Meditations on Modernism

In this opening chapter from Chasing the Perfect: Thoughts on Modernist Design in Our Time, author Natalia Ilyin muses about design education today and how the history of Modernism has influenced it.

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Today a woman asked me if I could draw a mouse.

She spotted me in the window of the Blackbird Bakery, where I sat drinking tea in the middle of the afternoon with my friend the animal-rights activist. Kristin was just getting into my dog’s anxiety issues when Meg blew in the door and asked me about the mouse.

Could I draw a Tasha Tudor sort of mouse? A mouse wearing a ruffled apron with lavender coming out of the pockets? Because her bed-and-breakfast, the Captain’s House, needed a picture of its mascot, the Captain’s Mouse, and looking through the bakery window, she had seen me and remembered that people said I was artistic and that maybe I could draw that mouse, you know, for money.

I nodded and smiled. Of course! I’d be glad to draw her a mouse. When should I get sketches to her? She told me and blew back out the door. I sat back, delighted, but slowly my moment of artistic exhilaration passed.

“How did this happen to me?” I asked myself in a hushed and somber tone. Only a few years ago I spent thousands of dollars to get an MFA in graphic design in order to fight my way bare-fisted down the concrete canyons of New York, hoping to make a bundle creating Citicorp logos while living in a Dan Friedman–like edgy apartment.

Yet here I am today, living in a cottage on an island in Puget Sound, talking about my dog’s mental health in a café full of fleece wearing baby boomers. How did I fall so completely off the design bandwagon? How did I get to the point of jumping at the chance to draw a mouse?

I felt bad. I felt wrong. I felt low. For you see, I am a graphic designer. And as a graphic designer, I am supposed to ride the crest of the technological wave while creating the information pathways of the future. I am supposed to provide workable solutions to communications challenges while educating the client about sustainability issues. I am supposed to lecture about the damning effects of the corporate control of the media to Seattle ceos over Asian-fusion lunches at Wild Ginger.

But I don’t do these things. True, every once in a while I get in a good jab about using less paper. And I can get riled and quote Voltaire at big meetings if I eat too many of those little cheese Danish from the coffee-service tray. But mostly I just talk with designers and work with Web engineers, and go back and forth about copy with writers, and listen to the problems my clients are having with recurring lower-back pain or the new intranet. I spend much of my day hearing from accounts-payable people about where in the bill-paying cycle my invoice landed and why that will mean a two-week wait before a check can be cut. This is what it means to run a design business.

Sometimes I feel guilty for not riding the crests of those technological waves or paving those information pathways. Designers talk a lot about riding crests and paving pathways: they talk a lot at conferences and in magazines about how important they are for doing so. But I’ve never seen a designer get up at an AIGA conference and give us the details of how she jumped at the chance to draw a small mouse in an apron and a little bonnet. Truth be told, I wouldn’t want news of this mouse to get around. A mouse like this could topple my carefully constructed design persona, a persona of unflappable coolness and detachment. The grad students in the class I teach on “critical thinking for designers” expect me to stand at the podium, slightly bent with the responsibility of my large design concerns, looking vaguely exhausted as I check my Paul Smith watch to make sure I won’t be tardy for my lunch date with Rem because of their long questions. They expect me to teach them about the values of the profession they are about to enter. Not just with my words but with my actions, with my attitudes. They take notes solemnly when I lecture about Barthes and Lacan, about C. S. Peirce and William James. They strive to understand my historical thinking, my critical stance, steeped as it is in modernism and postmodernism, in structuralism and poststructuralism. But what if they found out about the mouse—found out that I suggested the little bonnet?

Someone once asked an old Russian artist—a displaced person my father met after World War II—if he thought he could draw a dog, for money.

“They asked me if I thought I could draw a dog,” he told my father, sullenly, and paused.

“So?” my father responded.

“Of course I can draw a dog!” the artist bellowed. “I was trained before the Revolution, at the Academy in Petersburg. I can draw anything.”

