Page 1

Civic City Cahier 2 Gui Bonsiepe Design and Democracy

Bedford Press

Gui Bonsiepe © 2010 Bedford Press Civic City Cahier 2: and the authors. Design and Democracy All rights reserved, including the right of Published by reproduction in whole Bedford Press or in part in any form. Interview by Jesko Fezer Series Editors: Design2context, Jesko Fezer, Matthias Görlich Copy Editor: Matthew Evans Design: Studio Görlich Type Modification: Milieugrotesque

ISBN 978-1-907414-11-4

Bedford Press AA Publications Ltd. 36 Bedford Square London WC1B 3ES Bedford Press is an imprint of AA Publications Ltd., which is a wholly owned subsidiary of the Architectural Assciation (Inc.) Registered Charity No. 311083 . Company limited by guarantee. Registered in England No.171402 . Registered office as above.

The Civic City Cahier series has been initiated by Institute Design2context, Civic City Program, Zurich University of the Arts.

Design im Übergang zum Sozialismus, 1974 (Excerpt)......... 5 Design and Democracy Gui Bonsiepe................................ 29 An Interview with Gui Bonsiepe on the Politics of Design . ............ 59 Biography..................................... 68

Design in Transition to Socialism. A Techno-Political Field Report from Unidad Popular’s Chile (1971–1973) Design im Übergang zum Sozialismus. Ein technisch-poltischer Erfahrungsbericht aus dem Chile der Unidad Popular (1971–1973) was the first volume of three in a series on design. It documents a collective experience of a group of designers working directly for the Unidad Popular—a coalition of left-wing parties led by Salvador Allende, who was elected President of Chile in 1970. Gui Bonsiepe wrote the book soon after he was forced to leave the country, in 1973, when a military coup, supported by the Nixon Administration, brought to power a military junta, led by General Augusto Pinochet. After the politically motivated closure of the Hochschule für Gestaltung Ulm (HfG) in Germany, where Bonsiepe studied and taught for


several years, he went on to direct the Industrial Design Department of the Metropolitan University of Technology in Santiago, Chile. Within the experimental framework of this young Socialist state, he and his colleagues (all foreigners also from the HfG Ulm) explored the potentials for a Socialist design practice that would directly oppose the capitalist concept of design, which aims to style products for maximum profitability and market distribution. They tried via design to transfer the emancipatory sociopolitical program of the Unidad Popular directly into the technical process— an approach in which they saw a new legitimation for design. Bonsiepe argued that in the context of a revolutionary process industrial design can serve as a tool to overcome dependency that, on the periphery of capitalist production it can be a political instrument for liberation, serving the interests of the proletariat.

A main aim was to reduce Chile’s technological dependency on imports and to emphasise the practical use value of products. In the end, the collectivisation, or ‘socialisation’ of the design process itself should enable a rational and interdisciplinary design that is closely oriented to the details and capacities of the production sphere and the needs of the people. Theoretically framing the practical experience of the period, the book first focuses on the problem of industrial design on the periphery and its role in the process of establishing a socialist democracy. This theoretical text is followed by a documentation of projects, prototypes and research undertaken in this specific historic context, covering designs for furniture, packaging, agricultural machines, fridges, hi-fi systems, dishes and bathroom installations.



than expected and a redesign became necessary. For a chopper to cut forage for cows, they took over To design more effecthe overall geometry tive machines for of an imported model, agricultural producbut changed the tion was a top priority constructive and formal in reducing the concept. By impleruinous dependency menting a stabilising on food imports. framework, the deThe newly created state- signers minimised the owned farms were thickness of the metal in need of rational sheets, reduced the tools to overcome the variety of the material difficulties of supply and made the machine in Chile at that time. much lighter. In genIn the beginning, the eral, they reduced the design team intended complexity of the simply to reproduce machine by 40 percent. imported machines The pictures show the and adapt them to new chopper during the possibilities of harvest and an exploded view drawing local industrial production. But as a first of the ejector using only two-millimeter analysis of these foreign products showed, steel plates. the quality of the machines was lower H채ckselmaschine (chopper) f체r die Gr체nfutterernte (1973), page 81



Gui Bonsiepe Design and Democracy


This is a slightly abbreviated translation of a speech given in Spanish at the Metropolitan University of Technology in Santiago, Chile, June 2005. It originally appeared in Design Issues, vol. 22, no. 2 (spring 2006): 27–34.

