The Parson’s exhibit How Things Don’t Work: The Dreamspace of Victor Papanek should have the tagline, “There are few professions more harmful than industrial design.” Every designer should see the show before it closes on December 15. There are many designers today who believe that design—what we might think of as the planning or intention behind the creation of a material object—can solve almost any physical problem. But the Austrian-born and American-educated designer Papanek, the subject of this exhibition, had a different and more expansive view of the field.
Papanek suggested in 1971 that “there are few professions more harmful than industrial design.” Papanek’s thinking gravitated towards anthropology and ecology, and, as a product of the 1960s, he wanted to shake up the design profession and cut its ties to product design for corporations. Instead, he would rather have it engage with social needs and conditions. His own design biography includes working to create a $9.00 television for developing countries and famously creating an innovative method for dispersing seeds and fertilizer for reforestation in difficult-to-access lands.
The exhibit focuses on Papanek’s radical (for the design community) design theories, research, and propositions, and asks if they are still valid in the 21st century. He wanted the profession to be driven not just by social needs but low-tech, bottom-up designs geared toward the “underserved populations that he felt truly needed the work of designers: the poor, the disabled, and the disenfranchised.”
Like any good critic, he attacked his own field—industrial design—in popular books and as a teacher and academic where he challenged designers to do better, and this exhibit focuses on the failure of our designed systems to provide the infrastructure for sustainable, equitable living.
Parson’s will sponsor “Permanent Garbage: Victor Papanek and Beautiful Visions of Failed Systems,” a symposium on the designer on December 4, at 5:00 to 7:30p.m. in the Sheila C. Johnson Design Center, room L6. Symposium participants will include: Stuart Candy, Paola Antonelli, Gerald Bast, Alison Clarke, Fiona Raby and-Jamer Hunt.
If you see only one design show this year make it How Things Don’t Work at the The Sheila C. Johnson Design Center at Parsons.