Book Review: From Bauhaus to Our House, by Tom Wolfe

Just before I read From Bauhaus to Our House I guest lectured on “Human-Centred Design” in a first year Interactive and Visual Design class and someone asked me why designers always want to fix people. I didn’t really have an answer.

Tom Wolfe’s From Bauhaus to Our House is (apparently) a very poor and lightweight critique of mid-century Architecture. Serious Architects dismiss it. It’s also (apparently) a lightweight piece of social design criticism. Serious design critics dismiss it. I found it to be hilarious and pointed. Wolfe is a staggeringly good writer in the new journalism style. Even he describes it as a piece of Architectural criticism. I think he’s wrong.

I think From Bauhaus to Our House is a parable about what happens when designers elevate themselves and their tastes above their clients and the people who will use and live with their designs. That is, it’s about what happens when Designers try to fix people. Fix, in this case, meaning to elevate people’s taste beyond what the Bauhaus dismissed as bourgeois.

In Wolfe’s telling, the Bauhaus’s focus on “starting from zero”, “honesty of materials” and on technology over people was the source of modernism or what came to be called the International Style. It was this focus on “starting from zero”, according to Wolfe, that allowed architects to dismiss their clients, and their client’s workers and tenants, tastes and lived experiences.

This designer-knows-best attitude is still widely prevalent. In Designerly Ways of Knowing, Nigel Cross tells a story about Mies van der Rohe and Villa Tugendhat that he attributes to Herbert Simon’s Sciences of the Artificial. Simon had asked Mies how he got the client to sign off on a house that was so radical for 1930. Mies apparently said:

He wasn’t happy at first. But then we smoked some good cigars, … and we drank some glasses of a good Rhein wine, … and then he began to like it very much.

The lesson Cross wants to impart is that design is rhetorical (his italics) or persuasive. In the same section Cross quotes the architect Denys Lasdun:

Our job is to give the client not what he wants but what he never dreamed he wanted; and when he gets it, he recognizes it as something he wanted all the time.

This is the trope of the heroic designer, bringing new knowledge to the client, educating the client and refining the client’s taste. This is a constant theme of From Bauhaus to Our House with Walter Gropius or other Bauhaus teachers or alumni playing the role of Moses bringing knowledge down from the mountain to the great unwashed, even if the unwashed are the directors of the Yale Art Gallery.

And there’s the problem with the designer as persuasive taste-maker. Wolfe often tells of how high-status clients of the Modernists were baffled by their architects’ designs and of how people who lived and worked in modernist buildings were frustrated by the restrictions built in to their “machines for living“. For Gropius and Mies and Philip Johnson and the rest, if the client was unhappy, it’s because they were captured by their bourgeois outlook, not because the architecture was bad.

James C Scott’s Seeing Like a State pushes against this tendency for designers to impose their grand vision on people. Scott’s book is a sustained argument against the sort of design that the Bauhaus advocated. He doesn’t pull punches with his subtitle: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed. Scott’s focus is city and state-scale projects but the same argument can apply at smaller scales, too. In The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces and the lesser known but far more comprehensive, City: Rediscovering the Center, William H Whyte is very enthusiastic about small details that let people determine how they experience urban space. He is greatly in favour of moveable chairs in public plazas and scathing about fixed seating. Whyte says:

Fixed individual seats deny choice. The designer is saying you sit here and you sit there. This is arrogant of him. People are much better at this than designers. (City, p121)

Choice is hard, though. Wolfe doesn’t really address choice though he does have a concern for what people, as opposed to designers, like. His critics dismiss him because he favours “decorated” buildings. But I think Wolfe is actually in favour of buildings that are more than unadorned glass boxes like the Seagram Building (which I really like) in New York and IBM Plaza in Chicago. That is, he’s in favour of options, rather than rule-bound sameness and prefers the vernacular to the pretentious.

Wolfe ends From Bauhaus to Our House abruptly, almost washing his hands of the problem he sets up. But the answer is in the early parts where Wolfe describes Gropius and his colleagues establishing the first principles of the Bauhaus. They were so excited about the new industrial age that they appointed themselves its princes. I think this is still apparent in how many designers today approach many things, far more than simply the possibilities of new materials and production processes. The enthusiasm in design for, e.g., behavioural interventions, for nudging people in the “right” directions with little reflection on what “right” means or who it pays allegiance to, is an example of the same sort of impulse that led to the Machines for Living.


Cautious thoughts on STEAM not STEM

…or how business schools stole design from designers and how John Maeda might be trying to steal it back.

STEM is a staggeringly successful meme. My employer re-sorted whole faculties, almost the half the university, to buy in to it (and in the process cleaved design from engineering, taking design out of STEM).

Concurrent with the STEM push, Design Thinking (which almost requires a tm) has risen, first in the design consultancies, and rapidly in business schools. This is to the consternation of designers who are pretty sure they’ve been thinking for a while now. Design Thinking has been rapidly assimilated into the business school canon as something to be taught in a twelve credit point unit instead of something that’s part of a whole system of professional practice. The power of the business schools has meant that design has found its moment in the sun fleeting. Outside of universities, Design Thinking increasingly means using visual methods and iteration to develop new business models. There’s very little room for designers in Design Thinking.

Enter STEAM. In STEM, science, technology, engineering and mathematics all sit at a big table together. There’s room for physics and chemistry to sit next to civil engineering, computer science and statistics. And now with STEAM, everyone can shove down and make room for Art.

Maeda’s argument is that STEM is really good at inventing new things, but it’s bad at bridging that last mile that connects new things to new ways to use them. He says that the people who do that bridging are artists. Which is news to designers as they always thought that making things for people to use was their main point of differentiation from artists.

