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KATHERINE AND MICHAEL McCOY: THE NEW DISCOURSE

Cranbrook Design: The New Discourse, Rizzoli International, New York, 1990, with essays by Hugh Aldersey-Williams, Katherine & Michael McCoy, Daralice Bowles, Lorraine Wild, Neils Diffrient and Roy Slade.

Nothing pulls you into the territory between art and science quite as quickly as design. It is the borderline where contradictions and tensions exist between the quantifiable and the poetic. It is the field between desire and necessity. Designers thrive in those conditions, moving between land and water. A typical critique at Cranbrook can easily move in a matter of minutes between a discussion of the object as a validation of being to the precise mechanical proposal for actuating the object. The discussion moves from Heidegger to the "strange material of the week" or from Lyotard to printing technologies without missing a beat. The free flow of ideas, and the leaps from the technical to the mythical, stem from the attempt to maintain a studio platform that supports each student's search to find his or her own voice as a designer. The studio is a hothouse that enables students and faculty to encounter their own visions of the world and act on them-- a process that is at times chaotic, conflicting, and occasionally inspiring.

Watching the process of students absorbing new ideas and influences, and the incredible range of interpretations of those ideas into design, is an annual experience that is always amazing. In recent years, for example, the department has had the experience of watching wood craftsmen metamorphose into high technologists, and graphic designers into software humanists. Yet it all seems consistent. They are bringing a very personal vision to an area that desperately needs it. The messiness of human experience is warming up the cold precision of technology to make it livable, and lived in.

Unlike the Bauhaus, Cranbrook never embraced a singular teaching method or philosophy, other than Saarinen's exhortation to each student to find his or her own way, in the company of other artists and designers who were engaged in the same search. The energy at Cranbrook seems to come from the fact the mutual search, although not the mutual conclusion. If design is about life, why shouldn't it have all the complexity, variety, contradiction, and sublimity of life?

Much of the work done at Cranbrook has been dedicated to changing the status quo. It is polemical, calculated to ruffle designers' feathers. And it has done that. Cranbrook has been called "the most dangerous design school in the world." Perhaps. But the profession of design in the 1970s had fallen into a state of stasis that was suffocating. This new generation of students, some of them now working in their own very successful studios, has challenged the sterility of "universal design" and is emerging with highly personal interpretations.

Philosophies and forms constantly flow and evolve as successive waves of students respond to new ideas, changing audiences, and the professional status quo. The past ten years of Cranbrook graphic design have seen a pronounced shift in emphasis. To understand this, one must look back to the Cranbrook design of the early seventies, which was based on a rational, systematic approach to visual-communications problem solving and a minimalist vocabulary of forms heavily influenced by Swiss Modernist graphic design. The late seventies and early eighties brought a questioning of the severe expressive limitations of this vocabulary. Design students pursued a great deal of formal experimentation during these years, consciously breaking virtually all the rules of the deadly seriousness and antiseptic discipline of objective Swiss rationalism. Complexity, layering, syntactical playfulness, irony, vernacular forms, and classical pre-Modern typography and composition were explored in an outburst of energy. But for all its rule breaking, this dissecting and recombining of the grammar of graphic design was a logical outgrowth of the Modernist emphasis on structural expression.

These experiments at Cranbrook and a few other American schools rapidly overcame the professional field's initial resistance and began to be enthusiastically adopted across the United States, codified into a formalistic style so predictable it could be described as a sort of beaux arts academy of graphic design. In response to this stylistic assimilation, students began to search beyond this largely formal experimentation by the early 1980s.

New influences rapidly began to appear in the Design Department, centered around readings in post-Structuralist French literary theory and post-Modern art criticism. The emerging ideas emphasized the construction of meaning between the audience and the graphic design piece, a visual transaction that parallels verbal communication. Building on the linguistic theories of semiotics but rejecting the faith in the scientifically predictable transmission of meaning, these ideas began to have an impact on the students' graphic design work. New experiments explored the relationships of text and image and the processes of reading and seeing, with texts and images meant to be read in detail, their meanings decoded. Students began to deconstruct the dynamics of visual language and understand it as a filter that inescapably manipulates the audience's response.

An interest in the vernacular has continued, with a great deal of appropriated imagery and typography evident in recent work. Personally generated original "design" forms and highly personal graphic vocabularies are often rejected. Sometimes the presence of the designer seems so invisible that the piece seems to spring directly from our popular culture, encouraging a dialogue between the piece and its audience. Reflecting current literary theory's suspicion of "authorship" and its potential for manipulation, graphic pieces are no longer one-way statements from the designer to the receiver. Many pieces have explored the possibilities of destabilized "open" meaning, which provokes the audience to actively consider multiple interpretations of the piece's meaning. Design becomes a provocation to the audience to construct meaning, consider new ideas, and reconsider preconceptions.

Much of this new work shares the earlier Cranbrook interest in formal layering of collaged elements, but with a critical difference-– content. Layers of form are now used to reveal successive layers of content. Often the most immediately readable layer carries the most stabilized objective message, while successively imbedded layers carry more open, critical, or personal content with subtexts, deferred meanings, hidden stories, and alternative interpretations.

This new interest in text-image relationships uses images and symbols as "words" that interact through juxtaposition with verbal language elements. Verbal wordplay, a literary influence, links with typographic play, inherited from the earlier Cranbrook experiments, producing verbal/visual puns, jokes, and ironies that critique or subvert content and create a critical discourse. Much of this work is very self-critical and self-conscious. The pieces talk about themselves and expose their own mechanics, holding a discourse or dialogue about their own constructs.

