Too many stuffs. I’m borrowing this expression from one of my students, an English-language learner as we now call them. I’m charmed by the compound plurality. Too many stuffs indeed — a sign of our times.
How did we get to this state of affairs? My take on it is that industrial design has been crucially involved. In the early days of the Industrial Revolution, or at least the mid-to-late 19th century, the term was used in conjunction with the term applied arts to describe the application of some of the skills, knowledge and talent represented by the fine arts towards the manufacturing of goods. The intention was compelling: more beautiful things at a better price. Included in this aspiration were the decoration of ceramics, leather goods, cabinetry, tableware and so on. Graphic design, as another instance, was included in this same category. Letterforms could be standardized and applied to the popular press in a beneficial way along with other skills in representation and expression. What wasn’t to like about this progress toward a more beautiful world?
Industrialization has always been about making money. People are industrious, in particular when it is to their own benefit. The winners have understood that it is essentially a numbers game. In some instances, big numbers are better, as in big market and big production runs and big profits. Sometimes small numbers are better, as in small number of components and operations and options. The pioneers and captains of industry utilized emerging sources of mechanical or electrical power, newly urbanized workers, pools of capital and new technologies for producing goods in vast quantities to supply vast markets. They also utilized industrial designers, who helped make all of this work.
Success, or maybe we should call it envy, creates competition. To protect the large markets created by attractive prices, the goods needed to evolve into better versions of themselves. Other desirable qualities became more important and industrial designers were looked to increasingly supply the ingredients for improvement.
Schools were formed to provide training in the traditional arts, but also equally to support industry. When I identified design as the activity I wanted to devote myself to, I had no idea of the distinctions that I am making here. I had a talent for configuring things and that was impetus enough. I was attracted to the requirement of efficiency.
Industrial design, as opposed to other versions of design, inherently has the necessity of an economy of means. If things are to be produced in a large volume, then it makes very good sense — including financial sense — to make them as efficiently as possible, without necessarily sacrificing all the other desirable qualities such as comeliness and effectiveness. This was a challenge that appealed to me and it still does. I was a very willing recruit.
However — it seems that in any lengthy description, we eventually get to “however.” In this case, it may be the law of unintended consequences. Industrialization has been an inexorable force. It has come to dominate market after market and we have all, mostly, benefited. We have goods beyond the imagination of even our very recent forbearers. We have so many accoutrements for our lives: cars and furniture and clothes and bottled beverages and high-fructose corn syrup. More than we need and can use. And the excess, the unwanted, the consumed, the casually discarded, the jaded remains of our expansive appetites, pile up around us and even on us. It’s embarrassing. We have so much. Scarcity has long been one of humankind’s biggest threats, but we, in the fat countries, seem to have conclusively beaten that fear back.
That’s how I consider myself and for this we can, in large part, thank the industrialization of our food supply. Altogether, and not just including food, we have far more than is good for us. We don’t know what to do with it all and it collects, casually or deliberately, all around us. Clear adjacent space and more distant nature vanishes, smothered and denied, by what all we have produced and accumulated.
As an industrial designer, how much have I colluded in the creation of this state of affairs? It makes me wonder…
Paul Epp is professor emeritus at OCAD University in Toronto, Ont., and former chair of its industrial design department.