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Designing stuff that matters: on quality, tools, and Nature

Around five years ago, Kirsten received an email among the several related to potential stories on whimsical houses, high-yield organic farms, innovative consumer products, Etc. A call followed it.

A charming old fellow was on the other side of the line. He was energetic and talkative, West Coast old school. He had been living 50 years off-grid up in the second-growth redwoods of unincorporated Mendocino. That year we could not get there despite our interlocutor’s efforts to make it happen. Forest fires in the area made it difficult.

The following summer, we were luckier, though the week we were supposed to meet him, we got a couple of unexpected appointments in the city. We are glad we did not call it off because our day trip from Alexander Valley to his redwood homestead in unincorporated Mendocino was more than worth it: we followed an enthusiastic, charming polymath, Charles Bello, as he showed us his off-grid organic home, as well as the several outbuildings and charms of his vast property.

Understanding Nature’s variation and repetition

Charles was so energetic that we had to do our best to follow him up as we walked on a sunny, demanding journey; he was clearly in shape and what he had to say mattered to him. It also mattered to us and the people who have praised the documentary Kirsten assembled from our visit, becoming one of the all-time classics in the field.

To Charles Bello, Nature suggests potential designs and can also “guide” us to accomplish designs with a purpose. At one moment of our interview, Charles Bello showed how he had come with the fractal design of a crystal façade where the wooden frame resembles the nerves of a leaf. To state the essentials of this design, he just dismissed the title of “designer”:

“I don’t design, I follow logic.”

To Bello, Nature’s patterns are logical when we learn how to comprehend them… or how to listen to them, because, to him, the way we choose the stones of a wall can display the patterned visual equivalent of a musical melody: variation and repetition can assemble beauty.

“I don’t design, I follow logic”, states Charles Bello; that’s why this door resembles a leaf

Thanks to Charles, we were able to listen to Nature’s visual melodies; all we needed was to expose ourselves to the abilities of an able interpreter like him. Beauty has a chance if we are willing to learn from its infinite iterations.

The way we see things is cultural

The Eastern ancestral perspective aims at harmonization between man, dwelling, and their surroundings. We and our homes are within the world, and any separation intent is a cultural construction.

This perspective warned that not recognizing the permeability between different realms condemned any system to grow more divisive and block any self-organizing (and enriching) dynamics (“flow”) within one dwelling (individual or not) and the system it belongs: a street, a town, a valley.

As opposed to chaos, natural design tends towards order: from inanimate fractals to protein molecules, to RNA/DNA, to complex organisms never considered as things by themselves, but as an element within its surroundings.

By building upon an ancient intuition of natural patterns, Eastern aesthetic paradigms aim at holding the same principles at any given scale. A person’s character and wellbeing are reflected in her dwelling, and different buildings —each with their use and characteristics— conform to bigger units with similar patterns.

To Eastern aesthetics (from Chinese feng-shui to Indian vastu), there is a continuum in the analogies we can trace between a person’s organism and its interdependences, a house’s different places/realms (more public or private, individual or shared, Etc.), and a town’s different dynamics within houses, service buildings, and streets.

The landscape you see (and do not see)

Not even Eastern societies follow such precepts nowadays, and such cosmogonies —often associated with ancestral astronomy and metaphysics and therefore dismissed as pseudo-scientific gibberish— have, in the best of cases, become a mere commercial fad or its contemporary equivalent: a potentially viral hashtag. Feng-shui, vastu shastra, or, in Japan, wabi-sabi or kanso, are mere decorative keywords with a valuable past to be untapped, celebrated, from which we could benefit in multiple ways.

French philosopher and sinologist François Jullien (Vivre de paysage, 2014) sees this profound difference in conceptualizing and perceiving our surroundings as a testimony of how differently we construct language (and hence reality) in the Western tradition versus Far-Eastern cosmogonies.

Polymath Charles Bello explaining “music” in Nature’s patterns

From classical Greece on, we have named the landscape as a testimony of locality (“land”-scape, “pays”-age) and the use we can infer from it. Also, the idea of “enjoying the landscape” is relatively new in the West and only develops with the Renaissance, ignored by Athens and Jerusalem —philosophy and Abrahamic religions.

According to Jullien, classical philosophy will set the ground for a detachment from the surrounding reality as dualist thinking developed after Socrates: our surroundings were, as the conceptual realm of pure ideas and the soul (our Platonic perception), “beyond” ourselves, elevated from the ground, otherworldly, untouchable. Conceptual. A foreign to us that we needed to shape and tame.

Western dualism and Eastern flow

Eastern culture developed early on a culture of landscape aesthetics, bonding it to the human experience as a continuum that depended on our wellbeing. In contrast, from Socrates to Abrahamic religions, Western culture began its fruitful (but at times reductionistic) quest for “pure truths” and tried to associate those with a naïve idea of Goodness.

