RISE OF THE MACHINES
Interface: Peoples, Machines, Design Powerhouse Museum, Sydney, to October 11
THERE is some irony in visiting an exhibition devoted to design at the Powerhouse Museum, starting with its location on the edge of Sydney’s Darling Harbour. If you haven’t been there, imagine a bay that once, perhaps a century or two ago, must have been attractive but is now covered in concrete and bitumen, shadowed by immense flyover expressways and filled with a distinctive kind of cheap tubular architecture.
The whole area is not only extraordinarily ugly but, by any standards of architecture and urban planning, thoroughly depressing. It manages to be inhuman in scale without ever achieving a compensating sense of grandeur or power.
The Powerhouse Museum is not much better from a design point of view. You walk into a cramped foyer from which you have to turn a corner and go down an escalator, at the bottom of which is the chaos of an exhibition devoted to the stage production of Strictly Ballroom. It is from here that a ramp finally leads up to the space devoted to Interface: Peoples, Machines, Design.
The subject of the exhibition is industrial design, and specifically the way design, in the 20th century, made technological devices such as typewriters and then computers both easier to use and more appealing, so that they began to address a consumer market rather than merely the needs of business.
It’s worth pausing to consider the history of the idea of design. It is the equivalent of the Italian disegno or the French dessin, which both mean drawing as well as intention or purpose. The common word in English, drawing, literally means to pull or extend a line from point to point. The word design entered English usage from Italian and French through the influence of art theory and therefore became a highbrow synonym for drawing.
In modern English usage design came to mean the drawing, or by extension the idea or plan, for anything one wanted to make or build: thus the design of a machine or a tool. Because of the other meaning of the word, it possessed a connotation of purpose and intention that drawing did not.
The concept of industrial design arose with the Industrial Revolution and the problems of mass production. This new form of manufacturing had radically transformed both the level of output and the role of the worker. As Adam Smith explains in The Wealth of Nations (1776), where a single inexperienced worker could once barely make a single pin in a day, a factory with 10 workers and the appropriate machinery could produce more than 48,000 in the same time.
But as Karl Marx and others such as John Ruskin and William Morris saw, this process also stripped the craftsman of his agency and initiative. Once he had been responsible for the whole process of producing a particular item, but now he was confined to the endless repetition of a single step in the process while the next was performed by his neighbour on the production line.
In effect, artisans previously had worked in the same way as artists, responsible for the planning of their work, the collecting of raw materials, the form of the item they made and every part of its execution. Now they were mechanically repeating tasks that had been imposed by others. It is not hard to see how, as the work of so many artisans was rendered meaningless in this way, that of the fine artist became increasingly romanticised and fetishised, not for its skill or the quality of its execution but merely for an abstract conception of creativity. The artist was romanticised as a last surviving example of free work.