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