Kindly provided by Jon Mattox
In August 1993 Brian gave the Graduation Address at Art Center College of Design (Europe) in Switzerland.
Surprisingly I'm not going to talk about myself. I hope I'm going to talk about design and where I think design fits in our Culture. Now I know I have a quiet voice, so could you tell me first of all if you can hear me [Yes!] OK. If I get too quiet, just throw something well-designed at me and I'll talk a bit louder.
I come from a country which has a lot of designers, a lot of people who are very interested in style, in the idea of Culture, what Culture can do for us and which at the same time is extremely suspicious of the whole idea. England probably produces per capita more designers than any other country, I should think. But they usually come and work in Switzerland or Milan or Paris.
We don't seem to have a lot of time for them in England. There's a suspicion about the idea of styling and the idea of adding a non-functional stylistic element to things. Of course the English, like everybody else, admire a good inventor and a good design in that sense, something that works and makes the world work more easily. Although we very rarely adopt these ideas, we do admire them nonetheless. However, the spectrum of design (and I think particularly what this school is concerned with), is a whole continuum of things, from making a functionally better engine, to making a calendar that looks good, to making an ashtray that engages our attention in some different way, to making some different kinds of scissors it's very easy, of course, to defend the functional end of the spectrum something that clearly makes the world work a bit more easily, or more conveniently or more efficiently. But it's not so easy to defend the other end of the spectrum, what I call non-functional style.
Now the spectrum of things which one sees in design - from purely functional design to purely what used to be called decorative' or 'ornamental' design - also represents a spectrum that we see throughout the whole of cultural behaviour. One way of defining Culture, l think, is to say that it's all the things that we don't have to do. We have to eat, but we don't have to develop complicated cuisine. We have to wear clothes, perhaps, hut we don't have to for instance, have Yves Saint Laurent or Pierre Cardin or Levis. You know the world would not be physically worse off if nobody ever designed another pair of jeans. But for some reason, we do keep designing new things and we keep being very interested in that process. I can tell from looking at this audience and from most of the people I would meet in the street, that most people, in some aspect of their life, are interested in questions of style and design. It obviously is not marginal to us. Now evidence of that is, if you look at any other Culture, as soon as they deal with the most simple survival problems, they start dealing with another area. People start making their cooking pots look different from each other. People start producing ornamentation on their cooking pots, that is strictly not necessary for the job of cooking. But for some reason, people keep doing this. The question I would like to ask - I suppose in order to give you some sense of your own value, and in order to point out that understanding the value of an activity is to increase that value - the question I would like to ask is, why are we spending so much of our time, as a Culture, involved in non-functional behaviour?
Why do we make more and more pairs of scissors? Why do we make different clothes all the time? Why do we keep coming up with new cuisines? Why do we keep coming up with new forms of music? Well, let's look at what happens to you when you engage in what I would call a stylistic space. Now, one stylistic space that we're all engaged in, to a greater or lesser degree, is the stylistic space of haircuts. Everyone here has got a haircut. Now a haircut does not seem like an exotic cultural object. But in fact it's one that I would say nearly everybody here has given some attention to and some people have given a lot of attention to. And it's a stylistic area which is purely non-functional. The only thing we really need to do with our hair is to keep it out of our eyes - not a problem in my case, but some of you may have it. So, why do we spend such a lot of time listening to people telling us about their holidays in Ibiza while they style our hair in different ways? I think it's because we recognise that this thing that we carry on our head tells us a lot. It tells us a lot about ourselves and it tells other people something about ourselves as well. When you have your hair cut, you make a number of decisions you make a decision, shall I have it long or short? Now depending on which Culture you're in, that means, shall I be a rebel or shall I conform? It means, shall I be more masculine or less masculine? Shall I be more feminine or less feminine? Of course all of these meanings are quite local. They mean something different here than they would in San Francisco five years ago, for example.
Nonetheless, there is a whole package of ideas bound up in a haircut. That package is something that you take onto your head and carry around with you. It's a way of saying to yourself, I'm engaging myself in this particular identity. You know, if I'm a chartered accountant who works at a bank in London and I rather like the idea of being a tank commander, then I might have that kind of a haircut. So I can, in not completely unserious way, a have two kinds of lives. One is the one that I have to do, and the other is the one that I imagine I could do or that I want to draw some ideas from, to introduce into this life behind the computer.
