Beyond Utility

The Value of the Superfluous

Design today is understood as problem solving, or, on a simpler level, as decoration. Such an understanding of design misses a crucial aspect of human work, namely: work as a way to assert excellence and express free will.

In his famous book, The End of History and the Last Man, Francis Fukuyama develops the concept of thymos, a Greek word meaning spiritedness. The term is used in Socratic philosophy to describe one of the three parts of the human psyche – nous, thymos and epithymia, or, intellect, passion and appetite. Fukuyama differentiates thymos from basic emotions by presenting it as the sort of feeling we experience when we measure our actions against the actions we feel we ought to take, i.e. the feelings we experience when we take actions we deem moral or immoral. But thymos is not just an inner force – it is evoked when others deal us with us. For example, when somebody deals with us unfairly we may get angry. This is because unfair treatment is an assault on our dignity, a challenge to the standard to which we hold ourselves.

The ultimate expression of thymos takes place in Hegel’s master-slave dialectic, an imaginary scenario in which the primitive consciousness of the First Man meets its counterpart for the first time. In order for each to be recognized as the consciousness, the two engage in a battle to the death, seeking to submit the other to its will. At some point in the struggle, one consciousness inevitably submits, and in doing so surrenders its will to necessity, that is, it chooses life over idea. What the winner tries to prove with the contest is that they are somehow above the determinism of nature, that life itself is no more valuable to them than an object of their will. In staking life on an idea they rise above the base animal, becoming the First Man, i.e. a being able to follow moral law rather than natural law.

The advent of liberal democracy has, for the most part, eliminated the bloodshed of our earlier history. In a world of equal rights, the master morality of earlier times is made impossible, replaced by a system of equal recognition. As Fukuyama writes, the desire to prove ourselves remains in various degrees in different people, and in a modern world it gets expressed through outlets other than war. For example, sport is a activity in which the main point is to establish the winners and the losers. There is no necessity in sport – we choose to participate of our own free will, and in participating we affirm that will and prove our worth. Modern politics curtails the power of the nation’s leaders and the time they spend at their posts while still providing them with enough prestige to make the positions act as outlets for megalothymic urges, i.e. a thymotic excess that fuels an urge for one’s superiority to be recognized. Many entrepreneurs are driven by something other than the desire to make money. Multi-million dollar businesses are clearly not built by people who need money – past a certain point the enterprise becomes a form of competition. Work becomes the platform for man to assert his dominance over nature, and work-ethic to assert his dominance over other men.

Perhaps the best example of a modern outlet for thymos, however, is the Japanese tea ceremony. Fukuyama writes:

“[…] the Japanese demonstrated that it is possible to continue to be human through the invention of a series of perfectly contentless formal arts, like Noh theater, tea ceremonies, flower arranging, and the like. A tea ceremony does not serve any explicit political or economic purpose; even its symbolic significance has been lost over time. And yet, it is an arena for megalothymia in the form of pure snobbery: there are contending schools for tea ceremony and flower arrangement, with their own masters, novices, traditions, and canons of better and worse. It was the very formalism of this activity – the creation of new rules and values divorced from any utilitarian purpose, as in sports – that suggested to Kojève the possibility of specifically human activity even at the end of history.”

In the same way, we can view design as not merely a problem solving activity, but an outlet for thymos, an outlet for one’s drive for recognition and affirmation of one’s will. To be clear, I am not saying that a form of design is a thymotic activity. The essential and necessary aspects of design are to do with problem solving. Beyond this, however, there is an opportunity to do more, to turn a good into something greater than its primary purpose. When we pursue this, when the object of our focus begins to take on features unnecessary to its primary purpose, then it becomes an outlet for thymos. For example, look at how John Ruskin defined architecture in The Seven Lamps of Architecture:

“Let us, therefore, at once confine the name to that art which, taking up and admitting, as conditions of its working, the necessities and common uses of the building, impresses on its form certain characters venerable or beautiful, but otherwise unnecessary. Thus, I suppose, no one would call the laws architectural which determine the height of a breastwork or the position of a bastion. But if to the stone facing of that bastion be added an unnecessary feature, as a cable moulding, that is Architecture.”

