THE BEAT BENEATH THE SURFACE
When we consume design as an image, we deny something fundamental about the object of depiction. Pictures freeze objects, imbuing them with permanence pixel by pixel, and offer them up for visual assessment and digestion in ever shorter fragments of time. As these images are circulated, the repeated act of looking, considering, and judging is gradually contextualised by the increasing number of views and deconstructions that have preceded it; eventually, the entire process of the aesthetic encounter is compressed into an iconographic lemma, a stepping stone in the collective consciousness between sign and referent. The image of the object thus becomes efficient shorthand for a hypothesised version of reality. For example: a Gerrit Rietveld chair is used to indicate utopian modernity, whether through an image in a slide lecture or as an artefact in a museum display. The physical accessories to the artefact, which Jacques Derridà called parerga — including the caption, vitrine, technical lighting, and the white cube itself — prop up the visual allusion as a fait accompli. Modernist furniture, it happens, has a particular affinity for such display, given that timelessness itself is already part of its polemic.
Several years ago, I happened to see a prototype of Rietveld’s Red Blue chair on display in the Museumsinsel Hombroich in western Germany. Nearly every aspect of that encounter made me question the assumptions that had been built into this object. This particular chair was grey, rather than the eminently recognisable red-blue- yellow-black colour scheme used from 1923 onwards. At the time, in any case, I didn’t know that earlier versions experimented with other colours, since there was no caption to communicate that fact. The chair sat in a simple brick pavilion by Erwin Heerich: the doors to the gallery had been left open, welcoming in the cool, damp air and a scattering of dried leaves that collected in the corners of the room. Overhead, the skylights registered the ephemeral veiling of clouds, the blinking shadow of a bird in flight, the barely perceptible passage of the sun along its arc.
Seeing this iconic chair as an assembly of unexpectedly grey-painted wooden boards and sticks, decaying at a languid pace in its untempered environment, suggested that the static image is pure myth. It denies that the object inside it has a pulse, much less several — a polyrhythm too complex to render visible in a single frame. That rhythm begins slowly, as materials grow or aggregate, are harvested and transformed over millennia, centuries, or decades; it reaches a fever pitch in the hands of the designer and manufacturer, in a climax of assembly, jointing, and finishing; it stabilises into the circadian beat of human use, stoically accepting the weathering, operation, and weight of its owner; and it sinks into the decrescendo of material rot towards an almost unfathomable but equally inevitable disappearance.
Yet even if the denial of rhythm makes the image an inherently flawed medium to understand design, the precise relationship between design and rhythm remains an unresolved question. After all, if it was simply a case of representing the rhythm within design, we could consider durational media like film or temporal-diagrammatic media like musical scores as potential alternatives. But we would quickly encounter the essential conundrum of representation: as the map is not the territory, neither is the time-lapse — itself simply a series of images — a substitute for the unfolding processes enacted by rhythm. In fact, we must start our investigation earlier, or arguably in reverse: how much of the power of design actually emerges from rhythm itself as an embodied and materialised experience?
In his 1995 book Keeping Together in Time, the historian William McNeill describes the deep feeling of “muscular bonding” that he experienced during an afternoon spent in drill exercises with his fellow army conscripts. In his broad survey, he attributes a wide range of social phenomena, from spiritual transcendence to protest movements, to the unifying, organising, and uplifting power of collective motion set to a shared tempo. Although McNeill’s focus is group ethos rather than material culture, many of his conjectures develop towards the resolution that human achievement can be attributed as much to coordinated bodily motion as to technological progress. In other words, from the evolution of hunter-gatherers to the supremacy of modern European armies, communal rhythm has paralleled the design of tools and objects as a form of human agency (although it extends far beyond human authors). In particular, McNeill evokes the concept of “boundary loss” as the threshold at which collective rhythmic momentum overtakes the instinct to individual self-determination. As the greatest human consequence of rhythm, this feeling of oneness may surpass even the furthest reaches of the potential of design.
The American poet Ishmael Reed reached the same conclusion two decades earlier, in his 1976 poem, “Poetry Makes Rhythm in Philosophy”, where he recounts a conversation he shares with a friend over a 1970 Bichot Beaujolais:
We agree that nature can’t
do without rhythm but rhythm can
get along without nature
This rhythm, a stylized Spring
Reed’s declaration on the primacy of rhythm works as well for design as it does for nature. In that sense, rhythm is proto-design, preceding the inherent hierarchies between subject and object, between precious material and scraps, between maker and user. Rhythm turns binary into spectrum and gains strength from the very fluxes and contortions that make it impossible to define with fixity. It thus offers to design a power and a landscape of experimentation that has, thus far, been overshadowed by the visual static of contemporary design, but which continues to beat beneath the surface.