It’s spring and a girl’s thoughts turn to design (and meaning)

Authors: Deborah Tatar
Posted: Fri, April 04, 2014 - 10:37:40

It’s spring. Spring for me is always associated not so much with the bulbs that turn Blacksburg into a really beautiful place, but with serious thoughts about values. Of course, there are a lot of holidays associated with spring, but mine is Passover. And renewal is associated with thoughts about the aspiration to live rightly. In my childhood, in New York, the big fall holidays, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, were about personal challenges. We turned inwards with the threat of the long, dark, cold winter ahead. But even in a non-religious family like mine, the Seder was about turning outwards.  

One dinner in particular jumps into my mind. My stepfather was on the Bicentennial Commission for New York City. This is the group that put together the celebration of the 200th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. It was a big deal, with events of many kinds all over the city (evidently it was an effort to imagine That Beyond Manhattan). As I had dutifully learned in 5th grade history, New York was in fact quite central to independence before, during, and after the Revolutionary War. So at our family Seder in the spring of 1976, after the ceremony and the lesson that even we could be slaves were circumstances otherwise, Papa regaled us with stories about the ideas, decisions, and commitments, the struggles between the boroughs, the balance of activities, the political and aesthetic disagreements. After dinner, we moved to the living room of my grandparents’ apartment. My usual perch was an embroidered footstool. Some of the activities were vox populi and others were High Art. Eventually the talk to turned to the role of art in modern America. 

Ahh! This topic and the shift of venue gave my Great Uncle Harry, our usual primary raconteur, the opening he had been longing for, the chance to top the evening with the seal of profundity. He settled his comfortable paunch back into the brocaded wing-tip chair and fingered his cigar. Think a small Jewish man with the mannerisms of Teddy Roosevelt. This was 38 years ago, and I have lost some of the details that would make the story jump off the page as the lesson was impressed on me. 

England, as well as the United States, was infested with virulent anti-communism in the late 1940s and 50s. Uncle Harry’s story concerned two Very Well Known Brits—neither of whom I can remember by name. One was a retired military general in the style of Bernard Shaw’s Horseback Hall. I could hear his bristling bushy moustache in the tone of the story. British, British, British. God and Country. Suspicious. Proud. Nationalistic. The other was a preeminent creative person or academic—a writer perhaps. Slightly ascetic. Sharp but diffident. Clever with words in a way that no American can ever be. (If anyone else recollects this story, please remind me who the protagonists were!) Both were dressed in black tie at some kind of formal dinner—or maybe it was even more formal, white tie. 

In the course of political discussion, the general turned to the writer—as Uncle Harry told this, Teddy Roosevelt appeared in him most clearly; he threw out his chest and looked down his nose—and said in tones of opprobrium, “And what did you do during the War?” (Meaning, as an American in the 1970s would, the Second World War.)

And the writer replied—Uncle Harry’s eyebrows went up slightly; his voice stayed mild and quiet; he looked askance, as he assumed his imitation Oxbridge accent—“I was doing the things that you were fighting to protect.” 

That was it. The writer, the artist, the intellectual “was doing the things that you were fighting to protect.” In that phrase, we had the assertion of role of art and intellect, intrinsic to quality of life, to freedom, and a force for meaning in a difficult world. 

I hope that the layers of this story as I tell it to you—the concept of celebrating the American revolution, the reenactment of the flight of the Jews from slavery, my family’s interpretation in the mid 1970s through an imagined connection to British thought, my own processing and recollection so many years later—give that message about values a kind of deeply lacquered frame. 

The intellectual, the artist, the writer was able to claim that he was doing things worth fighting to protect. We fought to protect art and ideas, to preserve justice. To enact a vision of a more equitable world. 

In that world, design was a half-step behind art, shadowed by it, but intensely tied to meaning, both political and personal. Raymond Loewy was already represented in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art. And indeed so was one of the first things I ever purchased with money I earned myself: a Valentino portable typewriter. Of course, designers have clients. Did I say that they have clients? They have clients. They have clients. They have clients. But they also have vision and that vision is something that can be talked about and even disputed. 

My moral for this spring is that design is or should be something more than client-fulfillment centers. 

Posted in: on Fri, April 04, 2014 - 10:37:40

Deborah Tatar

Deborah Tatar is a professor of computer science and, by courtesy, psychology, at Virginia Tech.
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