Alexandra Lange
Architecture & design critic

Learning New Tricks

Three reissued Braun alarm clocks (clock of my dreams, far left)

I am one month into my Loeb Fellowship at Harvard, and I still haven’t read a book. But I am learning a great deal from sitting in on a number of classes across the university, both about pedagogy and the theory (oftentimes entire academic disciplines) behind the work I have been doing for the past ten years as a critic. I want to take this post to write it all down, both so I don’t forget, and so that I can share. (If you are interested in what I will be doing, video of my introductory talk from Sept. 13 can be found here.)

I found Anthropology 1495: The Materiality of Culture: Objects, Meaning and the Self, by plugging the search term “design” into the Harvard University course catalogue. Despite its name, the Graduate School of Design has very little curriculum focused on objects, industrial design, or the study of stuff smaller than a shipping container. But Anthro 1495, taught by Emily W. Stokes-Rees, is all about design with a small “d,” disguised under the rubric “material culture.” Most of the objects under discussion are older than the toys, clothes and technology I discuss in this space and elsewhere, but the questions about how we talk about the things in our lives, and how we talk about things from the past, turn out to be universal. Material culture can discuss social rituals, manufacture, adaptation, advertising. My favorite reading to date was a published discussion from American Historical Review (2009), setting out some of the difficulties in defining the boundaries of good practice for this kind of studies. As the historians struggled to explain their points of view, I was amused to find a definition of what I think I’m doing when I criticize objects today. You could roll your eyes and think, “Academics! So interested in definitions.” But I found it more like meeting yourself in the mirror.

A few examples.

Amy Bentley: In addition to precision and accuracy, for me good history is the product of those historians who evoke a multi-sensorial rendering of the period/thing they are describing—in clear, accessible language that perhaps even contains a ring of poetry (without sacrificing sophistication or scholarly expertise).

In fact, at some point in the future, cultural historians, and especially material culture historians, will look at our current era and locate the recent rise of “nostalgic” craftsmanship/do- it-yourself culture (artisanal food production as well as non-edible objects) in places such as Brooklyn and elsewhere as evidence of many cultural tendencies—a rejection of faceless, nameless, placeless industrial capitalism; an embrace of localism and environmentalism; a celebration of craft labor; an appreciation of high-quality raw materials turned into high-end consumer goods; a form of resistance; a mode of identity formation; a different kind of economy operating on a different scale (one involving barter, for instance, as well as cash exchange); an aura of quality and distinctiveness; and an economy based on an admixture of economic privilege combined with a nostalgia for a craft labor sensibility.

“Nostalgia for a craft labor sensibility.” Nailed it, right there.

Christopher Witmore: Moreover, what were mass-produced products only yesterday will become items of cult value tomorrow; so long as the majority of items are filtered away through “mass consumption,” so long as they pass through the requisite channels of collectors, and so long as they undergo little transformation through use—such proves to be the rule, whether we speak of Kenner action figures (in their original packaging, of course) or Ford Mustangs. Often irrespective of a so-called “alienated” mode of mechanical production, the masses, collectors, eBay, and action figures or Ford Mustangs be- come co-producers of “collectibles” and their associated cult value, that is, the “aura.”

And thus, the explanation for Ebay. I also liked H. Otto Sibum’s exasperation with his fellow historians of science who never seem interested in using the instruments about which they write – only looking at the outside.

Sibum: I do not want to be understood as saying that as a consequence we should simply move our interest away from texts (the software of science) to instruments, laboratory equipment, etc. (the hardware of science). Instead, we should regard this performative approach toward things (like experimenting with past scientific instruments) as a complementary technique within the conventional tool kit of the historian. Texts are still very important, but we have to rethink their exclusive status in providing evidence as much as we have to work hard to develop methods in order to make speak the silent representatives of the past, the working knowledge em- bodied in physical things.