This evolution did not play well with the necessary nuances of our complex relationship with the world, weakening our ability to understand the importance of maintaining complex systems. The landscape was a canvas that needed to conform to the image of ideals, and there was nothing to learn from its inner workings.

Ancient far Eastern societies cultivated the interrelation between people and landscape. In language, too, the surroundings were not a mere placename to be shaped to ideals, but the world that contained a complex system to benefit from and admire. Conceptually, the landscape was not “beyond” the individual but sat within known boundaries: “between” the mountain and the sea. There, “landscape” does not have a root “country” (“land,” “pays,” Etc.), but it is the complex, difficult-to-define fabric of reality we can find between water and mountain.

The western predilection for separating man and surroundings, of the mundane and ideas “beyond” reality, assisted in creating a precise conceptual language that, according to thinkers such as Japanese writer Junichiro Tanizaki, explain the birth and mastering of scientific thought, and ultimately Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution.

The technology we know

Tanizaki, author of the aesthetic treaty In Praise of Shadows, would analyze the clash between utilitarian thought and traditional systems relying on nuance and complex processes. Again, François Jullien reminds us that Aristotelian thought begets measured phenomena: for something that occurs, there is one before and one after, and things are the way we perceive them: A is A.

According to this reductionistic vision of reality, we can define “ice” and “water.” In contrast, Eastern thought can appreciate the in-between, the process of impermanence represented by ice melting into water.

We tend to quantify opportunity. We miss what we are not able to measure, notice or appreciate at first glance. The things and systems we design will not appreciate the processes in between if we cannot conceptualize impermanence. Japanese tradition succeeded in celebrating nuance by accepting the transience and imperfection of everyday things that must be maintained. Concepts such as “wabi-sabi” are a testimony of this overcoming.

Charles Bello, interviewed by *faircompanies

Why is nuance important? Why should we care about the appreciation of a thought that does not reduce reality to one-sided utilitarian definitions based on the instant “perception” (in Aristotelian physics, “presence“)? Shouldn’t we “imply” the physical process of melting by appreciating that it is the transition of two states of the same substance? By thinking “beyond” reality, we can theorize it, calculate it, guess outcomes. Modeling looks “beyond,” not “between.”

What is “quality”? How to measure it?

We could answer these questions by summoning Robert M. Pirsig‘s musings in his auto-biographical Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. As we travel with Robert and his son through the solitary roads of the Rockies, we consider the symbiotic relationship between the author and his motorcycle. Driver and machine form a complex system whose dynamic state and performance depend on a delicate, constant dance of maintenance that relies on common sense.

Pirsig talks about it as some “metaphysics of quality“: the motorcycle will be driven in one way or another, will slide down different roads and climates at different times of the day, will deal with slightly different phenomena in each one of its mechanical parts, subject to friction and entropy, but also to careful and comprehensive maintenance by somebody who does not see the machine as an abstract entity detached from its driver and surroundings.

Hence Pirsig tells us there is no such thing as a static, isolated motorcycle. His motorcycle, the one he “maintains,” is nothing but a complex assembly of parts that keeps its entity one way or another (in better or worse shape) thanks to a series of decisions taken over time within some geography and landscape. The parts added according to the manual, one by one, do not make a fine motorcycle; it is the careful maintenance of the machine that makes its driving special.

Pirsig (who acknowledges that his fictionalized autobiography “is not very factual on motorcycles, either”) does not forget to make a point apropos of the technification of repair shops. As passionate artisans age and retire, shops become impersonal service stations with clerks barely running electronic test machines. Electronics take over repair diagnostics —Pirsig prophesies about the coming future from 1974—the craft of maintenance gets cornered, and machine fine-tuning will vanish. Half a century after, consumers of technological appliances and owners of cars and tractors fight for the “right to repair.” So much has been lost in between.

The quality we can study

In Pirsig’s concept of “quality,” reality is not reduced to a rational account of a given moment (we face the limitations of the inherited Aristotelian concept of “presence,” a screenshot for the mind that keeps us in the jail of the present moment). On the contrary, it includes a broader, more dynamic account of the perceived world where we individuals are an indissoluble part of what is happening. Our mindset and actions shape reality for the better or the worst.

Let us consider Pirsig’s perspective of reality, where there are no tight boundaries between the individual and the world surrounding her. Dynamic quality can be applied to our life experience within the world, at home, at work, or when we design, build, and/or use everyday things.

What he calls “quality” (or the enhancement of the way we see the world that would allow us to better design and maintain things) is based on something that, he says, we cannot define unequivocally because it depends on the dynamic variables of us experimenting things in the world.