I’m never clear if Maeda really does mean Art when he talks about the ‘A’ in STEAM. On the STEM-to-STEAM website the “A” is presented as Art/Design. But in his latest Wired piece Maeda focusses on Art. It’s not the Art that I’m familiar with; it sounds closer to — it seems to be — design. I guess that pesky D makes for a bad acronym. Or maybe it’s a way to move away from design-as-in-Design-Thinking?

In any case, design once more finds itself on the sidelines. The business schools have taken away design’s ball and Maeda’s piggybacking an A into STEM has changed the rules. I’m not sure what’s supposed to happen next.

Dear app designers: not all shelves are wooden

Dear app designers,

Why, given a lightweight device primarily constructed of aluminium and glass designed by someone who openly acknowledges his debt to Dieter Rams, do you give us metaphorical shelves made of wood and brass?


Allow me to introduce you to the Vitsoe 606.


Pressed steel shelves, hung on steel backets. Designed by Dieter Rams. That is how to do it.

(Of course, there’s no reason for shelves at all. But, if there must be shelves, at least let them be austerely modernist.)

He trained the telephone


It is not so much that Mr. Karlin trained midcentury Americans how to use the telephone. It is, rather, that by studying the psychological capabilities and limitations of ordinary people, he trained the telephone, then a rapidly proliferating but still fairly novel technology, to assume optimal form for use by midcentury Americans.

From John E Karlin’s obituary in the NYT



what has happened is that that rhetoric has been co-opted by business schools. Now business schools are the ones that are talking about design thinking and selling design, and this is done by people who on one level, honestly, don’t have a clue about design, yet they have embraced it. For instance, a professor in the Harvard Business School decided he is going to teach a class on design thinking. We are the design school, so why are you not talking to us when you are putting together a course called design thinking?

— Mohsen Mostafavi, head of Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, talking with Justin McGuirk in Domus, via Dan Hill

Inventing customers and that dammed faster horse

If I’d asked my customers what they wanted, they would have said, “a faster horse”. — Henry Ford

There’s no evidence that he said it. Quote Investigator has an excellent post sorting out who said similar things. The Henry Ford Museum disavows it.

If you pay attention to the quote, “Ford” is saying that he didn’t ask his customers what they wanted, because he made an assumption about what they’d say. That doesn’t seem clever. That seems arrogant.

The other thing that’s in the quote, is the idea that Ford had customers before he had a product. Customers are people who’ve bought a product. People who are potential customers are simply “the market”. But before the Model T, there wasn’t a market for an inexpensive car because there was no such thing as an inexpensive car. The Model T initially sold for $825 when the cheapest other contemporary cars sold for between $2000 and $3000. Even at that price, a lot of people couldn’t afford a car. Ford payed his employees double the going rate so they could afford to buy the product they produced.

That is, Ford couldn’t have asked his customers what they wanted, because he invented them.

How not to present a product

The other day, Nokia launched their new Windows Phone 8 Lumia smartphones. They look like pretty nice phones. Unfortunately, their launch was pretty dismal. Janet Tavakoli savages it in a post at HuffPo — she thought the presentation was so bad that she sold her stock in Nokia.

Tavakoli’s post mentioned so many ways the Lumia launch was terrible. Based on Tavakoli’s post, here are my five top ways to not present a product.

Don’t sell it

You can have the best product in the world, but it counts for nothing, if you don’t sell it. Nokia developed great Windows 8 Lumia smartphones, and it needed to ROCK the presentation. It was as if someone had challenged Nokia’s management to kill the company in one day with an anti-sell campaign.

Steve Jobs established the idea of CEO-as-pitchman. Ballmer and Elop might be great CEOs but they aren’t half as good at the sales part as Jobs.

To paraphrase Thelonius Monk: You’ve got to sell it to sell it. Believe in what you’re doing, saying and showing.

Be off brand

Yet on the most important presentation in the fight for Nokia’s survival, the sound cut out. Really? Technical glitches are forgivable by your audience if you’re selling, say, soap, but if you’re a tech company selling phones, you must demonstrate your technical ability to deliver sound.

I don’t think Microsoft or Nokia know what their respective brands are, let alone how to infuse them into everything they do. Unless their brands are boring, somewhat confused and without flair. Oh…

Don’t be passionate

More than that, once people can hear you, you must deliver a good presentation. Can’t Nokia put someone onstage who looks cool and who seems to have passion for the products?

Apparently not.

Designers spend a long time learning how to make things: sketches, renderings, prototypes, presentation boards. They put all of themselves into their work. Presenting to clients, or the public, needs to be part of that work. Without the ability to present with as much passion as they create many designers won’t get the opportunity to create more.

Don’t dress the part

Nokia’s Stephen Elop looked as if he were casually dressed for a funeral.

And Ballmer looked worse.

Steve Ballmer and Stephen Elop at the Nokia Lumia Launch. Ballmer has his arm around Elop. Ballmer's jacket is pulling at the button and has rise up around his shoulders. Elop's jacket is flat and featureless.

Ballmer and Elop at the Nokia Lumia Launch.

Be neat. Be tidy. Be slightly more formally dressed than your audience. And for goodness sake, don’t wear a suit without a tie or a tie without a jacket.

Half-arse your presentation

One might have been able to get past the appearance of Nokia’s management, if it hadn’t piled on with zero presentation skills.

It’s not that there are not people who are good at presenting and people who are bad at presenting.

There are people who practice and people who don’t.

In the end, it comes down to this: believe in what you’re presenting and practice more than you think you need to. Everything else will flow from that.