A Filipino Industrial Designer from the 1960’s

Sharing this news feature I found from the Sunday Times Magazine on  Alfonso de Lange published in September 17, 1961. I’m always on the lookout for snippets and images of Philippine design history (a severely underdeveloped field!), and came upon this by accident while working in the archives. This caught my eye because current industrial designers point to de Lange as the first Filipino professional industrial designer, having studied industrial design for four years at the Cleveland Institute of Art before practicing it. He returned to the country from the US in 1959 (as per the article), although I believe he has since returned and retired to the US.

Feel free to message me for a higher resolution image, although I’m not sure if that will help since the reproduction is quite poor. This was taken from the microfilm section of the University of the Philippines Diliman, Main Library.

STM Seopt 17,1961 Young man with a new careerSTM Seopt 17,1961 Young man with a new career(2)

I’ve reproduced certain interesting parts which can provide a glimpse on how de Lange conceived of the role of industrial design and that of the industrial designer. Or at the very least, on how it was presented and marketed to the public via this article.

On the industrial designer as someone who brings beauty, functionality, personality, and a particular human touch to products and corporate branding.

“Yet, the 28-year-old tall man is the man who plans to give local appliances and household items a sweeping face-lifting to bring new beauty and functionality, new personality to the big essential products for homes and offices and retouch the corporate personality of local firms as well. All these (…) he packs into one (…) effort, which he hopes will catch fire locally, and labels it “industrial designing.

“All products are machine-made and come out sterile, dead, so you get the designer to give it life,” he says.

This brand new career which he brings to the Philippines for the first time, has netted him so far commissions from various companies to design a whole collection of items ranging from toys to cars, a teaching position at the University of Santo Tomas, and the managership of the Arts and Design Department of the DRB Marketing Corporation. He is the prepossessing pioneer in a field that will soon be of immense importance to both Philippine consumers and local industry.”

On the difference between a painter and an industrial designer, which involves what they refer to as a motivation study. In present times, this is probably the equivalent of a consumer marketing study. Also note the whiff of 1960’s sexism on the part about customer preferences.

“Unlike the painter who is first and always an artist, the industrial designer does not merely dream up a spherical oven or a combination washing machine-iron and rush to his board to sketch. The creation of an industrial design begins with a motivation study.

(…) There are a great many questions which the designer must answer before actually bending over his drawing board and sketching away.

This is no mean task in itself, explains designer De Lange. Customers themselves, particularly the women, don’t often know why they want certain things. Can a woman explain, for instance, why she’d go raving mad over a hat that’s loaded down with flowers and net and be totally unmoved by a nice practical cap that will protect her from sun and rain? Or, why she’d pay through the nose for a sewing machine without batting a mascara-ed eyelash but not cast a second look at another machine of similar make but incredibly cheaper?”

It is clear that de Lange posits an industrial design practice that upholds the values of efficiency, rationality, and practicality as opposed to decorative frivolities. It is a position rooted in the modernist axiom “Form follows function”. De Lange also explains that a designer can attempt to exploit public taste by selling bad, but fashionable, designs, while the ethical designer should attempt to raise the standards of public taste. Implicit in these statements is the idea of the designer as one whose sense of taste and beauty is more developed than the average person, and whose distinct skill set in design can be used to influence the public.

“The designer has the responsibility of attempting to raise the level of the public taste, instead of merely catering to it.

“One must create a want for something better and elevate the consumer’s level of living,” believes De Lange. (…)

In a very real sense, a designer can mould, even dictate the taste of the public in the same manner that Dior, Balenziaga, Channel have for many years made women the world over follow their fashion dictates like sheep. (Again with the sexism!)

He can whip up fads, if he chooses, which will sell his client’s goods like hot cake. But fads not backed up by intrinsic quality will ruin the company in the long run, adds De Lange. Merely jazzing up the product with all sorts of unnecessary gadgets is not good designing.

The public may take up time to catch on but it will ultimately recognize the product that best meets its needs. The final test is how harmoniously the designer combines function with appearance.”

And to close the article…

“For many years, the local consumer made do with imported products designed for foreign tastes, needs and budgets. Refrigerators were sometimes too tall for the petite Filipino homemaker, cars were replete with winter equipment, ovens were far too expensive for the middle-class budget.

