One of my favorite on-line sources for critical writing about all sorts of design – from architecture and urbanism to product, fashion, graphics and beyond – is Edwin Heathcote’s “Reading Design” initiative. Heathcote and his team regularly post excerpts from a variety of contemporary and historical sources, mostly texts already published elsewhere. I especially appreciate it when their choices expose one of my own blind spots and I am introduced to a new perspective.
Yesterday’s post showcasing German photographer Michael Wolf’s project “Hong Kong Informal Seating Arrangements” is a case in point. (See it here ) The publisher’s record for this book project describes it as “the third of a total of 9 volumes in which Michael Wolf celebrates the diverse aspects of street life in Hong Kong and the improvisational skills of the urban residents.” Reading Design’s excerpt of 23 images is offered with minimal text support. As such, it has left me wondering how one might use these images to spark an investigation not into their status as a documentary art project but into the design culture they record. How can Wolf’s photographs prompt critical writing about design?
The images show seating solutions that demonstrate a spectrum of typological cues: some have backs; some are only stools; some are of one piece while others are an amalgam of found parts; not many have arms, but those that do have arms invoke a comparison to thrones. Without exception, each seat is raised above the ground so that the sitter takes a Western sitting posture with legs pendant. Given that until recently Hong Kong had been ruled by the British for over a century, and that mainland China had long ago adopted the tradition of a western sitting position – one shouldn’t be surprised to find little trace of an old-style Eastern floor sitting tradition. But why do we find venerated seats here, in Hong Kong’s service streets, secondary staircases, and back alleys? What is the story of these seats? Who sits on them?
We can see that these pieces have been consciously assembled using interesting contrasts of material and technology. Rather than being haphazard, these compositions speak volumes about a contemporary global design culture of piece-work assembly strategies rather than craft practice. Repurposed plastic chair parts are mended or completed with cardboard and wire. Repair interventions use simple tools and techniques: a hole, created perhaps with a nail, receives wire looped and twisted to stabilize a connection; found objects of the perfect unit height are stacked to provide stable support on uneven ground; bunched up, colourful rags are knotted and lashed to make a cushion on an otherwise hard surface. Crates of uniform size and colour are collected and lined up to claim a unified, multi-seat urban space. Through careful invention, unnamed users have cleverly mined a history of design innovation.
Further – the emphasis on urban context begs the question of why it matters that these improvisations were found in the streets and back alleys of Hong Kong? It is a crowded city that boasts the world’s most expensive housing market. (Read a discussion of another photographer’s Hong Kong project here.) How might these examples of making-do with salvaged bits of furniture to claim leftover urban space reveal the spirit of resistance in face of unbridled urbanizing forces? A logical starting point for this critical examination would be to consider Michael Wolf’s photographs in terms of Michel de Certeau’s ideas about “tactics” of the powerless used in face of the “strategies” of the powerful, explored in de Certeau’s book The Practice of Everyday Life. (Strangely, at time of writing, this text isn’t part of the Reading Design archive yet.)
Considering typological diversity, materiality, traces of manufacture, and the question of context, there is a lot to work with in these images. To include these excerpts from Wolf’s photo project within an archive of critical writing about design is a galvanizing call to arms for design writers. I’m looking forward to seeing the results of this suggestive turn!
(Image: Copyright of Michael Wolf)