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The following article is a review of Peter Lloyd Jones, Taste Today: The Role of Appreciation in Consumerism and Design. Oxford, 1991. It was originally published earlier as Jan Michl, "Taking Taste Seriously: Peter Lloyd Jones on the Role of Apperciation in Consumerism and Design." Scandinavian Journal of Design History 3, 1994, 113-17.


Taking Taste Seriously

Peter Lloyd Jones
on the Role of Appreciation
in Consumerism and Design


Written by JAN MICHL


THE DESIGN PHILOSOPHY behind the functionalist movement saw the aesthetic preferences of users as the main obstacle on the the way to 'true', objective forms, so much so that functionalism can in one way be defined as an attempt to produce design beyond Taste. The conviction that designers could, and should, do without reference to Taste followed from the central tenet of modernism, claiming, in the words of Louis Sullivan, that "problems contain and suggest their own solutions"; the process of design was consequently seen as a matter of unearthing the allegedly inherent, innate functional-cum-aesthetic solutions. The recent disintegration of this intoxicating concept of design as a disclosure of Truth, and of the accompanying conviction that designers are guardians of this Truth, has left behind it a huge and painful emptiness. This has been felt not only by those who educate designers, but also by historians of architecture and design who inherited a growingly improbable interpretation of modernism's place in history - contrived by modernists themselves. So just as the notion of Taste was once banished by modernist design philosophy, so it has been sucked back, so to speak, by the vacuum left by its demise. In architecture this fact has been slowly recognized since late 1960s though mostly in terms of linguistic analogies [1] (and sometimes also through the humorist's eye). [2] In the field of design the notion of Taste was an explicit theme for an exhibition and an innovative anthology in London in 1983 [3] though designers themselves preferred to approach Taste through linguistic analogies, as in the so called product semantics launched in USA in 1984. [4]

Peter Lloyd Jones' book Taste Today published in 1991 [5] can be seen as the most vigorous attempt so far to take seriously the fact that the notion of Taste is back at the centre of stage, that it in fact has been there, surreptitiously, all the time, and that it is there to stay. A true intellectual tour de force, Lloyd Jones book provides not only a matter-of-factly map of the operations of Taste in contemporary society, but also an agenda for practising designers where the notion of Taste is, for the first time since the pre-modernist times, made into the focal point of the designer's effort.

Judging from the adeptness with which the author has pursued his mapping one would bet that he belonged to the echelons of Academia. But not so; Peter Lloyd Jones is in fact in the business of practical training of future designers, and for years he has been the Head of School of Three-Dimensional Design at Kingston Polytechnic in Britain. It is wonderful to find a book teeming with erudition but still entirely free for the exhibitionist air or quasi-academic cant which so often makes the more ambitious essays written by designers and architects so difficult to digest. But then Lloyd Jones, it turns out, is a scientist by training, he has a doctorate in chemistry prior to his later career in design education. The same careful thinking and precise articulation that characterizes his book can be found in his closely argued earlier essays which form a kind of groundwork for the present book although they deal mainly with design theory and design education rather than the notion of Taste. [6]

