On Aesthetic Rebellion

Against Mass Culture


The Psychology of Slow Design

Mainstream design aesthetic of the early twentieth century was that of sharp, consistent vertices and low production costs; borne from necessity to exist within a competitive system of industrial capitalism (Fuad-Luke, 2009:157)—“these two phenomena have determined nearly all its manifestations” (Sparke, 1987:10). It is as design historian David Hounshell has described the efforts of Henry Ford and his contemporaries to shape consumerist behaviour toward an acceptance of uniformity in order to achieve lower-costing products—the adoption of quantity production, and implemented “5 Dollar Work Day”, initially encouraging adoption by empowering workers in, for the first time, affording the products that they create (Hounshell, 1985:259).


What was seen soon after the embrace of the Model T, however, was a consumerist, and reactionary aesthetic design rebellion against the modernist uniformity of product spaces—Hounshell referencing the sloping sales of the Model T and Ford’s over-standardisation of automobile production by 1923 (ibid:323). Sources such as Henry Ford’s own autobiography, My Life and Work (1922), as well as pro-Fordism publications such as Edward Filene’s The Way Out (1925) began to be called into question as seminal works on the adoption of design for mass-production, paving the way for an alternative aesthetic characteristic of post-modern design in the re-kindling of “industrial craft”; a signifier of wider trends in the designs of post-modernity, in embracing the inevitability of pastiche and intertextuality—commented most prominently upon within post-modern film, Giuliana Bruno and Ingeborg Hoestery alike on aspects of Blade Runner, set within a landscape which bears almost no resemblance to the east-coast city of L.A. as it exists today, instead presenting itself as a “synthesis of mental architectures” (Bruno, 1987:66). Contrast this against the prototypical, almost quintessential landscapes and skeuomorphic set-designs of modernist films—Chaplin in Modern Times (1936) wrestling with cartoonishly large cogs in generic factory environments.


Today there exist even movements within design in opposition to the ideals of Ford’s quantity production that supersede object creation, from Emotionally Durable Design to Slow Design, borne from the Slow Movement—a “rhetorical query of the default ‘fast design’ paradigm, with its uncontested and sustainable flows of resources” (Fuad-Luke, 2009:158). The Toaster Project from Thomas Thwaits’ exists as one such example of Slow Design; a post-modern statement on planned obsolescence and the value placed onto consumer goods in the age of mass consumerism—a toaster built entirely from raw, mined material by a single craftsman.


For this post, I intend to research objects created in response after the rise of mass production and modernity during the early 20th century, that act as commentary counter to the ideologies of mass-manufacturing—often dicursive in nature, as a way to begin to understand the psychology surrounding attachment to craft and why many associate positively with “crafted” objects over their “manufactured” counterparts. Thwaits’ Toaster will be the talking point around a series of interviews with those associated with design practise, in which I begin to ask questions as to why those think they feel stronger associations with aesthetically “crafted” objects, from topics of skeuomorphism to design affordance.


In interviewing thinkers, academics and daily exchangers of design parlance instead of generic consumers of toasters, my choice of audience was intentional. To reproduce a current-day, mass-manufactured toaster, as made clear in his book, would require “technical and scientific expertise assembled by countless people over centuries could not be replicated by me in the nine months that I had available” (Thwaits, 2012:168). In understanding that those invested in or aware of dicursive design would be more forgiving to the immediate aesthetic reaction to Thwaits’ work, and would seek to discuss the symbolism behind Thwaits’ motivations, I sought out to consider why awareness projects such as these are invaluable in helping us read the importance of sustainable design argued by Thwaits and Fuad-Luke alike.

The Toaster Project, Thomas Thwaits, 2011

The Toaster Project

“I think it’s very transparent, which is great”. A product design student in final year who has written a dissertation about Donald Norman’s design affordances observes first that in creating the object haphazardly, a “kind of a beautiful failure”, it allows for individual components internally, that would normally be hidden, to be seen and to help those understand the complexity of a common toaster (Fig.1) The propylene casing of the original toaster on which Thwaits’ reinterpretation is modelled on would have had to been created using expensive steel moulds, so in lieu of funds he carved two slotting forms from tree stumps (ibid:109)—creating an uneven and broken texture that reveals on one side the twenty-one other components he had forged to fit inside.


