Super Normal Philosophy
I was having a cup of tea with Takashi Okuntani in Milan, during the 2005 Salone del Mobile, talking about projects underway with Muji and describing to him the Alessi cutlery project and how I was feeling this approach to design, of leaving out the design, seemed more and more the way to go.
I mentioned having seen Naoto Fukasawa’s aluminium stools for Magis and how they seemed to have a special kind of normality about them, and he added: “super normal”.
That was it, a name for what’s been going on, a perfect summary of what design should be, now more than ever.
A while ago I found some heavy old hand-blown wine glasses in a junk shop. At first it was just their shape which attracted my attention, but slowly, using them every day, they have become something more than just nice shapes, and I notice their presence in other ways. If I use a different type of glass, for example, I feel something missing in the atmosphere of the table. When I use them the atmosphere returns, and each sip of wine’s a pleasure even when the wine is not. If I even catch a look at them on the shelf they radiate something good. This quota of atmospheric spirit is the most mysterious and elusive quality in objects. How can it be that so many designs fail to have any real beneficial effect on the atmosphere, and yet these glasses, made without much design thought or any attempt to achieve anything other than a good ordinary wine glass, happen to be successful? It’s been puzzling me for years and influencing my attitude to what constitutes a good design. I’ve started to measure my own designs against objects like these glasses, and not to care if the designs become less noticeable. In fact a certain lack of noticeability has become a requirement.
Mean while design, which used to be almost unknown as a profession,has become a major source of pollution. Encouraged by glossy lifestyle magazines, and marketing departments, it’s become a competition to make things as noticeable as possible by means of colour, shape and surprise. It’s historic and idealistic purpose, to serve industry and the happy consuming masses at the same time, of conceiving things easier to make and better to live with, seems to have been side-tracked. The virus has already infected the everyday environment. The need for businesses to attract attention provides the perfect carrier for the disease. Design makes things seem special, and who wants normal if they can have special? And that’s the problem. What has grown naturally and unselfconsciously over the years cannot easily be replaced. The normality of a street of shops which has developed over time, offering various products and trades, is a delicate organism. Not that old things shouldn’t be replaced or that new things are bad, just that things which are designed to attract attention are usually unsatisfactory. There are better ways to design than putting a big effort into making something look special. Special is generally less useful than normal,and less rewarding in the long term. Special things demand attention for the wrong reasons, interrupting potentially good atmosphere with their awkward presence.
The wine glasses are a signpost to somewhere beyond normal, because they transcend normality. There’s nothing wrong with normal of course, but normal was the product of an earlier, less self conscious age, and designers working at replacing old with new and hopefully better, are doing it without the benefit of innocence which normal demands. The wine glasses and other objects from the past reveal the existence of super normal, like spraying paint on a ghost. You may have a feeling it’s there but it’s difficult to see. The super normal object is the result of along tradition of evolutionary advancement in the shape of everyday things, not attempting to break with the history of form but rather trying to summarise it, knowing it’s place in the society of things. Super normal is the artificial replacement for normal, which with time and understanding may become grafted to everyday life.
In April 2005, a series of aluminium stools I designed for Magis was shown at the Salone del Mobile in Milan. When I went to see the display at the trade fair, in contrast to other exhibits drawing attention under the spotlights, I found my three stools placed in a corner of the booth serving as rest seats for tired exhbition-goers. People probably didn’t even think they were design pieces. I must admit I was a bit shocked by this, and a little depressed. Of course I’d designed stools that anyone might normally use in different situations, and was also hoping that they would prove popular with many different customers, so the fact that people went ahead and to sat on them instead of viewing them as exhibited objects was, in a sense, perfectly in keeping with that aim. Or so I tried to convince myself, though it was hard to take an enlightened view of things at such a showcase venue. That evening, however, Jasper Morrison called to tell me he’d seen my stools. Here I’d been feeling dejected, yet he was enthusing like a child who’s discovered some new treat: “That’s Super Normal!” Apparently, he’d gone around the fair together with Takashi Okutani,who inadvertently said something to that effect when he saw my stools. Jasper seized upon the word as exactly the right conceptual handle for the appeal he’d long cherished in things “ordinary.”
Designers generally do not think to design the “ordinary.” If anything, they live in fear of people saying their designs are “nothing special.” Of course, undeniably, people do have an unconscious everyday sense of “normal,” but rather than try to blend in, the tendency for designers is to try to create “statement” or “stimulation.” So “normal” has come to mean “unstimulating” or “boring” design.
It’s not just designers; people who buy design and clients who commission designers do not see “normal” as a design concept or even entertain the idea of creating a “new normal.” To dare, then, to design something “normal” within this prevailing scheme of design common sense raises the stakes; it makes for a consciously designed normal above-and-beyond normal that what we might call “Super Normal.” Why super? Well, if our sense of normal falls within the realm of non-design, then the unthinkable attempt to undercut all the excesses and bold, brash statements recognised as design must conversely transcend them. “Normal” refers to things as they’ve come to be; thus “Super Normal” is the designing of things just as “normal” as what we’ve come to know, albeit in no way anonymous. There’s a creative intent at work here, even if that intent may be regarded not so much as designing, but simply not going against the inevitable flow of things as they come to be.“Super Normal” is less concerned with designing beauty than seemingly homely but memorable elements of everyday life. Certainly nothing “flash”or “eye-catching”; never contrived, but rather almost “naff” yet somehow appealing. As if, when viewing something with expectations of a new design, our negative first impressions of “nothing much” or “just plain ordinary” shifted to “… but not bad at all.” Overcoming an initial emotional denial, our bodily sensors pick up on an appeal we seem to have known all along and engage us in that strangely familiar attraction. Things that possess a quality to shake us back to our senses are “Super Normal.”
When people hear the word “design,” they think “special”; creating “special” things is what everyone, designers and users alike, assume design is all about. When in fact, both sides are playing out a mutal fantasy far removed from real life. I’d like us to explore whatever we might conceive as Super Normal. I take an interest in collecting such things. I want to share the fun, the pleasure of reconfirming an appeal in things we’d disregarded as “naff.” Not that I propose sticking “Certified Super Normal” product design award labels on things. It’s much more of a quietly seen unseen, a refreshing surprise that awakens the person who had thought of looking for something obviously special in design by instead reconfirming what we already hold important and so perhaps letting us break free of our current design paradigm straitjacket. When I’m true to my feelings, I really “get” Super Normal.
Translation: Alfred Birnbaum
Copyright 2006 Lars Muller Publishers/Jasper Morrison/Naoto Fukasawa