Otto von Busch, XXI magazine, iss 68, june 2008

A Short History of Design and Do-it-yourself

The world we meet in our everyday lives is getting more and more profoundly designed. We can see this for every passing issue of this magazine, filled with both smart and glossy designs, making life easier as well as more aesthetically pleasing. All these objects have been going through some kind of design process where decisions have been put before others, usually in some design office or by trained engineers. Other things, perhaps not on the pages of this magazine, are designed by amateurs with various success, and we often consider these solutions as of lesser quality. Perhaps they have been part of some Do-it-yourself endeavour, where the stubborn houseman tries to fix something without the right craftsman around. But very often the opposite is also true – the DIY amateurship can be a pathway to something new.

What we often fail to reflect on when flipping through a design magazine like this is the power play shown on these pages. When we do, we often think of the cruel reality of economics or the exclusive utopian dreams of designers, but the craft of design itself is in also a serious issue of power. We, the designers, usually take considerable pride in our profession and refuse to see how it relates to the great game of power in the everyday of people; how it at one time both engages people and at the same time locks others out of participation in our shared world. To fully understand the meaning of the recent Do-It-Yourself wave in design activism we will have to look back a little into the history of design to see what DIY is a reaction to.

bauhaus dessau

Much of what we consider design today has its roots in the phenomenal Bauhaus tradition, and its influence on design thinking cannot be underestimated. At the Bauhaus the industrial idol of the engineer came to meet the aesthetic evolution of the strict constructivist avantgarde. After the horrors of the First World War a new utopian society was going to be built, an optimized society where there would be no violent class struggles, no poor or criminals. Revolution or not, a new future needed to be built. Where all political efforts had proved unsuccessful design was going to save the future. Just like the engineers had managed to build great constructions and provided industrially produced objects for the masses, they were now also going to eliminate all social problems with functionality, optimization, aesthetics and mass-production.

In this process the designer became the new idol of progress, the engineer of expectations, and in his white lab coat he predicted needs, drew models and shaped the ideal future before us. Great men, like Le Corbusier, imagined the house as a “machine for living” and the technical motto of “form follows function” became the slogan of the age. Like they had engineered fantastic machines for life, life was in their eyes a machine in itself, and the industrial society would produce life equally wonderful for everyone. The professional and the experts in their labs were the proof of material and spiritual progress creating the utopian welfare state.

The technical progress indeed proved successful. Machines replaced hard physical labour in many professions. Mass housing helped raise the living standard in the overcrowded cities. Medicine and hygiene helped more children survive infancy and the engineers built food supply, water and sewage systems as well as infrastructure helping to sustain larger populations in the cities. Work was created for the masses and all progress promised of an industrially engineered utopia just behind the horizon.

It even seemed like technical progress itself helped the evolution of a democratic society. The big centralized steam engine, that once powered the whole factory, was replaced with smaller electrical motors and the factory work could be more decentralized. Now every worker could use personal machines, drills, routers, saws, soon even personal computers, to reach their production goal. Political and technical development went hand-in-hand. Time consuming work materialized into mass-produced objects. The tiring hand washing was succeeded by the washing machine, the tractor helped plough the fields, and the sewing machine replaced hand-sewing. But also live music became records and mass broadcastings. Tailoring turned into prêt-a-porter fashion. All time saved could be turned into new economy-generating processes. A wealthier and better future for everyone seemed almost unavoidable, thanks to the wonders of design.

But to keep the production process clean and manageable and fitting in the economic models some distinctions had to be made. It needed a created a clear distinction between production and consumption, productive and unproductive work, and professionals and amateurs. Labour within the economy became regarded as productive and could be taxed, while hobby and purely cultural work became seen as unuseful for society, but for personal development of its citizens. The division of labour and the distinctions above framed the industrial society and this also became one of industrialism’s most profound political impacts on its citizens. Likewise, the promise of design, that the mass products were to liberate us from work, proved to offer the opposite. The computers drowned us with new tasks and the sewing machine that was once made to liberate the housewife from workload came to enslave workers in sweatshops.

This impact came to concern the “action spaces” of people. Action spaces can be defined as the interfaces to potentialities in the world; what we see as possible and how we intervene in the world. Our tools, techniques their potentiality for action. With mechanisation and technologies, society did not become more inter-active, but perhaps even more inter-passive, the more specialized our skills and our tools became. The division of labour and the role of the professionals locked people out of production processes resulting in disempowering. Furthermore, design, the discipline that was once going to build the utopian society of social inclusion, participation and equality, instead became the chief guardian of the mechanisms of exclusion.

This problem of action spaces is something that has turned more apparent over the last decades. As more products are created to enhance our interactions with other people, they are also becoming more controlled by the design mechanisms of the professionals. Many products are today being designed to keep user out from them, perhaps most famously shown with the Apple iPod which does not even contain screws to be opened with. Likewise the consumer loses the warranty if the iTunes software is replaced with an open version. We are offered a music product making us able to play the music Apple wants us to play, and we are offered a new action space on licence. Even if I would have the skill to rebuild it, I am purposefully locked out by design.

It is in this context we can see how Do-it-yourself today becomes a struggle between the forces at play in our action spaces. Between pacifying and activating tools. Tools that handicap and tools that enable. We can take cooking for example. When I buy a ready-made sauce I save some minutes and effort and can instead focus on something else, but I also will lose the opportunity to learn to cook this sauce. Now this doesn’t mean we should make everything ourselves, farm, fish and sew our clothes, but if we have the skill we have a choice. And this is the core of DIY – I have the choice to do-it-myself, or let someone else do it for me, but essential is this freedom of choice. I reclaim the choice design has taken away from me. Lately DIY has also turned into a new form of luxury and prestige and more and more craft and tool stores open every day; a whole new economy if flourishing, often resulting in consumers buying a lot of tools and gadgets they will never use.

At that moment, with the new tools in hand, the last century of design history stands clear to me. After another round in the craft store now named Bauhaus, where I have heroically supported the product-based economic progress of our society, I stand there with my brilliantly designed power tool in hand. I look at it this optimized and cleverly engineered design wonder. But I lack the skill to use it.

bauhaus global

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