The coming of industrial designing to the Philippines should flatter the Philippine consumer’s pocket book as well as his ego. In little time, he will have a houseful of things designed purposely for him.“

At this period, the field of industrial design is still limited to conceiving its users as consumers, and of its designed objects/ services as commodities in the market. Thus, the idea of localizing design is translated to making design more ergonomic for the Filipino consuming public– of having smaller refrigerators for our smaller physical stature, highlighting the absurdity of cars with heaters in a tropical country, and so on. It will take many more years before the field of ID expands beyond producing solely for the market.

The resources I’ve gathered so far pertain largely on Industrial Design and on the efforts of the DCP during the Marcos period. I’m trying to expand on the collection, but it’s a bit difficult to know where to start looking.

Alas, researching on Philippine design history is long, tedious, and lonely. Like really, I end up talking to myself– asking questions and answering my own questions. (Ok, so maybe I have one other person I can talk to. But just one). So if you’re interested in sharing resources, have particular stuff on design history you want to share, or you just need someone to talk to on Philippine design history (think of all the fun we can have asking questions that we can’t answer!), then feel free to message me through this blog.


Ang Dalagita’y ‘Sang Bagay? Ruminations on the play “Ang Dalagita’y Sang Bagay na Di Buo”

It was excruciating to watch Ang Dalagita’y ‘Sang Bagay na Di-Buo, not because it was badly acted or created (far from it), or because of the unconventional format and sole performer (which brought another dimension to the adaptation), and not even for the explicit sexual scenes (of which there were many), but due to the relentless and escalating violence brought upon on the main character, the dalagita, and from which there was no escape. Far from being a conservative prude, very few plays had made me squirm in my seat. But by the end of Ang Dalagita’y, after several scenes of abuse which finally and abhorrently culminated in the singular day of her brother’s death and her being raped twice, a heavy emotional exhaustion had set in. I had no twinge of sentimentality, no more pity for the character when she set out to drown herself. All fondness and empathy had been hammered away, (or perhaps I had identified too much?) that when I stared at the final, underwater scene, I did so with a deadening sense of apathy.

At this point, I wish to share that I viewed the play from a very particular standpoint– that of a female born from a middle class, conservative Catholic family and living in a patriarchal society. And that while I do not wholly identify with the label “lesbian”, I have consistently had romantic relationships with women in the past and none with men. As such, I am both fully aware of the moral order of Catholicism, of its hypocrisies towards sexuality, and of the myriad ways my life has digressed from the ideal Catholic life. This configuration allowed certain themes in the play to resonate with and/or parallel certain events in my life, of which I wish to tease out here. As a result, the initial points diverge from the questions and guidelines set out for this piece, but I feel this is necessary in order to fully flesh out how the play affected me.  

The departure of the father was the first act of violence. It was an act of agency on the father’s part, before the dalagita was born into the world, but which foreshadowed the masculine and patriarchal violence she would have to endure throughout her life. This act is inflicted on the mother, the first female character introduced to the audience, whose initial joyful countenance quickly hardened upon being left behind. In this play, events are inflicted upon the females, who are all victims of circumstance and male agency, and are riddled with Catholic guilt. Religion is continuously mocked, but the characters never completely extricate themselves from its moral impositions, from its dualities of virgin and whore, virtue and sin, and purity and decay. It is a structure that the mother embraces wholeheartedly. Perhaps, having been spurned by both her father and children’s father, she turns to the Father instead, adopting and imposing His will on both her children’s lives. Thus, both father and Father cast shadows within which the dalagita is expected to live her life.

In the play, the dalagita is constantly reminded of the loss of a father figure (the lines “If only your father was here..” recurs throughout). But the effect of that abandonment was more insidious. For in truth, it was the loss of a female nurturing bond, in the form of the mother, that was perhaps her first great tragedy. Later on, with the news of her brother’s hopeless medical condition and in a desperate plea for meaningful connection, the dalagita implored her praying mother to look at her; for once, to recognize the person who was sitting across. But refusing to see, the mother pulled her shawl closer and returned with fervour to her prayers. In this scene, I am reminded of a passage from Simone de Beauvoir’s memoirs.

