I was having a cup of tea with Takashi Okutani in Milan, during the 2005 Salone del Mobile, talking about projects underway with Muji and describing to him the Alessi cutlery project and how I was feeling this approach to design, of leaving out the design, seemed more and more the way to go.
I mentioned having seen Naoto Fukasawa’s aluminium stools for Magis and how they seemed to have a special kind of normality about them, and he added: “super normal“. That was it, a name for what I have been trying to achieve all these years, a perfect summary of what design should be, now more than ever.
I have been feeling more and more uncomfortable with the increasing presence of design in everyday situations and in products lined up on the shelves of everyday shops. For years people have faulted design for being inaccessible, over-priced and out of tune with the mass market. Now that it has become mainstream it’s beginning to look like a sell out, as if design simply stepped into the shoes of all the cheap ugly products which were previously available and made them cheap and ugly and highly visible.
Design, which is supposed to be responsible for the man-made environment we all inhabit, seems to be polluting it instead. Its historic and idealistic goal to serve industry and the happy consuming masses at the same time, of conceiving things easier to make and better to live with, has been side-tracked.
A while ago I found some heavy old hand-blown wine glasses in a junk shop. At first it was just their shape which attracted my attention, but slowly, using them every day, they have become something more than just nice shapes, and I notice their presence in other ways. If I use a different type of glass, for example, I feel something missing in the atmosphere of the table. When I use them the atmosphere returns, and each sip of wine is a pleasure even if the wine is not. If I even catch a look at them on the shelf they radiate something good. This quota of atmospheric spirit is the most mysterious and elusive quality in objects. How can it be that so many designs fail to have any real beneficial effect on the atmosphere, and yet these glasses, made without much design thought or any attempt to achieve anything other than a good ordinary wine glass, happen to be successful? It’s been puzzling me for years and influencing my attitude to what constitutes a good design. I’ve started to measure my own designs against objects like these glasses, and not to care if the designs become less noticeable. In fact a certain lack of noticeability has become a requirement.
Meanwhile design, which used to be almost unknown as a profession, has become a major source of pollution. Encouraged by glossy lifestyle magazines, and marketing departments, it’s become a competition to make things as noticeable as possible by means of colour, shape and surprise. The virus has already infected the everyday environment. The need for businesses to attract attention provides the perfect carrier for the disease. Design makes things seem special, and who wants normal if they can have special?
And that’s the problem. Once normal has been wiped out there’s no going back. It’s a bit like building new housing on virgin countryside, or developing huge areas of cities at one time. What has grown naturally and unselfconsciously over the years cannot easily be replaced. The normality of a street of shops, which has developed over time, offering various products and trades, is a delicate organism. Not that old things shouldn’t be replaced or that new things are bad, just that things which are designed to attract attention are, from the outset, going to be unsatisfactory. There are better ways to design than putting a lot of effort into making something look special. Special is generally less useful than normal, and less rewarding in the long term. Special things demand attention for the wrong reasons, interrupting potentially good atmosphere with their awkward presence.
The wine glasses are a signpost to somewhere beyond normal, because they transcend normality. There’s nothing wrong with normal of course, but normal was the product of an earlier, less self-conscious age, and designers working at replacing old with new and hopefully better, are doing it without the benefit of innocence which normal demands. The wine glasses and other objects form the past reveal the existence of super normal, like spraying paint on a ghost. You may have a feeling it’s there but it’s difficult to see. The super normal object is the result of a long tradition of evolutionary advancement in the shape of everyday things, not attempting to break with the history of form but rather trying to summarise it, knowing is the artificial replacement for normal, which with time and understanding may become grafted to everyday life.