De­sign and Truth by Robert Grudin, Yale Uni­ver­sity Press, 211 pages

Pasatiempo - - In Other Words - — James M. Keller

Robert Grudin, a long­time pro­fes­sor of English at the Uni­ver­sity of Ore­gon who is now re­tired and liv­ing in Berkeley, earned a cult fol­low­ing through his 1982 book Time and the Art of Liv­ing, which ex­plored how peo­ple might delve into their re­la­tion­ship with time and thereby use it wisely. It’s the most fa­mous work in his oeu­vre, which now ex­tends to eight vol­umes that in­clude a novel and a study in lit­er­ary his­tory but mostly com­prises eas­ily di­gestible de­lib­er­a­tions on philo­soph­i­cal ques­tions.

His lat­est ef­fort, De­sign and Truth, is de­scribed on its jacket as “a pro­found med­i­ta­tion on how de­sign re­flects the uses and abuses of power.” I might have crafted a rather dif­fer­ent pré­cis, per­haps along the lines of “a scat­ter­shot bar­rage of ill-matched ob­ser­va­tions, both in­sight­ful and triv­ial, about ev­ery­thing but the kitchen sink.” That’s not to im­ply that the kitchen goes un­rep­re­sented. I hap­pened to em­bark on the book by open­ing to a sec­tion in which the author ful­mi­nates about his Sub-Zero re­frig­er­a­tor, which was de­signed to fit flush with a nar­row counter and, as a con­se­quence, as­sumed an un­gainly height that ne­ces­si­tated a sec­ond cool­ing com­pres­sor, mak­ing it so top-heavy that it could not be moved with­out invit­ing per­sonal peril. From there he segues to Gen. Pat­ton’s mis­judged se­lec­tion of ar­ma­ments in World War II and then to what he con­sid­ers an­other failed de­sign idea, Thomas Jef­fer­son’s avoid­ance of a cen­tral stair­well at Mon­ti­cello — all this within lit­tle more than a page.

By that time we have ca­reened around such topics as Ja­panese tea cer­e­monies, the ar­chi­tec­ture of St. Peter’s Basil­ica, and a mo­tor­cy­cle Grudin rode years ago in France. We are also in­structed on how paint­ings by Hitler and Churchill echo their cre­ators’ dis­sim­i­lar po­lit­i­cal as­pi­ra­tions: “While Hitler’s de­sign im­pris­ons en­ergy, Churchill’s de­sign re­leases it.”

Though un­ob­jec­tion­able as self-stand­ing med­i­ta­tions, such bits and pieces are sim­ply too short to con­vey much sub­stance. Other vi­gnettes come across as too long. We en­dure a self-in­dul­gent six-page ru­mi­na­tion on the mean­ing of a din­ingroom ta­ble Grudin bought from a used-fur­ni­ture barn and re­fur­bished him­self. It spent the next 25 years “of­fer­ing food and cheer as three boys grew up and three cy­cles of dogs, stretched out on a nearby car­pet, lis­tened to our friendly chat­ter as sooth­ing mu­sic or were trou­bled by sud­den stri­den­cies.” Now dis­placed to the Grudins’ home in Berkeley, “it still car­ries with it, and is ready to re-cre­ate in me­mory, the life and times of a young fam­ily.” In other words, the din­ing-room ta­ble served the pur­pose one would ex­pect it to serve. Grudin finds that it ex­em­pli­fies good de­sign.

One forges on all the same, en­ticed by di­a­monds strewn among the dross. A chap­ter ti­tled “De­sign as Tragedy” of­fers an in­vig­o­rat­ing if not en­tirely orig­i­nal dis­cus­sion of the un­in­tended con­se­quences of thought­less de­sign as writ in the fate of the World Trade Cen­ter tow­ers. The ar­chi­tect Mi­noru Ya­masaki com­mit­ted a colos­sal blun­der, Grudin ar­gues, by in­cor­po­rat­ing Is­lamic de­sign ideals in struc­tures yoked to a cap­i­tal­ist mega-cen­ter that would be re­pul­sive to ul­tra-con­ser­va­tive Mus­lims. “To an Is­lamic fun­da­men­tal­ist with a knowl­edge of ar­chi­tec­ture,” he writes, “Ya­masaki’s cre­ation vi­o­lated sa­cred in­for­ma­tion codes. Is­lamic law for­bids the unau­tho­rized ‘quo­ta­tion’ of the holy: the use of holy mean­ing in sec­u­lar me­dia. … Penal­ties for mis­us­ing holy mean­ings can be se­vere.” Else­where, too, Grudin can con­nect A to B with a bolt of in­sight. Com­par­ing cor­po­rate prac­tices of the 1960s to those of the suc­ceed­ing gen­er­a­tion, he ob­serves that “the to­bacco com­pa­nies’ cyn­i­cal strat­egy of in­vent­ing false doubt — over whether cig­a­rettes cause can­cer — had spread to such sub­jects as global warm­ing, the the­ory of evo­lu­tion, and the jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for in­vad­ing for­eign coun­tries.”

Con­sid­er­ing the word “de­sign,” Grudin states that it “is richer in mean­ing than its straiter-laced com­peti­tors, plan­ning and the­ory. De­sign sug­gests real-world sub­stance and real-world use; it sug­gests three-di­men­sion­al­ity and mass. Good de­sign­ers know the ma­te­ri­als they work with; they con­sider the good of the user; they think holis­ti­cally; they re­shape the world.” But then he con­tin­ues, “Metaphor­i­cally, then, de­sign car­ries con­no­ta­tions of lib­erty, ad­vanced con­scious­ness, at­ten­tion to re­al­ity, en­hanced power, and solid skill.” All well and good, but reaches of that sort in­vite the author to cast his web too wide. As Grudin sees it, de­sign ex­tends even to reign over more ethe­real realms: the de­sign of lit­er­ary poet­ics, po­lit­i­cal sys­tems, lib­erty, rhetoric, or any­thing else peo­ple bring into be­ing. In the course of this book, the bound­aries of de­sign are stretched so far that the term be­comes prac­ti­cally mean­ing­less.

The book errs by say­ing too lit­tle about too much, and some­times by say­ing too much about too lit­tle. Ei­ther way, its or­ga­ni­za­tion and bal­ance is far from for­mi­da­ble. As a pre­sen­ta­tion of ideas, it is not well de­signed.

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