One questions whilst analysing images of Thwaits work whether he chose intentionally to leave aspects of the design unfinished as an individual without access to tools might do, in understanding that the finished toaster as a metaphor for the negative effects of complacent consumerism is made all the more effective when it is dirty, and further removed from the toaster available to the consumer today. Another interviewee mentioned how he could have easily cut off the edges off the toaster’s plastic body, and that the accidental, “failed object” aesthetic formed by Thwaits’ DIY production methods, is a double-edged sword—“if he pushes his message very far and makes this object completely alien then people might be lost and get distracted in the look of it, where as if he doesn’t go far enough, then people may just think it is a shit toaster.” This balance between medium and message is observed in many initial responses, even from those involved in design—with three of my initial respondents rejecting outright the aesthetic characteristics of the toaster and not considering it’s perhaps intended symbolism until they had been pushed to do so.

The Toaster Project, Thomas Thwaits, 2011

Another note brought up in one interview was the significance of creating a toaster—as opposed to any other mass-produced item—it is explained within the book to be an entirely post-industrial item, without a non-electrical equivalent, and more important to the environmental consequences from mass manufacturing, an object which output is vastly overshadowed by its creation—for Thwaits, the toaster “serves as a symbol...is maybe quite unnecessary, but then again is quite nice to have” (ibid:35). The interviewee posited that a toaster is also an extremely common item in the kitchen, and that which most people misunderstand the complexity of—“I wouldn’t have thought it needed that many different metals”.

The Toaster Project, Thomas Thwaits, 2011

In reading the book and showing it to others, we also begin to understand it as a travelogue that identifies the complexity of key manufacturing processes found within the designs of most household electronics, rather than a journal in which to catalogue the production of the toaster. It is rather a vessel, the book revealing just as much about the toaster as a physical object, and symbol for industrialised convenience, as it does “about the organisation of the modern world” (ibid:12).


Much like the foreword from RCA professor of design David Crowley, interview subjects noted that a sly political message could be interpreted from Thwaits’ research and use of the mining industry exclusively within Britain; most now disused, “becoming, it seems, another form of phantasmagoria” (ibid:12). The book is also, perhaps coincidentally, laid out in chronological order to the discovery and “domestication” of each production method—starting with the mining of iron ore, and ending with his re-creation of an injection moulded propylene body.

Slow Design and Aesthetic Activism

Observing the rise of a neo-Arts and Crafts movement from another perspective, however, is the growing multitude of academics and design writers—already interested in the intersection of ecology and design, but perplexed by aesthetic design’s sudden political power in shaping the movement of consumerist behaviour within a system driven by efficiency of capital. Amongst them, design writer Alastair Fuad-Luke, who has formed his academic and consulting career around environmentally conscious design—made prominent after his coining of the phrase “Slow Design” in a 2002 conference paper, on which my research title has been based. His 2009 publication, Design Activism: Beautiful Strangeness for a Sustainable World, builds on the principles for Slow Design and constitutes a call for action; outlining ways in which designers, and consumers of design, are to embrace sustainability over inherent flaws of current consumerist paradigms (Fuad-Luke, 2009:41). Framing rebellion against mass-manufacturing as “Design Activism”, the labelling of design as a political act is not new—Carl Honoré, of In Praise of Slow, remarks that a “battle is brewing over the politics of time” (Honoré, 2010:52) and similarly, Cuban design thinker Ernesto Oroza gained prominence cataloguing so-called “technological disobediences” within the embargoed state (Fig.2)—in which people create product interventions from spare parts instead of purchasing new objects; claiming back the tools of manufacturing and politicising repair, in defiance of a manufacturer’s planned obsolescence (Oroza, 2008:5).


Instead Fuad-Luke opens with an argument—that in the past, the link between popular design and economic success has rendered contemporary forms culturally acceptable—and that so those with the power to create, define the course its current unsustainable trajectory. In doing so, Fuad-Luke positions himself with the understanding that he holds bias for the “ecological or sociological truth” (Fuad-Luke, 2009:xxi). In removing the ambiguity as to his position on the topic, he opens up discourse more casual manner than to other design writers, speaking from personal experience as a self-defined “Design Activist”.


His definition of designers’ work is highly political, and divisive as he runs through a list of movements and merits their efforts toward sustainability— the Avant-Garde for example, offer an alternative design narrative, but are wounded by hypocritisism; arguing that they “must fight on two fronts simultaneously, against the bourgeois culture of which it is an offspring and against popular culture”. It would be uncommon to hear harsh words from Donald Norman, or Carol Honoré—and such is the privileged position of Fuad-Luke being the sculptor of such a young field, and the subsequent appeal of his writing.


