Things to Make and Use: On Beauty, Design and Work

by Jeffrey Petts

September 2013. The Spirit of Utopia departs the East End. Along Fenchurch Street, into the City, a giant near-finished Walkie-Talkie concentrates and reflects late summer sun in a burning ray on the streets 37 floors below. Back east, a potter makes a final unglazed pot. The biscuit wares are packed away in cardboard boxes – the Soul Manufacturing Corporation ends its stay. West, street-level shops are wrapped up against the competition, the building goes on.

The Walkie-Talkie is one of many nicknamed, new tall buildings in London, its exact use unknown to us except as office space. Hoardings outside say ‘20 Fenchurch Street: Land Securities and Canary Wharf Group’ but for most of us, it was the Walkie-Talkie, and then … the Walkie-Scorchie. As the Walkie-Talkie, everyone seems content: we have a harmless, quotidian means to identify another wondrous tall building, the architect has a work of art, and commerce a futuristic, valuable asset. And the intense reflection only revealed what we’ve long known – in 1907 Henry James observed the uselessness of tall buildings except as commercial space – and so the nickname got nicknamed, the architect blamed the builders for cutting corners, and the space is still for rent as a prestigious commercial property. And in any case, tall buildings in themselves, tall and together, have long symbolised future states of affairs. The event then is parodied, a vaguely comic mistake along the way to building, at last, the city of the future, offices topped with restaurants and gardens in the sky (indeed the Walkie-Talkie’s intended selling-point and strap-line, ‘the building with more up top’, is an appeal to that utopian sky-garden-future). What on earth was this other Utopia back east then, one still turning out handmade pots? Was Theaster Gates’ Soul Manufacturing Corporation – an exhibit at the Whitechapel Art Gallery’s Utopia exhibition, essentially a pottery in a gallery – just one last desperate gasp of ‘arts and crafts’?

Perhaps, but hopefully something more if we wish for more than tall buildings to exemplify our work's noblest aspirations. Gates was born and works in Chicago and is best known for ‘working to regenerate poor neighbourhoods through art’. That’s a big task, easily open to ridicule. But Gates explains how he can sell his artworks, sometimes made from materials from dilapidated houses and their abandoned contents, and use the money to buy and rebuild properties in the city’s South Side. ‘Rebuilding’ means buildings become cultural centres and houses and studios – and it means individual builders, workers, become skilled makers, learning and applying carpentry and constructions skills (learning perhaps from the technical skills of artists and craftspeople like Gates). Not, then, a retreat like that from urban London to the rural Cotswolds or South Downs by the British artists of arts and crafts. But Gates’ Corporation still resonates with century-old ideas about art, politics and workmanship. The shared idea between Gates and the political ideas of late 19th-century ‘arts and crafts’ is the emphasis on reinvigorating people as individual workers. It is the idea of the worker re-worked – the idea that by making things that are needed with skill and care one is psychically improved, happier indeed, through this good work. It’s organised soul making but in the context of immediate, local economic revival, and still with a notion of art distinct from craft.

It is an artisanal mix of art, craft and politics that challenges the architectural utopia of tall clean and clear buildings, of a better life in the sky. Architectural utopia in the 20th century – stylistically modernist – was prey to local political squabbles, bureaucracy and the cost-saving demands of mass housing projects, and seemed damned by iconic images of collapsing high-rises, of Pruitt-Igoe and Ronan Point. But it has returned under a new guise, rejuvenated by a ‘user-centred’ digital technology. Now invasive screens and shouted commands, all the crude interpellations of Big Brother, are supposedly reversed – we get what we want effortlessly using beautiful sleek responsive portable devices and apps. As our lives are integrated into our 21st-century machine world, as we accept Big Data setting our course as Users, so our architectural ‘machines for living and working in’ – first built prematurely in the 1920s – finally seem natural, experientially fitting the facts of our post-human digital lives. It seems the technology of everyday 21st-century life has matched the utopian aspirations of 21st-century modernist architecture. So the architectural utopia is strengthened by the idea of design as everyday art, by a digitally invigorated everyday aesthetics, the artisanal utopia challenging it but seemingly still marginal at best.

September sees ‘Design Week’ in London, a ‘punctuation moment in the year’, we’re told, to remind us that design is everywhere. The London Design Festival’s brand is red and white squares and rectangles enclosing ‘MAP’ or ‘GUIDE’, and so on, in sans serif. ‘MAP’ shows the five designated design areas (variously design ‘quarters’, ‘triangles’, and so on) where exhibitions, talks and workshops are held. On the pavements on the King’s Road, the logo of the Chelsea Design Quarter is stamped, but here the brand is without red. You see a white-on-blue reflection of the ‘hammer and sickle’ with the hammer’s head and sickle’s handle gone – work abstracted beyond its tools, its means, a miserable, empty analogue, the worker left with nothing to strike, nothing to grasp, left to consume. Past Chelsea Wharf to nearby Imperial Wharf, the Roca London Gallery, designed by Zaha Hadid Architects, ‘offers a unique visual and interactive experience with Roca, the leading global bathroom brand.’ The gallery ‘is the perfect destination for bathroom inspiration.’ Beyond lampoon, strayed plumbers mingle with rich aficionados of excretion and cleansing mechanisms, all uneasy. ‘Design Is Everywhere'.

