As designers, we have established a series of false dichotomies:
Fine art vs. pop culture
Artistic purity vs. pragmatic populism
Artists and architects vs. the movie and entertainment industry
Design theory vs. strategic planning
Additionally, we have established a series of dogmatic statements which, depending on one’s point of view, are either foundational principles or ludicrous and pejorative assertions:
Pragmatism without design principles = kitsch
Design theory without an understanding of behavioral psychology creates cold, hard places
Only architects understand how to create beauty (primarily visual)
Only entertainers understand how to capture imaginations through stories and metaphors (5 senses)
CityWalk is popular but not beautiful or timeless
The Salk Institute is beautiful but empty
The best places, however, the most timeless places, combine both the purist and the pragmatic schools of thought:
Prague’s Old Town Square
Siena’s Piazza del Campo
New York City’s Rockefeller Center and Museum of Modern Art Sculpture Garden
Must timeless beauty and effective pragmatism, sense and sensibility, be mutually exclusive?
Part One: The Divide
Most in the design community reside in either of two distinct camps. Many, especially those trained as architects, consider themselves modernist or contemporary designers. Others, those with an entertainment background are of particular interest here, relate more closely to the associative, or traditional and romantic, genres. Depending on one’s point of view, the debate might be framed as rational vs. romantic, design vs. kitsch, or arrogance vs. populist.
However framed, the issue continues to generate ceaseless and heated debate. The public, however, seems to see no conflict between the two and appears perfectly comfortable mixing objects and spaces resultant of each of these concept design paradigm throughout their daily lives. Typical living rooms surround clean, crisp entertainment systems with traditional furnishings, while tract homes, increasingly historically associative from the curbside, are filled with gorgeous, minimalist tech products by Apple and others. In kitchens, stainless steel appliances live beside aged and distressed “old world” cabinetry, seemingly oblivious to the discord.
Historically themed apartment building in Rancho Cucamonga, California
Frank Gehry’s Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles
A few in the auto industry have grasped and successfully exploited this trend. Both the VW Bug and the Mini manage to combine the appeal of nostalgia and desire for refinement and technology, unifying these contrasting concepts to create decidedly modern automobiles that celebrate the past while looking to the future. The VW New Beetle
The New Mini
The architecture and entertainment design communities, on the other hand, remain bifurcated in two distinct camps. The architectural community is famously idealistic, and designs for the world as they believe it should be, assuming a level of sophistication that the general public typically does not care to embrace. Entertainment designers, and most developers, on the other hand, are cynical to their core, and design to the lowest common denominator, without desire to increase the public’s appreciation for the built environment. Just as movie producers have, with few exceptions, reduced film to formula, assuming the public desires little more than sex, violence and crass language, designers of all things built to entertain also frequently find success in assuming a simple and unsophisticated public.