I’m also planning to adopt Stokes-Rees’s surprisingly fruitful weekly bring-in-an-object exercise to my own class. Last class, we were supposed to bring in an “everyday” object that was important to us. We got into an interesting discussion about “everyday” (alarm clock, water bottle, Kleenex pack) and “every [space] day” (heirloom ring, diamond earrings). I brought in my “Braun” alarm clock, and explained it as an object that could be both: I could use it every morning, but I could also see it as an heirloom of modern design. “Could” because my clock is actually fake, bought in Chinatown because it was better looking than any of the equivalents that didn’t imitate Dieter Rams. Also “could” because it doesn’t work – it’s so cheap it doesn’t even warrant everyday status. After I explained all this, and everyone laughed, my point was serendipitously underlined by a clip from “Objectified.” Karim Rashid, all manicure and rose-colored glasses, explains that the real version of this clock is his design inspiration.

I’m also sitting in on Neil Brenner’s lecture class, History and Theory of Urban Interventions, which is similarly offering a theoretical underpinning for many ideas about cities I’ve developed through writing. Brenner lectures with PowerPoint, offering up key quotes from the texts, bullet-point summaries of the main ideas, and occasional opaque diagrams. He needs a graphic design intervention, and if I were teaching (or co-teaching) the course, I would move more fluidly back and forth between theory and contemporary example. But when he discusses Marxist theory, including David Harvey, that insists that planning reinforces capitalist structures of power, one can’t help thinking of the RFP process in New York today, where ideas about what to do with large chunks of the city come from developers, who hire their own planners and architects. And when he discusses Dolores Hayden, and her 1980 essay “What would a non-sexist city be like?” I could not help but think both of Clare Foran’s recent Atlantic Cities article, “How to Design a City for Women” and my own 2011 editorial in GOOD, “The Moms Aren’t Wrong: Why Planning for Children Would Make Cities Better for All.”

When urban parents, particularly mothers, complain about the public realm they are often caricatured as whiny and overprotective. Your child was burned by the climbing domes at the new park? Kids are too coddled. You can’t carry your stroller and child down the subway steps? Make him walk. You can’t find a public bathroom? Stay at home. But what if the mothers, in many cases, are right? Access to safe, green open space, to accessible transportation, to clean bathrooms and places to rest are not solely the needs of children. What if catering to our youngest citizens, rather than dismissing them, would help us all live happier, healthier urban lives.

Brenner’s words-only approach is a style of lecturing I’ve never considered. But there is something soothing about a professor going through the readings, point by point, to make sure you’ve got it. I can see myself making quotation slides for a few readings I assign that tend to trip people up – irony doesn’t always translate well in the academic environment. Charles Moore on Disneyland, Michael Sorkin on the Ford Foundation. They might benefit from some polemical diagrams, though I still refuse Brenner’s red and white on black. (A thousand graphic designers moan.)

At the Kennedy School, I am auditing Nicco Mele’s Media, Politics & Power in the Digital Age. You can essentially take the course too, since Mele avoids the wonky proprietary iSites system Harvard uses, and has simply set up a Tumblr. Mele wants his students to get with the digital program, and assigns setting up a blog, a Twitter account and a LinkedIn profile as “deliverables.” He also asks students to tweet articles with a class hashtag. At the start of each class, he does a rundown of those tweets, calling on students to explain the links and their relevance. This can take up to a half an hour, depending on the complexity and questions generated by those articles, so at first I was seeing it as a time-filler, and maybe even a little bit lazy. But as the weeks wear on, I now realize the tweet exercise is as good a generator of participation as Stokes-Rees’s bring-in-an-object request. It generates thinking about the wider parameters of the class when not in class. It draws students in who might not otherwise speak up (aren’t we all bolder on Twitter?). And it demonstrates the way the material learned in class operates in the real world. I don’t need this last lesson, so in a way I’m learning in reverse. But the next time I teach I think I will also assign tweeting, and see how many places we can find criticism as part of design’s own networks of media, politics and power.

Originally published in Design Observer