In the face of social, economic and cultural change, design has always responded in terms of a new aesthetic culture. It did so when it mingled with technology and biology, and when it promoted biodegradability. Now a new concept of beauty will emerge, to accompany us in the post-pandemic world

Design had its victims in the 1700s too. In Palladio and English Palladianism, Rudolf Wittkower tells of the anger of the Duchess of Marlborough against Lord Burlington, guilty of having designed the pillars of the Assembly Room too close together, “as close as ninepins,” causing problems for women wearing hoop petticoats.

This anecdote is used by Marco Susani and Defne Koz, designers based in Chicago who worked with Ettore Sottsass, and have headed the Interaction Design division at Motorola, to explain the challenge that awaits design after the pandemic. And to think about how design culture can meet that challenge on its own natural ground: that of beauty.

Promote new aesthetic cultures born from necessity ?

“There have been historical periods in which dress defined an ample space of expression. From the skirts of the 1700s to the ballet costumes by Schlemmer, in many eras fashion has called for an extension of volume around people. If I dress in such a way, it is not to keep you at a distance: it is simply that my body, the space of my individual expression, has grown.”

Seen in these terms, physical distance is no longer a limit, but becomes a style: “It is up to design to turn this gap into an opportunity,” Susani and Koz say. After all, this is what design has always done, and this is its signature, its mission: faced with social, economic and cultural change, it responds by promoting a new aesthetic culture.

The design brought us closer to technology, biology and the aesthetics of the ephemeral

This has happened with technology, when personal computers were transformed from gray boxes into cult objects, first by Olivetti and then by Apple. It happened when biology began to germinate in design studios, as in the experiments of Neri Oxman, installations with results that are not immediately graspable, that seem to gradually ripen, sometimes to the point of becoming iconic or at least forcefully imaginative, like the one based on melatonin that opened the exhibition Broken Nature alla Triennale di Milano. . Perhaps, over the medium term, design will be able to make us accept ephemeral beauty, destined to dissolve, as demonstrated by the lovely creations of the Israeli designer Nir Meiri, lamps made with mycelia, seaweed, sand and sea salt, or of Fernando Laposse, who uses corn leaves to make veneers.

The invention of space of respect

Does this mean design will even make us accept physical distance, creating beautiful masks and Martian outfits, like those roaming the web in recent weeks?

“The first step,” according to Susani and Koz, “will be to work on new behaviors: to provide positive meanings for them, to imagine rooms, tables and sofas that suggest friendly distances rather than separation. We can define the key of this new period of design as the invention of ‘space of respect,’ where by respect we mean respect for others, for new social norms, clarifying that distance does not mean rejection of emotional proximity.”

To get concrete, Susani and Koz imagine non-barrier barriers made of immaterial elements like light, transparency and colors: “Even the forms of objects, like the skirts of the 1700s, can help to define the two-meter social sphere without necessarily become barriers. The category of services is probably ahead of the game, and better equipped to cope with the upcoming period, because many projects in this area have already been shifted in digital space. In any case, however, it will be necessary to reinvent the boundary between digital services and the physical world: the next generation of the front end will have to rethink the concept of the window and the space, the procedures of delivery and pick-up of material things. We also have to consider spaces that open to rediscover and to re-establish proxemics, which studying interpersonal relations in space has to help us to understand new social behaviors, to define a new ‘social’ ergonomics that has to pass from the study of individual space, and space functional for work, to the study of ‘orchestrated’ collaboration in spaces of respect.”

What is the world of design actually doing?

But where are the signs that designers have begun to meet the challenge today? Another visionary designer, Francisco Gomez Paz, obsessed with innovation (“no project can exist if it is not innovative, or at least trying to be”), sees these signals. But he sees them outside the narrow circles of colleagues.

To explain, the designer based in Argentina and Milan looks to a masterpiece of art: Saturn Devouring His Son, by Goya. “Design today resembles the divinity who removes his heirs from the scene for fear they will take over. We are afraid of the new, the unknown. Instead, we should accept the fact that the world has changed, and come to terms with our inertia, grasping the potential that exists even in negative situations.” The makers have been doing just that for weeks: “Much more than the designers who have been creating masks, some of which are beautiful but are also stylistic exercises instead of truly innovative projects, I am interested in the work of that community that has been making respirators with 3D printing for weeks now. A concrete approach that surprised me; thousands of people are liberating a kind of shared, open-source creativity that can lead to results anywhere there is a fab-lab, breaking down the limits of international laws and markets.”

In short, does design have to look to the community that is all too often labeled as a world of “tinkerers” to find some badly needed oxygen? “Why not? We are at the Pillars of Hercules of design; we live on the victories of those who came before us, though we do not always demonstrate the proper gratitude. Now is the time to look ahead. It was not design that took men out of their caves, but a designer-like approach. This is what we have to find again, the drive towards utopia that can urge us to make order in chaos. And if you want to create order, design has to love chaos. While thinking about beauty, which can even make the rules of a pandemic comprehensible and acceptable, through desirable objects. Now if that isn’t design…”.


Cover photo, Le balene sono tornate’ photo by Giorgio Galimberti, part of 100 Fotografi per Bergamo charity initiative in support of the intensive care and intensive care unit of the Papa Giovanni XXII Hospital in Bergamo.