Design Critique Speaking about beauty without rules or postulates

Birgit Bauer
Birgit Bauer | Photo (detail): Jennifer Weber

Theory and critique are making their way again into the German discourse on design. In 2009 Birgit S. Bauer, designer and professor of conceptual design at the School for Applied Sciences in Berlin, created the internet site designkritik.dk in collaboration with Nicole Birlenbach and Michael Okraj. We catch up with Birgit B. Bauer for a long overdue discussion on critique, design – and taste.

Ms Bauer, there is a German Society for Design History and a German Society for Design Theory and Research. Why isn’t there a Society for Design Critique as well?

That would certainly suit the German need for order just fine! But seriously: design critique is such a young discipline that there is still no formalized practice – and, further, too few opinions voiced. Creating a rigid institution would be the worst possible idea in this case. Many people abroad, though, do wonder why critique takes a back seat precisely in Germany, a country that boasts such a rich tradition in design, or why there are almost no publications here that offer a serious, critical discourse. Or why – for that matter – there is such a lack of social debate on design. We in Germany have to learn again to talk about life and beauty without the constraints of rules and postulates. We are only just beginning to playfully enjoy difference– and this is what critique is about.

A message to designers

You are the editor of designkritik.dk. What are the purposes and objectives of this platform?

“Design critique ≠ I Like” could express it in a nutshell. We would like to make the discourse on design more sophisticated, and, for now, direct the message primarily to people in our industry, that is, to designers themselves.

In order to achieve this, we had to create a space completely free and independent of financial or moral considerations. Clubs, associations, magazines and blogs are often bound by obligation to their traditions, the publisher, or advertisers, and for economic reasons, don’t take the lead in anything tentative or take on any unresolved problems.

In this respect, designkritik.dk is a platform that should spur designers to think and write – through recommended readings and reviews, on the one hand, and critical texts, on the other. We’re very happy to see that most texts are actually being written by members of the community. The authors are young design scholars, but also designers and design students, who venture into uncharted territory with the writing down and formulating of their thoughts.

This seems to contrast with the notion of design as “business venue” – which is how the Design Council sees it.

In recent years the Council has made clear decisions what messages it stands for – and no less, it has made financial decisions to secure its own advancement. The Council’s strategy of exclusivity caters to its target group – the manufacturing and business sectors – which is indeed not a bad thing for starters. Can the Council, however, support companies in the future that want to focus on quality of form both internally and externally if it avails itself freely of marketing jargon and thus bend the meaning of design for society as a whole?

Instead, the Council should concentrate on helping companies muster the courage to develop an entrepreneurial culture that is not just determined by returns only.

All of this is worth mentioning because it’d be great to have an adventuresome organization that is capable of challenging conventional ways of expression. As far as I’m concerned, there are just too many awards and exhibitions ─ that speak only to the surface.

Stone Age vocabulary

To what extent is the organizational structure of a council at all suited to have the final say on matters pertaining to design? What is the future outlook for “design” critique? Can ‘good’ taste save consumers from globalized kitsch?

The Council serves as a tool – incidentally, like many awards – to promote business interests in a specific sector. This has hardly anything to do with the aesthetic value judgments people dared to make in former times. Rather, it has to do with usability - a very German notion. In the future, critique will have to deal with so many aspects of how we relate to things and with one another that ‘design’ will seem like an expression from the Stone Age. And kitschy design is no longer a problem either: there are too many rapidly changing cultural poses for that nowadays.

What role does design critique play in design courses at German universities nowadays?

In the face of rampant capitalist Actionism, which with “maker culture” and the creative imperative to a large degree emerges from design, philosopher Slavoj Žižek urges “Don't Act. Just Think.” The reason why critique still has potential for growth in universities is that thinking has often been impulsively banned to a mystical realm of theory removed from practice and design is regarded as a feverishly bustling discipline.Unfortunately, that’s also why designers prefer to let others do the talking. Critique is rather the art of differentiation and not a purely academic exercise. It can be a lot of fun if the diversity of approaches can be grasped as something positive. We are fortunately seeing a generational and technological change that indicates that an increasing number of scholars can handle the complexity of this subject very well.
 

The exhibition “Evil Things. An Encyclopedia of Bad Taste” was first shown in Berlin at the Museum der Dinge (Museum of Objects) in 2009 and has been a traveling exhibition since then.

It will premiere in Vienna at the Hofmobiliendepot on February 19 2014.