Maren Lehmann



by Maren Lehmann 09 2001 (translated by Meike Asbach and Maren Lehmann)


" Irony is the form of the paradox. Everything that is good and great is paradoxical."

( Schlegel 1967a, 153)


"real architectural style is something for everyone."

(Pevsner 1996, 171; bold letters in the original.)



Bearing in mind a heuristics which Dirk Baecker suggested to tackle the question concerning the form of architecture, this essay in turn shall not concern itself with asking what design is, but how it is observed.

We have to ask for those distinctions through which communication about design takes place, in order to learn which forms are conferred onto design through these distinctions. (cf. Baecker 1990, 68). It follows that design is the result of an observation, which defines a thing, a process or a shape as a form, and thereby uses a sort of distinction, which in turn another observer could distinguish from other ways of making distinctions. The position of the observer is filled contingently: at any point in time, anyone could deny the way others have made distinctions, any observer himself could suddenly see the same thing differently - but design can only assert itself as a form, as long as it can be observed, as long as, by making distinctions, it is observable as a distinction.

Expressed abstractly, we have already pin-pointed the basic paradox of design: it depends on observation, it depends on being observed. For no observation can ever define the distinction it employs on either side at once, it therefore systematically fails to indicate these distinctions and instead continuously provides reasons for new attempts. The cause for this miss, and at the same time the only possibility to deal with it, is the observation of observations. What we can do is the following: we can define the self-instigation of communication to continuously deviate from its traditions as the very basis of design. The observation of observations is moreover also the only possibility to discover an exclusive redundance in the object of our observation, and to attempt a generalization therefrom which would obtain the form of design out of an abstraction. Design theory has followed this path for nearly 200 years. If we search for the foundations of design, we only deviate from this tradition in order to point out that abstractions, too, owe themselves to distinctions which can be denied.

Although the premise is, that design can be defined as the observation of observers, this does not exclude the possibility that design refers to design, an option which gains real likelihood in the face of a differentiated theory of reflection backed up by a broad array of literature. (This is especially true, if architectural theory is seen as a case of design theory.) The following reflections will however dodge the question of whether design itself is such an observer, i.e. a system. For an affirmative answer in spite of the metaphorical breadth of the expression (disegno [vgl. Bürdek 1994, 16; ders. 1996, 27; vgl. Luhmann 1995, 415ff.], design, Entwurf, Formgebung [vgl. Pevsner 1996], Bau [Gropius, vgl. Droste 1998, 19], Styling [vgl. Steinwachs 1986] bis hin zu "life itself" [Jonas 1997, 2]), would require a proof that the differentiation of design is a form which is operatively exclusively applied, with which design simultaneously closes itself as a system of communication and opens itself up for the observation of other systems. This would mean to extend the question of the form to the code of design, and in turn, to derive the possibility of a medium of communication out of the binary nature of this code, which would make the current commitment of design communicatively acceptable, not without enabling us to experience this commitment physically all the while, etc. (for fundamental reading on this cf. Luhmann 1993b).

We will dodge this question below, but not without admitting that at least the question of the problem of reference of design (the nature of its social function) can be clearly asked. This problem of reference is the form in which society is differentiated, more precisely: it is society's adjustment to primary functional differentiation. The functionally differentiated society prefers the possibility to consider the question about the observer, as a question about the contingent, multivalently defined third - it is, using the words of Gotthard Günther, a polycontextural society. It can only observe itself by observing its observers - by "Sympoesie" as Schlegel (1967a, 161) argued - and society can only do so, if it confirms and denies itself at the same time. Its form is ironic, and it is precisely this irony inherent in society which constitutes the basic paradox of design.



In modern, functionally differentiated society, design emerges as one form of the generalization of the paradoxical ambiguity (polycontexturality) of all distinctions, it emerges not as the only or the representative form, but as a distinctive value. If this value is to be observed, it has to be subjected to distinction, and so it goes right back to the paradox which it was supposed to replace.

For this reason, the claim, that something is what it is and that it is good the way it is, can no longer be observed as anything but a joke, a provocation. This also means: not irony, but seriousness has become unlikely in modernity, because the latter exposes itself to ridicule if it does not simultaneously present itself in an ironic manner (cf. in more detail Rorty 1995, pp. 127ff; Behler 1997; Baecker 2000b; Bohrer 2000). Thus everything is to be joke and everything is to be earnestness, everything is to be trustingly open and everything is to be profoundly disguised (cf. Schlegel 1967a, p.160 (1)). That is unlikely however, and it therefore becomes the foundation of a special social form: design.

In view of the efforts towards social reform with which design starts to appear in the 19th century, the way it observes itself today is surprising: design reflections represent a playful discipline which only seems under obligation to its tradition in the mode of respectful distance. Time and again, new items of "final vocabulary" are employed (cf. Rorty 1995, 127): "art" and "crafts", "taste", then "creativity", "functionality", "good form", finally "object", "interface", "medium", right down to the point where design has become "invisible" (cf. Bonsiepe 1996; Borngräber 1987; Burckhardt 1995; Droste 1998; Götz 1999; Müller 1991; Nauhaus 1981; Pevsner 1996; Reck 1996; Ruppert 1991; Simon 1996, p.6f., 111ff, Steinwachs 1986; Bürdek 1994 for the twentieth century as an overview). Such final or break-off items of vocabulary become prominent because of their flexibility; the question of decision-making criteria is first cut short and finally wholly interrupted by them. The foundation of design is usually searched for by looking into its depths; design takes itself seriously. (Ruppert 1991, p.134, clearly distances himself from the "flight into irony.")

