“Design is not decoration,” says design historian Alexandra Midal, freelance curator, professor and Head of Master Design programmes at the HEAD – Geneva University of Art and Design. “Design is much more than plain style. It is so much better than that, it is a space of production of senses and of creation.” Josephine Simon interviewed her for Swiss Style and came up with some surprising data.
Ms. Midal, what is your definition of the term “design”?
Alexandra Midal: It depends on who is using it. There is no “right” definition, all are contestable, because they are all linked to opinions, statements and individual points of view. In the same way we cannot give a definition to contemporary art, design cannot be defined. In a mindset of extreme simplification, some stipulate that design is automatically linked to functionalism, it is an approach that is historically influenced by the modernist movement, in an historically transitional period, but which does not suffice at all to define design.
So there is no real definition of design. Then how does design come about?
Every time we try to define the term “design,” we are restraining it, limiting its reach. We usually do it easily, facilitating the process through language. But I think that one aspect of design is often forgotten: design is a way to view and consider life. That must be remembered above all. It is absurd to just limit design to objects, even industrial ones. It is not the final object, the material result that allows us to understand the components and constituents belonging to the object. I think that design is a history, an intention, even more than a way of thinking, it is an exchange. It is certainly not pure functionalism, which is, in a way, the basics, the ABC of design.
Design reaches way beyond objects, it is a way of thinking, living and interacting. The history of design has established itself in a fight against the industrial production system, it is even born to protest against it. Design is essentially linked to the evolution of social norms and relationships too, but design goes further than social and technological revolutions in the fact that it changes the way we think and interact. A popular example is the use of mobile phones or social media, which transforms the way we relate to each other.
Your PhD from Princeton University rewards months of research in the design field, it makes you one of the rare design historians testifying about this discipline. How do you theorise design and how do you conduct your research to establish theses?
Retracing the history of design is not only researching about the production method of an object and the time in which it was produced. It is researching opinions, what designers at that time really thought, what their intent was. The form is, of course, important, but inside there is the intent, the way of thinking of the artist/designer. The point of my research, what I am interested in, is to know what authors, critics and designers were thinking when they produced their works.
Some think design should be accessible for everyone, while others think that “great design” is like art, expensive and collectable. Other design theorists and thinkers pretend that the practice of design has lost its ideal – i.e., making life easier and more beautiful – and integrity because of a globalised capitalist influence. Do you see a change in the understanding and consumption of design objects nowadays?
As a design historian and teacher I cannot comment on market trends, consumption ideals, etc… As a teacher I heartily recommend my design students not to think in terms of consumers and clients but to be as serious, honest and rigorous as possible. I encourage them to be exacting with themselves in their work. Their final reward is the public’s interaction with the final object, if they want to touch it, sit on it and examine it.
What are, in your opinion, tomorrow’s challenges in the designing of objects?
I think that people do not want standardised objects anymore, they want customised, or customisable items. What is important for designers coming out of design schools nowadays is to have their own approach and vocabulary of design and stand by their creations. We are aware of the influence of the connection between the space we occupy, the objects we use or on which we rest our bodies. This interaction between us and our environment shapes our way of living, working and interacting with others. The environments we create also have political power, it means that they shape the way we act. New designers reinvent the connection we already have with the environment, and by doing so, revolutionise the way we live.
Interview by Joséphine Simon