Design Observer Twenty Years 2003-2023

John Thackara | Essays

Interior Design at War [April 2003]

This free monthly newsletter starts conversations on issues to do with design for resilience — and thereby reveals opportunities for action. It also brings you news of Doors of Perception events and encounters. Back issues are now archived on Design Observer. To subscribe to future newletters by John Thackara click here.

There are four levels at which design is involved explicitly in the war. At Level 1, two interior designersin Florida have made sure that General Tommy Franks is able to retire at night to "a stylish portable command center that is complete with a leather sofa and silky drapes." "It was a unique job," said Mardi Deranian of Deranian-Noble Design Group in St. Petersburg, Florida, described in a local paper as "the dean of interior designers in the Tampa Bay area"

At Level 2, a fusion of information and experience design plays an important role in how the war is presented. General Franks gives press briefings in Doha that boast tremendously high design values. Five 50-inch and two 70-inch plasma video screens display video, computer images, and maps. These visuals feature explosions and computer-game style "gun-cam" shots that are remarkably free of blood and shattered human remains: Franks' $1.5 million press center, half as wide as a basketball court, features a soft-focus blue and white map of the world as a backdrop. "Every second Tommy Franks spends in the public eye is a painstakingly choreographed Hollywood moment," reports The Guardian. "A large US central command seal above the central podium - an eagle on a stars and stripes shield, with its wings outstretched to envelop a map of the Middle East and Arab world - delivers an unequivocal message of authority." Franks' high-tech, high-impact podium was designed by Tisch School ! graduate George Allison, 43, whose credits include Hollywood productions for MGM and Disney such as The Lucky Ones, A Few Good Years and It Runs in the Family. Built in Chicago, the set was delivered to Doha by Federal Express at a reputed cost of $47,000.,3858,4633552,00

At a third level of war design we have The Plan for the war. Curiously, key people in charge of the war - the general, the president, the secretary of defense, and the intelligence supremo - have been reluctant to take full credit for The Plan in recent days. Indeed, coalition war leaders have spent a lot of time insisting modestly that no, it was the other guy who designed The Plan. According to one warblog, Daily Kos, "to shake off the perception of the plan being wrong, senior political, military leaders and talking heads are now using the worn-out saying that 'no plan survives the first contact'. But the over-used statement is wrong" (Daily Kos 31 March). Warblog comparisons of the relationship between war games and scenarios - and the real-world outcomes we witness now - make fascinating reading for design methods aficionados - although probably less so if you just lost a child at one of those roadblock shoot-outs.

At Level 4 is what one might term The Grand Design, otherwise known as the Project For a New American Century - or PNAC. In two alarming accounts of PNAC - what it is, what its aims are, and who's behind it - New York writer William Rivers Pitt explains, "the Project for the New American Century seeks to establish what they call a 'Pax Americana' across the globe. Essentially, their goal is to transform America, the sole remaining superpower, into a planetary empire by force of arms."

Is there anything, design-wise, we can do about this? One answer is to wait, and do nothing. So far in history, empires have always over-reached themselves eventually and then died - often quickly. But waiting is not an attractive option: a cornerstone of the PNAC approach is nearly permanent war - or 'permawar' as the warblogs call it. This is a serious and dangerous situation in which there are no easy answers - let alone pat 'design' ones. A necessary first step is find out as much as we can for ourselves about what's going on, and what is at stake. Start here:

If it's any consolation, many of the world's CEOs and Presidents are as scared witless by the ways things are going as are the rest of us (to judge by a memo from Davos leaked recently by Bruce Sterling). Perhaps we'll have to learn from the last French presidential elections when, faced with a Chirac vs. Le Pen run-off, the popular rallying cry was: "Vote for the Crook, not for the Fascist."


