Dialogue: David Brody - Design Bureau

Visualizing American Empire by David Brody

Postmodernism at the  Victoria and Albert Museum on Vimeo.

Boundary Hotel in Shoreditch, England 

Dialogue: David Brody

Monday, December 5th, 2011

by Sarah Handelman

Design can change the world. At least that’s what David Brody thinks. Turns out, he might be onto something. Next year, the professor, author, and specialist in material culture will head Design Studies, a new masters program at Parsons. The course is one of several programs cropping up worldwide that introduces interdisciplinary and experimental approaches to design problems. Brody hopes students from a range of backgrounds will comprise the program to illuminate the distinct ways the public engages with design. To fully understand design’s implications on the world, Brody says, we have to look beyond the surface and go behind the scenes, a concept he regularly faced researching his forthcoming book, Do Not Disturb: Design, Hotels, and Labor. From his sundrenched apartment in Chelsea, Brody spoke about his hopes for design’s future, not to mention his favorite new hotel. Hey, it’s all in the name of research, right?

How can interdisciplinary approaches impact design studies? 

If you have people from different backgrounds approaching a problem, they will, of course, have their own sets of questions. Anthropologists might adopt ethnographic impulses while someone from engineering might think in terms of infrastructure. A philosopher might want to question the meaning of the question itself. And of course, a designer from a studio background might engage with the problem through making. I like to think of design studies — and the program — as a meeting point for ideas that will lead to new kinds of answers. Although, I am hesitant to say we need to find answers. Perhaps these ideas lead to more questions we never knew existed.

Is design a wicked problem?

Design is often a wicked problem, but it also helps us to identify other wicked problems. I think people are aware of design, but they are not aware of design’s wicked nature. It’s the awareness I’m trying to promote. Maybe there is a way through asking questions — exploring and interrogating — that will enable us to understand these problems in relatable contexts, so that they won’t be so damn wicked!

"Design is often a wicked problem, but it also helps us to identify other wicked problems."

We have been slow to realize that design affects us in systemic ways. How does Design Studies (or design thinking, design writing, and design criticism) situate itself as a profession? 

If people realized what design studies could bring to the world, they would want to participate. I think it’s about finding a way to relate. As hotel historian Molly Berger notes, "everyone has a hotel story." What they don’t realize is that many of the problems within a hotel are related to design systems. The managers, the housekeepers, the consumers — they are aware that their lives are impacted by design on a superficial level. What they don’t realize is that their lives and the lives of others are impacted by the design choices they make.

Design systems inform everything. The public has become more engaged with design through aesthetics. What they are only just now realizing is that behind the veneer of commerce, design, and design systems control our lives. It is my hope that design programs, like our MA in Design Studies, develop ways of identifying design problems. At the same time, they should be asking questions that help people understand how design shapes their lives and how they can shape design. If all of these different agents were aware of how spaces have the potential to be more humanistic, I think people would be on board. I do think people are intrinsically good but they don’t realize there are avenues that can help them be better. It’s a tall order. Some people might say, “He’s crazy! He thinks design is the answer.” But I do. 

Something that’s made you look twice:

Doing ethnographic field research has made me look twice at everything. Talking to so many people has changed my perspective and brought a whole new angle to what I see.

A person or studio we should have started following yesterday:

I just finished vv’s Golden Gulag. The book critically explores California’s prison system. She is a geographer — not a designer or design writer — but the book got me to think about a design issue that has a profound impact on a population. And it’s one the design community needs to address. It is definitely provocative and raises many questions. Read this book!

Best place to work:

I find that the more I talk to people outside of my office, through interviews and field research, the more I accomplish — and the better I am at reflecting when I get back to my desk.

Worst place to get things done:

E-mail! Whenever I’m in the virtual world of answering my inbox, nothing gets done.

Best exhibition you’ve been to lately:

The V&A’s POMO show — Postmodernism: Style and Subversion 1970-1990 — was fantastic, and it included so many different facets of design. They had pieces of building facades, clothing, art, jewelry, movies — Blade Runner was even playing from behind a set of columns. It was a great example of a way to engage a large public.

You’ve been staying in a lot of hotels lately to research your book. What has been a memorable experience?

I was recently in London, and I stayed at a hotel in Shoreditch, called Boundary. It’s a brilliant place because it creates a fantasy world that is mediated through design. Each room is based around an era of design or a designer (I stayed in the Shaker room).  The room themes are a little loose and fast — not completely spot-on — but I love that people are engaging with design just by making a reservation. 

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