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Beneath the veneer of modern design practice

Published onSep 18, 2020
Beneath the veneer of modern design practice

‘Design’ is a modern idea, a byproduct of an industrial age. Like veneer on a mass-produced, engineered ‘wood’ substitute, it fulfils a useful function. However, it hides all manner of seemingly small everyday betrayals beneath. My practice scratches at the surface of design and seeks to penetrate this mass-produced veneer, to get beneath it.

One of the failures of the way design is taught and practised today is that, in its separation from the craft of making, it has become disconnected from place. Effectively place has been silenced and design has become disembodied. This creates a situation where designers are making decisions about materials, and processes, without all the facts, or the knowledge of the situation they are acting into. This leads to unintended consequences and ultimately a feeling of place-less-ness. I am experimenting with ways of creating new forms, be they everyday objects or spaces, that are deeply rooted in place and I am curious about what the place has to ‘say’. Designing in this way becomes a conversation between the maker and the materials of the situation, and importantly it allows a place to ‘talk back’. 

I am increasingly interested in the material: I take great pleasure in harvesting my own from the forest, or the ground beneath my feet, and using my hands, and simple well-made tools, to create objects I can use in my everyday life.  This way of generating form is deeply relational, participatory, and creates a space for new forms to emerge that are unashamedly of a place. This is what a more ecological, or natural, approach to design means to me.

At the University of Arts in London, I am introducing masters students to ecological or place-based design practices. This involves finding ways for them to come into relationship with the place in which they find themselves, the context in which they are acting into. I have found that when students harvest their own materials, and enter into a process of making with their hands, they begin to make sense of abstract concepts such as complexity, systems thinking and resilience, and to ground theory in an everyday practice.

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