Though often at points Fuad-Luke argues em-passionately for eco-efficient futures, and alternative enterprise models, the book can feel lacking in realistic alternatives to current systems of competitive manufacturing from a design perspective—at points stating that an embrace of Slow Design would be to “step outside the existing mental construct of capitalism”—an admission that is more akin to defeat than adaptation. Ezio Manzini, a frequent critic of complacent design practises, notes that design, and the consumption of design, is inevitability changing—and importantly, that the application of Slow Design does not have eradication of “fast design” as a precondition, rather that “the time of complexity is an ecology of times” (Manzini, 2015:25). A similar criticism comes from Johnathan Chapman, noted for research into “Emotional Durability”—a concept which concludes that “fast design” can be environmentally sustainable as long it appeals to current aesthetic sensibilities, and “possesses enduring value [to the user] in terms of its meanings and characteristics” (Chapman, 2012:105).


It is through an optimistic lens, however, that Fuad-Luke manages to balance his personal investment into Slow Design—and though this may not appeal entirely to those studying objectively the effectiveness of its following, one can understand the importance in personal pleas when reading the history of the Slow Movement. The book reads similarly to a manifesto in the ways in which it acts as a call to arms, and takes great strides in helping individuals contextualise the philosophical teachings of Slow Movement thinkers such as Carol Honoré to contemporary product scales—“Be slow when slowness is called for. Seek to live at what musicians call the tempo giusto—the right speed” (Honoré, 2010:15).

The Design Of Everyday Things, Donald Norman, 1988

The Value of Research

Non-traditional research sources as accepted by most published journals have increased dramatically with the prospering of new media and acceptance of the new media as legitimate platforms for discourse—and by contrasting the purely analytical, traditional format of a literature review with that of an object-based, discussionary set of research interviews, one can find a pastiche of opinions and objective truth building a more complete image of a research topic. In my literature review of Alistair Fuad-Luke’s Design Activism, I found a more complete summary of the existing topic (Knopf, 2006:128), and was able easily to relate more specific mentions to other existing sources—effectively building up a network of sub-themes to further research as part of the methodology suggested by Jeffrey Knopf. Many refer to the literature review as a bedrock for most research papers, forming the basis from which more reading can springboard. Critical analysis of a literature source is accepted as an important component of the process—enabling a discussion between reader and author that helps form narrative within your own research. For example, I disagreed with Fuad-Luke’s anecdotal argumentative style, but gave merit to the ways in which his work has helped appropriate the “Slow Movement” to the practicalities of design thought.


In interviewing subjects for the same topic, I chose to utilise Thomas Thwaits’ Toaster Project as a conversation article around which to ask questions of whether his aesthetic rebellion is an effective flag-bearer for Slow Design—the value in which is filtered opinion. In choosing to seek responses from those already engaged with design, I had an understanding that the interviewees would discuss the intent of the project rather than its content, which is already covered in a published book, and which I also covered in a little detail, to supplement and confirm points made by interviewees. In having individuals comment upon an object, or practise in an interview style, alongside an existing published book, has proven to be extremely helpful—as we can discuss and draft content analysis of works, before referring to literature from the designer, Thomas Thwaits, to check the validity of our thoughts. In this sense, we find a discussion arises between the designer / author and the viewer, in which we can argue against their written reasoning or methodology, as opposed to performing a blank content analysis. Often at points, a discussion on the work and it’s literature became a task in creating meaning, rather than finding meaning—separate from a literature in the sense that it is interpretive, but more valuable for personal development of research narratives.

Critical Reflection

There exist known limitations between both methods of research; Knopf admits that often students refer to a large number of texts when not necessary—spreading research thin instead of refining topics (Knopf, 2006:131), by hopping between source-to-source, much as I have found myself doing. Interviews, too, are very often conversational, and particularly in my own case, when I have chosen to interview those I am already familiar with in the field of aesthetic design—in order to refine the area of research and focus on meaning-making and critical analysis. The fluidity of interviews, though with pre-planned questions, can both aide in allowing the serendipitous answer or reveal of topic information, but can also introduce random errors into data collection—with the different ways that questions are asked each time, and how the interviewer and interviewee actively adapt wording to work toward finding answers for a specific research topic (Holstein & Gubrium, 2004:143).


Though initial, I have had issue with balancing and comparing qualitative data collection with quantitate data, and comparing anecdotal opinion from one interview subject to that of another. As mentioned in The Active Interview, the “social construction of knowledge” is always to be considered when reading information from subjects—in other words, the interview process and context is often as important to an understanding of a subject’s knowledge as the interview data gained. Working forward on my research for the following year, I wish to be more attuned to the importance of wider contexts to research—whether this be the context of an interview, or the context of the intent of a designer for which I choose to research.