I shall present a few thoughts about the relation between democracy and design, about the relation between critical humanism and operational humanism. This issue leads to the question of the role of technology and industrialisation as a procedure for democratising the consumption of goods and services, and finally to the ambivalent role of aesthetics as the domain of freedom and manipulation. The main theme of my lecture is thus the relation between design—in the sense of projecting—and autonomy. My reflections are open-ended and do not pretend to give quick and immediate answers. By taking a look at the present design discourse, one notes a surprising—and I would say alarming—absence of questioning design activities. Concepts like branding, competitiveness, globalisation, comparative advantages, life-style design,



differentiation, strategic design, fun design, emotion design, experience design and smart design prevail in design magazines and the—all too few—books about design. Sometimes, one gets the impression that a designer aspiring to two minutes of fame feels obliged to invent a new label for setting her or himself apart from the rest of the professional service. I leave aside coffee-table books on design, which abound in pictures and exempt the reader from intellectual efforts. The issue of design and democracy doesn’t enjoy popularity—apart from a few laudable exceptions. If we look at the social history of the meaning of the term ‘design’, we note, on the one side, a popularisation, which is a horizontal extension; on the other side, however, we note a contraction, which is a vertical reduction. The architectural critic Witold Rybczynski recently

commented on this phenomenon: Not so long ago, the term ‘designer’ described someone like Eliot Noyes, who was responsible for the IBM Selectric typewriter in the 1960s, or Henry Dreyfuss, whose clients included Lockheed Aircraft and Bell Telephone Company… or Dieter Rams, who created a range of austere-looking but very practical products for the German company Braun. Today, ‘designer’ is more likely to bring to mind Ralph Lauren or Giorgio Armani; that is, a fashion designer. While fashion designers usually start as couturiers, they—or at least their names—are often associated with a wide variety of consumer products, including cosmetics, perfume, luggage, home furnishings, even house paint. As a result, ‘design’ is popularly identified with packaging: the housing of a computer monitor, the barrel of a pen, a frame for eyeglasses. 1



An Interview with Gui Bonsiepe on the Politics of Design by Jesko Fezer

Jesko Fezer: Mr. Bonsiepe, while reading your text ‘Democracy and Design’, several questions came up for me, being someone who works in and reflects on the design practice. Your plea for a renewed role of design in a utopian perspective of democracy is very challenging. In many respects, your argument could be transferred to the idea of a social city, which is to my mind a very democratic endeavour, or at least situates the realm of lived democracy. By naming the excess of privatisation and the repellence of democratic processes—symptoms or even principles of the neoliberal city—you call for a rediscovery of the notion of democracy. Would this include the rediscovery of the city as democratic space, as a common concern beyond an economic and exploitive perspective? Gui Bonsiepe: My reflections on democracy and design were formulated against the background of the periphery. The vehemence of neoliberal economic practice also recently hit some countries of the centre—or the centres—but by far not with as many devastating consequences as those countries whose democratic structures are to a high degree vulnerable, and which will be destabilised if they should dare to resist hegemonic interests. Democracy was exposed to an erosion process during the last decades, which manifested and exemplified itself in the privatisation of public concerns, whereby on a large scale, common resources were transferred to the sphere of particular interests, which


then took over. In cities, this take-over of resources can be very well observed and made tangible, so that a potential resistance can be mobilised. If, however, in a province of the Cordillera, thousands of tons of highly toxic cyanuric acid are mixed annually with spring water for gold extraction in open mining —which is banned for good reasons in the European Union— then at best the directly affected parts of the local communities struggle against this undermining of their basic subsistence. But I agree with you that public urban spaces are shrinking in the process of privatisation, and require a re-democratisation to enable a social city and a social urban life. How could this happen? One possibility is the example of the ‘minorities of high density’, minorías de alta intensidad, as they are called in Latin American sociology. These minorities are aware of their rights and also exercise and actively advocate them—instead of delegating this to politicians. They are very familiar with the issues that they defend. These spontaneously organising groups defy established politics. This results in a paradoxical situation: To be politically active, you have to de-politicise, since the political space is occupied by politicians legitimised by parties. And these politicians have usually not only failed to oppose the trend of privatisation, but also welcomed it with applause.

enough to ‘foster a critical consciousness’, as you call it, in the context of an obviously powerful regime of social injustice, pushing forward the capitalist dynamic of the commodification of social relations on so many levels? In such a heavily normative context, a counter-normative proposal could probably be quite helpful.

You interpret democracy not simply as providing the right to vote for these dominating politicians, but as a process that can reduce domination itself. In this context, you reject the idea that this should be a normative request for design. Why? Would it really be

I regard the creation of a critical consciousness as an indispensable step towards a critical design practice. What should be considered, however, is how the transition from a discursive critique to a critical design practice is defined by contingencies, which the purists are in dispute about. To change the conditions of social injustice, one can surely come up with radical claims—ones that are so radical that they leave everything as it was. I believe as little in radical rhetorics and revolutionary gestures as I do in a complacence inside the juste milieu. You mention my rejection of a general normative claim, of how designers should behave facing a society troubled by contradictions. This formulation can easily be misunderstood. My concern points to a risk: Those who presume to come up with normative claims expose themselves to the danger of falling into the role of Grand Inquisitor—something we certainly do not need right now. Rather, normativity should unfold from the confrontation between concept and reality. Ernst Bloch uses the term ‘latency’, the possible, the still encapsulated, which has to be opened up and developed, and which can serve as a default origin for normativity. So I draw on an emphatic concept of democracy as a reduction of heteronomy in any of these fields: business, politics, education, research, media, everyday practice, culture and so forth.



Civic City Cahier 2: Design and Democracy  
Civic City Cahier 2: Design and Democracy  

Rejecting the economically narrowed neoliberal definition of democracy, Gui Bonsiepe claims for the potential of design to promote democracy...