was a talented artist who lived in the 1800s and was a main part of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. His early art included paintings that were eclectic, compelling, audacious and brightly colored. Over the years, however, his style changed into something much more nostalgic, with darker colors and looser brushwork. Some of Millais’ paintings in his later years were commonly known as “fancy pictures”, a genre of art in which “sentiment takes precedence over evolved narrative.” Emotive paintings such as these became popular during the eighteenth century; at the same time, Enlightenment philosophers were exploring newfound ideas of childhood innocence. Previously thought of as being born into sin, children were starting to be viewed in a different light—they became symbols of hope, innocence and joy.(Smith 125) The Victorian era brought different connotations to the idea of the fancy picture. The corruption found in sexual exploitation and child labor made the concept of the fancy picture a paradox of a sort, illustrating emotion, while also conveying anxiety.

The painting Bubbles by Millais was a good example of these notions and ideas.(Drucker and McVarish 157) Millais originally created this oil painting in 1886, when he was at the peak of his fame. He used his grandson, Willie James, as his model. In Bubbles, the young boy is illustrated holding a bowl of soap suds and a pipe. The young, chubby boy is also seen staring up at a large bubble with an expression of wonder and awe. Bubbles (and its copyright) were bought from Millais by William Ingram in 1886. Ingram was the owner of the Illustrated London News and published Bubbles in the Christmas edition of the magazine in 1887. Thomas Barratt, the managing director of A & F Pears was a clever individual and believed in forceful marketing techniques. Barratt bought the image and its copyrights from Ingram with the idea of turning it into an advertisement for Pears’ Soap. Barratt wanted to create a link between the beautiful child, innocence, purity, and cleanliness, therefore convincing the consumer to buy the product. (Smith 184) In order to do this, however, he had to change certain things about the image. Barratt added in a bar of soap at the bottom of the painting, and added in the text “Pears’ Soap” at the top of the image. By doing so, Barratt successfully created an advertisement by using a sentimental image of a child, provoking an emotional link in the viewer’s mind. This usage of children in advertisements has continued to play a large part in marketing since the 1800s. Since then, large companies such as Merck and Gerber Products Company have used this technique, and arguably even exploited children in order to further themselves financially. Over the years, however, the use of children has spun out of control, and the increase of objectification is significantly more noticeable than in the early years of Victorian beliefs.

Small children inspire trust, hope, joy and a multitude of emotions that attract consumers. In the book, Consuming Kids, psychologist David Walsh is quoted by saying, “Emotion focuses attention, determines what we remember, shapes attitudes, motivates, and moves us to act.”(Linn 51) Marketing strategies have been employed in various degrees over the years, but the fine line between displaying the product in a humanly manner and objectifying humans has been blurred.

In 1959, Joyce Ballantyne Brand drew an ad for Coppertone Sunscreen.This ad was to become widely recognizable as the Coppertone girl icon, which is still in use today. Brand was mainly known for her 1940s pin up paintings, depicting childlike-looking girls caught in compromising positions. In a similar concept of pin up girls, Brand drew her daughter; a girl of three years old in blonde pigtails at the beach.(Brand) A black dog is pulling down her blue swimsuit bottom, exposing her bare backside, which is considerably lighter than the rest of her body. Next to the ad, the words “Don’t be a paleface!” are shown in a loose script. The formal qualities of the Coppertone girl ad are similar to Bubbles in the sense that they are both drawn, giving the advertisement a sweet, soft look. Mass production of this image has made it openly famous and easily recognizable.

There is a dramatic difference in the use of children between the time in which Bubbles was used and the 1950s Coppertone girl. The way it is used in the Coppertone ad, although playful, is also visibly provocative and somewhat sexual. The girl’s exposed bottom is suggestive. Additionally, her pose is reminiscent of a pin up girl, and her surprised, angelic expression is also closely linked to the expressions used in pin up girl photographs and paintings. In this ad, there is a visible change in the depiction of children. In past advertisements, like the Pears’ Soap ad, there was a different tone of “innocence”; the Coppertone girl starts to become less childlike and more controversial. Although Coppertone has since then changed the image to make the girl look less sexual, the fact that adult consumers considered this ad “cute” gives insight to the present issue of increasing sexual objectification of children and the audience’s reaction to these types of advertisements.
Love Cosmetics was a company famous in the 70s for their cosmetic products for women. Owned by Menley & James Laboratories, Love Cosmetics had an advertising budget that went over seven million dollars.(Portals) Marketing was mainly geared towards young women, and in 1974, they started producing a line of Baby Soft products, except these were marketed towards adults. These products seemed to be based on the idea of innocence, and the soft smell of baby powder in their products added to this concept. Advertisements on television and print for the line of Baby Soft products portrayed this idea and emphasized a sense of dreamy, sexy innocence conveyed by their products and models. The ads for the line of Love Cosmetics, similar to Bubbles and the Coppertone girl ad, convey a sense of softness and appeal that is parallel to the “sweet and innocent” message they all attempt to convey.

