Ripeness Is All

For years I have bought my wife jewelry designed by Nervous System, who specialize in fabricating algorithmically driven forms. With my usual supplier in town knocked out, I went to Nervous System’s website, only to see that they had 1) moved from Somerville to the Catskills, and 2) started a line of jigsaw puzzles that look something like this:

Having talked about late style years ago, I did so assuming that two paths lay ahead for any young innovator – to fearlessly press forward into ever greater and craggier forms, or to slump into sentimental repose, half-asleep on a couch. I remember a few years ago solemnly warning my students against kitsch in their design work, and then marching them into the lecture hall for a presentation by the tasteful and eminent designer Claude Cormier, who promptly presented this:

Cormier's Berczy Park in Toronto.

I wound up arguing with a colleague afterward – this has to be the end for him, right? Or was he so far ahead of us that he seemed to be standing behind us? Was he just confident enough to be both/and? Being weaned on the culture of popular music, I was primed to believe in the existence of recognizable points of no return for the acts you follow, past which said act was damned forever to be lost, cast out from the canon. But this story seems more ragged all the time given the careers I follow today. West 8’s Mosaics, with syrupy projects ranging from inflatable cows to a bridge made of flowerpots on top of a roller coaster, seemed at the time to be a clear signal for bright young things to stop paying attention. And then they turned on me and made something like Governors Island, eminently tasteful, ambitious, and cosigned by whatever small circle of arbiters still exists.

All of this depends on the base assumption that creative endeavor is a stock market, where any of your judgments arrive already well-vetted by someone else; where any creative act is a wager, some safer than others, on shifting currents in taste. It’s a particularly ill fit, if I think about it, with the endeavor of landscape design, its materials resistant to change and its investments intended to be held for the long term.

For their part, Nervous System hasn’t abandoned chic rings inspired by coral structures – they’ve diversified. And likewise, what I have been seeing lately is a state of affairs where designers put their brand on a variety of lines at once, proceeding merrily along widely separated parallels. If they are constrained by what their market will accept, that market seems to tolerate a range of expressions, even tastes, under the same name. This can even happen within the same project; if MVVA’s playgrounds seem flagrantly silly to me, cut up from old LAM ads and re-sold at a premium, no one else seems bothered by how they sit within what are otherwise noble and ingenious public places.

Does the built world get more interesting if it folds in blocks of kitsch without properly blending them, little cubes of sugar scattered through? Does that reassurance seem necessary, for consumer and producer alike, just to get through the miserable present? The real reassurance for me might be that a designer, a company, a brand, a person, is not one simple asset that appreciates and depreciates altogether in value; but may instead be suffered to follow several inclinations all at the same time.

(November 2020)