Design Crime

Please read my most recent column, “Designing Consent,” which is up now. I wrote most of it right after I visited the Museum der Dinge in Berlin, which probably intensified my cynicism about industrial design at the time. At the museum was an exhibit called “Evil Things,” a collection of bad-taste objects inspired by curator Gustav E. Pazaurek’s “Cabinet of Bad Taste” from the early 20th century. Pazaurek attempted to taxonimize bad taste by devising various categories of flaws that he considered morally offensive. All the objects on display in the museum’s exhibition exemplified one of these “design crimes” — which range from objects mixing the organic with the inorganic to their being counterfunctional to their being ostentatiously decorated so as to cloak shoddy workmanship.

The curators expanded the concept from there. This is from the museum’s description of the show:

In the age of stylistic pluralism, it seems impossible to establish definitive criteria of “good” or “bad” taste. But a closer look reveals, first, that Pazaurek’s categories are applicable without amendment to countless contemporary objects, bringing to light a design practice that is both ludicrous and ironic, and second, that moral criteria are becoming pertinent again in conjunction with a new consumer consciousness. The “crimes” of today’s objects, however, are not evident prima facie, because they are manifested not in the design, the material or the decoration, but in the social, economic and ecological context. For this reason, new categories must be added to Pazaurek’s catalogue of mistakes.

Sadly they don’t list the criteria in the description, and I was forgot to write them down while I was there.

I left the show buoyed by the idea that one could invent a system that would allow us to rule out objects, to serve as another layer of defense against the onslaught of objects, and the various ways industrial designers try to get us to accept more stuff into our lives. Designers seemed like the enemy from that point of view, yet in the film Objectified, which I write about in the column, they tend to present themselves as the moral heroes of our age, practicing their holy arts to simplify the use of things, so that our lives can be completely subsumed in them. Their smug paternalism seems built into the career — we make objects that make decisions for you about how to use them; we make them point the way to what is proper. User friendliness is conceived as a kind of moral victory; convenience is next to godliness. I appreciated the Evil Objects show because it wanted to return the power of moral judgment to the consumers of objects, not their commercial-minded makers.