One of these ads portrays a young girl, staring straight at the audience in a sultry manner. Her hand is delicately placed on a stuffed animal that covers a suggestively skimpy outfit. Her face has soft features, with big blue eyes, rosy cheeks and full lips that are reminiscent of a baby’s features. Her hair is light brown and delicately curled, adding to the childlike appearance of the girl in general. The product is shown in the bottom left corner, with an explanation. It describes Love Cosmetics as a “irresistible, clean-baby smell, grown-up enough to be sexy….Pure and innocent. It may well be the sexiest fragrance around.” At the top, the ad reads, “Love’s Baby Soft. Because innocence is sexier than you think.” The text stresses the smell and concept of the product and continues to mention the “innocence” and “sexiness” contained in the scent of the product. The progression of time from when Bubbles was considered controversial to the Coppertone girl, to the 1970s ads for Love Cosmetics, shows the manner in which children are becoming more of an object for display in advertising. Advertising methods are actively crossing lines and becoming increasingly provocative in order to capture the consumer’s attention and sell the product.

Formally, all of the images contain a sense of softness, achieved by hand painting/drawing in advertisements. This style is analogous with both the product it is trying to sell (soap, cream, and perfume) and it also makes the image appear even more childlike and innocent. The Pears’ Soap ad sets the stage for the advertising done later in the 1950s, 1970s, and even today. Advertisements are everywhere and children are becoming commodities as they continue to become mere props for consumption rather than symbols of hope, joy and innocence. Additionally, no one seems to notice the use of these children and the corruption of innocence that is used in order to gain wealth in society today.

Works Cited:

Gallo, Max. Poster in History. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1974.

Irwin, Cheri Brand. “The Artist Behind the Coppertone Girl Ad.” Interview by Madeleine Brand. May 18, 2006. NPR. story/story.php?storyId=5415067.

Linn, Susan. Consuming Kids. New York: The New Press, 2004.

Millais, John Everett. Pears’ Soap Ad. 1886. In Graphic Design History: A Critical Guide, by Johanna Drucker and Emily McVarish. Upper Saddle River:

Pearson Prentice Hall, 2009.

Rosenfeld, Jason, Alison Smith, and Heather Birchall. Millais. Millbank: Tate Publishing, 2007.

XI Lifestyle Portals. “Love Cosmetics.” Beauty Tips Hub.

Inherently Good Design

Posted: April 25th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: spring 2011, Uncategorized | No Comments »

Throughout history and society, it has been a recurring element that those select few who bear specialized knowledge and skills regarding a specific subject hold the greatest power and influence over the masses. These groups of people fall under the category of elitism—a word that carries both positive and negative connotations. While it can be argued relentlessly over whether elitism is “good” or “bad”, there is no denying that it exists. According to Jeffrey Meikle in his book, Design in the USA, “’Good design’ simply denotes the tastes and aspirations of a particular elite at a particular time.” [1] However, while elitists do exist within the realm of design, they alone do not dictate what good design encompasses nor do they force a prescription for the masses. Good design can be inherently good through its progressive ideas, usability, and engaging discourse between designers and consumers.

Meikle’s provocative words beg the question: what is good design? Is it even definable in a way that utilizes objectivity? Whether something can even be labeled as such remains so controversial because opinions differ and will always remain subjective. However, it must be established that good design is unquantifiable on a purely aesthetic level; instead, it should be viewed as a progressive idea whose value is determined by the strength of its argument. For example, upon purchasing a reusable water bottle, there are a myriad of varying designs to choose from. Some have straws, others are made out of aluminum, but ultimately they all encompass the singular idea of a portable water system. It is an argument for getting water from the tap to the mouth [2], and through this human necessity for water, the idea of the water bottle is given the opportunity to evolve and progress in order to fit the needs of the consumer.

