The long goodbye
The cultural paradigm shift caused by the advent of the digital has come about at unprecedented speed for the history of mankind (much faster, to make a comparison, than the revolution caused by the arrival of printing with movable type, or the industrial revolution). So much so – and this too is unprecedented – that the generation of people in their forties today can be said to have been educated in one civilization, after which it began to work in another. For designers, being part of this ‘bridge generation’ means having one foot in the analog and one in the digital, an utterly special situation that offers a unique perspective on the world of design.
Thanos Zakopoulos, co-founder of CTRLZAK Studio, is of the same opinion, saying that to belong to this generation means being among “the most privileged people in the history of mankind, precisely because we have witnessed this epochal passage that is deeply changing the way human beings establish relations with the natural world, but also because we will probably be the last to have lived on planet Earth in a condition in which it has not been completely altered.”
The inertia of the old world is still pushing at us from behind, while the new world attracts and absorbs us. The result, according to Odoardo Fioravanti, is the need to identify new forms of mediation: “I have confronted both cultures, caught between the last drafting machines and the first 3D CAD programs, and I understood that I would have to mediate in a moment of transformation. In the end, I am happy to have roots in the culture of books, roots that have grown into the digital realm. I still have the joy of in-depth research, which has changed somewhat in digital culture, a pursuit of meaning that unfolds in a more sophisticated way than a caption on Instagram. We might say that I have learned to seek an ‘ex ante’ meaning, while today I think it is more common to seek it ‘ex post.’” The previous world and the present, in effect, are marked by different speeds, and it is not always simple to cope with them in a balanced way.
Andrea Maragno of the studio JVLT remembers feeling a sort of anxiety of performance at first regarding the 'visual' logic of the new paradigm: “I am thinking above all of the communicative aspect, and hence the social networks. I remember a ‘peeved’ post by Karim Rashid on Instagram in which he announced the closing of his profile, because in spite of a daily effort to product contents, he had not received feedback that matched his expectations. This episode offers a good description of the ‘design’ scene and the thirst for communication in our panorama. Since then, things have gotten progressively worse, to the point of reaching the design of ‘Instagrammable’ products. Over time, in any case, my relationship with social media has changed. I don’t hate them and I don’t love them, and I am no longer anxious about performance. I don’t work personally on this front. The social networks are normal tools, for which I have no particular expectations or demands. But it would be dishonest to say that they are not important, or that they are useless.”
A cautious tone is also taken by Giulio Iacchetti, for whom, if one looks closely, “changes are never sudden. We indulge in talking about them that way, we are fascinated by a fictional tale in which one falls asleep in one world and wakes up in another, but reality is quite different. I definitely was born and grew up in an analog environment made of telephones with keypads, fax machines, mechanical drawing, freehand drawing, letters sent by land mail. Having said this, I remember that the Internet, email, AutoCAD, first with a PC, then with a Mac, were part of my world from the early 1990s. I remember using 3D printing in projects back in 1998. I am clearly part of the bridge generation, but I constantly cross the analog-digital bridge, going back and forth. I you ask me which side I prefer, I have to say that the mid-way point on the bridge is great, and it provides you with the best view through which to understand the world of design.”
The new world
Going back and forth on the bridge means drawing on two different cultural backgrounds, whose interaction leads us to come to grips with another question of 'passage' between life in the past and life after the pandemic, which has forcefully speeded the convergence – already in progress – between real and digital. For the new generations, the interaction of real and virtual is not an arrival point but a starting point, as seen in the recent phenomenon of virtual design in which 'products' are made exclusively in the form of renderings sold with NFT technology. Faced with these new areas of research, we might wonder if after the divorce of the concept of ‘design’ from that of ‘industrial’ that marked the start of the post-industrial era, we are now entering an epoch of ‘post-real’ design, in which the form is completely emancipated from the function, focusing completely on the aesthetic virtuosity of ‘metaverses.’ Will this further degree of separation substantially modify the design panorama?
First of all, for Zakopoulos “this is not an unexpected change, but a matter of new forms of expression that take over different means, adapting to the evolution of human society. What often happens in these cases, however, is that the substance of the project is forgotten, and the focus shifts to the novelty of ‘skin-deep’ expression. Whereas what needs to be done is to find a way of (inter)acting without overlooking the true motivations (not just economic) behind the project.”