Charles Bello and Kirsten Dirksen

Nevertheless —Pirsig goes on— we can spot and improve “patterns” that give us data and allow us to improve upon things thanks to essay-and-error. This never-ending cognitive process leads to better conjectures, a process described by Karl Popper as critical rationalism: we get better at solving problems as we advance learning by doing.

There is a quality that cannot be patterned and belongs to a dynamic “flow” of things that the tradition has called “tao,” “the One,” Etc.; but, once a quality repeats predictably, it can be measured and used to get predictable results in any complex system, from a physics theory to the construction of a house:

  • patterns found in non-living things, such as the tendency towards spirals and fractals we find in things big and small across the universe;
  • the self-organizing tendencies in the universe (considered a universal “pulsion” or “will to live” by Arthur Schopenhauer) has a translation in living things since their “building blocks” rely on very efficient ways to store information such as protein molecules (RNA, DNA);
  • social and artificial bottom-to-top patterns follow designs found in biological ones, such as the way we create “urbanism” (which is an “emergent” phenomenon that implies the existence of a culture, given that the whole cannot be reduced to the mere addition of its parts) as we assemble; institutions or the Internet are other social patterns we can measure;
  • there are also intellectual patterns, from ideas to “culture” (language, gastronomy, Etc.).

Chaos and order

In his essay about the disappearance of Eastern aesthetics due to the unstoppable advance of Western technology in Japan from the Meiji period on, Junichiro Tanizaki argues that modern design and machines respond to a Western cultural perception that prioritizes “perfection”: precision, cleanliness, brightness, shiny crystals (hence our obsession with gold or diamonds); whereas the Eastern character appreciates natural “imperfection”: shades, misty and foggy atmospheres, as well as the beauty of aging, uncleanliness, Etc.

These broad cultural and linguistic differences may not explain what appropriate design or quality are but tell us that the way we perceive reality affects the behavior we project around us and the tools we create to make things, and things themselves.

American futurist and designer Buckminster Fuller wrote the introduction of Design for The Real World (1971), the book by Austrian-American designer Victor Papanek. As Fuller states in his text, both men were as different as two industrial designers and polymaths who also taught in American colleges in a convulsed era could be.

Both were pursuing better designs for everyday things, from personal communication tools to personal or collective transportation to new appliances, houses, and cities. Moreover, even though each of them followed very distinctive paths, they acknowledged the importance of natural patterns and designs for human improvement:

“The opposite of design is chaos. Design is intelligent or intelligible. Most of the design subjectively experienced by humans is a priory the design of sea waves, winds, birds, animals, grasses, flowers, rocks, mosquitoes, spiders, salmon, crabs, and flying fish. Humans are confronted with an a priori, comprehensive, designing intellect which, for instance, has designed the sustenance of life on the planet we call Earth through the primary impoundment of Sun energy on Earth by the photosynthetic functioning of vegetation (…).”

Buckminster Fuller as a child in Maine

Fuller goes on about the beauty and wisdom of natural designs, open to things that can be improved as long as they do not contradict the laws of physics:

“The universe manifests an extraordinary aggregate of generalized principles, none of which contradict one another and all of which are interaccomodative (…).”

This idea of the world as a canvas for human improvement, propelled by ingenuity and the refutation of old conjectures by new laws that hold until they are in turn proved wrong, propelled the acceleration of technology and industrial production with all its excesses.

Papanek’s book is the beginning of a new era, one in which complex technology has to disclose its implications and understand all its effects, not only the ones accounted for by the economy. All social, industrial, economic, or ecological involvements have an impact that cannot be dismissed.

Robert M. Pirsig

Most human design is now too complex to achieve solo following the old trades of master-and-apprentice shops of the pre-industrial era; if so, how to explain to all the involved the consequences of highly technical and compartmentalized occupations? Fuller tries to advance the responses of Papanek by explaining his own experience as a tinkerer and a polymath, as interested in using workshop tools as in the conceptual work: his natural drive towards spontaneous design, his disposition to make or improve upon the tools used and the materials harvested around:

“I’m accustomed to starting from primitive conditions, where as far as one can see no other man has explored.”

The parts of a mass-produced house

His beginnings as a curious child in Maine would probably influence Fuller’s view on design and technology as much as he claimed. Unlike other influential designers and architects from his era, Fuller did account for the economic potential of his ideas and their social and ecological impact.

With the effort of World War II aircraft design, industrial production changed its processes as computer mainframes helped speed some processes; for the first time, calculations determined designs and material strength to the point of demanding sometimes alloys that had to be invented in order to make models work the way they were intended. The need for accuracy had to jump exponentially.

