Is Irony Killing Design?


Tim Parsons



...or is irony being incorrectly attributed to the glut of kitsch objects that continue to jump out from the pages of our Sunday supplements? What defines an ironic object and a kitsch one and how can designers bring poetry rather than a sledgehammer, to product culture?

Cristina Bilsland and Kyla Elliott, both graduates of the Royal College of Art’s Design Products MA course organised the debate ‘Is Irony Killing Design?’ as part of a series entitled Script, held at London’s Design Museum. Cristina and Kyla kindly invited me to speak at the debate. Having myself designed products that have been described as ironic, I was intrigued by the negativity towards this approach to design the title implied. Researching for and participating in the debate proved enlightening for me, and the following text tries to encapsulate some of the issues raised and conclusions drawn.

During the debate an audience member remarked that there had been a gradual escalation in the ‘sense of the individual’ that developed post-war. Since the 50s people have, more explicitly than ever before, expressed their personality through their choice of products. Wit, irony and kitsch have all become part of the toolkit for designers of domestic items on show in the home. After the often-austere offerings of the pre-war Modern Movement, the ‘pop design’ of the sixties mirrored society’s more liberal values with designers applying cheap new plastics in sweet shop colours. Following the lead of the artists of the time, the more avant-garde designers used metaphor, pastiche and vast changes of scale with glee. Today, if graduate shows and the Sunday supplements are to be the barometer, a new front of ironic design is apparently sweeping the nation. “On every page there’s a joke product” another member of the audience complained.

But is ironic design about making joke products? My suspicion prior to the debate was that much of what was getting up people’s noses was not ironic design at all but design that had descended into kitsch and that the boundaries between the two had become blurred. It therefore seemed important to attempt a definition of the two in relation to their use in design.

Arch-modernist critic and Design Museum co-founder Stephen Bayley has written on kitsch suggesting “Kitsch almost invariably involves an adaptation from one medium to another, from appropriate to inappropriate…Similarly, kitsch almost always diminishes size and scale.”(1) He concludes that it is defined by, “Witless adaptation, diminution and relentless cheapening…” In short it is the inappropriate use of design language for its own sake. A telephone in the shape of Mickey Mouse (Fig.1) is kitsch simply because there is no rational relationship between Mickey and the phone. Looking at the dictionary definition, irony could be read as being similar: “An expression of meaning, often humorous or sarcastic by use of language of a different or opposite tendency.”(2) The Mickey Mouse phone clearly uses different or opposite language to that expected in telephones. However the key difference is that ironic design applies the ‘inappropriate’ language in a knowing and therefore ‘appropriate’ way. As Ralph Ball points out in his book Form Follows Idea, “Selective contradiction can add rich conceptual texture, elusive magic and sensations hard to define in words.”(3)

Mickey Mouse phone.jpg

Andrew Stafford’s plastic ‘Swiss’ door wedge shaped like a wedge of cheese is ironic, not kitsch because there is a clear and well-observed link between the material (plastic), the form (cheese) and the function (door wedge). Stafford’s door wedge is whimsical but quite charming. It’s a concise illustration of how meaning can be applied successfully to a mundane domestic object. We don’t need to use it to know that it will function acceptably well. Its raison d’être is to provide a surreal double-take and to make us smile.

Swiss cheese wedge

The realisation among designers that ‘design products’ get an important kind of value not from plaudits about their use or from the perceived value of their materials but from their ability to clearly convey meaning on the page or in exhibitions is not new. Sottsass’s Memphis group of the 1980s knew their work had great ‘exhibition value’ and many pieces were consequently sold to museums. The recent explosion of interest in contemporary design – albeit much of it superficial – from the press, television and arts institutions has fuelled a meta-market where there is a desire to consume a product’s image but not its matter. Ironic design, relying as it does on clever subversion of visual language, is perfectly suited to fulfilling this need because its images usually intrigue.

The success of Dutch group Droog Design is testament to the fact that publishing images of avant-garde, ironic products, given the right context and the right work, can be a winning formula. Droog spent a decade concentrating on having exhibitions and selling books but paid little more than lip service to the production and distribution of the products they featured in their collection. In doing so they cleverly circumnavigated the fundamental drawback of avant-garde design; that it is notoriously hard to sell. The reason for that, as writer Peter Dormer pointed out is that, “if design moves too far ahead of what people understand, then it fails them as consumers and they stop consuming”(4). The majority of the public do not expect to find ironic references in their domestic products and when they do, a proportion are alienated and consequently don’t buy. Dormer continued that the avant-garde in art is so far ahead of public understanding, many people expect to be alienated by it, and either accept this and/or don’t attend galleries. Despite widespread public rejection of their work, the media attention received by artists using subversion and irony has been extensive and designers are beginning to tap into this. And why not, after all they are cultural interpreters and broadcasters as much as they are providers of function and style. The balancing act – one Droog is finally attempting – is to inhabit this avant-garde territory and have the products, as well as the communication about them, bring in the bacon.

As the debate drew on, the picture of the type of products under attack became clearer. These designs were about attention seeking in order for their creators to get a leg-up onto the career ladder. The huge number of design graduates each year was mentioned and their need to stand out from the crowd. The products were consequently associated with a lack of integrity on the part of the designer and seen as egocentric offerings rather than genuine attempts to add something worthwhile to the product landscape. I began to feel quite defensive about my own design motives. This was not about ironic products, as I knew them, but ‘in-your-face’ products; things designed to stop you, or your houseguests, in their tracks by their sheer quirkiness; in-jokes for your designer friends. Alessi’s character products came up as did Starck’s Juicy Salif lemon squeezer, neither particularly ironic surely?

After discussion with a colleague I realised that there was an important word missing from the entire debate – poetry. Much over-used and perhaps rather pretentious-sounding when applied to objects, it is however the crucial factor that separates the tiresome statement (ironic or otherwise) from the elegant and transcendent expression. Ralph Ball defines the poetic as applied to design as “objects which are elevated above the pragmatic and formal requirement of the functional artefact, and deliver ambient observations in condensed form for reflection and contemplation.”(5)

1: Stephen Bayley, General Knowledge, Booth-Clibborn Editions, 2000, page 39
2: Concise Oxford Dictionary
3: Ralph Ball and Maxine Naylor. Form Follows Idea: An Introduction to Design Poetics, Black Dog, London, 2005, page 57
4: Peter Dormer. The Meanings of Modern Design, Thames and Hudson, London, 1990, page 10.
5: Ralph Ball and Maxine Naylor. Form Follows Idea: An Introduction to Design Poetics, Black Dog, London, 2005, page 119



First published in the Central Saint Martins MA Industrial Design Yearbook 2006.



RIGHTNESS by Michael Marriott