Furthermore, much like an infinite limit, the concept of good design is never final, but is something that is always being worked toward as a goal by designers. The way ideas continue to progress and become better design is not through an elite group of people, but through the discourse between the designer with specialized knowledge and the consumer who interacts with the idea behind the product. This dialogue comes in the form of action and response—the action being a designer’s idea or argument translated into some form and the response being the feedback from the consumer regarding the usability of the object. The combination of the two allows the designer to incorporate the criticism of the consumer into future design, thus creating better design. This is the reason why companies such as Apple and Adobe constantly update their products and interfaces to the point where some find it irritating. Because they bear specialized knowledge that the average person would not have, these corporations must be responsible for complying and responding to the needs of the customer. When the action is sold before considering the response, only then is elitism criticized of controlling the tastes and trends of good design. Otherwise, how could elitism dictate design trends when ultimately designers should be creating with the consumers in mind?

However, it is not to say that exceptions do not exist. Two designers, Don Chadwick and Bill Stumpf, designed an ergonomic chair made out of flexible mesh for Herman Miller: the Aeron chair. Because of its unfamiliar form, the initial response to the design was terrible—those testing the chair criticized it for everything that it wasn’t supposed to be. They described it as “uncomfortable and alien” [3], even after the great amount of ergonomic research put into the design. However, with continued persistence, over time the testers began to like the Aeron chair more and more—but even so, it was not up to Herman Miller standards. Still, they stuck by the design and released it regardless, and luckily, the response from the consumers was extremely positive. In this case, the action seems to have been sold before the response, but it wasn’t as if the consumers were completely disregarded; a great amount of research was put into the design to make it as comfortable as possible for the human body. Needless to say, there are exceptions to everything. While the question on whether good design is achieved still remains, designers strive to reach closer to the answer through the improvement and evolution of ideas through conversation with the consumer, making the standards of good design a collective, rather than elitist, effort.

During the mid-20th century, modern design continued to flourish. However, much opposition arose, claiming that it was unfair for an elite group to force a certain prescription on the masses that didn’t fit everyone’s personal tastes. This was especially evident during the Museum of Modern Art’s 1949 exhibition entitled Good Design—a collection of modern household products that sought to reach out to American consumers and retailers. The name of the showcase alone sparked much controversy, as many took the title as the elitists’ pretentious, end-all-be-all label to the products displayed.

Edgar J. Kaufmann was highly criticized for his exhibition because he and a choice jury—all of whom carry strong backgrounds in design—made the selections. Meikle writes, “Although Larsen [a textile designer who supported the MoMA collection] affectionately referred to MoMA as the ‘mother church’ of modern design, that phrase suggested an institution that was setting and enforcing standards to control design’s explosive velocity. That is precisely what Kaufmann and MoMA were all about.” [4] However, it is not safe to assume that Kaufmann believed that his exhibition was the final say in what was to be considered good design because once again, good design is ever evolving and never final. The name Good Design was provocative, challenging the consumer to refute or at least question, “What is good design?” The controversy of the exhibition title allowed for discourse between the customer and the designer, and this was the intention of Kaufmann upon creation of Good Design. Good Design became the action, and the consumer feedback, the response. Furthermore, it was necessary to set a standard by labeling products as Good Design because otherwise, we would not be able to differentiate the good from the bad without anything to compare it with. If that were the case, then the conversation necessary for the progression of ideas would never occur.

Terrence Riley and Edward Eigen, in their article Between the Museum and the Marketplace: Selling Good Design, reiterate that, “The ultimate goals of this complex strategy…were to inform consumers and manufacturers about modern design products.” [5] And while many believed that the masses took on a completely passive role and were force-fed opinions from elitists, that was not the case. One of the most important functions of the Good Design showcase was the incorporation of the public opinion into the exhibition. The visitors would rate the pieces through polls taken at each door, and the results were distributed amongst the public. Kaufmann stressed that Good Design would provide impetus for designers to further progress their original ideas and arguments so that better design could be achieved. Once again, action and response is utilized to involve the consumer’s opinion, and thus, the status quo is not directed by elitism alone, but rather a collective group. Without the specialization, research, and impetus, a consensus on good design could never exist.

Not only in Good Design, but the importance of the notion of discourse between designer and consumer transcends even past modernism. Ettore Sottsass was an Italian designer active in the late 20th century who crafted the Carlton Bookcase. At first glance, it is easy to overly criticize this interesting furniture design. Not only is it extremely pricey, but also physically does not mimic the every day bookshelf. Its angled walls and unconventional composition prompt the consumer to think, “That’s not a bookshelf!” But upon that realization, they then wonder, “Wait, what is a bookshelf?” Radical designs such as Sottsass’s bookshelf appear to be another iteration of an elitist forcing a specific prescribed taste to an audience, but what it really does is stimulate conversation and idea between the designer and the people for whom they are designing. It challenges the audience to redefine a social norm and therefore redefine how to interact with the object. The Aeron chair example from earlier communicates this notion precisely—its supposedly “alien” form allowed consumers to redefine their idea of a chair’s form, and as a result, understand the design and designer better.  Ideas and insight behind products that initially seem elitist end up becoming catalysts that advance the world of good design.