“My mother had often told me how she had suffered from grandmama’s coldness towards her, and that she hoped she could be a friend to her daughters; but how could she have talked to me as one woman to another? In her eyes I was a soul in mortal peril; I had to be saved from damnation: I was an object, not a woman. The firmness of her convictions forbade her to make the slightest concession. If she questioned me, it was not in order to come to an understanding with me on common ground: she was simply making an investigation. I always had the feeling, whenever she asked me a question, that she was spying on me through a keyhole. The very fact that she had renounced all her claims on me shut me up like a clam.”

  • from Simone de Beauvoir’s Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter

While it was de Beauvoir who eventually turned cold against her mother, her coldness stemmed from a similar emotional indictment– that of the mother’s failure to recognize her daughter’s own agency and being. As long as the daughter was only considered under the lens of a patriarchal religion– her every action to be judged in the eyes of the Father– the impossibility of establishing a meaningful, genuine connection remained. Such relationship strains are also far too common between conservative parents and children whose gender and sexual identities do not coincide with the accepted heterosexual and monogamous norm. In my own personal life, such tensions are manifested everytime my mother insists that I find a husband or have a baby, despite the fact that she knows of my preference. And while these are not outright, violent rejections (not comparable to the death wish the mother hurled upon the dalagita), they remain as a refusal to recognize the choices I have made. They continue to contribute to the feeling that I am not being understood, or I am not being seen as I am. And while my mother often extols the virtue of her unconditional love for her children (which I hold on to and appreciate), in the same breath she insists upon the stringency of her own moral compass.

Which is not to say that men do not labor under the burden of non-recognition or a lack of meaningful parental connections. But perhaps what sets the dilemma of women apart is in how those issues are intrinsically tied with moral perceptions on sexuality and the body. Women are seen as sexual beings, whether or not they are actively performing their sexual personas. Furthermore, we are judged on how rightly or wrongly we conduct these personas, based on standards that work against us. This is an issue that women of all sexualities have to deal with. And this also brings us to the figure of the uncle, a character who brings about a cycle of sexual helplessness, defiance, and depravity in the dalagita’s life.






A few years ago, I had returned to school to study painting and found myself exploring portrayals of sexuality and the body. It was an impulse I initially resisted, feeling somewhat ashamed of having to talk about the works with my teachers and younger classmates. But it was one I found compelling and hard to fight. I was also well aware of how the bodies of women have been subjected to the masculine gaze in the tradition of painting, and this brought me to a bit of a dilemma. Thus, in working, I sought to represent an image of an intimate, but ultimately, empowered female sexuality.

Another problem soon presented itself as I continued my studies. I found myself having to hide my own works at home, away from the eyes of my parents. This meant locking the door while I was painting. This also implied that in the future, if I were to continue the themes that I was working on, I could not invite them to a show.   

The last painting I created was a large diptych. The stretchers exceeded my own height. The images were candy-colored and bright. In the first one, I had painted a penis inside a blender, set against a bright blue background. In the second image, a coagulated, flesh-colored liquid in a glass with a red and white straw. The paintings still exist, rolled up in a room in our house that no one has used for years. I do not have pictures of it, I doubt if anyone would want it, and I am thinking of eventually destroying it. It is far too big, far too sexual, and far too deviant for my family’s moral code. The peace in our home hangs upon a precious balance after all. I am free to do the things I do, but always away from the family sphere. At the moment, there is little hope of integration.

In the succeeding years, I have since shifted course towards reading, researching, and writing about art. My explorations on the topic of sex have also been relegated to writing, albeit to ones that focus more on personal relations than on explicit sexuality. Hiding writings are easier. They are far less unwieldy than paintings, and there are infinite pockets of space in the internet in which I can slip them into.


When I was thirteen and commuting home from school, I was sexually harassed. A guy sitting beside me inside the jeepney started touching me. Initially, I thought his arm was just accidentally grazing my body. But it quickly dawned on me that I was being taken advantage of when I pushed his hand away and it quite simply, to my amazement, resumed touching me again. I immediately asked the jeepney driver to stop and bolted out of the vehicle, feeling stunned. A year later, also commuting home from school and also inside a jeepney, I found myself sitting beside a guy who had a backpack on his lap and one hand under this bag. It turned out he was unzipping his fly and taking out his penis, which I had the unfortunate experience of seeing. I would have been able to step out of the jeepney immediately, have I not first mistakenly and confusedly pondered on why the guy beside me had a “leathery” looking belt. This confusion eventually turned into dread when I saw that his leathery belt had a bulbous head. Once again, I immediately bolted out of the vehicle.