There’s a theoretic counterpart to this celebration of ‘Design’ too, called Everyday Aesthetics. It is premised on challenging the art world’s hegemony of philosophic interest in aesthetic experience. Taps are aesthetically interesting too, and in ways that are significant. There’s something in this, but we should be clear about how aesthetic interest has common features but is still divided between our interest in artworks, our interest in the design of functional objects like taps, and aesthetic interest in the workmanship that delivers artistic ideas and design solutions. Displaying taps in art galleries might properly encourage an interest in design and production but it also falsely conflates the essentially creative work of the artist with other kinds of good work. The artisanal view of good work is lost, fogged with ideas of creative genius and commercial value. An everyday aesthetics of galleried taps – functional items considered simply as beautiful things – extends the architectural view of a better life from tall buildings to their interiors, to our workplaces and homes. And ‘Design’ robustly defends the idea, glibly asserting ‘Design Principle No.1’ that ‘real user needs’ are always its guide and a sufficient defence against the production of simply beautiful taps.

We should have no argument against beautiful taps of course, except that the beauty of functional things is always in the making and using, not in display. No designer would argue! And yet ‘Design’, like the institutionalisation of ‘Art’ before it, slips out of its productive essence, becomes an abstraction of its real work, till things function less with pleasure in use and more with pride in possession. The Roca Art Gallery’s bathroom accessories, uplighted against curving white walls, assert that everyday life is made beautiful without us being troubled by any productive involvement. What is Design’s ‘real user need’ in this world that would effectively counter this crass consumerism? There is none, it’s lost – to any meaningful sense of ‘real’, ‘user’, and ‘need’ – in a Faustian pact of artful design and commerce.

So back east again, to London’s Design Museum, The Future Is Here (A New Industrial Revolution). We can make the everyday! Get a computer, some design software and a 3D printer and by-pass institutionalised art, design and commercial demands. Like Whitechapel, space in the gallery is set aside for a workshop. Soul Manufacturing and the Future Factory are similar: a worker standing, tools on a bench, sometimes drawing, peering, thinking, modelling the end product, then some physical act of making it; although here the difference is greatest of course between potting and printing. Still there is an essential control and rhythm to the work exercised by the workers. This is real design and workmanship. Work to admire, things to make and use. But it is an isolated moment of hope for a future of aesthetic working lives. Around on the same exhibition floor are mass production methods; the new industrial revolution is robotic arms shifting boxes too, like it has been for a long time. And the Future Factory demonstrator, holding a 3D printed product, says: ‘it’s like giving making a photograph to everyone, nothing more really’. So we’ll continue to buy the mass-produced and entertain ourselves with gadgets, the architectural utopia affirmed.

The idea and practice of work faces a choice: soul manufacturing or simply supplying any demand. And the former is what gives the artisanal utopia of Gates its edge over the Future Factory. There is an explicit understanding that good work is good because it engages the aesthetic interest of the worker. Seeing the Future Factory we can still reasonably doubt whether this is any part of the goal of a 3D printing workshop revolution, whether its claims for breaking down boundaries between making and consumption, for example, are plausible, on what grounds they can be made. And fundamentally good work is not a problem of tools and technologies, but of how they are used. That is a conventional wisdom perhaps, yet still production and consumption are geared to non-human tempos and rhythms. Increasingly so, as the digital world offers commerce the opportunity for 24/7 buying and selling, likewise pushing production methods towards endless agile iterations of products that will feed this demand. Soul manufacturing rather than 3D printing is the real challenge to the way we work because its rhythms of production are geared to the worker’s interest in the thing they are making as well as in the worth of the product. That human pace is dictated by the demands of the skills being exercised in production rather than by those of 'continuous improvement' and Big Data; by the aesthetic iterations of standing back, looking and judging, wondering ‘is that right yet?’, not by reactive 'sprints' to the latest batch of Google analytics.

Inherent too in the soul-making or aesthetic view is the idea of there being a real end to the process of making something, and so a rest after work which warrants it too. Gates’ Soul Manufacturing Corporation is properly utopian then because it fulfils the ‘utopian function’ of highlighting the problems of the organisation of work here and now. It shows how, for all the claims of architectural utopia and design for everyone, our everyday production is not organised around aesthetic interests inherent in creative design and skilled workmanship. And it suggests a future where production is centred on the values we attach to making rather than consuming things. This is an economy measured by the pleasurable working lives it produces, and where we are not fixed and formulated as consumers by aggregated user behaviours, from which our working lives are then derived. This is a world whose rhythms are the natural ones of making and rest, not of ceaseless consumption and communication.

September 21-22, ‘Open House London’. There are two Hammersmith utopias to visit amongst all the architecture – William Morris’ Kelmscott House and Richard Rogers’ London HQ. The Kelmscott Press printing method is demonstrated in a compact basement room. One man, type, ink, paper, a press. A slow, labour-intensive process. To the side on shelves, some examples of the beautiful books produced. A few hundred metres along the Thames, a young architect gives a ‘show and tell’ in front of some architectural models and glossy photos and coloured post-its on the walls of a large open-plan office space. There’s an extension to an airport in France, but apart from that it’s difficult to tell what the buildings are for – the guide says that Richard is keen that buildings are able to change with changing client needs. And one other thing is important to Richard – that all the designs incorporate public spaces. The guide points down from the top floor of the HQ to a space below outside, proudly indicating it’s now public whereas it was just a working Thames wharf before. Some ‘public’ wander aimlessly at the foot of another corporate building.

Back east with The Spirit, the artist Peter Liversidge makes some Whitechapel Proposals, ‘aviaries and streams in the gallery’, ‘bruising all the apples in London’. I have one too. I propose that we Take Time, Disconnect, and Make. The future is not here; it’s not even up-for-grabs. It’s something to be wrested back, regained as a possibility. And then the possibility of making things for utopias. There’s still time.