Fioravanti is even blunter, expressing skepticism about the effective level of novelty introduced by these experiments: “Already in 2010 I wrote about the phenomenon of objects that existed only on the websites of designers, only in photos or renderings. At the time they were concepts, things that turned out badly, or things that had gone out of production. I thought there might be a way to compensate design in a sort of ‘live concert,’ where the audience would pay to see the ‘making’ of an object they could never have or use. What is happening on certain social platforms demonstrates that a particular type of design, which exists only in digital form, creates a void that attracts money in an indirect way. Like the wings of an airplane that float in the air because they are drawn by an aerodynamic above them, not because they are resting on the air below. It will be more and more like television, where the contents are the economically ineffective part and the gaps (the advertising) are what counts. I look at the fireworks, but then I eat the salami.”
The opposition between beauty applied to the product (the salami) and the flights of fancy of a totally virtual beauty (the fireworks) widens until it has repercussions in the more general epochal passage from the time of the great masters to that of the present, which we might define as the era of the ‘post-masters.’ In historical terms, in fact, the figure of the master was made possible by a series of circumstances typical of the 20th century, which no longer exist today. In particular, by the role of the major ideologies (or ‘meta-narratives’) with which one could agree or disagree. Immersed in a frenetic and dispersive flow of change, it becomes harder than ever to focus on coherent social blocks marked by problematics of identity. With the demise of ‘stable’ social dichotomies, the conditions no longer exist for the formulation of the figure of the master, and space develops for a generation of “masters with a single disciple: themselves,” whose design strategies, though reflexive, do not seem to be exportable beyond the experience of the individual.
Iacchetti chimes in on this point: “Today one no longer takes a position, because there are no more positions to defend. It is not a declaration of peace, and perhaps it is simply a truce: no one is inclined any longer to fight ideological battles in favor of decoration or against it, or against minimalism in favor of pop design, or against bourgeois design. The question of masters, a canonical topic for the world of design in Italy, has lost its pertinence simply because after the great ‘grandfathers’ of design (Magistretti, Mari, Sottsass, Castiglioni, Munari, Mangiarotti, Mendini, just to name a few) there has been a generation of designers that has not expressed any ‘masterly’ values. This category of designers has broken the chain of mastery, and the subsequent generation – my generation – has felt free to create its own identity, its own references, which can also be very volatile and fleeting. Today it seems as if a list of products can function better to represent us, rather than identification with a single master. There is no longer the name of an established, authoritative master, but a heap of projects generated by different designers capable of creating a personal identity of reference and a mental condition with which it is possible to identify.”
A heap of post-masters facing a heap of post-students, atomized disciples who no longer form an entire class that is receptive to masterful thinking. Fioravanti agrees: “The directional character of knowledge, the vector that led from the teacher to the disciple, has not only lost its single direction, but has even ceased to exist. Maybe we are houses without doors, which receive things and people from the outside in an osmotic way, letting them filter through the walls. The knowledge of a single person does not have the time to settle into recognition, because in the meantime others are overlapping, like very thin layers added over time, emulsified, homeopathic. I can glimpse a certain mastery in someone, in the act of allowing corpuscles to pass through, but it is more like a mirage in which we have no desire to fully believe.”
Not just objects, then, but also thoughts can be mirages, images that do not correspond to reality, not so much to be rejected as to be recognized as such, as Zen Buddhism teaches. A teaching embraced by Maragno, who imagines a dystopian world inhabited by “virtual post-masters under the form of ‘women’ of artificial intelligence designed by male engineers (who know nothing of design), to continue to learn without teaching anything. These post-masters will design for post-industry, earning crypto-currency in order to be able to afford a physical body and to live in a tangible reality that satisfies the ego, while human beings will do everything to dematerialize themselves, designing ‘imaginary objects.’ Marketing will fail, because the only thing to achieve will be an awareness that is not for sale, but can be obtained. The human being will go into crisis and will turn to the Masters (not of design) who will indicate the Path: ‘Master, how can I reach the other side of the river?’ And from the opposite bank, the Master responds: ‘You are already on the other side of the river.’”