While I had walked out of both situations physically unscathed, I also came out of it with a palpable sense of rage. This coincided with the realization that while I was ignorant of the many facets of human sexuality, to such an extent that I was yet incapable of performing a sexual persona, I can still be seen in a sexual light. It was not a matter of me wanting the sexual attention or advances, but simply a matter of circumstance and by virtue of being female. Such occurrences are quite common, and I can mention several stories from women that I personally know who had dealt with worse situations. But I bring my personal stories to fore because it was through the lens of such experiences that I understood the uncle’s attraction towards the dalagita. It is how I understood that her innocent feelings of attraction towards the uncle were not of the same substance as his sexual attraction towards her. It was an understanding that came from the gut. One can be sexualized long before one had an inkling or understanding of one’s own sexuality, and thus, long before one can have the necessary emotional and psychological maturity to have control of its expressions. In the case of the dalagita, she was robbed of the pubescent process of grappling with her own sexuality as a more dominant, masculine desire overshadowed her own agency. Later on, she came to an instrumentalist appreciation of the sexual act. Sex became a weapon that she learned to utilize against the school boys to socially absolve her own brother. The brother, upon learning of her numerous trysts, violently demanded her to stop– an ironic imposition of another masculine will against a growing sense, albeit distorted, of self-agency and control.

Which is not to say that one cannot regain control of one’s own sexuality in a healthy manner. And here perhaps lies my largest problem with the story. The dalagita never regains control and her sexual persona remains broken. Upon moving to the city and confronting a newfound freedom, I had hoped for a change in narrative, a pause perhaps from the downward spiral that the play seems to be moving towards. Instead, the dalagita engages in numerous meaningless sexual encounters, spurning the men who offer her companionship and support beyond the sexual act. And while this initially appeared as an act of independence (the woman not needing a man in his life), it would later prove to be a manifestation of the dalagita’s incapability in establishing normal, healthy, sustained, and loving sexual relationships. Even her bestfriend in the city, a seemingly carefree and strong woman character, is later revealed to have had sexual relations with her own father, and is thus, another broken figure. Here sex is portrayed in a myriad of forms– as masculine imposition, as rape, as instrument, as deviance, as defiance. But it is never portrayed as sex for sheer female pleasure; never the sexual act as play, never as enjoyment. The woman is either victim or depraved.

Woman-to-woman sexual relationships evoke a conflicted sense of curiosity amongst men. On one hand, lesbian sexual acts deny the men an active role and thus elicit rage. But on the other extreme, a voyeuristic culture towards lesbian sex has developed; one that is anchored largely on the promise that the women are performing for the pleasure of men or that a man can join the women and partake of the act. It is on the first end that I had initially understood and framed my own choices– as a denial of the desires of men. In inhabiting my own persona as a woman in a relationship with other women, I had done so with an odd sense of pride. It was for me a rejection of, quite crudely, the penis. A reversal of that single traumatic moment in the jeep during my youth. I resolved to remain free of the burden of courting the attention of men, of having to stroke their ego or pride. But what of women who are attracted to men? Are they, by nature, capitulating to the patriarchy? Do they have no choice but to subject themselves to the wiles of men? In retrospect, my freedom from wanting to be wanted by men was an accident, a quirk of nature. On a surface level, it did not spare me from cat calls across the street, nor did it help me escape from the heteronormative and patriarchal expectations upon my person. It was then that I thought that perhaps I needed to frame my own sense of sexual agency, not in a negation of masculine attraction, but in more positive terms. One that was based on consent, compassion, and understanding. One that celebrated a specific type of sexuality, while also recognizing and accepting a myriad of other types. It is in this renewed sense of agency that I felt it best to move on with my life.