He could draw anything. Nothing was off-limits. Nothing was beneath him. But he was educated in a different time: a time before modernism. Sometimes I think about that displaced old Russian, trained before the Constructivists, before the invention of graphic design. He was taught to draw birch trees and troikas and to live in a specific world, but—through war and destruction and upheaval—he found himself alone in a dp camp in Germany, family gone, house burned, friends scattered. Found himself still alive—still living—unvalued and bewildered, with no road home.

Perhaps all designers designing today are really displaced people. We live in the twenty-first century, but like that Russian artist, we were trained to live in another world. Our lost world is not one of birch trees and troikas but one invented a hundred years ago by people who dreamed utopian dreams. We live here, in our now. We design here, for our now, in a world that is as far from that utopia as Bladerunner is from Pride and Prejudice. We design for now, but we cling to the broken shards of other people’s dreams for what the world could be.

Design education today is a modernist education. Now, when I went to grad school, I didn’t know what modernism was. Oh, I knew that a sofa looked modern, or that a barrel chair was moderne. But I didn’t know what the tenets of modernism were, I didn’t know that it was a way of thinking, a way of responding to the world, in much the same way that Buddhism or Theosophy is a way of responding to the world. I didn’t know that the modern way of thinking was a philosophy that hit Western society just before the turn of the last century,or that it hit not only in design but also in painting and literature and criticism and music. I didn’t know that designers have no corner on modernism, even though we often think we invented it.

Objects hold ideas like amber traps insects. A sofa or a chair is an artifact of the time in which it was created, its lines and planes are what’s left behind in the world when the storm of an ideology has passed by. But if we don’t remember the ideas that led to the final form of the chair or the sofa, if we don’t recognize the kind of insect trapped in the amber, the artifact loses all its meaning and becomes shape and line and form only. It becomes the narcissistic manipulation of outside things, becomes like a woman valued for her face who learns to ignore her heart.

The small Tibetan bell that someone gave me as a housewarming present is an artifact of a worldview. It’s an artifact of a religion practiced high in mountains I will never travel, by monks I will never know. I like the bell’s shape, and I keep it because I like the person who gave it to me, but its meaning is lost on me. Its cultural context is lost on me. My students could say the same thing about the Wassily chair.

The system of thinking that lies behind the design education of today is a hundred-year-old way of responding to the world. Sometimes it feels like its commandments were engraved on two big stone tablets, but those commandments were just the invention of a small bunch of men who created them in response to the times in which they were living. And though those tablets were thrown over a cliff in 1968, amid much talk about freeing design from modernism, no one in the next thirty years could find a really new way, a new system, for teaching someone to be a designer.

Oh, sure. Our students hear a little something about postmodernism, although we tell them that’s all over with, so not to really bother about it. And we have had a fine old time with structuralism and semiotics and poststructuralism and Marxism and a lot of other “isms” that, with a little tinkering, can be made to fit into design education. But the inculcated modernist commandments are still there underneath all we teach, holding up the design profession like schist holds up skyscrapers.

“What commandments?” you ask, annoyed. “I am my own person. I am free to do what I want. No one tells me what to design!”

And then you turn back to your computer and play around with altering an InDesign template for a while. And you pick type from the faces that Adobe bundled in when you bought your Mac and choose colors from the Pantone Matching System and feel insulted that I have questioned your independence.

Let’s see. A commandment. How about this one: Graphic designers don’t draw well. That generality is a modernist convention, a modernist rule: the unspoken No-Draw Rule. Sure, we’ll do a quick sketch here, a line drawing there. But we don’t shade, we don’t go in for realism, for perspective—for anything smudgy on gray charcoal paper. We never really render, as it were. Why is that?