Similarly with furniture, for example, or with any other object of style or design - these objects all talk about a language of Values of some kind. you know, I look at this [lectern[ and I see it's made of wood, rather than of metal. Well, that's a message of some kind. I see a piece of Philip Stark furniture which is sharp and pointed and metallic and then I see the old chair that I like to sit and read a book in. Those are two different kinds of picture of actually how the world could be. Now when you engage with any object like that, the statement that is really coming from that object is "there could be a world like this". Even if that thing is quite small, this [wrist watch] is saying to me, "there could be a world like this, there could be a world with these kind of values and what do you think about that? [Baby shrieks. Laughter.] Any other questions are welcome.
What is the use of us constantly plunging ourselves into situations where we experience a bundle of values that are impossible for us to live with? A good example of that is, for instance, 1950's American cars. They presented a picture of how the world could be - fast, big, grand, elaborate and science fiction, actually. They presented a picture of the world which people in some way or another obviously did identify with and wanted to be a part of. Now this world was quite different from the world that people actually lived in at the time. It was the world of the Korean War and of various kinds of social and other difficulties. It was not as optimistic as the world that was being presented in those objects. What use is it for us to be continually engaging in those worlds? I think there are two answers to this. The first one is that we are able to locate ourselves and to locate our philosophy and our ideas by the use of external objects like that. We put in a Philip Stark table and we say, "this is the kind of work I find excitingly rather than putting in a table made of driftwood or something, you know, eroded driftwood which would imply a whole different set of messages about the kind of world that you wanted to live in and wanted to be in. So one thing we do, is that we locate ourselves in a philosophical sense in all of the possibilities of the worlds that we could be engaged with or we could be building. And as a society, we create a consensus of some kind through that. For instance, American society in the 50s created a consensus about the future. So in one sense you could say design is a conversation about the future. It's a conversation about how else things could be. Do we want this kind of future, or this kind of future, or both, or a bit of each, or what ratio? Those questions are the ones that design asks us, I think.
But engaging in style does something else which I think is actually more important, in that it rehearses us continually in the ability to understand that there are other world pictures, that the one we normally walk around with is not the only one. Now, this I think is the central act of the human imagination. This is the act of imagination. The ability to understand that the world I carry around in here might not he the same as yours. Not only that, but to understand that yours is also a possible and valid world. And that it would be better for any cooperation that we want to make, if I understand yours. Now objects of Culture for me, continually throw up worlds for us to think about, to engage with. And in doing that we rehearse what I think is the central human act which is the imagination. we rehearse the ability to see what it would be like to be a person or that person or that person. Now, what's the use of this, you might say? Well, the use of it is that wc are a cooperative species. That's our only strength - that we can in some way cooperate with one another, that we can make decisions together. We're also a competitive species. You need the same kind of skills for that. Cooperation and deceit arise from the same acts of imagination. But most important, I think, we are now living in a world where we're constantly faced with new possibilities, new ethnic groups that suddenly appear that we've never heard of before and that are suddenly at war with one another. We have a situation in Bosnia of three entrenched positions that refuse to make that act of empathy, that act of imagination, to see what the world is like that person's point of view. What's the world that they see? Can I understand it, can I empathise with it? It's most important I think, that we not only understand that as a concept but that we regularly and in fact continually rehearse the ability to do that, to step in somebody else's shoes. This is what I think style, this area that occupies such a huge part of our life, is doing. It's rehearsing us in acts of imagination.
Now I was talking to a friend of mine about this college and I said to her, do you think design is important? She's a science writer called Pamela McCordick and she said, "Yeah, I think design is important because I think not to be interested in design is to say I'm not talking to the rest of the world any more." And this is actually rather the way I think about it. Style, design, one's interest in these areas that engage the imagination are the ways that we talk to one another. Language comes second. The first ways we communicate are through this empathy formed by the sense of where we locate ourselves in the world.
What I would like to say is that you are engaged in an activity that you can do casually or you can do seriously. Whichever one you choose to do, I hope that you realise that it is right at the centre of our Culture and can be one of the really valuable activities. Valuable in a sense that the pragmatic areas of politics and science cannot be. This can be valuable because it makes a bridge and it makes bridges between people. And an activity is as valuable as you want to make it - that's your responsibility. I hope that you'll accept my word that this one could be a genuinely valuable one. Thank you and thank you for inviting me.
Brian Eno, August 1993