Curious Boym- Can Irony Create Tangible Meaning?

Last Wednesday evening, Constantin Boym presented a survey of some of his most famed projects such as the “Buildings of Disaster” and some of his newer projects such as “Babel Blocks”, exhibited at the Design and the Elastic Mind exhibition at MOMA a couple years ago. Our seminar on “Thinking Contemporary Design”, came eager with questions on the meaning of ironic design, whether being an immigrant from Russia made it possible for him to form this type of critical design on consumer culture, and also on the fact that in many respects he was a lover of material culture and the everyday though commenting on it at the same time.

Interestingly, I found Boym indifferent towards consumerism itself and more concerned with his work being viewed specifically as product design as much of his work vacillates between design and fine art. Bringing up another interesting question: Why when design becomes a commentary, especially a critical one, does it become viewed as fine art and not design? This signals to just how narrow the design field has been in the last century. While Modern art brilliantly expanded its field by questioning the mundane everyday and also commenting on our perception of it (as the beauty of it is also easily forgotten) beginning with artists such as, Cézanne, design has been restricted by ‘form follows function’. Art, for reasons that would be interesting to research, has been able to flourish defining itself and evolving by the very work it creates. Design on the other hand has been both restricted by industry and the lack of knowledge about the capabilities of design. This is what Boym is successful at commenting on. Boym’s “Disaster” serious, while being dubbed ‘ironic’, by Paola Antonelli, also serves a function. And now we get to the reason that Boym is adamant about referring to his work as product design rather than fine art. Emotion, fun, satire, criticality, are all to Boym serving a function. His “Disaster” serious both met with vehement distaste and popular demand, spoke to a real underlying emotional need. Commentary on the everyday and in the ways in which we interact with objects serves the need of continuously stimulating our perception of the everyday realm, as well as creating an acute modern ability to be critical. In this light, ‘ironic’design expands the field of design to encompass more of what it really ought be considered to do.

There still remains, what I believe is a very valid question: If the main function of this type of work deals with perception, and perception is subjective while also relying on a significant trust on the visual realm as an arbiter truth, how does one not only gauge the effectiveness of the work, but hope that everyone is also as Jenny in class said “in on it”? While the OJ Simpson car chase souvenir speaks strongly to an ironic sentiment, the World Trade Center souvenirs, which Boym sold after demands from family and victims called in, speaks to an actual lived experience by a significant amount of the Western population. Does this still qualify as ironic? Does that no longer become the point? I also think of his “Searstyle” series, that comments on the American brand Sears and its success in creating a ‘very American’ middle-class vernacular style of interior design. Is this an embrace and nod to a familiar bygone American style or is it a joke on bad taste, suburbia, and banality from a non-American? The “Winged bedrest” is an armless loveseat with two “husbands” on its body, combined to make a single composition. Perhaps having a grandmother who most likely shopped at Sears, it was insulting or hard for me to imagine this as nostalgia. Perhaps, this is a sign of the own personal rethinking I must do with design, as I have clearly been affected by popular belief. I know I appreciate irony and I think it is one of the utmost priorities for the twenty-first century to expand the design field and truly consider it to encompass more than it has for the last century, however, with the “Searstyle” series though it did garner commissions I have trouble viewing it as anything more than contemporary art. When product design for the everyday verges on irony it becomes a delicate matter because if it is delving into something sentimentally experienced by many, the perception of it becomes muddled and its criticality soon becomes lost in a common insult or ignorance, often taken personally.  Not all of his work is victim to this. I think Constantin Boym is a brilliant designer with amazing insight, and I most like his work that deals with elevating material culture of the everyday itself (beaded chair, ceramic tea cup variations, and art history chair), allowing us to view it in a new light rather than as a direct confrontation with it, that for many was a highly personal experience. But maybe that’s because I’m too nice.


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