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Bare Bones

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Materials promoting the 41st International Design Conference at Aspen (IDCA), titled “Bare Bones”, were made intentionally ugly and spoke of a gathering “in response to layoffs, cutbacks, cancellations, fear, debt, lost accounts and dysfunctional families.” The word on the street was that the conference itself was facing financial difficulties and was cutting corners to save money. No doubt as a result of this negative set of impressions, conference registration was down compared to previous years.

The acerbic Ralph Caplan set the tone by noting that “less is more, more or less.” Dealing with limits is the essence of the American West, so the Aspen setting was in a way appropriate. While the West was once considered a limitless frontier, vast and open, its political history is almost completely dominated by the fight over a single natural resource: water.

Yet Aspen, playground of the rich and famous, was an incongruous place to be considering the notion of limits. The police in Aspen drive Saabs. It felt odd to walk out onto the streets of this well-heeled town after viewing a documentary on the Great Depression. (The film series was one of the conference’s best features.)

Society as a whole is dealing with a growing awareness of limits; not just limits to our resources, but also to our management, financial, economic and political systems. While author Michael Crichton made an impassioned plea for all of us to attend to the immense failings of those systems at the close of the conference, it would have been better at the beginning and set a more urgent tone to the proceedings. One hopes it left a bad taste in everyone’s mouth and inspired more than a standing ovation.

Morning sessions included futurist Paul Saffo on the impact of new technologies on creativity and originality, James Autry on values-based management, industrial designer Bill Stumpf on developing personal rather than consumptive relationships with objects, psychologist Richard Farsen on the absurd contradictions of modernity and poetry critic Helen Vendler on the aesthetics of minimalism.

Afternoons featured small workshops where one could make a film with Saul Bass, discuss visual problem solving with Jay Chiat and Henry Wolf, or design an exhibition with Mildred Friedman. Other workshops provided opportunities to work with outstanding photographers, architects, planners and designers.

Evenings presentations, which shed light on the theme from a performing arts perspective, were a highlight of the conference. Cellist Janos Starker conducted a master class, a profound demonstration of the rewards of concentrating on mastering the fundamentals of one’s craft. The biggest “event” of the week was a solo performance by David Byrne. The raw energy of his voice and guitar, laid bare by songs that exposed his quirky wonder at the world with anger and guilt, visibly shook those in attendance, not least Byrne himself. Appropriately, he closed with Neil Young’s Rockin’ in the Free World.

When times are tough, essential truths become clear. The extraneous and contrived slip away. Several truths revealed themselves at this year’s conference:

Small is beautiful. Simple, decentralized systems are more efficient and less likely to suffer crippling breakdowns. The are easier to comprehend and manage, and serve to make participants feel part of something bigger than themselves, thus serving spiritual needs as well as physical ones.

Emotion is life. Recognizing and valuing the value of human emotion is essential when developing and managing successful systems. Honesty, passion and insight are the differentiating factors that matter most.

Our ultimate responsibility as designers is to people, not consumers. Empowering individuals is the only legitimate justification for our profession.

Get back to basics. The further one is removed from the essential, the less one is connected to life itself.

Seek balance. We must regain a sense of balance; we must live, work, create and destroy in harmony with the biosphere. If a consciousness of the consequences of our actions doesn’t underlie everything we do, we risk the end of everything.

Published in Statements, the quarterly of the American Center for Design, 1991

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