When the dalagita moved back to the province, resumed relations with the uncle, and grappled with the imminent death of the brother, her fate seemed all but sealed. Mirroring the first time the dalagita was introduced onstage (floating inside the water of her mother’s womb), she is then portrayed in the end as trapped and floating in a blue, underwater cube. It is a brief and tragic denouement to a thankless and violent life. It is also one that left me frustrated and depressed. Perhaps it is wrong for me to insist upon deliverance. Perhaps one should learn to accept that some works are difficult to stomach, are without hope or redemption, and that this is not necessarily wrong. To an extent, perhaps confronting stories such as Ang Dalagita’y can touch similarly broken lives and lead to cathartic breakthroughs. I am not so sure. But if I were to change the ending, I would have her walk away. Not exit to the side of the stage, or have the lights dim upon her, but to have her break the fourth wall, go down the stage and and, quite simply, without fuss, to walk away. This wish ending is rooted in both the dalagita’s experiences and my own, and is symbolic of the desire to be free of the oppressive structures in which we find ourselves born into. One can argue that a character cannot exist outside its story, and all the more so for the dalagita, who is the sole physical character of the play. The play, in fact, consists of the events of her own life, from birth to death, narrated through her own voice and performed through her singular body. Thus, a rejection of the play would require a rejection of herself as the dalagita. And this is what is implied in breaking through the fourth wall. For only in ceasing to be the character can she finally transcend the vicious narrative. In stepping out of the play, a promise of a life defined by herself, breaks open.

The promise remains upon the horizon, if not for the dalagita, then perhaps for the other women similarly constrained and oppressed in this world.


Diamonds and Bones: Looking at Institutional Artistic Validation & the Promise of Greatness

I have been quite amiss in my posts these past few months. For some time, I even entertained the notion of shutting this down. I’m afraid that work and studies (and life) have taken their toll. While looking through my old files, I found this essay I submitted for Metrobank’s Art Criticism masterclass last 2016. It is a review of the exhibition “Finding Phenoms in Art” which opened in April 2016 at the Cultural Center of the Philippines. I figured might as well post it here while I am unable to write something new.


Diamonds and Bones: Looking at Institutional Artistic Validation & the Promise of Greatness

Somber is an apt description of the exhibition situated on the fourth floor, Pasilyo Victoria Edades of the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP). Lined in one long row, and flanked by one or two at the sides, the artworks suspended from the wall (or displayed on a pedestal for the lone sculpture) exude a sense of gravitas. Each one a world in itself, sharing neither theme nor medium, neither style nor subject matter, and brought together by a most tenuous thread. If viewing any exhibition is akin to a conversation, then this seemed like a formal dialogue. Hushed, dignified, and brief. Here lies the worthy, they seem to say, as if certain of their importance. This claim to significance, though somewhat affected, may contain a germ of truth— after all, one can argue that these are works validated by two well-known award programs in the visual arts.

The “Finding Phenoms in Art” exhibition that opened on the 8th of April 2016 brought together the winning entries of Metrobank Art and Design Excellence (MADE) whose artists later became part of the CCP’s Thirteen Artists Award (TAA). MADE was initially launched as the Metrobank Annual Painting Competition in 1984, before it evolved into its current state that includes sculpture, architecture, and interior design. The TAA was established a decade earlier, in 1970, to recognize innovative contemporary art making amongst the new generations of artists.

To critique this exhibition is to bring into fore the two awards and to recognize names that had overlapped in their lists. These are the careers launched by MADE: the found phenoms of art. The curatorial framing, however, brings an interesting dimension to the viewing of the exhibition. For in this case, one does not merely see the art object. They do not appear simply as they are. It is not just, for example, Roberto Feleo’s 1984 winning mixed media entry entitled “August 6” that hangs in front of one’s line of vision. Filtering through the viewer’s direct gaze, between the eye and the object’s material existence, is the knowledge of Feleo’s current roles: artist, professor, Thirteen Artist awardee, 2015 Art Fair Philippines special exhibitor, and so on. The gaze is never crystal clear and the work weighs heavily with the mark of time, with significations it did not have when it was first evaluated as a competition entry. Each artwork in the exhibition stands before its viewers now as a promise fulfilled, perhaps as an accurate forecast of future artistic greatness. At the very least, it stands as a sign that bears witness to a career that flourished beyond the confines of the competition. If the curatorial concept is to be believed, these works contained the seeds of success, the skeletal structure that will soon prop up greatness, the bones that serve as evidence of talent. Diamonds in the rough picked out amongst coal.

