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Just what do designers believe in?

Sam Jacob has never been to the Milan Furniture Fair - but he suspects it’s an exhibition of glorious failures

This is not a report from the Milan Furniture Fair. It’s more an excuse as to why I’ve never been, and perhaps a kind of lament as to why I probably never will. My only vicarious involvement is the stream of journalists’ Twitter feeds (‘Jst been to party X! Rockin’ up to party Y!’) and the Facebook updates of designers (‘Xcited 2 B launching my nu chair at A, nu bookcase at B and nu lamp at C’). It’s a shame, because it sounds fun. I mean, who wouldn’t like to hear some ageing enfant terrible tell you how great he is or see a Dutch design supremo and equally celebrated British luminary double-teaming high-class escorts? That’s what design is about right? The buzz! The thrill! The egos! The gossip!

To tell the truth, I feel bad enough even at provincial design expos such as London Design Week. I guess it’s a physiological thing. These nodes of highly concentrated design radiate something odd. Quite frankly, it’s unnatural to be surrounded by things that are more confident of their place in the world than you.

Jasper Morrison’s 1997 Book of Spoons – featuring photographs of spoons ‘from the ice cream scooper to the rice paddle – shows how for some, the minutiae of difference that design manifests can provide a kind of Zen-like understanding of the human condition. I too see something of the human condition in these everyday objects, but mine is a hysterical vision of hopeless existential plight rendered in polished stainless steel. Perhaps the closest I came to a nervous breakdown was in the cutlery department of a Conran Shop – seeing my face distorted on the backs of spoons like Munch’s Scream. These reflections somehow form the image of a vortex that might suck me in and destroy me.

Between the promise and reality we can see the unconscious social narrative that drives design

There was a time when design believed it could change the world: emancipate the working class; bring hygiene and democracy to the dirty and oppressed and so on. But figuring out what design believes in now is tricky. It doesn’t really believe in itself anymore, only in its own image reflected in the ‘buzz’. We might characterise the ‘buzz’ as a cabal of the design collections of major museums, high-end magazines and the comment threads that trail appearances on design blogs. Through these cultural lenses, design’s image is concentrated, like a magnifying glass focusing the sun’s rays to a white-hot point, when it becomes too bright to see, bleaching out our retinas.

Perhaps the real reason I’m not in Milan is a fear of disappointment. Design is almost always a glorious failure: a failure to make the world a better place, to look as beautiful as it should, or to work as well as it wanted to. The unintentional drama of this failure is the real truth that design reveals. In the gap between promise and reality, we glimpse the unconscious social and anthropological narrative that really drives design.

In honour of this idea of failure, I’ve found myself a new design hero. ‘Magic’ Alex Mardas was a Greek TV repairman who for some reason was hired by The Beatles to run Apple Corps’ electronics arm. The Beatles asked him to install their recording studio in Savile Row. Mardas promised a 72-track recording console (Abbey Road had 8-track at the time). He also claimed he would install an invisible sonic force-field which would replace studio baffles, preventing sound from leaking into other microphones. More than this, he promised a range of super-high-tech gadgets and devices: an artificial sun, a speech-activated telephone, a house which hovered on an invisible beam, a solar-powered electric guitar.

He got as far as wandering around in a white coat, muttering and trying to place box-loads of tiny loudspeakers around the studio, one for each track, and a mixing console cobbled from bits of wood and an old oscilloscope.

His grand ambition, allied to its totally inadequate manifestation, is a kind of exaggeration of the feeling every designer has when the thing that has occupied their thoughts is finally produced. In honour of Magic Alex, the distance between the idea of something and its manifestation might be named the ‘Mardas Gap’.

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