Cognitive Futures 2

Designing Aesthetic Worlds

Part 1: Rethinking Material Culture

Stuart Walker from Lancaster University: ‘Radical Design of Sustainability’ (video)

Walker is discussing how design is an important factor in sustainability. He wants us to think about the effect products have on the world. He speaks about mass produced products and process of production (pumping, refining, manufacturing, distributing). All this effort goes into items which we consider to be single use products, and once we have finished with them we just throw them away. There is a huge amount of un-sustanable production that goes in to making something which is going to be used for a very short amount of time.

The triple bottom line for sustainability was introduced in the 90’s, as a potential solution. It considers the environmental, social and economic aspects of mass production, however, it is not comprehensive. Economic sustainability is prioritised, and the individual is not considered.

The quadruple bottom line for sustainability expands this idea to include practical meaning, social meaning, personal meaning and pushes the economic means to the back.

Form follows function (modernity) —> Form follows meaning (sustainability)

Knowledge economy  (what we can do) —> Wisdom economy (what we should do)

Stuart Walker: ‘Sustainable by Design’ (Walker, S., ‘Sustainable by Design’, Earthscan, 2006, pp.7-10)

Walker wants designers to ‘challenge precedence and demonstrate alternative possibilities’ in order to ‘develop new understandings‘. Practises need to change along with design education, in order to make a significant difference.

The focus on product appearance ‘renders product aesthetics hollow and superficial’. Ethical and environmental ramifications are not being dealt with.

We not only need designs which will challenge the issues of our time but we also need to ‘encourage ideas that break […] convention’. An example of this is the Droog designers from the Netherlands whose innovations lie somewhere between art and product design. They are reconsidering the boundaries and scope of what industrial design is.

We need to change the primary objective for product design itself and our understanding of it. ‘…Material culture [needs to] develop and evolve.’

Having a more open view will mean ‘product design can respond creatively to critical issues of our times in ways that are thoughtful and inspiring’. However this change in convention is not a rejection of history and experience, it is mealy an evolution.

Part 2: What does aesthetic design look like?

Wabi-Sabi: “…a beauty of things imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete…things modest and humble…things unconventional.” (Koren, 2008)

Wabi-Sabi, For Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers by Leonard Koren (Koren, L., ‘Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers’, Imperfect Publishing, 2008 pp.46-57)

Wabi-Sabi is a Japanese phrase, used to sum up what has been learnt from nature, more specifically the unpredictable/untrustworthy weather. There are three main lessons which have been gleaned from nature

  1. ‘All things are impermanent’. 
  2. ‘All things are imperfect’. Even if we look really closely, there are ‘microscopic pits, chips and variations.’ 
  3. ‘All things are incomplete’. ‘The notion of completion has no basis in wabi-sabi.’

‘Wabi-sabi represents the exact opposite of the Western ideal of great beauty as something monumental, spectacular, and enduring.’ Instead “greatness” exists in the ‘inconspicuous’ and ‘overlooked’ details, which are ‘invisible to vulgar [or busy] eyes.’ 

‘Beauty can be coaxed out of ugliness’.

Wabi-Sabi = Sensory (i.e sight, sounds, feelings)

‘Wabi-sabi is a state of mind’. It is a form of emotional expression that evoke feelings of loneliness, tender sadness and our own mortality.

There is belief in the ‘cosmic order’, a greater force that underlies our everyday world.

Wabi-Sabi, For Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers by Leonard Koren (Koren, L., ‘Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers’, Imperfect Publishing, 2008 pp.24-29)

Task: Write a short statement as to how Wabi-Sabi is different from your own practice. Use Koren’s comparison of Wabi-Sabi and Modernism to support your writing.

Wabi-Sabi follows a very precise set of ideas and lessons gleaned from the Japanese understanding of nature. Fine-art on the other hand is a highly personal and expressive subject, which does not follow ‘rules’. Depending highly on a person’s chosen project, there is a good chance that wabi-sabi might fit with some of the ideas which are being explored. However, some projects might be using the ideas of perfection and absoluteness to convey their idea. Fine art is all about exploring the world and ideas in a new way, we don’t care if nobody thinks our work is beautiful, that is not the point of it. Like wabi-sabi there is often joy in the imperfect (‘All things are imperfect‘.), there is always developments to be made (‘All things are incomplete‘), and our main focus in not to make something permanent (‘All things are impermanent‘).

Personally I find the concept of wabi-sabi to be beautiful. I understand that that is not its primary concern, but I am enchanted by this notion of understanding nature, which is enormously different from western conventions. I love finding the joy and beauty in the small subtle details of art and the world in general. I try to include a level of subtlety to my work.

Stuart Walker: ‘Sustainable by Design’ (Walker, S., ‘Sustainable by Design’, Earthscan, 2006, pp.39-40)

A ‘sustainable solution’ for design is one that finds ‘value in terms of its meanings and characteristics’. We must learn from history, not reject it. These lessons can only help us to understand our relationship with materials, and how best to tackle sustainability issues of our time.

‘Object’ = what it specifically is

‘Object type’= general charactoristics of it, regarding use, material, style, or its motif.

‘Objects types can rightly be characterised as sustainable.’ Our understanding of a object’s type is learnt through history and therefore demonstrates the longevity and their ‘importance in supporting human existence or in nourishing human culture.’ 

Our understanding of object type can help us characterise objects, regarding human needs and values, therefore helping inform our ideas for more sustainable design.

The three classification groups are :

  1. Function – Object with a use, designed to accomplish practical tasks.
  2. Social/Positional – Non practical implements used to express identity.
  3. Inspirational/Spiritual – Physical expressions of profound understanding and beliefs.

Part 3: (re) Designing for aesthetics

Task: Based on these classifications we were asked to choose an object that is either Functional or Inspirational/Spiritual and redesign it to include the other.

We took inspiration form Malevich’s ‘Black Square’ which was given a religious connotation due to its high positioning in the room.


An object which already has great purpose and is positioned high in the room is a Fire Exit Sign (light). If there was a fire you would put your faith in this little light to lead you to safety. We have exaggerated this form of ‘faith’, by redesigning the sign to be a stain glass window. Instead of being powered by electricity it would be powered by the sun, which is a metaphor for God being the light of the world. We have also considered sustainability. The window could be made of recycled glass.  2

Below, on the left is a representation of the original electronic sign, on the right is our new and ‘improved’ stained glass sign.



Author: Crisiant Williams

I am a Fine Art student, studying at Cardiff School of Art and Design.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s