There is no denying that elitism exists, and will always exist—especially in design. That is not to say, however, that it is the sole dictation of what defines good design. Good design is inherently good through its progressive ideas and communication with the populace. With exhibitions such as Good Design as well as catalytic designs that stimulate the minds of the consumer, evolution within design becomes infinite, and we are able to reach closer and closer to the holy grail of “good design”. According to Paola Antonelli, the Senior Curator of Architecture and Design at MoMA, “Sometimes objects are not immediately functional. They’re not to be sat upon, or to be used to eat, or to be used to turn on the volume. Sometimes objects just deliver emotions or are just part of your life. That’s also enough.” [6]

[1] Jeffrey Meikle, Design in the USA.

[2] Peter Hall, A Good Argument, p. 75.

[3] Malcom Gladwell, Blink.

[4] Jeffrey Meikle, Design in the USA, p. 148.

[5] Terrence Riley and Edward Eigen, Between the Museum and the Marketplace: Selling Good Design, p. 152.

[6] Paola Antonelli, What makes good design?, (video).

Works Cited

Antonelli, Paola. “What makes good design?” February 19, 2008. Big Think.

Gladwell, Malcom. Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 2005.

Hall, Peter. “A Good Argument.” Metropolis, March 2009, 73-75.

Meikle, Jeffrey L. Design in the USA. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Riley, Terence, and Edward Eigen. Between the Museum and the Marketplace: Selling Good Design. New York, 1994.

“The Cultural Spread of Design”

Posted: April 22nd, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: spring 2011 | No Comments »

At the turn of the 20th century, Glasgow was called the second city of the British Empire for its size and influence. Its location on the River Clyde made it an ideal port, and significant cross-fertilization occurred as a result. The end of Japan’s isolationism allowed their influence to reach Britain, and designers like Charles Rennie Mackintosh embraced Japanese aesthetics. The style eventually became widespread, but initially went against the then-popular idea that quality of workmanship could be measured through level of ornament. Designers like Mackintosh combined incoming Japanese influences with their own sensibilities, seeking beauty of form through simplicity and geometry. Japonism, or Japan’s influence on Western art, was predominant during this time, and countless designers became enamored with the Japanese use of clean lines and simplistic elegance. A look into Japanese-inspired furniture design around this period offers great insight at the style’s pervasiveness.

Mackintosh, Charles Rennie. Willow Chair. 1904. In Modernism in Art, Design and Architecture, by Christopher Crouch. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1999.

In 1904, Catherine Cranston, more commonly known as Miss Cranston, commissioned Charles Rennie Mackintosh to design in full her “Willow Tea Rooms.” Located in Glasgow, the business was intended to be a hub for socialization that was affordable yet refined, and was touted as an establishment for “ladies and gentlemen.” Tearooms were beginning to appear at the same time as Cranston’s, but many others were costly. The combined atmosphere and accessibility of Cranston’s made hers the most successful.

Because he was situated in the port city of Glasgow, Mackintosh held a multi-cultural perspective. Mackintosh was an avid collector of Japanese wood block prints, and held an interest in the country’s culture. When devising the Tea Rooms, Mackintosh applied principles of Japanese design. These applications can be observed especially well in the “Willow chair” he designed for the Tea Rooms. While the chair isn’t without visual complexity, Mackintosh avoided the carved ornamentation that was popular with the Arts and Crafts movement at the time. He instead employed simple formal elements as building blocks for a more intricate design. The pattern on the chair’s back represents a willow tree, referencing the name of the Tea Rooms. Mackintosh made use of linearity and basic geometric shapes to imply the form, boiling down his idea to simplest terms instead of depicting it literally. The result of this was an economical yet elegant design.

19th century single-panel screen. Koizumi, Kazuko. In Traditional Japanese Furniture . Tokyo: Kodansha International, 1986. Google Books.

As Kazuko Koizumi states in Traditional Japanese Furniture, the aesthetics of Japanese furniture are simple in nature and echo “the rectilinear, exposed post-and-beam structural joinery of Japanese architecture.” These elements are clearly manifested in a late 19th century single-panel screen that appears in Koizumi’s book. While the designer of the screen is unknown, it is a fair representation of the traditional Japanese furniture style. The piece implements straight lines with little deviation from its rigid linearity. As in Mackintosh’s Willow Chair, motif is created through line rather than explicit ornamentation. This is seen in the latticework typical of much Japanese furniture design.