How to account for what Robert M. Pirsig calls dynamic “quality” in such industrial processes? If a commercial home in the ’50s needed 500 parts, a car demanded 5,000 parts, and an airplane needed 50,000 parts, the world of mass production and handling that Buckminster Fuller was describing was still mostly an analogic one.

Today, microprocessors and sensors are so pervasive in every consumer sector that the disruption of global supply chains due to the pandemic created a microchip shortage affecting electronics, appliances, and automobile production.

As software attracts more value, economies of scale essentially produce the same technical goods with infinite commercial variations: we can choose colors, shapes, and any thinkable gimmick, as long as we do not care about parts, materials, assembly, “quality” in its broadest sense.

Improving the way we see the world and design things

By the time Buckminster Fuller wrote the introduction of Victor Papanek’s influential Design for the Real World, this trend towards softwarization and commodification of goods was beginning to converge with phenomena such as planned obsolescence. In contrast, fixability and recyclability of highly technical goods ended up losing ground, and not the opposite (as public relations have tried to make us think).

Despite its influence, Papanek’s essay does not describe trends that would end up dominating industrial design and production. On the contrary, the responsible, sustainable, and qualitative designs that could have existed in accordance with the real needs of people remained a mere idealist manifesto to be cherished by misfits, outsiders, and dusty workshops.

First published in 1971, Victor Papanek’s book predated the first NASA’s GISS global temperature analysis (1981) by one decade and was published two years before the OPEC oil crisis of 1973, which caused shortages both in North America and Europe and shook both geopolitics and energy security for decades to come. The first personal computers commercially available would become widespread just by the end of the decade.

Cybernetics was taking over as a discipline, and systems thinking were trying to explain some of the advances taking place in several fields, usually spun off military research through DARPA. Gregory Bateson, an English professor teaching in California, was about to publish his essay Steps to an Ecology of Mind (1972) followed by Mind and Nature (1979).

Thoughts of a designer 50 years ago

The last chapter (Design for survival, and survival through design; What can we do?), though, is a testimony of what was needed to design products that could accommodate within a circular economy.

The chapter opens with a quote by RFK:

“Some men see things as they are and say, why?
I dream things that never were and say, why not?”

In dreaming of the construction of a better future by better designs and systems, Papanek enumerates just a bunch of promising fields with the potential of improving the world:

  • Hovercraft
  • Monorail systems
  • Ultra-compact electric cars
  • Personal, battery-driven mobility devices, that can easily be hand-carried
  • Mass-produced multiple-use buildings
  • Automated traffic
  • Computerized medical diagnostic devices
  • Television-phones
  • Computer-access consoles in the home
  • Education through television and teaching machines
  • De-polluted manufacturing systems
  • Wide use of bio-degradable materials

And he goes on to explain some concerning trends:

“As factories and industrial combines grow in size, complexity, and investment capital, their opposition to innovation grows. Changes in the system, replacements in the system itself, or parts of it become more costly to contemplate and more difficult to institute. Directions of change therefore cannot be expected to be initiated by big business or the military-industrial complex (or the tame, captive designers working for them) but will be initiated by the design team.

“To do the most effective job possible, a great deal of research will be needed. A great many questions (most of them trans-national in character) need to be asked. All of these are rather big questions indeed.”

Here are some of the questions that need to resonate, writes Papanek:

  • What is the ideal human social system?
  • What are optimal conditions for human society on Earth?
  • What are the parameters of the global ecological and ethological system?
  • What are the limits of our resources?
  • What are the human limits?
  • What are the basic housekeeping rules for human life on the planet earth? (Or, in Bucky Fuller’s phrase: An Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth.)
  • And, finally, what don’t we know?

The space within a vessel

This book’s last chapter resonates now, exactly half a century since it was published, more clearly than ever before. Charles Bello’s homestead in Northern California is also a testimony of what can be done with better designs.

His dismissal of pretentious design arrives in a timely fashion as a wake-up call. According to Bello, the best source we have is Nature’s itself:

“Let’s look at a seashell, let’s look at a hyperbolic paraboloid, a mathematical equation, look a the bees at the construction of the honeycomb —Nature, if we think about it and look at it, Nature is smart, Nature does things in a very important way, and we are not smarter than Nature; we often think we are, but we are not.”

Contemplating variations and repetition of models we can sometimes find in a park nearby or even within the boundaries of our backyard. Studying them carefully —says Bello —can beget inspiration for more appropriate designs.

Victor Papanek

Among all epigraphs found in Victor Papanek’s Design for the Real World, this article chooses the verses of Lao-Tze that open the first chapter, What is design?:

The Wheel’s hub holds thirty spokes
Utility depends on the hole through the hub
The potter’s clay forms a vessel
It is the space within that serves.
A house is built with solid walls
The nothingness of window and door alone
renders it useable,
That which exists may be transformed
What is non-existent has boundless uses.