John Thackara visited the Pearl River Delta in China last month for the first time in ten years. He reports: "The region's phenomenal growth since 1993 is the stuff of economic legend: with 60,000 firms and 45 million people, it's a densely networked manufacturing center for the world. Many multinational companies have had big operations here for several years and I, at least, associated the area with cheap labour and OEM manufacturing. But that picture is changing fast. Our host (John is a member of the Hong Kong Design task Force, ed), the industrialist Victor Lo, took us on a whirlwind tour of LED fabs, LAN cable factories, brand-new facilities making video displays, and mobile phone companies. All are working their way fast up the value chain. At one of Lo's R&D centres, just across the border from Hong Kong, a team of 200 researchers includes PhDs busy developing advanced software for companies such as Bose. It's a far cry from all those cheap plastic toys we associate with Made In China.

Media Lab Europe (MLE) has published a nifty research policy that divides its work into three domains: C-sense (common sense): "enabling people and machines with the models and meanings behind knowledge and understanding"; D-sense (distributed sense): "creating people-centered applications that run outside the box, across wired and wireless networks;" and E-sense: "extended sense: creating interfaces to technologies that are akin to our natural senses: i.e. intimate, scalable, and selective." MLE has vacancies for three Senior Research Scientists and a bunch of post-doctoral researchers and research assistants.

A debate in Frankfurt on June 5, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the German Design Council, features some big names in German design: Rolf Fehlbaum, Konstantin Grcic, Dieter Rams, Herbert H. Schultes and Erik Spiekermann.
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What is the relationship between space and time in designing for mobility? To find out, you need make your way to Rotterdam on 24 May for a seminar at the Netherlands Architecture Institute: "Space for Time, Design at Different Speeds." Speakers at the seminar - which is chaired by Michiel Schwarz (who helped us programme Doors 5 on "Speed") - include Ole Bouman, editor of Archis; Mels Crouwel, partner in Benthem Crouwel architects, who designed Schiphol airport; and John Thackara, from Doors of Perception. Saturday 24 May, 1-4pm.

We're not sure this counts as unqualified praise, but "New Mobility is where transportation meets the new economy." Or so says the blurb for the otherwise interesting-sounding New Mobility Industry Forum in Toronto. The Forum is about "practical solutions for moving people, moving goods, and moving less, in ways that are integrated, smart, clean and user-focused." New Mobility is for "developers, planners, architects, and building operators who have a multitude of systems and technologies to draw on to make their buildings/cities more competitive - and need to discuss how best to use them." Topics include: smart buildings and live-work developments; mixed-use, infilling, and nodal development; commercial location brokerage services; mobility service packaging in residential buildings; delivery co-ordination for tenanted buildings; planning and professional services for intensification, urban centre renewal, transit-oriented development, smart growth, etc.

Japanese students are already allowed to submit coursework via SMS, so it's probably a good moment for "M-Learning." This conference, in London, 19-20 May, is about systems and materials for learning with mobile and wireless handheld devices. Design practitioners, designers of learning materials, and hardware and software technology developers, will discuss the state of play in learning with mobile devices, and share experiences and ideas.

The second international conference on future urban transport, organized by Volvo Research and Educational Foundations (VREF), will be held in Goteborg, Sweden on 22-24 September 2003. It's for analysts (planners, researchers, engineers) and actors (politicians, industrialists, environmentalists, financiers).

"For some time, the press has been giving cities bad rap. And since WWII, our government and banking structure have terrorized them." So begins this original and lively website which asks: "How Does Density Look In Your City?" Check it out and make contact with these guys.

A combination of a bazaar and caravanserai of new media projects takes place in Amsterdam on October 23 and 24. E-Culture Fair II is organized by the Dutch Virtual Platform - of which Doors of Perception is a member. Alongside the fair, a working conference for professionals in the field (artists, representatives of cultural organizations and media labs, scientists, critics, academics and policy makers), will act as a focal point for sharing expertise. Doors' Kristi van Riet is collecting proposals for media and art projects wishing to be considered for the event. "We are looking for creative and innovative applications that transcend and challenge ordinary ICT products and ICT use", she says. The emphasis will be on new products, projects and work-in-progress, education, social and community organizations, commercial partners, and scientific institutions.

