16 Oct

An essay for a book to be published by IIID

What is the relationship of Design to our everyday lives?

“The few who claim that appreciation and promotion of beauty is their prerogative find it only in art galleries and museums and seldom elsewhere. But beauty is to be found everywhere, even in daily life, if you look for it”. These words said by Mulk Raj Anand to young students of architecture evokes enquiry into the presence of design in objects that we use everyday, the houses we live in, the symbols in the rituals of our daily lives and the sights and signs surrounding us. We pay little or no attention to the design effort behind these because constant usage blinds us to their intrinsic quality and beauty that comes out of the effort. However, we realise the absence of design when we come across something thoughtlessly done, like unequal steps in a staircase or a disorderly and ill-proportioned arrangement of rooms in a house. Examples of design in everyday life are innumerable from the umbrella that we use or the bus we ride in or the toaster or food mixer – one could go on. Most of all the saree is the epitome of a design idea because it is simple, elegant and comes in an infinite variety of colours and designs. It suits all users because it is a “loose fit” garment that is universal. Design is not only about a product. It extends beyond to include a process of thinking as, for instance, selecting and arranging furniture or exhibits to suit a space or composing a piece of writing. And anything that is done with imagination achieves beauty which at times is not seen but perceived. Scientists have time and again claimed that scientific propositions and discoveries, however complex, have in them simplicity and clarity that brings in great beauty. Design, therefore, is not only in objects that have the halo of a designer. It is everywhere and many of the objects that we see and use are designed in anonymity.

What would be the difference between objects produced by trained designers or professional craftsmen and objects that are produced by people from their everyday experience of life, history, and the valuable knowledge of experience?

Everyone is a designer in some way or other because we are constantly improvising whether it is fixing a problem or conveying our thoughts. But the nature of design varies.

For instance, the rangoli done to adorn the threshold of a house is a conscious design effort but simple in nature because it deals only with pattern making and hence only with what is seen while the thought process behind the making of, say, furniture or household appliances or even buildings is more complex and most of it is unseen. It entails several issues like functional needs, materials, tools and production methods. If these are solved with imagination the product could make its design felt and seen.

The difference between a professional designer and a craftsman is in exposure to newer ideas, materials, tools and interaction with users and learning from them. Besides the craftsman MAKES a product while a designer GETS IT MADE and hence skills needed by the latter are more. This in addition to designing includes planning, production procedures, understanding user requirements, branding and marketing skills. Often designers group together to make sophisticated and complex products like aeroplanes or cars or even architecture. Designers employ new materials and technology but they also have to contend with obsolescence, change in user preferences and competition.

What the craftsman offers is more of the same but his users are constant and the products they demand remain the same. In most cases he uses the same tools. Yet you cannot write him off. For many of the things that are done by hand are irreplaceable and some have a timeless quality like the hand woven saree, itself a prime product designed in anonymity.  Weavers over the years have worked out variations of the basic idea. Similarly the mud pot used everywhere is another example of a design coming out of response to problems recognised directly by maker and user and constantly corrected and improved upon. In the making of the pot the craftsman would also have asked himself the same questions that a professional designer also would do. But his search would have been limited to what he is familiar with and hence innovations are limited. The craftsman has learned from observation and experience. Again the mud pot was designed in anonymity with no single authorship.

The professional designer today is brand conscious and his designs have to find a market. Moreover products are constantly changing. The products designed and made by craftsmen and those by professional designers cannot be compared since the materials and technology they use are different. The craftsman is as important to society as the designer.

What instances or case would you list – either from history, our contemporary context, or even your own work – where design reached out to a real engagement and conversation with people, society, and culture?

The designer and architect do not work in a vacuum. They and their work are a part of the culture of a society. Society consists of individuals, a few of whom commission projects. Designers and architects, by and large, converse only with those who appoint them and base their design on that interaction. But conversations with others could open another door. One such example was a project commissioned by a company that made portable electric tools. The project was a factory to make special purpose motors. Normally, architects deal with things like orientation, circulation, layouts of machinery etc., seldom with people except those who accept or reject ideas. In an industrial project there are two individuals, the owner and the worker. Each has his own concern. For the management what matters is the end product and that has to be produced under strict supervision with efficiency and least amount of material handling. The sole concern is making the product. Who does it and what were the conditions under which it is made becomes secondary. A building to satisfy these conditions was logically a single large span structure with all operations under one roof.

For the worker, with whom a conversation was also held, the sole concern was the act of making a product that he was proud of because that was the source of his livelihood. He treated his work place as a temple and his tools reverentially. We thought the man who made the product and the act of making it was more important than the end result. In large spaces where the number of workers are many, there is anonymity and people in departments tend to make small groups. There is no sense of belonging.

Our observations made sense to the clients and they were open to any new ideas. The total process involved in the making of the product was broken into sets of actions and spaces, mostly small ones, were allotted individually. A spine with modules attached to it like fingers emerged as a feasible idea. The project was built thus and when completed we found workers interacted with one another better, felt a sense of belonging because their Gods were in their own corner, the change and wash rooms were their own to use and look after as also the space to gather during tea breaks. Each module was well ventilated because the width of the room was sufficient to permit free flow of air. To keep the work space cool we grew grass on the roof and let creepers hang from troughs on the edge of the roof. Since the module was theirs, workers took care of the grass and vines.

Conversing with people who made things rather than those who got them made and revisiting the basic premise before designing could lead to a more humane and interesting solution which is certainly more than just a “beautiful” building.

To design for the “small man” in the hierarchy is always difficult because maintaining a delicate balance between opposite demands needs negotiation and imagination and most of all a constant reminder of the man for whom the design is made.

K.R. Iyer

12-09-2017

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