The first award is a discovery, the second a validation, or so the narrative goes. Such view, however, discounts both the agency of the artists and the sometimes self-fulfilling character of institutional validation. For in an oft-aspired career path that starts with a major amateur competition award, a solo exhibition, and later a CCP TAA, each preceding landmark brings the next goal within reach. Every award makes possible new narratives of advancement but also of exclusion, as the network of artists who successfully climb the ladder becomes ever more constricted. The mislaid, due perhaps to geography, socio-economic standing, or plain bad luck – for artists encounter various complications, economic or otherwise, which shape their priorities and activities, the quality of their work and the recognition they attain – in time find themselves further removed from the short list. Behind every myth of genius in the arts is a life fraught with uncertainty. Behind every survival story, a litter of bones and shattered dreams. In a third world country mired in poverty, pursuing a career as a full-time studio artist is not only impractical, it can also be deadly. In such a context, awards are all the more prestigious, all the more sought after, but also increasingly mired in contradictions and complexities.

Ultimately, a narrative of discovery and institutional validation simplifies the textured, nonlinear development of a life in the arts. It also renders invisible the myriad of artistic practices that take a less conventional route. What of those works that will not hang in galleries, not adopt an aura of prestige and significance, but may in fact be more vibrant as it lives amongst the throngs of masses? What of the artist that does not answer to the calls of institutions, galleries, and the art market? To be aware of the cyclical and exclusionary nature of awards is to recognize its limitations and the scope of its power; it is neither to dismiss the quality and merit of the winners nor to calcify the works and forget the inherent vitality present in every act of creation. For there is, indeed, something joyful in the act of creating, of fashioning form and content. The artworks in the exhibition, though largely different, all bear a sense of containing a world-in-itself. It is as if they were disgorged from distinct bodies of artistic practice that each contained a strong formal, thematic, and conceptually cohesive visual language developed through the years. In their individual visions, they are unyielding and uncompromising. A quality that render them incapable of communicating with one another now, but also perhaps, the same mark that identified them individually as worthy of attention. The pale, disfigured humanoids in Antonio Leaño’s “Concealed Concentric Ebb and Dolorous Earth”, for example, share the formal oddity of Jan Leeroy New’s “Cradle” sculpture. The gaping stares present on the canvas of Andres Barrioquinto’s “House of Love and Confusion” are mirrored by the figures in Neil Manalo’s “Opera, Koro-Koro’t, Kuro Kuro”. One would be hard-pressed, however, to conceptually and thematically tie these works in the context of the exhibition. Their connection lies beyond them, in the recognition bestowed upon their creators by a different institution for a separate but related body of work.

Perhaps, it would be wrong to claim that phenoms in visual art are “found”, as if through chance or accident, and much to the surprise of everyone including the artist himself. Maybe it would be better to claim the creation of a phenom. Artworks are products of labor, sometimes borne out of love, sometimes of necessity, but all the same they are the fruits of labor. To recognize someone as a phenom is to recognize his artistic labor. At the same time, to recognize the process of creation of a phenom is to identify the politics involved in determining which artistic labor is to be validated or ignored.

The works in MADE’s “Finding Phenoms in Art” continue to hang somewhat dolorously on the walls of the CCP, almost like carcasses, as the once forecasted artistic trajectories of its creators are played out in the flesh. They keep to themselves, strange relics of a possibility of greatness once foretold. Tied intimately to a brief, but career-defining moment, they wait; perhaps, for a time in which a different layer of personal achievement or social understanding can bring them to life.





Thinking about Design

Last week, I talked about wanting to theorize about the practice of design to two Art Studies professors in my university. This was during an interview for graduate studies admissions. They asked me why I was interested in the program and I went into a somewhat lengthy story explaining my thoughts about Industrial Design, my concern about the gaps in our knowledge of local design history, and what I deemed as a shift in contemporary design practice in the country, specifically through the works of local design firms/ groups that have cropped up in recent years, such as Curiosity and Habi. One point of interest has been the way they seem to veer away from object-based or campaign-based outputs into a focus on processes that engage with communities and stakeholders. For me, they seem to practice what Victor Papanek wrote way back in 1972, in his book Design for the Real World: of designers that are “generalists” and who bring together the different perspectives and skill sets of various stakeholders into coming up with a design solution. These solutions need not be objects, per se. They can be a different way of doing things, or even structures/processes that would, in turn, allow users to create adaptable and inclusive processes. This is in contrast to the more traditional role of designers who come into projects to create specific outputs such as chairs, tables, cars, and other consumer products.