Formal refinement and elegance are no longer primary objectives. Much of the work is "aformal" and sometimes defiantly antiformal, perhaps in reaction to the technical perfection and stylistic mannerism of the professional mainstream of graphic design. But also, the trend is for Cranbrook graduate students to have had a number of years of professional experience. For these experienced designers, refinement and mastery are no revelation and are frequently rejected in favor of the directness of unmannered, hand-drawn, or vernacular forms.

"Correct" form and the univalent "universal" criteria of Modernism are often rejected, reflecting the pluralistic cultural fragmentation of our post-Modern, post-industrial milieu. The look and structure of graphic form is underplayed in favor of verbal signification, valuing semantic expression over syntactic style. Cranbrook graphic work has moved from the lyrical celebration of form to a critical exploration and discourse on the meaning of form.

In the 3D side of the program it is perhaps most useful to take a tour of the ideas and projects of the past decade, to see how they have grown and metamorphosed over the years. The early part of the decade saw the beginning work in product, furniture, and interior design that referred to the life around it through its form, in an attempt to make connections and move away from the hermetic, self-referential work of the previous decade. The first place we looked was language-- the world of semiotics and structural linguistics, and the use of analogy and metaphor to lift the meaning of the design beyond its immediate circumstance. In recent years, insights about design have been gained by looking at post-Structuralism and phenomenology.

In furniture design, that often meant pointing out the relationships between furniture, the figure, and architecture. Some of the projects pointed to the role of furniture as the mediator between the figure and space. Some dealt with furniture as smaller-scale architecture, and some looked at history of furniture, a memory that had been denied by the previous decade of design. It was clear that it was time for furniture to assert its traditional cultural role as a carrier of ideas about imagery, decoration, craft, art, and design. The so-called art-furniture movement grew in this decade, and some of our students have continued to grow in that milieu, usually working out of their personal studios and showing their work in galleries like Art et Industrie. Others have moved into the furniture industry, dealing with issues of mass production and the quality of the workplace as defined by furniture.

In the realm of interior design we began a series of experiments reflecting the internal activities of the space in the actual design of the interior. The first project was the Office of the Year for Interiors magazine, in which the forms of aircraft were used to signify an aerospace executive's office. It was a denial of the beige-on-beige anonymity of typical corporate office design and later led to faculty and student projects at Cranbrook that explored the possibilities for an architecture parlante of interior-space design-- spaces that speak about the livers within them. Much of this, of course, was inspired by the work of an earlier Cranbrook personage, Eero Saarinen, and his highly metaphorical works like the TWA Terminal at Kennedy Airport, Dulles Airport, and the St. Louis Arch. But, like Saarinen, we also recognized that design problems did not always call for highly articulated metaphorical solutions (Saarinen had his minimalist projects like the CBS Building and the GM Technical Center as well), and you will find elegant, subdued works among the projects presented here.

It was in product design that the greatest changes occurred in the eighties. Dissatisfied with the narrow channel of expression to which industrial design had confined itself in the seventies (with the exception of the Italians, of course), we began to investigate the possibilities for products to reflect their place in our lives through their form. Along with some like-minded experimenters around the world, we first used semiotics to look at the meaning of the form of products. The products that emerged from those first experiments were sometimes too obvious in the relationships they were trying to make, but they served their purpose in showing the possibility for product form to clarify its use and to locate itself in one's life. These were aspects of industrial design that had not been focused on for some time. The earlier work gradually shifted through the decade toward design that undertook to "conceal and reveal." We are now deeply concerned with the essences or archetypal qualities of objects, looking for the spirit in the artifact. The discussion in critiques now is less about the linguistic construction of meaning and more about the experience of using the object. We are looking for design that is connective but that does not require decoding to make the connection. The sense running through all the work, from the beginning of the decade to now, is the awareness of the responsibility of the designer to act as the interpreter of our increasingly pervasive technology.

The need to connect theory with practice has always been an important aspect of the program. The energy is in the encounter between a conceptual idea the program of use. While the definition of necessity has been broadened to encompass psychological, social, and even spiritual desires, it is still the resolution of the personal vision with the needs of the audience that drives the work of the design studio.

On one hand, applied projects that address enlightened clients' programs provide the opportunity for the challenge of professional practice. Over the years a number of supportive clients and patrons have been crucial to the development of sponsored projects and critiques that have given the students the necessary link to real-world projects, allowing the students to engage their ideas with rigorous programs of use and technology. On the other hand, it is equally important for the experimentation to continue beyond the protective environment of the Cranbrook studios and enter the larger cultural milieu. The work of alumni shown here bears witness to their continuing growth and the application of experiment in the world. Alumni often return to Cranbrook to share work and ideas with current students, with mutual influence.

The essays in this book contain both praise and criticism of past and present projects and philosophies. Criticism is specifically included because that most closely approximates how the design studio and the critiques at Cranbrook work. Nothing is sacred; everything is available for questioning and criticism. This occasionally makes for uncomfortable moments, but it also ensures that the Design Department continues to grow, to resist formulas and dogma. Each new groups of students has to question, criticize, and ultimately posit its own positions, which in turn, and in time, will be criticized by succeeding groups of students. It is this continual dialectic that renews the studio Zeitgeist and ensures that everyone keeps pushing outward. Projects emerge that are sometimes insightful, sometimes answer important questions, and sometimes create more questions than they answer.

The Design students are exhorted, above all, to take risks that they might not take in the outside professional world, to get used to questioning and growing by doing polemical work that could well fail, but in failing teach everyone something. In these pages are the results of that risk taking, experimentation, investigation, and growth. What you will see here is just a trace of each student's sustaining vision in his or her work. For most, their time at Cranbrook is just the beginning of a lifetime of exploration.

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© 1990 High Ground Design. Reprinted from www.2011_highgrounddesign.com