Ripeness Is All

For years I have bought my wife jew­el­ry designed by Ner­vous Sys­tem, who spe­cial­ize in fab­ri­cat­ing algo­rith­mi­cal­ly dri­ven forms. With my usu­al sup­pli­er in town knocked out, I went to Ner­vous System’s web­site, only to see that they had 1) moved from Somerville to the Catskills, and 2) start­ed a line of jig­saw puz­zles that look some­thing like this:

Hav­ing talked about late style years ago, I did so assum­ing that two paths lay ahead for any young inno­va­tor – to fear­less­ly press for­ward into ever greater and crag­gi­er forms, or to slump into sen­ti­men­tal repose, half-asleep on a couch. I remem­ber a few years ago solemn­ly warn­ing my stu­dents against kitsch in their design work, and then march­ing them into the lec­ture hall for a pre­sen­ta­tion by the taste­ful and emi­nent design­er Claude Cormi­er, who prompt­ly pre­sent­ed this:

Cormier's Berczy Park in Toronto.

I wound up argu­ing with a col­league after­ward – this has to be the end for him, right? Or was he so far ahead of us that he seemed to be stand­ing behind us? Was he just con­fi­dent enough to be both/​and? Being weaned on the cul­ture of pop­u­lar music, I was primed to believe in the exis­tence of rec­og­niz­able points of no return for the acts you fol­low, past which said act was damned for­ev­er to be lost, cast out from the canon. But this sto­ry seems more ragged all the time giv­en the careers I fol­low today. West 8’s Mosaics, with syrupy projects rang­ing from inflat­able cows to a bridge made of flow­er­pots on top of a roller coast­er, seemed at the time to be a clear sig­nal for bright young things to stop pay­ing atten­tion. And then they turned on me and made some­thing like Gov­er­nors Island, emi­nent­ly taste­ful, ambi­tious, and cosigned by what­ev­er small cir­cle of arbiters still exists.

All of this depends on the base assump­tion that cre­ative endeav­or is a stock mar­ket, where any of your judg­ments arrive already well-vet­ted by some­one else; where any cre­ative act is a wager, some safer than oth­ers, on shift­ing cur­rents in taste. It’s a par­tic­u­lar­ly ill fit, if I think about it, with the endeav­or of land­scape design, its mate­ri­als resis­tant to change and its invest­ments intend­ed to be held for the long term.

For their part, Ner­vous Sys­tem hasn’t aban­doned chic rings inspired by coral struc­tures – they’ve diver­si­fied. And like­wise, what I have been see­ing late­ly is a state of affairs where design­ers put their brand on a vari­ety of lines at once, pro­ceed­ing mer­ri­ly along wide­ly sep­a­rat­ed par­al­lels. If they are con­strained by what their mar­ket will accept, that mar­ket seems to tol­er­ate a range of expres­sions, even tastes, under the same name. This can even hap­pen with­in the same project; if MVVA’s play­grounds seem fla­grant­ly sil­ly to me, cut up from old LAM ads and re-sold at a pre­mi­um, no one else seems both­ered by how they sit with­in what are oth­er­wise noble and inge­nious pub­lic places. 

Does the built world get more inter­est­ing if it folds in blocks of kitsch with­out prop­er­ly blend­ing them, lit­tle cubes of sug­ar scat­tered through? Does that reas­sur­ance seem nec­es­sary, for con­sumer and pro­duc­er alike, just to get through the mis­er­able present? The real reas­sur­ance for me might be that a design­er, a com­pa­ny, a brand, a per­son, is not one sim­ple asset that appre­ci­ates and depre­ci­ates alto­geth­er in val­ue; but may instead be suf­fered to fol­low sev­er­al incli­na­tions all at the same time. 

(November 2020)