Too Plain

Man-made objects are predisposed to look a certain way because of the constraints imposed on their construction. Bricks are square because they’re easier to assemble this way. Wooden boards are straight because it’s easier to cut in a straight line. Walls are painted a single color because that’s easier to do than manually decorating them. This is more so since the arrival of mechanical mass production about a hundred years ago. If you’re going to produce things en masse they have to be standardized – the individual parts have to be easy and quick to make. Carving out or hand-painting decorations is impractical, and so the design moves towards something more plain, more minimal.

William Morris, the father of the Arts and Crafts movement in England that flourished between 1860 and 1910, held a strong stance against mechanical mass production. There were several reasons for this, including the terrible conditions people worked in at the time, but the more interesting reason to me, and one that still applies today, is that people working on mass producing goods were not involved in a creative endeavour. Since the goods are standardized, a craftsman cannot just paint or carve whatever they feel like–they have to do the same thing again and again, over and over. The decoration or style is not even of their own conception, they are to recreate a design made by somebody else. Contrast this to items created by craftsmen working in their own village rather than a factory, who are free to express their creativity on the goods they make. Each craftsman is able to do whatever they feel, and so each product they create is unique and its decoration is created with real emotion.

Morris considered Gothic architecture to be the only viable style to build on in England. One interesting aspect of his view was that walls in a Gothic house should never be barren, but instead every inch should be adorned in decorations, tapestries, paintings and furniture so that they all fuse together to create a building as one complete work of art. Here’s the quote from his lecture:

And let me note in passing that the necessarily ordinary conception of a Gothic interior of being a colourless whitey-grey place dependent on nothing but the architectural forms, is about as far from the fact as the corresponding idea of a Greek temple standing in all the chastity of white marble. We must remember, on the contrary, that both buildings were clad, and that the noblest part of their raiment was their share of a great epic, a story appealing to the hearts and minds of men. And in the Gothic building, especially in the half century we now have before us, every part of it, walls, windows, floor, was all looked on as space for the representation of incidents of the great story of mankind, as it had presented itself to the minds of men then living; and this space was used with the greatest frankness of prodigality, and one may fairly say that wherever a picture could be painted there it was painted.

William Morris · Gothic Architecture

This is almost the opposite of what we have now, with everything being mass produced, standardized and simplified. Decoration was ruled to be superfluous and so banished from modern design. It is true that decoration can be bad, it can be garish and out of place, but by banishing it altogether we’ve arrived at the other extreme: a monotonous and sterile world. In some places our cities are so bland that people with cans of spray paint begin to fight back with graffiti. The creative instinct expresses itself against monotony in its most primitive form, but our response is to fight it and to paint the walls white again.

By appeasing manufacturing constraints we also move our design and art towards a design sense ruled by those constraints. Apple’s software style has come under criticism lately from designers who don’t like Apple using skeuomorphs, that is, mimicking real life things and textures on the computer display. Apple make the books app look like wooden shelves, or the calendar app like a leather calendar together with a torn paper page. But all this is a counterbalance to the minimalist aesthetic of their hardware, which completely eradicates any decorations and makes the device look as simple as clean as possible.

Microsoft have recently redesigned their Windows operating system in a minimalist style that follows a design language they call Metro. Metro-style is honest, it doesn’t pretend to be made out of leather or look like wooden shelves. What it does look like are plainly colored squares, with most of the interface design relying on typography and the layout of elements. The problem with Microsoft’s Metro is that when coupled with minimalist hardware, both the software and the hardware are now on the same extreme. There is no counterbalance and so the device as a whole becomes plain and sterile.

Can a style we interact with daily affect our lives? Goethe made a great comparison between the construction of cities and music. He said that a well constructed city is like a great symphony. When you walk its streets you feel energized and enter into the ideal state of highest ethical and religious delight. A citizen of a badly constructed town however, where houses are placed haphazardly here and there, hears a cacophony of sound, like a storm of bagpipes, whistles and tambourines.

I think something similar can be said of styles that steer into one or the other extreme of complexity. When something is too complex it can be too much. It becomes garish, overwhelming and loses a sense of order and structure. On the other hand something on the simplicity extreme becomes too plain, monotonous and boring. The object serves its function but provides no emotional nourishment. It’s like eating stale dry bread–sure, it’s going to fill you up, but you’re not going to enjoy it.

December 2011