online: 8 january 2002

24 december 2002 industrial design history trip

transcribing notes handwritten in a bus travelling from London to Belgium, 22 december 2002

12:24 Dozed and slept (with help of a pillow and a sleepmask) all the way through Kent. Woke at the start of the Eurotunnel... and now emerging from it.

As always, I'm so impressed by the way in which 'perfectly normal' people (i.e. 'everyone') can, without being aware of it, collaborate to design, make, operate, and use such a vast and 'unnatural' evolution as this...

...though I felt a little uneasy in those bus-carrying rail coaches, with danger close, and the strange sensation of seeming not to be moving, yet feeling the vibration of the bus (on its inflated rubber tyres) inside the almost windowless railcoach - an articulated moving garage, resembling an American prison, with interlocked doors, now automatically folding aside, and the prison-like processes for reaching the mechanically-designed toilets, and the evacuation instructions, and little or no effort to 'industrially design' the interior, or the process. 'It's not a pleasant experience' said the coach driver - he said he prefers the bus-on-a-ship crossing, with a chance to get out and have a break...

While I was awake (in the bus station in London and while passing through the entry and exit zones of Eurotunnel) I thought again and again how beneficial is (or was) the effect of industrial design as I originally knew it - principally from the examples of Henry Dreyfuss and Jack Howe* (and indirectly from Walter Gropius and the other pioneers of industrial design). But in the 80s all changed as the 'design culture' replaced the attempted user-functionalism of the early modernists... and design became a (commercial) value in itself. 'Designing for people' was replaced by the commercially manipulated culture of the 'designer lifestyle', brand allegiance, and all such destructive nonsense... But perhaps it was a necessary step?

I think this little (or should I say immense?) experience, of the attempts and failures of industrial design to 'improve life', is the story of many lives, including mine, an evolution not yet publicly described or perceived. Shall I do it?... Yes, of course... and this writing can be the beginning of it!

14:45 Now speeding on a motorway through France, seen far more fully than usual as I have the two front seats to myself (for somehow, despite the queues and the scarcity of information in the bus terminal, I moved towards the bus at just the moment when it began boarding and found almost all the seats empty).

We pass 'Aerodrome de Marke'... How I like those French aviation words - such as aerodrome and fuselage and aileron - that became current, in both French and English, during my childhood in the 30s!

Yes, today I'm feeling revived and inspired by the good side of modernity - that it should ever have become 'bad' is to my mind a cultural disaster, the disaster against which I've lived - and failed more than succeeded. But there's time yet!

It's not insignificant, I think, that I'm writing these thoughts on a piece of paper supported by a copy of P B Shelley's translation of The Symposium (or The Banquet) of Plato. The book is concerned with the love of one person for another one... but my symposium will be about the love of each one for the many of us - and of the many of us for each one... But perhaps I should not call it my symposium - it's Utopia's! Perhaps The Symposium of Utopia** will be its final title?

As we slowly overtake a vast truck I see that its driver wears only a t-shirt and jeans and has his left foot and leg raised up to rest on the dashboard - as if he is relaxed and on holiday... and perhaps he is, for modern work is indeed less and less distinguishable from 'holiday' or leisure' - as modern leisure comes to resemble 'work', more and more... What is this journey, this modern pilgrimage or odyssey, across Europe, by fifty or so people in this bus that goes inside a train, on a railway that goes beneath the sea? It's neither work nor leisure, the distinction's become false, it's as great or as trivial as any journey in literature, in history or in daily life! But its circumstance is both new and somewhat crazy.

And as I edit this text I remember the greater 'craziness' of the sight of any motorway in the world with its never-ending flow of fast vehicles moving in both directions every day, and for much of the night, perhaps for eternity, with no one knowing where the others are coming from or going to, or why... just the unexplained madness of unending travel the world over, of a species of animals that evolved only for walking and running on two legs but with its free hands (and perhaps surplus brain-power) has evolved artificially into these high-speed prostheses we call cars and trucks and motorways (let alone jet planes and airports)... a gigantic extension of both 'work' and of 'leisure' to the point of madness - and destructive of earthlife and of culture as they were.

We pass a huge cream and turquoise building set in fields. I wonder if it is a prison, or a factory, or what? It has very few windows and could be anything industrial and manipulative. It's a modern wonder, though it looks more fit to enclose abstract processes than for the shelter or the love of people.

We leave the motorway for another, somewhere near Lille... and now we are moving across huge fields without hedges - formed more by agri-business than by natural evolution... The earth was spoiled by farming long ago - all we do now is to accellerate the long artificial evolution of things human, from early agriculture and industry to all this, our collective presence with its 'irresistible' commercial goals and, its contrived techniques and its 'unnatural' ways... And 'all this' is what I'm perceiving, today, so very clearly, even warmly, and as a single process, achieved without much conscious intention or design and with a surprising coherence though it may be a mistake.

Yes, I feel it's time to retell this story, through my memories and my eyes and ears, of the so surprising culture of everyone in modern time, in these un-remarked and yet most significant evolutions.

In the mirror I see the immobilised head of the driver - so intently looking ahead on a narrow path of a few degrees (of the 180 he could see if he wasn't driving)... I like him as a person and I deplore the imprisoning work he is obliged to undertake for the rest of us... but of course I know that motorway driving will one day be automated.

After the journey I was full of this idea of writing a review or history of industrial design, seen as an ineffective attempt to improve industrial living - followed by a successful attempt at making design into a saleable value in itself while ceasing to bother about the safety, comfort, and making life better for people and less damaging for nature... and including in this the history of ergonomics, system design, the new cybernetics, design methods, and perhaps environmentalism... none of these new techniques or 'movements' having the power to appreciably influence life in the manner hoped for by enthusiasts such as myself - and the power of marketing being sufficient, unfortunately, to completely distort industrial design (and perhaps ergonomics, systems theory, cybernetics design methods and such) into the self-confessed 'trivia' of the nineteen-eighties and after.

Can this be the topic for Utopia's symposium? - Why not? It's time for serious thought about the evolution we could and should all be responsible for - about the love of each of us for all and of all of us for each. That could be the new reality!

*In the early fifties I was much influenced by Henry Dreyfuss's book Designing for People. Jack Howe, the architect and industrial designer (from whom I learnt industrial design) was Gropius's assistant when he designed one of the Cambridge village colleges in the nineteen-thirties. I value that connection, indirect as it is.

**Utopia has called Numeroso and Unesco to an imaginary symposium about the future of industrial living.

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© 2002 john chris jones

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