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The problem with the cult of new

The sign at the entrance to the Salone del Mobile in Milan proclaimed “Be the first to see the latest”.  

Here is the clear intent that the world’s largest and most influential design fair is about novelty. And not just novelty for the sake of it, but also the implied judgement that you have to be up with it — that this edge over others gives you, the aficionado, some sense of social superiority. No mention of quality, that here you can see the best— quality now matters less than the novelty. The monstrous profligacy of these trade shows is built on such ephemera.

The cult of the new has come to dominate our consumer society, and my heels are ploughing furrows in the sand as I desperately try to resist. In an interview for an online magazine, I was recently asked, “Your catalogue has grown over the years but not as rapidly as most lighting manufacturers – why are you not creating more new work?” 

To which I replied, “I believe in quality, not quantity. I can’t bring myself to create a lot of new lights just for the sake of it. In fact, I have a real problem with this obsession with the new. It degrades what we already have. It is a deliberate consumer construct to get people to buy, where the need to sell is greater than the need to buy. I think we should start savouring and appreciating what we have a little more, rather than expecting designers and producers to constantly titillate us with something new. So much newness can only be inferior, often resorting to gimmickry in its desperate quest.”

A key phrase is, it degrades what we already have. I believe in the products that we have created—I like to think that they might become classics, still being appreciated in fifty years like George Nelson’s lights or Eames’ furniture. At least that is my intent, others can be the judge. If I come up with something that I think is as genuinely good, then I will happily add it to the collection. But I will not churn out new stuff just to feed the voracious consumer beast.

The problem with novelty is that it invariably sacrifices quality in its inexorable quest to be seen. Distracted from the real fundamentals of inspiring design, the desperate designer resorts to eye-catching gimmicks in order to be seen amidst the tumult of so many other, equally desperate, designers. There may well be excellent quality in the resolution and production, but the whole enterprise is built on shaky and very ephemeral design foundations.  I am not saying that we shouldn’t continue to push forward the edge of design, only that this edge is recognised through overall lasting quality, not novelty alone.

Some of the blame for this need to make last year’s idea look inferior must lie with the fashion industry. But more recently we have been beguiled by the massive forward strides of technology, bewitched by their persuasive advertising into lusting after the latest shiny new Apple gadget. There seems to be an unreachable itch in our psyche driving this unfulfillable quest. But there is no reason to apply the same criteria to furniture and lighting.

There are companies who do not heed the siren call of novelty, though you won’t often hear about them because the design press and bloggers will only write about something once, then move on.  While not entirely my personal taste, Vitsœ are a good example: “We have consistently stood up to a world that has favoured new over better.”  They have produced the same Dieter Rams furniture for over 50 years. You can still add parts to the shelves that you bought decades ago. This is supreme confidence in the lasting quality of their product.  The old is not deliberately made obsolescent to force you to buy the new.

So don’t heed all those seductive calls of the design hunter constantly trying to be the first to see the latest. You will never be satisfied, only ultimately disappointed, left searching vainly for more. Our planet is bursting at the seams with ‘stuff’ and it can’t manage the strain anymore.  Most of it we really don’t need, but there are a few genuinely and authentically good designs that will last — the real design ‘aficionado’ is the one who can recognise that.

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