No one ever actually said, “Don’t bother learning to draw well.” But most of your professors probably couldn’t draw their way out of a paper bag. They can’t do it: they look down on realistic drawing. And why is that? Because they themselves were silently discouraged from drawing well. The people who did not encourage your professors to draw were themselves not encouraged to draw by their professors, many of whom were refugees when the Nazis closed down the Bauhaus. Those expatriated Bauhaus designers didn’t want their American students to confuse themselves with that lowly life-form, the illustrator. To a modernist designer, illustrators are people who just make things pretty on the outside. And those original modernist designers cared about what happened on the inside of a project, not just on the outside. Right? So why respect anyone who just tinkers with facade?

When those original professors of ours—those Bauhaus designers—came here, they brought their prejudices with them. Their greatest prejudice was against middle-class living. They hated the “bourgeois,” literally “the man of the provincial town,” the comfortable middle-class burgher of 1900 who lived a life of Victorian restriction and sentimentality, who had a nice picture of a bathing nymph over the fireplace in his study, and who dwelled within the comfortable padded walls of the status quo.

The Bauhaus and the Werkbund and all those early modernist design groups did not want to be mentally linked to the illustrators who turned out nymphs. These designers liked to think of themselves as avant-garde, wanted to align themselves with the intelligentsia. They did not want to be in any way related to the fin de siècle, to the Academy, to the plaster cast, to the kind of person who copied reality instead of inventing a new one. Refusing to draw well was a way our design forebears could separate themselves from the bourgeoisie. Sort of like the female law students of the seventies who pretended they couldn’t type so they wouldn’t get stuck in front of a Selectric.

But today, we designers have forgotten the original reason that we don’t draw well. We just somehow never get around to learning. We respond to an invisible prejudice embedded in our design culture, react to a stimulus we do not recognize, mold our lives with rules we do not see.

So that’s the No-Draw Rule. But there are so many more invisible rules—enough commandments to fill many stone tablets. Designers truly thought they were going to build a new world at the beginning of the last century. They were the ones who were going to make the rules for this new society. Even at the very beginning, there was ego in it. And here we are, one hundred years later. We’ve internalized modernist views without realizing it, and we respond to design problems with a very limited vocabulary from inside our invisible scaffold of rules. We may be in the “post-postmodern” era, but we are still just responding to modernism—not creating anything particularly new, just rearranging the deck chairs. Not creating a new language of design, just speaking the old language with a contemporary intonation.

I unwittingly followed the No-Draw Rule for years, casting an ironic eye on those who ignored it. I avoided every opportunity to play around with colored pencils, or to sketch an arabesque or a curling vine. I spent my time paring my work down to the essence, to the bones. I spent my time reducing everything to Frutiger and to line and vector and plane.

But you know what? After a couple of biopsies and a significant root canal, the realization that I will not live forever hit me at forty and with it the sudden knowledge that, by God, I like drawing little curlicuey things. I like soft colors and comfortable chairs. I enjoy the company of people who do not necessarily shop at Prada. I am just not interested in spending the rest of my life in the dogged pursuit of someone else’s definition of perfection anymore. I am drawing that mouse, damn it, and no one is going to stand in my way.

This is not to say that I have lost my heart to sentimentalism. I do not mourn the unappreciated genius of Thomas Kinkade, Painter of Light™. Spiritual exhaustion and design burnout have not led my aesthetic sense astray. Rather, they have led me somewhere I had never traveled. I’m looking at things differently from the way I used to look at them. I can’t help it—I’m looking under the rug. I want to see what modernism has hidden there.

This is not to say I am not an angry person. Funny people are angry people, and I am no exception. I’m sick of seeing regurgitated, tight little examples of seventies typography on design-department walls during grad crits and degree-project shows. I’m tired of the narrow language, the small sandbox, the limits of what we deem “good design.” If I see another effort at ironic distance created with the tools of Swiss typography it will be one effort too many, and I’m going to wring that kid’s neck. Or that of her professor.

Note from the editor: If you wish to learn more about what perfectionism (based on the Modernist idea of pervasive simplicity) is doing to complex human beings, read Natalia Ilyin’s Chasing the Perfect: Thoughts on Modernist Design in Our Time.

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