David Stairs

It’s been a rough week in Kampala. Spring rains come each day in violent downpours and thunderstorms, covering everything in a deluge of mud. Balance this with stifling heat and you have the point-counterpoint of tropical life. My Dad died Wednesday. On Sunday night he slipped and fell in his bedroom breaking his hip, and three days later, on the eve of surgery, he died quietly in his sleep. He was 90, which is plenty long enough to live. If you’d asked him he probably would have said he’d overstayed his welcome, having outlived most of his friends and survived my Mom by a difficult year.

My Father listening to Paul Harvey, 2003 photo by Chris Stairs

Of course, this letter isn’t about the weather, or even my Father’s timely death, but about your post on Design Observer, because in a way that made the week harder still. As the number of responses climbs into the lower stratosphere, it is difficult for me to remain objective about it. I try to understand the motivation for such insights, curious, provocative, level-headed, objective, satirical, but I must confess, as many times as I read them I come up empty handed. My 23 year-old son Chris reproaches me. He says that the style of addressing an audience has fundamentally changed with new forms of interactive communication. As a child of the Internet, he seems to implicitly understand web etiquette while I, solipsistic product of network television, talk absorbedly to myself. The manicure and cup holder topic should not be any less “observed” than other possible discussions, but it still sticks in my craw. My son considers the substance of my words basically correct. But he takes issue with my tone, which he considers snippy and off point. Unfortunately, since my response was intended as a direct complaint about navel-gazing, this criticism makes me question the appositeness of my remarks. So, because I do not really know how to respond to a discussion about cup holders, it’s obvious I should keep my mouth shut rather than commit this rear guard action. Or is a kernel of truth worth a potential acre of misunderstanding? The devil’s in the details we like to say, and designers are detail-obsessed individuals. But I feel strongly that when an observation about as trivial a social topic as cup holders generates this much conversation it identifies Americans as a people who can’t quite see the forest for the lattes. For two or three years now I have made myself utterly tiresome with a single-minded tirade about the failure of design to make more than a cursory difference to most people in the world. Cell phones notwithstanding, my self-righteous rant has less to do with guilt, as suggested by John Ellis, than with love. Which is to say, I don’t work in Africa because I’m guilty about being an American, but because I love Africa.

These orphaned kids live on a farm near Bombo. Annette, 13, was $12 short of the necessary school fees on October 17th, the day DWB visited. photo by Chris Stairs

In the epilogue to his essay,“The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Walter Benjamin famously declared that the logical result of fascism was the aestheticization of politics. Following him out on that limb, where any passing designer can cut me down, I think I could call design the aestheticization of life. Designing went on for centuries before industrialization required it to be codified as such and, now that we have the definition among us, some seem determined to defend it at all costs. Personally, I’ve spent as much time as anyone pursuing the often false ideal of beauty.

I’m not prepared here to mount a full-scale repudiation of the human fascination for order and harmony, which would require me to make disquisitions both Heideggerian and scientific, which I’m not qualified to do. But the older I get the more certain I become that making the world safe for beauty and efficiency, let alone pleasure, is not a sound foundation upon which to base a life, or a just society. Despite their small-object fixations, designers need to do better than go on at length about trivialities, even carefully market-researched ones. As a profession devoted to “adding value” we need to have values first. Design is not ethically, politically, or economically neutral, as I know you are aware. Just as the fact that the color of my skin gives me an edge on a continent that’s 85% black is perverse, we can’t allow ourselves to be lulled to believe that our current wealth-generating system, founded as it is upon gross inequities, will one day create enough “ubiquity” to go around. Quite the contrary. We’re already way past the point where populations can ever hope to achieve homeostasis with their compromised surroundings, and it’s gonna take a nasty correction, one that no amount of relief aid can staunch, to redress this imbalance.

My fear is that designers will see this as a first magnitude opportunity. And then the point of your plaintive question, “Is that all there is?”, will become lost in a divagation over royalties for an old pop song title. I hope my addressing you this way does not seem like a lack of graciousness, especially since you have been so generous as to post my piece on your estimable site. My muddleheaded one-hit repertoire in the world of design does get a bit tiresome, I realize. I can never hope to be a design polymath like Steve Heller, or a brilliant raconteur like Cameron Sinclair. And people will just have to continue to suffer my characterization of the AIGA’s XCD poster exhibits and upcoming ICOGRADA World Design Congress collaboration in Havana as romanticized tokens, mere nods to the-real-third-world-in-the-western-hemisphere conditions of say, Haiti or Honduras. Mosquito populations are blooming in the Tropics. My son and I expend a healthy effort foiling nature’s clever plan to infect us with blood parasites. Tell your readers that, although there isn’t much difference between the cup holders in a Mini-Cooper and on an Outlander, they really could help us and a lot of other people by buying a Toyota Prius. I have it on good authority that the Prius’ cup holders emit much less greenhouse gas, which ought to be a real guilt-assuaging perk of early twenty-first century coffee consumerism.

David Stairs is the founding editor of Design-Altruism-Project.

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