The book is naturally addressed to fellow design educators and practitioners but that makes it in no way less interesting for art and design historians. It is in fact difficult to guess which of the two categories of its potential readers will benefit more from it. The author conducts excursions into the fields of linguistics, anthropology, semiotics, sociology, and, not the least, into the discipline of market research, in his pursuit of understanding of those elusive and subjective values of design which he classifies under the heading of 'Taste' (I follow here his spelling with uppercase T). For the art historian it is reassuring to find out that Lloyd Jones , as the book's Dedication indicates, sees himself as a pupil, among others, of E. H. Gombrich, the Grand Old Man of art history; and the familiar Gombrichian spirit of impatience with generalizations, of willingness to explore the logic of concrete situations, and of critical but always constructive attitude indeed pervades the book (though Lloyd Jones' own attitude to Gombrich's ideas is in no way docile for that.) Even if the author limited himself to his well-informed and far-reaching research of the Taste-related literature and the critical elaboration of its various aspects - he discusses the gustatory, the linguistic and the dramatic Taste analogies, the notion of Taste cultures, of legitimate Taste, the phenomenon of fashion, key writers on Taste such as Veblen, Gans, Bourdieu and others, and a whole lot of captivating issues pertaining to each of these topics - it would be in itself a boon to both parties. But the book takes the reader by surprise, first in the chapter Taste and the Professionals where the author offers an unexpected, penetrating analysis of the 'interior' of the designer profession, and discusses the bearing of its value system on the problem of Taste. Then there is the last, and even more surprising chapter on Quality and Equality where he outlines an agenda for action aimed at getting out of the present impasse. These two chapters which are the definite highlights of the book, give further substance to the emerging alternative non-modernist way of looking at the phenomenon of design. On these two chapters I would like to say more.

*

THE CHAPTER on Taste and the Professionals revolves around the concept of curator-professions coined originally by the American sociologist E. Goffman in the 1950s, and used to refer to the professional custodians of social values presiding over the circulation and legitimation of symbols and metaphors. Lloyd Jones develops the concept of curator-professions further and employs it, among other things, to throw light on both the British reformist movement around the time of the 1851 Exhibition, as well as on the current state of affairs. In Lloyd Jones usage the term curator includes creators (artists, architects and designers), "Taste bureaucracies" so called, such as "advisory committees on business sponsorship, the boards of great foundations, the mandarin and often obscure functionaries of semi-government and the so called quangos such as arts, crafts and design councils", directors and boards of art and design museums, and others. Forming a part of various establishments they exercise through their prejudices and preferences a disproportionally large influence on the public.

Lloyd Jones sees the reform movement of the 19th century as the first example of the new curator-professions in action. These professions aim at challenging the aristocratic Taste and aristocratic values traditionally seen as paradigms of good Taste, i.e. they are disputing the accepted rule that the cultural politics is a preserve of the upper, affluent classes. The growing Establishment of curators and creators based on new institutions of design education and design museums, is now setting their own professional values and preferences against those of users aristocratic and non-aristocratic alike. The notion of curator-professions is further illuminated in the following sub-chapters discussing the rise of professionals and professionalization of Taste, design as a profession, educating the Taste-makers and above all reward systems in curator-professions - an analysis offering brave and often unique insight into the inside of the professional world of designers.

One suspects that a chapter like this will not win the author many new friends among the colleagues. He manages to raise some pretty provocative questions - though his civil way of putting them invariably softens their impact. He asks, for example, whether professionalization of design, i.e. the effort to restrict design practice to licenced practitioners only, makes any sense apart from its obvious self-serving aim of eliminating competition from engineers on the one hand, and architects on the other. In what way does professionalization serves the customer, who after all, is the raison d'être of the profession? Such licencing may make sense, Lloyd Jones argues, in other professions concerned with dangerous and damaging activities. But the question remains even if one chooses to argue that also design deals with such dangers. However,

"[s]uppose that the wallpaper really suited to the steamy kitchen, the plumbing actually works and the dress really is machine washable? What do we say about standards of service when our complaint is simply that the product is ugly, or even merely dull or unexciting?" (134)

If design is in the end "about Taste", what is the point of making designing a licenced profession, Lloyd Jones appears to ask, when the profession tends to work on its own terms, imposing their own value system on clients whose professional servants designers claim to be? Lloyd Jones further argues that the professional values are powerfully influenced by what he calls reward systems within the world of curator-professions. He discusses these systems in terms of salary, status and power, and finds that creative autonomy and prestige or status, i.e. "the ability to attract social honour or deference", are as a rule rated far higher than money, and direct power. These values turn out to be related to the prestige of pure, or fine art. Referring to the central thesis of the American economist Thorstein Veblen, who claimed that a person's social status is determined by his or her ability to waste economic resources, Lloyd Jones suggests that also acquisition of status within the curator profession can be plausibly seen in such Veblenian terms: the designer's talent is called for where ostensibly useful artefacts are to embody conspicuous waste, in addition to their utilitarian value:

"Within some otherwise useful artefacts - be it a large building or a tiny object - it is our recognition of the ability of the client to afford, and the ability of the creator to exercise the display of, waste that gives it status in our eyes. (...) In the ultimate, Taste is waste and hence, pace Veblen, attracts the highest prestige! This prompts the drive of all creative designers towards the practice of pure or fine art. (...) Art is ... the embodiment of waste in its purest form." (145, 146)

The author argues further that

"the most subtle (and seductive) ingredients in the prestige accorded to a creator professional comes from the scope that his clients allow him to behave as an artist and to express his is personality through the medium of the client's business and its customers. At this point, power - in the sense of personal autonomy in symbolism, and the ability to impose this on wide public - interacts with prestige or social honour. As in other fields of coercion, high status accords to he who can exert the widest influence. (...) Aggressive publicity, involving the identification of a named designer by labelling each item, can be an important selling factor. Once a creator can achieve this, then his ability to exert further pressure on the producers to follow a creation-push rather than a demand-pul policy is enhanced." (146)

*

THE CONCLUDING CHAPTER on "Quality and Equality" gives substance to the book's subtitle, 'The Role of Appreciation in Consumerism and Design'. Here the author sketches a strikingly bold agenda for action, at once constructive and visionary. It is aimed at escaping the dead end brought about, as he suggests, by the curator-professions as a consequence of imposition of their own professional values on the unwilling public. He shows that not only curator professions failed to win the public for their austere aesthetic. Also the governmental attempts to engineer Taste in the direction of austerity have failed wherever they have been tried, be it in France two hundred years ago, in the Soviet Union, in the Nazi Germany, or in China during the "cultural" revolution. The same happened in Britain when the so called Utility furniture and clothing introduced under Emergency Legislation during and after the Second World War, and based on the modernist "functional" forms, was abandoned by users for period furniture, immediately after the legislation was lifted.

Lloyd Jones argues that it was not only a minority Taste of an alien social group that was rejected with Utility furniture; what was dismissed was the whole functionalist distinction between the allegedly genuine usefulness and superfluous embellishments. He contends that

" ... embellishment - the lush symbols on the aspidistra wase - although a 'written' message, is just as functional in its way as the concavity which keeps in soil and water. Its function, however, is a social one. It expresses in visual form, a value system, an image of an ideal home or an affirmation of worth for someone who occupies a particular (lowly) position in a complex social hierarchy. A glance at a particular set of symbols will tell a man that he is spiritually 'at home' and among his own kind. Friendship, brotherhood and the solidarity of belonging to a group, not to mention the antithetical values of individuality, rivalry and up-staging, are messages of primary importance, well worth the sacrifice of a little extra bodily comfort or durability if the price for that comfort is a 'meaningless' nakedness of form." (267-8)

Lloyd Jones further points out that designers have a special responsibility because of their privileged position: they must recognize that the division of labour on which their professional existence depends, removes precisely those intrinsic satisfactions which they enjoy so much in their own work, from the working experience of most other people. Due to sharp divisions between conception and execution, industrialism brought to a halt both the exercise of manual dexterity and of the inventive skills that characterized the earlier craft production, and were part of the intrinsic reward of the working life. In contrast to most other people designers are blessed with considerable personal satisfaction deriving from the exercise of creativity. When for the majority of people production is excluded as a source of intrinsic reward

"all that remains is vicarious satisfaction through consumption (...) the only satisfactions available for the most people are those obtained through the consumption of goods which embody the creative acts of others. (...) Given the asymmetry in the distribution of intrinsic reward, designers have an obligation to create products and settings which promote the satisfaction that they themselves enjoyed in designing them, to the maximum." (269)

This problem has been ignored for a long time, and, according to the author, led to consequences that have their own grievous ecological aspect: when consumption is based on the supply of goods that in the eyes of majority of people are

"denuded of intrinsic satisfaction ... more and more new goods are acquired in a futile search for a fulfillment that is not to be head and the production system churns endlessly on ... until the very existence of life on earth is threatened. (...) The road to an ecologically sound design lies elsewhere. Working with the grain of the social structure and attempting to redirect human motivations by offering more intrinsically satisfying products to the market is the only realistically way in which designers can contribute to a more profound and hence more stable material culture." (270)

Lloyd Jones emphasizes that the idea of an equality of opportunity in a democracy must include

"equality of opportunity in terms of access to the satisfactions of life, including the intrinsic satisfactions embodied in goods. The designer in such a democracy must offer not the opportunity of equality but the opportunity of quality, quality in both the perceptions of meanings and values in the surroundings of everyday life in the public environment and quality in the intrinsic satisfactions which contemplation of present possessions offers their owners. Only when we are satisfied with what we have will the drive for progressively more goods finally be abated." (270)

These programmatic statements open the concluding discussion on the practicalities of how designers can enrich the intrinsic quality of life without promoting either their own subculture or that of the ruling elite on whom they are dependent for their patronage. The author starts by asking what gives the consumers intrinsic satisfactions. He comes to suggest that the quality of perceptual engrossment, or flow, triggered by the uncovering of symbolic meanings in products, and kept going by the continuing process of discernment, is a key factor. From this perspective he apprises the recently developed method of product semantics which has aimed at putting meaning back into products. At the same, finding that not only the discovery of meaning is pleasurable but also the process of perception itself, he reappraises the role of art in design: it is the art-part that creates the endless cognitive maze which makes it gratifying to keep returning to the objects we own. Referring to the educational philosophy of his school at Kingston he points out that both meaning and the intrinsic satisfaction of perceptual engrossment, or flow, must be present in a product if it is to be successful, and he claims that the intellectual tools are now in place for the interested designer.

As to the consumers, Lloyd Jones revives the idea of consumer education, though in a rather different sense from that of Good Taste- and Good Design-days. He believes that it is possible

"to teach more people more ways of properly enjoying their goods and settings than is usually supposed. (...) Why should the study of, for example, the history of art be considered superior to the study of domestic science, given their respective importance to the economy and to the individual's enjoyment of the good life?" (281)

- especially when expenditure on home improvements is said to exceed that of all leisure activities put together. Lloyd Jones visualizes a kind of cultural education that

"could provide for each citizen what is currently only enjoyed by small elites - a gourmet's guide to his or her own particular corner of consumer society. Indeed, taken to its limit, the distinctions between producers and consumers and between design education and consumer education begin to dissolve. Instead of designers acting as prepackagers of meanings for the multitude, they would play the role of 'cultural enablers', assisting people to move forward in their own lives. This is already happening in the office environment where the interaction of equipment, software, work practices and employee life styles is complex and continuous. (...) There is no inherent reasons why this approach should be limited to designing the workplace or facilitating the use of high technology. There is every reason to extend it into the enhancement of the settings of everyday life ..." (281-2)

*

ARE THESE BROAD VISIONS a new Utopia? Will the existence of what the author calls 'more intrinsically satisfying products' of necessity lead to less consumption? If so, what consequence may this have for the economy? Can perhaps less consumption be compensated by the consumers' willingness to invest more in higher quality? What about fashion: To what extent does fashion keep subverting our satisfaction with what we already have? Will not a socially mobile society always generate fashion-based changes which in its turn will produces waste? How do we define waste? Is the pursuit of respectability through ownership of appealing products, and fashion in general, in inherent conflict with ecological considerations? These are some of the important questions that keep popping up.