Just because they will publish John's new book, we inform you that the new media catalogue of MIT Press is available if you contact: [email protected]

A show-and-tell manifestation at Amsterdam's splendid new Passengers Terminal, on 12 June, features workshops, debates and interviews about infotech-related projects supported by the Dutch government in recent times. In special sessions, managers, policy makers, researchers, and professionals will meet. "In short, an inspiring day," predict the event's organizers.

"Can you show me what ambient intelligence looks like?" asks the blurb for a conference in Helsinki called "Design Vision through Future Scenarios." It's organized by something called the CHIPS Thematic Network, together with the Media Lab at UIAH Helsinki. CHIPS seems to be sponsored by the same European Commission people who support the Disappearing Computer initiative - so presumably ambient intelligence looks... invisible?

Got a year to spare? Then head for this Helsinki (again) event about "the user and the future of information and communication technologies." It runs 3-5 September, 2003. Its four themes are: the extended human; users as innovators; dealing with diversity; the reconfiguration of society. To help you focus, they suggest a few keywords for papers: augment, extend, body, mind, tools, reality, relationships, sphere of life, consciousness, physical/mental/digital dimensions, artifacts, resistance and hostility, security vs. risk, art, fashion, avatar, cyborg, e-Me, professional practices, extended space/time.

A conference in San Francisco, 5-7 June, "showcases the interaction between digital design, business, and users." ACM SIGCHI, ACM SIGGRAPH, and AIGA Experience Design organize DUX 2003 jointly. (If we had more time and space we'd explain the acronyms - but we're on deadline. Sorry).

Now here is a great little project. Supermoderno: Nots is "some ideas for an Italian house in Bangkok." It rests on the hypothesis that "in today's world what really matters is your network - your contacts, their number, their quality, the shape of their graph." The world of architecture and design does not constitute an exception say the event's designers who include Walter Aprile, Stefano Mirti, Massimo Banzi, Anna Barbara, Marco Brizzi and others (they all look rather groovy). So far the Supermodernos have produced an exhibition and an excellent little book. Find out more at:

"Slightly east of Saint Paul...and likely to be- the architecture show of the season." Thanks to Janet Abrams for this laser-guided tip about Scanning: the aberrant architectures of Diller + Scofidio which runs March 1 to June 1 at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. "I can't wait to see this retrospective exhibit of the architects of the Slow House and the BLUR building on Lake Neuchatel," writes Jan.

How do we design new services that are rooted in a place? What does Ezio Manzini mean by the term "territorial capital"? At a seminar in Tallinn, the capital of Estonia in the Baltic Rim region, John Thacker's lecture opens a discussion with participants in the Spark! Project. Thursday 1 May 12:00h, Estonian Academy of Arts, Tallinn.

A breathless letter reaches us from London: "Can you brand an idea?" it asks. Who on earth would bother? To find out, you'll have to attend another tedious seminar about the "creative industries" being held in London. The London gig's title - "Edge: The Creative Industries Forum" - is not even original: John Brockman's Edge Foundation ( is a serious and influential network of scientists of several years' standing. The "creative industries" concept is ghastly for two reasons: first, because it implies that all industries other than advertising, design, marketing, and public relations, are somehow un-creative; and second, because what the "creative industries" mainly do is invade the public domain with semiotic pollution, and whine on endlessly about intellectual property rights.

The cultural industries bandwagon has arrived in Holland, but its wheels are wobbling. The folder for an event in Eindhoven on 3 April has the title, "Down the Rabbit-Hole" and announces: "European top creative industries convenes in Eindhoven" (sic).

"Ferro fluid is a glob, of oil, that has in it magnetite, so that when you put magnets near it, it acts like those feathery forms you get when you look at iron filings. These pieces of magnetite are in oil, so when we put seven circular magnets underneath we get this very interesting shape, and that is in fact about magnetism." Felice Frankel's presentation at Doors 7 on Flow is now online.

Helpful advice from the television user's guide at the Hotel Noble Jasper in Huizou City, China: "Please pay much attention to the literal operational indication in the welcome screen. With the help of operational direction in every homepage, you can use remote control to finish all the functional manipulation." We did, too.

Posted in: Ecology, Social Good

Jobs | September 22