Of course, these ideas on design, because they are preliminary, tend to be simplistic (and in my case, optimistic). Hopefully I can help craft a more nuanced view/ analysis of contemporary design practice in the coming years. In any case, I’ve started amassing readings on design theory from various sources as preparation.




Reading John Berger’s “The White Bird”

Last week’s trip to the late dictator’s hometown left a bad taste in my mouth. For almost three years now, I have been engaged in work that touches upon certain points of his legacy. Since then, nostalgia for the strongman’s period of reign has spread among the populace. It may be due to this extended and continued exposure to materials related to him that the recent turn of events have a personal, and somewhat emotional, effect. I was extremely surprised to see how public sentiment turned to his family’s favor and reached a fever pitch in this year’s national elections. The historical mass amnesia and revisionism do not show signs of subsiding in the near future. My reactions of late have mainly been denial, disbelief, and repulsion. In some instances, paralyzing numbness. The visit, however, awakened darker and nihilistic emotions.

While waiting for our bus to leave, I was able to re-read John Berger’s “The White Bird” (available online here). The essay provided a bright spot in what was generally an exhausting trip, due in part by the solitude provided by the act of reading and also by the contents of the essay itself. Berger starts thus,

From time to time I have been invited by institutions – mostly American – to speak about aesthetics. On one occasion I considered accepting and I thought of taking with me a bird made of white wood. But I didn’t go. The problem is that you can’t talk about aesthetics without talking about the principle of hope and the existence of evil.

I first encountered (and reported on) the essay during a class about Folk Art. At that time, I had only read it in the context of traditional and indigenous art-making. The white bird, after all, was a simple wooden construction created traditionally by peasants in Russia and certain parts of Europe. Yet I had overlooked the point Berger made about the aesthetic emotion, which the wooden bird evokes in people who view it for the first time.

One is looking at a piece of wood that has become a bird. One is looking at a bird that is somehow more than a bird. One is looking at something that has been worked with a mysterious skill and a kind of love.

This recognition of sentimentality was startling. It had been ages since I had read a work by an art critic that explicitly used the word “love”, it was more likely that one would come across repeated exhortations for, or against, the “Void”. Berger continues to expound on what can be considered as his theory on the aesthetic emotion and its relation to nature, and by extension, to the world.

Before a mountain, a desert just after the sun has gone down, or a fruit tree, one can also experience aesthetic emotion. Consequently we are forced to begin again – not this time with a man-made object but with the nature into which we are born.

Berger clarifies that nature is not serene and picturesque as we often imagine it to be. Our current technological and industrial progress have allowed many to “enjoy” the beauty of nature without worrying about its destructive capacity. This view, however, is mostly mistaken and we are reminded of this during times of natural calamities. In the midst of turmoil and violence, the perception of beauty becomes all the more acute.

It is within this bleak natural context that beauty is encountered, and the encounter is by its nature sudden and unpredictable. The gale blows itself out, the sea changes from the colour of grey shit to aquamarine. Under the fallen boulder of an avalanche a flower grows. Over the shanty town the moon rises. I offer dramatic examples so as to insist upon the bleakness of the context. Reflect upon more everyday examples. However it is encountered, beauty is always an exception, always in despite of. This is why it moves us.

Other more everyday examples of beauty in nature, perhaps an interesting texture of the mud or the dripping of rainwater, by the very nature of their ephemerality and simplicity adhere closely to the Japanese aesthetic emotion of wabi-sabi. While most Western artworks are more refined, more divorced in form from the natural qualities of the materials from which they were made, works made with the wabi-sabi aesthetic exhibit qualities closer to that found in nature.