All the same, I have no doubt that the core of the author's project, the vision of intrinsically more satisfying products is a feasible aim worth pursuing independently of these broader questions. The constructive alternative to the modernist vision of objective design which Lloyd Jones offers does have its loose ends but it is a far cry from the more usual, nebulous, and basically neo-modernist collective proclamations which now and then appear in design magazines. It remains to be seen, however, whether Lloyd Jones' agenda ever proves to be nearly as intoxicating the old modernist one. The most interesting contribution of the book, the analysis of the curator professions, may namely prove to be its main drawback when translated into operational terms: the new agenda sees the 'enemy' inside - rather than outside - the profession. Such diagnosis turns the searchlight on designers themselves, providing no gratifying targets out there, and that is hardly a recipe for fun: the prospect of reforming others has proved notoriously more captivating than the idea of reforming ourselves. Besides, in the short run, the book is in danger of falling between two chairs: to practicing designers its erudite discussions may perhaps prove too 'academic' or even frightening, and the humble attitude required for implementing its agenda too difficult for former modernists to cope with. Design historians as observers of the design scene may on the other hand tend to perceive the book as pertaining to the world of practicing designers only, and ignore it on that account. It is as a part of the design education curriculum, addressed to young designer minds, that the author's constructive agenda probably stands the best chance of getting a warmer response. For that purpose may perhaps a short version of the book, consisting mainly of the two key chapters, give the author's agenda a cutting edge it possibly needs - and certainly deserves.


References

1: See for example Charles Jencks and G. Baird, ed., Meaning in Architecture, London, 1969; Charles Jencks, The Language of Post-Modern Architecture, London, 1984; and his later books.

2: Tom Wolfe, From Bauhaus to Our House, New York, 1981.

3: Stephen Bayley, Taste: An Exhibition about Values in Design, London, 1983. Cf. Bayley's recent broadly conceived book Taste: The Secret Meaning of Things, New York, 1991.

4: Cf. Jan Michl, [Review of] "Väkevä, Seppo, ed. Product Semantics '89: Proceedings from the Product Semantics '89 Conference 16.-19. 5. 1989 at the University of Industrial Arts Helsinki UIAH. Helsinki: Publications of the University of Industrial Arts UIAH A4, 1990. Vihma, Susann, ed. Semantic Visions in Design: Proceedings from the Symposium on Design Research and Semiotics 17.-18. 5. 1989 at University of Industrial Arts Helsinki UIAH. Helsinki: Publications of the University of Industrial Arts UIAH A7, 1990." Scandinavian Journal of Design History [Copenhagen] 2: 123-7.

5: Peter Lloyd Jones, Taste Today: The Role of Appreciation in Consumerism and Design. Oxford, 1991.

6: Cf. for example "The Failure of Basic Design," Leonardo 2 , 1969, 155-160; "The Death of Abstraction: Scientific Metaphors in Twentieth-Century Art and Design," in Common Denominators in Art and Science, ed. by Martin Pollock. 149-63. Aberdeen, 1983; "The Metaphor of Language in Design Education," in Form and Vision: Articles and Writings from the International UIAH'87 Conference at the University of Industrial Arts in Helsinki 6.-9.1.1987, ed. Susann Vihma. 184-97. Helsinki, 1987.


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Your comments to the above review, or to the book itself, are welcome: michl.nor[at]gmail.com
You are also welcome
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Other online book reviews by Jan Michl:

S. Väkevä, ed. (1990) Product Semantics '89
S. Vihma, ed. (1990) Semantic Visions in Design
G. Widengren, ed. (1994) Tanken och Handen: Konstfack 150 år
M. Aav and N. Stritzler-Levine, eds. (1998) Finnish Modern Design


Other online articles IN ENGLISH by Jan Michl
The author's workplace 2017: NTNU / Norwegian University of Science and Technology / Gjøvik, Norway





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