I think the definition can be applied to most fields of design to differentiate work driven by thymos over work driven by necessity – i.e. work that “impresses on its form certain characters venerable or beautiful, but otherwise unnecessary.”

Modern design prides itself in its clean lines and function driven form, but I believe the same principle still applies. The aesthetic has changed, but the spirit remains. Most design before 20th century has followed some civilizational thread, weaving through its aesthetic ideas expressing the culture, history, religion and philosophy of the people who built it. The decorations and motifs on Byzantine or Gothic or Renaissance architecture are wholly unnecessary, but they are there because the people wanted them there. The same with all other crafts, from pottery to woodworking. The craftsmen did not just create goods, they created works decorated with the spirit of their times. The decoration was beautiful to look at, yes, but it also elevated the good beyond its basic use, and in doing so also elevated the craftsman beyond a basic laborer.

The post-modern world has lost its idealism, and the civilizational thread has been cut from its aesthetic, but the underlying expression remains, only in a different form. For example, here is a kettle designed by Richard Sapper for Alessi in 1983:

Alessi 9091 Kettle by Richard Sapper

The design of the kettle does not bear any historical aesthetic, but it is also not an ordinary kettle. Sapper wanted to design a kettle that would be pleasing to the ear as well as the eye, so in place of the typical whistle he implemented a combination of ‘mi’ and ‘si’ tuning pipes that result in a melodic note when the steam makes its way through them. Beyond the modernist design, the melodic whistle adds a playful element to the design, made more so by its resemblance to a smoking gun when it is opened using the trigger-like handle. It is design for the sake of delight rather than design merely for the sake of utility. Without the philosophical or historical thread, thymotic design pursues other avenues for expression, such as playfulness.

Ultra-simple design seen in modern consumer products from companies like Apple is another avenue. Here, the designer does not add but take away, and they take away more than anybody else before them, reducing their work to a level of unparalleled simplicity and clarity. Somewhat paradoxically, the “superfluous” element here becomes the lack of superfluity, for the designer has gone above and beyond to reduce a concept to its bare essentials. In doing more work than it takes to create a usable product, the designer asserts their will and their worth.

On a related note, the picking of a product gives the customer a certain amount of thymotic pleasure as well. In being able to pick a good created by a dedicated craftsman from the sea of mediocre imitations the customer asserts their own will to live beyond base necessity. As in the motions of a tea ceremony, the consumer picks an object based on its superfluous qualities, and in doing so affirms their choice to live by an idea rather than submit to the necessities of nature. Additionally, by picking the thymotic good apart from the rest the discerning customer affirms the work of the craftsman, recognizing and appreciating their excellence in their chosen craft. This can happen at small scale in cases of master craftsmen, but it is also evident at large scale in the phenomenon of brand loyalty. People who use Apple computers or drive Harley-Davidsons may certainly wish to partake in a form of conspicuous consumption in order to project their status, but their projection also includes a sense of thymotic pride, a public appreciation for the design decisions that went into the making of the product they now own. This public appreciation is strong enough to form communities around the brand, and it is not uncommon for emotions to flare up when the worth of a devotee’s favorite brand is challenged.

Solving a problem well will lead to good design, but it will never lead to great design. Great design does not simply help us live, it is an expression of our lives, appealing to and affirming our will to live beyond the chains of necessity. It is in the realm beyond utility, in the realm of the superfluous, that design breaks those chains and transcends its deterministic roots, becoming a truly human activity. In creating the superfluous, the craftsman expresses free will; in creating the beautiful, the craftsman affirms their worth.

Share on Twitter Facebook Email

“For even falsehood, uttered by the tongue of man, seemed like truth and light before this hopelessly-deaf and unresponsive silence.”

My new book: a translation of selected short stories by Leonid Andreyev, the father of Russian Expressionism from the Silver Age of Russian literature. A piercing, pitiless glance into the heart of the human condition.

☛ Read online

Further Reading

Proust wrote that the true voyage of discovery is not to visit strange lands, but to possess other eyes, to behold a hundred universes that each of them beholds. Thus, in the words of Ruskin, what good books give us is not mere knowledge, but sight.

Sign up to my email newsletter to receive regular recommendations of exceptional books on a wide range of topics including design, art, history and philosophy. A summary of latest site updates will also be included. Sign up below: