As published on Dezeen on the 8th of August, 2013
Recently, a post on Dezeen showed a great deal of similarity between Dewar’s advertising campaign and my work. The agency’s stunt reminded me of the likes of Adibas, Adidos, Naik and countless other “brands”. Inspired, having thought about ethics, originality, progress and education in design, I decided to write a short reflection in the spirit of essays by Michel de Montaigne.
I heard once someone say that a single cause for for all world’s evil is words: “This is mine!”
Picasso said that good artist copy; great artists steal. Well known and recently over-quoted thanks to the success of Steve Jobs with Apple. Tragically misinterpreted. It is a tongue-in cheek phrase that insinuates the fact that great artists build on the work of others without anyone spotting it. Actually, it is more that we pardon them due to their personal spin given to the bounty. It the light of the recent Tour de France doping scandals, good cyclist cheat, great cyclists don’t get caught. I am forced to ask myself the same question as Mugatu in Zoolander: “Does anyone notice this? I feel like I am taking crazy pills!”. Ironically, he claims he invented the piano key necktie.
Arthur Danto pondered over the success of Andy Warhol’s Brillo Box. This work would not have been possible without the Brillo box design by James Harvey. I imagine it should have been him and not Valerie Solanas who shot at Warhol. The success of Pop-Art is largely thanks to the appropriation of work of often anonymous designers created for the purpose of vicious battle for a consumer. Nonetheless, it certainly brought Warhol fame and eventually stardom. His version of the Brillo box also became an icon and a dead end. However, its real relevance is the ecstasy of mind that hangs in confusion. We love to hope, we love the game. The mystery of David Lynch’s movies has the same mind tickling effect. As we celebrate entertainers over caretakers it is not so surprising.
It seems to me a sign of foresight that one should recognize the path that people walked and pawed before him. That foresight looks back to secure the future. It was Nils Armstrong who took the first step on the Moon but that step was the sum of all the steps taken before him by all humankind (not only those of NASA). Designers are nothing as individuals, just a pop (onomatopoeia) of style. I want to argue that in our education we should learn from the past and not be afraid to learn by copying others. This type of learning is taking a step further in purposeful direction, acknowledging the source and paying tribute to the ongoing building of knowledge that defines culture. Our knowledge of Greek sculptures is through the Roman copies. The actual number of surviving ancient Greek originals is pathetic. By copying, the Romans have not only preserved but also learned and improved. Even the famous Laocoön, admired by Michelangelo, is a copy. Maybe Asia is new the Rome.
The age old idea of ownership and possession is a consensus upon which majority of societies agreed to act to bring order into the growing complexity of relationships. We protect the whole by limiting the individual. Copying is not an act of stealing however can give the same advantage. One can copy someone or something to:
learn about the subject and understand it
pay homage to
acquire same privileges as the subject and exploit for personal gain
The nature of the world is such that all of these are part of life and always will be.
Jorge Luis Borges told me once in his essay titled Coleridge’s Flower that for the classic mind, literature is the essential thing, not individuals ... I told him you could have said the same of design.
My training was classical. When I was about 14 years old I got an assignment for an art class I was privately attending to copy a painting. I have chosen Portrait of a Sculptor believed to be the self-portrait by Andrea Del Sarto. There was a limitation, I had to do it in tempera on paper. It was difficult as tempera acts differently from oil, obviously, but the lesson was priceless. My confidence in the medium had risen. Immediately following the copy a painting was an assignment to copy nature en plein air. I sat by a tree and looked at the structure, texture and weight of its intertwined branches.
In the same way I observed my own hands. I started to see more the longer I looked at them. It was a great exercise in discipline, focus and of course draftsmanship. I felt that I was starting to understand the relationship between skin, flesh and bones. Only later when I was at the first year of my formal design education we visited a medical school where they fished out from the pool of formaldehyde parts of human body for us to draw. A human torso was delivered to us on a trolley and there I was seeing an expired human engine and tracing it on a piece of paper.
In general, this process embraced as exercise, eventually teaches the mind of any student to look at things. It doesn’t substitute natural talent but nonetheless establishes neural connections that will be prone to recognize relationships, patterns and hierarchies in the world observed. These neural connections maybe permanent or flexible, style or no style (one may argue though that everybody has a style but the difference is quite clear when a rigid and fresh mind approach a problem).
To learn is to love. Our initial response attaches us to the subject, however it is the continued study of the subject “as it is” that evolves into love. Bruce Lee in one of his televised interviews says if you put water into a cup it becomes the cup ... water can flow or water can crush ... be water my friend. Anthony de Mello puts it differently when he says when you cut water, the water doesn’t get hurt; when you cut something solid, it breaks ... you’ve got solid attitudes inside you; you’ve got solid illusions inside you. This is what scientists strive for, an unobstructed view. When you truly love something or someone you must first see it.
A common practice of artists of the past was learning through apprenticeship from an older master. Michelangelo did his time as an apprentice too. He preferred copying paintings from churches rather than learning at school. But which of the world’s renowned design academies today have their students copy for example Charles Eames chairs? Or a software code in reverse engineering? How about an assignment to write a story like William Shakespeare? What a great way to really understand the inner workings of his writing style and language? In the case of Eames when I say copy, I mean literally copy and make an exact replica with the resources one has to his or hers disposal. Looking at pictures doesn’t teach anyone much more than information about the weather. It is just an information. Following design blogs and current trends is not making one a better designer, it makes one a better informed designer. Despite the fact that information and skill are both pillars of knowledge there is fundamental difference between them.
Recently, a school project was conceived by Lucas Verweij of the School of Art and Design Berlin Weissensee where he asked students to make copies of iconic designs. Copying is unethical when it is pretending to be original, copying becomes faking. A fake is the cardinal sin of design, a non-progressive parasite. On the other hand, copying to learn and improve is the most characteristic trait and behavior of humans. Unlike non-human primates which don’t have the cognitive capacity to improve upon something learned, we do. We copy our parents and friends as children in order to become our unique better selves. That is exactly what designers should do.
Unfortunately, our time pushes individuals to perform at early stages as original creators not understanding that the history of design is the history of re-design. The steam heading towards the new for the sake of the new is just an entertainment. Look at for example at the three volumes of Phaidon Design Classics. An icon is a stage in the process of re-design which reaches its peak, it can not be a better version of itself. Originality is a myth. Discovery of not yet seen as a deed is not. Robert Louis Stevenson said that here are no foreign lands, it is the traveler only who is foreign. It was Giorgo Vasari with his Le vite de' più eccellenti pittori, scultori e architettori who introduced the myth of an artist. It was Michelangelo, who witnessed his Pietà atributed to Gobbo from Milan, who decided, in the quite of the night, “to carve his name upon it”. Vasari distinguished between “disegno” and “invenzione” understanding them as mother and father of the work of art. He saw “invenzione” not as new but better. He recognized however that not everybody was able to reveal the better and it took a genius to fish it out from the pond of knowledge. Hence not everybody is Michelagnolo Bounarroti but we are all fishermen.
Students of design, copy to learn and remember that you are part of the history of design. We are trying to land on Mars.
I overheard someone ask the Master if he believes in luck.
“Of course”, he said and his eyes glowed suddenly.
“How else could a man explain success of other people he doesn’t like?”
26th of July, 2013