While beauty is found “in despite of,” art was humanity’s attempt to capture this emotion. For Berger, art orders itself around the aesthetic emotion; beauty is not incidental anymore, it becomes “the basis for an order”. In this regard, I find Berger’s conception of beauty in art ossifying. Again, it might be interesting to look into the more complex notion of wabi-sabi as a worthy partner to Berger’s notion of beauty in nature. With the former, beauty is not captured for the purpose of fashioning form, but rather, emanates from the object through its texture and unrefined quality. The aesthetic emotion is not permanent (and the objects themselves were not designed to be permanent) and is contained in the object only for a certain period. As Leonard Koren stated, “[a]n object contains the state of wabi-sabi only for the moment it is appreciated as such.” After that, the objects (often used in the context of a tea ceremony) revert to their everyday existence. In the same way that the beauty one finds in the perception of a flower growing from an avalanche is contained within a singular glimpse, the state of wabi-sabi is in the moment and not inherent in the objects. 

All of these presuppose a subject that will recognize (perceive, affirm, or perhaps, mediate) that which causes the aesthetic emotion.

One is obliged to acknowledge a coincidence or perhaps a congruence. The evolution of natural forms and the evolution of human perception have coincided to produce the phenomenon of a potential recognition: what is and what we can see (and by seeing also feel) sometimes meet at a point of affirmation. This point, this coincidence, is two-faced: what has been seen is recognized and affirmed and, at the same time, the seer is affirmed by what he sees. For a brief moment one finds oneself – without the pretensions of a creator – in the position of God in the first chapter of Genesis…. And he saw that it was good. The aesthetic emotion before nature derives, I believe, from this double affirmation.

This perception and affirmation of the object by the subject has roots in Marxist tradition. Andrew Feenberg, in an essay, talks of the aesthetic emotion in the works of Marx and Marcuse:

Marx claims that the senses have a history determined by social and economic development. The real content of experience is gradually revealed as civilization advances. There is a hierarchy of sensation, going from a minimal, crude encounter with the object through the full realization of its complexity and beauty. A dog may hear a symphony but it will not hear what its master hears. The human being at home in the world under socialism will find more in nature than the impoverished and alienated worker under capitalism.

The aesthetic in both senses of the term is invoked here. Like the practice of art-making, the “practice” of sensation involves on the one hand objects rich in meaning and on the other subjects capable of receiving that meaning. This reception is not passive but involves granting form to the given. Marx corrects in this way the over-emphasis on the object in empiricism and the subject in Kantian idealism. His theory corresponds to what Adorno refers to as a “mediation” theory of sensation in which both object and subject contribute to the shaping of experience.

Marcuse’s interpretation of Marx results to a theory of aesthetics that is somewhat congruent with Berger’s conception. Both uphold the creative act as a response by man, one that not only resists violence (in nature or in capitalist society), but also affirms the aesthetic emotion that we, as conscious beings, are capable of feeling; and from this very same emotion, dare to imagine a different world. Berger writes the following:

Art does not imitate nature, it imitates a creation, sometimes to propose an alternative world, sometimes simply to amplify, to confirm, to make social the brief hope offered by nature. Art is an organized response to what nature allows us to glimpse occasionally. Art sets out to transform the potential recognition into an unceasing one. It proclaims man in the hope of receiving a surer reply… the transcendental face of art is always a form of prayer.

Similarly, the aesthetic emotion and man’s creative impulse is a response that errs on the side of life, in despite of the numbing effects of modern society. As Feenberg writes:

[Marcuse] argues that the erotic impulse is directed toward the preservation and furtherance of life. It is not merely an instinct or drive but operates in the sensuous encounter with the world that reveals it in its beauty, the objective correlate of the erotic. But this impulse is repressed by society, partially sublimated, partially confined to sexuality. The loss of immediate sensory access to the beautiful gives rise to art as a specialized enclave in which we perceive the trace of erotic life affirmation. 

… aesthetic form is a kind of simplification and idealization that reveals sensuously the true essences of things, things as they would be redeemed in a better world. [emphasis mine]

In the days following our trip, amongst the deluge of pessimism that threatened to overpower my reason, I turned to Berger’s essay for solace. I am reminded that in the midst of madness, there can be resistance and beauty. And there can be hope.


Berger, John. “The White Bird,” in The Sense of Sight, 5-9. New York: Vintage International, 1985.

Feenberg, Andrew. “Marcuse on Art and Technology,” in Heathwood Institute and Press. Accessed 18 September 2016. http://www.heathwoodpress.com/marcuse-on-art-and-technology-andrew-feenberg/.

Koren, Leonard. Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers. California: Imperfect Publishing, 1994 and 2008.