Design: A Happening Life

“When life is happening, design has meaning, and every design we encounter strengthens our recognition of the value of being alive.”

bell hooks
1 July 1998

All my life I have been obsessed by the pleasure of design. There is no human being in the world who is not born into a happening life—who is not born with the will to endlessly design. My girlhood fantasy was to become an architect, and to this day I wish I had kept the plans for a dream house envisioned back then.

Distinguished architect Harwell Hamilton Harris described Frank Lloyd Wright’s work as “the revelation of architecture as art… not the art of books or of classrooms, but the art that proceeds from the very fiber of things. An art from within; filling the imagination with a swirling stream of living images; arousing an intense desire to body them forth in living buildings; energizing their possessor with a feeling of the reality of the self; making him part of the living stream; sensitive to the aliveness of things; projecting himself unconsciously into all things; feeling the oneness and continuity of all things; delighting in the rediscovery of his own self in these expressions; delighting in the richness and mutliplicity of being of which he finds himself capable.”

This vision of architecture evokes a world of interbeing. It is the longing to make such a world that has been mostly forsaken as everything in our culture is subordinated to the maintenance of systems of exploitation and/or oppression, to white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.

Even as it is clear that some individuals are born gifted with an acute aesthetic sensibility, most of us must learn how to ‘see’ beauty.

Today design has little meaning for masses of people for whom interbeing seems only a romantic dream as they scramble to fulfill materialistic fantasies, believing—as everything teaches them to— that consuming is the only way to ecstasy. Sorrow stirs in me every time I face the myriad ways in which advanced capitalism removes the cultural conditions that would enable everyone, including the poor, to have access to learning an aesthetic appreciation of design.

I learned an aesthetic appreciation from Baby, my mother’s mother, who could not read or write. Design was visible in the quilts she made—both the crazy-pieced ones and those carefully constructed from patterns. Sadly the ability to recognize beauty does not seem to be innate. Even as it is clear that some individuals are born gifted with an acute aesthetic sensibility, most of us must learn how to “see” beauty. And even those folks who are gifted must practice the art of looking to maintain their gifts.

When I wander around the West Village and enter shops selling to those who are well-off the artifacts (furniture, dishes, candleholders, lamps, etc.) that were once in lower middle class and middle class homes, I think about the way in which class often over-determines our relationship to design. It is hard to imagine that as late as the fifties it was still possible for families without much money to own an exquisitely designed chair or table.

Today, there is no design for everybody. Design is primarily for those who can afford it and/or the people who are taught to think about aesthetics. Simply because people have money does not mean that they will have an eye for design, but there is an everyday pedagogy of design in our culture. Its lessons are brought to those of us with class privilege who know the right magazines to look at, the right stores to go to, the best designers to hire. Many popular magazines draw a map for those who want to know where to go to buy well-made beautifully designed objects.

Once again I ponder how the artifacts that are more likely to be in poor and lower class homes these days are bereft of design and artistry, such as the cheap chairs that are not “real” wood and that easily fall apart from too much use. Sometimes in those high-priced stores I see skillfully designed artifacts that were in our working class home; we did not value them because our desiring minds were already reaching for the next materialistic status symbol.

This points not to a failure on the part of poor and working class people to invest in cultural capital but rather to those problematic historical moments when the desire for material status alters the capacity to appreciate the value of an object. For example, growing up we all had beautiful hand-made quilts on our bed. While our grandmother saw them as objects of beauty, her children looked forward to the day when they could remove those “old-fashioned” quilts and replace them with store bought blankets and comforters. However, as materially privileged consumers began to register through mass media their sense of quilts as meaningful valuable objects, members of my family begin to change their way of seeing these artifacts. The heart of the matter was not really aesthetic value but material status.

Ultimately, cheaply made reproductions of old style quilts do not enhance the aesthetic sensibility of those who buy them. Whether we are talking about sub-standard housing or tea kettles, coffee pots and quilts, it is clear that corporate-run economics ensures that most individuals will accept the notion that status derived from conspicuous consumption is more important for individual happiness than aesthetics.

Every design that we encounter strengthens our recognition of the value of being alive, of being able to experience joy and peace.

In such a corrupt world the vision of design Harwell Hamilton Harris described must struggle to have meaning. Speaking to a graduating class in the fifties he shared these insights: “Don’t let design become routine. Begin each new design with an air of excitement, with the confidence that out of it will come a wholly new thing, not a made-over one. It is a life of discovery—discovery of your own nature and discovery of the nature of the universe. It is the means by which you grow personally. I am not talking about architecture as a means of making a living; I am talking about architecture as living.”

To realize this vision we would have to see design as shaping how we live, as having spiritual value. We would have to really live. When life is happening, design has meaning. In such a world every design that we encounter strengthens our recognition of the value of being alive, of being able to experience joy and peace. In my life the primary principle that has guided and sustained me as I have approached the issue of design (whether drawing up primitive blueprints for the renovation of living space, book covers, or just the way I choose to create designs for folders) has been the practice of finding delight and pleasure in that which is simple.

I am a fan of the bumper sticker which urges us to “live simply so that others may simply live.” Often the call to be mindful of that which is simple is misunderstood, heard only as a demand that we live without beauty or luxury, without appreciation of the “finer things.”

For me it has always been a call to search for the beauty that is beyond that which can be made most easily apparent, to find beauty in the everyday. My decision to move towards elegance in simplicity was stirred by an effort to throw off the bondage of excess. This included traditional ways of thinking about design, which seemed to cloud my aesthetic vision.

Japanese sculptor and designer Isamu Noguchi’s devotion to finding a simple essence led him to articulate a vision of a world beyond art. With quiet daring he was able to declare, “The work that contains only what is really necessary would scarcely exist. It would almost disappear. In a sense it would be an invisible work. I have not yet reached that point, but I would like to go so far. Such a work would not claim itself to be art. It has nothing conspicuous and might look as if it simply fell from heaven ….”

In such a vision lies our hope. It is the dream of a world where design enables us to live and die fully, to come close to paradise, to know that heavenly splendor is always here for us. We have only to design and endlessly design a life where that vision is there for everyone to see and realize.

bell hooks

bell hooks (1952-2021) described herself as a “Black woman intellectual, revolutionary activist.” A leading cultural critic and thinker about such issues as feminism and race, bell hooks published more than 30 books, including All About Love: New Visions.