Another common thread in both Mackintosh’s work and this one is attention to finish. Surface treatment is a defining aspect of Japanese furniture design. The ebonized wood of Mackintosh’s chair and the staining of the Japanese screen each increase their elegance without over-embellishment. And though this specific screen was not, it was common to ebonize, or stain wood to be black like ebony, in traditional Japanese furniture design.

Edward W. Godwin Anglo-Japanese Sideboard. Ehlrich, Doreen. In Frank Lloyd Wright: Interior Style & Design. Philadelphia, PA: Running Press Book Publishers, 2003. Accessed February 23, 2011. Google Books.

English architect-designer Edward William Godwin gained prominence before Mackintosh designed the Willow chair, but parallels can easily be drawn between the two. Though he was never able to travel to Japan, Godwin experienced a similar influx of influences as Mackintosh did as Japanese isolationism ended. Godwin was also an avid collector of woodblock prints and other Japanese artifacts starting from the mid 19th century, and he stated that many of his designs were “more or less founded on Japanese principles.” He, too, strived for economy in design. He initially produced furniture for his own use, desiring it to be simple and functional rather than ornate.

Godwin’s most famous piece is likely the Anglo-Japanese sideboard. It has been reproduced many times since its initial in 1867. The piece of furniture is comprised of rectilinear forms and straight lines. Its simplified latticework is much like that of Japanese screens, such as in the aforementioned single-panel screen. Like Mackintosh, Godwin ebonized the piece in emulation of Japanese surface finishes.

Frank Lloyd Wright. Bookshelf. Ehlrich, Doreen. In Frank Lloyd Wright: Interior Style & Design. Philadelphia, PA: Running Press Book Publishers, 2003. Accessed February 23, 2011. Google Books.

Frank Lloyd Wright was another figure affected by Japonism in the early 20th century. Wright visited Japan in 1905, and his early furniture design is reflective of how the country’s aesthetics affected his sensibilities. Wright’s oak-paneled bookshelf was included in the G. C. Stockman house, built in 1908, and took inspiration from Japanese design in several aspects. It utilized “harmonious proportions” and excluded “carved ornamentation.” It was also comprised almost entirely of rectilinear forms. His use of line is especially reminiscent of traditional Japanese screens and panels. And although the bookshelf’s stain is not distinctly Japanese, his treatment of the surface of the piece embellishes it in spite of its relative simplicity.  Some of Wright’s other early furniture, such as a china cabinet, was built into the original plan or structure of the G. C. Stockman house. This built-in approach to furniture was common in Japanese homes and directly emulated by Wright.

Frank Lloyd Wright. Dinner Cabinet. Ehlrich, Doreen. In Frank Lloyd Wright: Interior Style & Design. Philadelphia, PA: Running Press Book Publishers, 2003. Accessed February 23, 2011. Google Books.

In Frank Lloyd Wright: Interior Style & Design, author Doreen Ehlrich states that Wright was a collector of Japanesewoodblock prints, and that he “had studied the refined proportions and use of natural materials in representations of houses” from the prints even before visiting Japan in person. It is also likely that Wright was drawn to Japanese aesthetics because their ideals so closely aligned with his own preferences. Wright favored elegant geometric designs without ornament, referring to his own ideal as “distinguished simplicity.” This philosophy, too, closely relates to the formal qualities of Mackintosh’s Willow chair, and Wright is widely considered to be a contemporary of Mackintosh by scholars.

The opening of communications in the late 19th to early 20th centuries between the world and Japan sparked an entire wave of design that became extremely pervasive. The exchange between the world and the previously isolated country challenged previous notions of quality design. Designers digested unfamiliar art and artifacts, and many took inspiration from them. The fresh cultural perspective dictated their resulting work, sometimes throughout their lifetime. By examining this highly specific cross-section of design influence during a narrow span of time, we can gain interesting insight into the way in which design thought is transmitted and exchanged globally.

Works Cited

Buchanan, William. Mackintosh’s Masterwork: the Glasgow School of Art.
Piscataway, NY: Rutgers University Press, 2004. Accessed February 23, 2011.
Google Books.

Crawford, Alan. Charles Rennie Mackintosh. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1995.
Ehlrich, Doreen. Frank Lloyd Wright: Interior Style & Design. Philadelphia, PA:
Running Press Book Publishers, 2003. Accessed February 23, 2011. Google

Koizumi, Kazuko. Traditional Japanese Furniture. Tokyo: Kodansha International,
1986. Google Books.

Soros, Susan Weber. E. W. Godwin: Aesthetic Movement Architect and Designer.
New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 1999. Accessed February 23,
2011. Google Books.