It is however interesting that design seems to take itself seriously as a form which falls between two stools (Grasskamp 1991; Erlhoff 1996, p.90 (2)), which stands on swamp-like foundations (Jonas 2000 (3)), a form which has no exclusive social location, a "schizophrenic" form (Drukker 2000/01), or one that is a trickery (Baecker, 2000c, p.161 (4)). It observes itself by continuously re-defining itself, as something strangely rootless, and as soon as it abandons its pride of this paradox inherent within itself, it could be either earnest or ironic, or even better, it could be ironic in an earnest manner (cf. Rorty 1995, pp. 128, 130, 137). The form of its paradox which continuously provokes new descriptions (cf. also Hesse, 1966) could be the reason why design is used as a "joker" (Baecker, 2000a) by an ever changing array of social observers, in order to cut short their reflections, in order to bridge their uncertainty about their own basis. Design presents itself as everyone's "partner" (Jonas 1997, p.15), as a "parasite" of modern society (Serres, 1987). It is parasitic in precisely the sense Schlegel around the turn of the 19th century meant when he pointed up the term "sympoetic": its irony consists in the fact that it keeps it undecidable which observer is being used by whom, and which of the two profits from the other. This is incomprehensible for common sense (Rorty 1995, p.128; cf. Hegel 1986, p.265ff. as a sharp critique of Schlegel, accusing him of hypocrisy, evil, gaming and self-satisfaction, and yet Hegel 1988, p. 405 ff, 434 ff; cf. Schlegel 1967b, p. 363ff. for the problem of incomprehensibility; also Luhmann 1993c; cf. Behler 1997, p.92ff, 115ff, 279 ff for general comments.)

As Luhmann inimitably put it (2000, p.55 (5)): if one thing is certain, then this: a paradox can never be converted into an identity without losing some of its meaning; the black hole of paradox has to be substituted with differentiable identities, which define which can be expected of them later on. So whatever the observation of design has produced in terms of distinctions and functional definitions: none of this was ever meant completely seriously, and it has not remained that way either ( Baecker 1990, 78 (6)).



The formulation, that design socially appears as everyone's partner, as a universal parasite of communication, as a social joker, is our cue to search for the distinction on which design is based, or even for that form in which it can be observed. If design time and again profits from ever changing social observations: into which distinction does it then translate these observations?

The thesis is that design evolved out of society's transformation from primarily stratificatory into primarily functional differentiation. The fact that design owes itself to this transformation is illustrated precisely by the fact that it often appears as criticism of this process (this becomes very clear in Pevsner 1996). The history of design particularly concentrates on the problems resulting from the increasing differentiation of three major functional systems: art, economics, and science. Design is a form, in which the differentiation of these social observers becomes a theme, thereby design itself is becoming a simplification of society (cf. Luhmann 1997, 367). Correspondingly, design at the same time always sets itself apart from these functional systems, and from other, equivalent simplifications, especially from technology (cf. ibid., 517ff.) as well as, these days, increasingly from architecture and advertising. The reflectional theories of all these simplifications could be regarded as "Sciences of the Artificial" (Simon 1996), where possibly the "artificial" can be understood to go beyond Simon's definition of the non-natural and the non-given, to mean "hybrid", "impure" (Reck 1996, 52; Jonas 2000), "quasi-objective", "parasitic" (Serres 1987). This idea was early illustrated by Musil (1980) as a form without properties, and typically also in the horizon of the distinction between technology and art.

But: design owes its efficiency to its clear cut, its exclusive distinction. It would have to sacrifice this exclusiveness if it were to bring about a mixing just of these distinctions (e.g. of science and art or art and economics, cf. Jonas 2000) to which it owes its own existence. The irony of design resides in its inability to do so: the observation of a distinction as design does without attempting this mixing. Design leaves everything as it is; it only produces small, temporary deviations so that, without any intervention, nothing looks like it actually is (it can be employed as 12th camel, cf. Baecker 2000c; it is a topic in the sense of Luhmann 1991; an object in the sense of Glanville 1988). It abstains from planning, intervening or negotiating - in this sense design really 'cultivates' 'asceticism' (cf. Ruppert 1991, 122) - but precisely by this, it can provoke effects towards planning, intervention, mediation which are then taken for possible (cf. only Bürdek 1996; Liebl 1998, Götz 1999). In the last instance, design then is just the moment of irritation of such effects by different suggestions. It therefore consists in the ironization of all planning and intervention successes.

The self-provocation of society by means of simplifications (among others also through design) is probably already apparent in the works of Morris and Semper. There is however not the place here to trace the evolution of design over two centuries, or even from the beginnings of mankind, using the observation of significant changes in differentiation and of antonym substitutions within the framework of altering socio-structural circumstances. In such a representation the differentiation between craftsmanship/industry, studio/factory, individual pieces/serial production would come as much into their own as historically contingent forms of observation as the much more abstracting differentiation between concept/realization, art/technology, form/function, symbol/instrument, inside world/outside world, differences with the help of which design theory observes and quotes its own elder forms from an ever changing angle, and so constructs its own history, different to the functional systems and the organizations of society.

The differentiation of the social form of family must also be left out, although its consequences for the development of architecture and design, as opposed to that of economics, science and art, can hardly be over-estimated (the regrets expressed by the early designers about the disappearance of small workshops and studios closely resembles those expressed by the first sociologists about the disappearance of economic activity from home). It should suffice to draw the reader's attention to the possibility, that the separation of the workplace and the home, i.e. the social practice of making a distinction between private and social space (a practice on which Rorty (1995) bases his concept of irony, and which Bourdieu (1999), but without any irony, also uses to explain different styles of social distinction), leads to the development of social observers, who design rooms and objects for the everyday use of each and everyone (including factory halls just the same as residential buildings, tools and bed linen). Today, this process has reached such dimensions that the exact attribution of rooms and objects to the private and/or public sphere has been thrown by design itself, a situation which probably would not have to been expected in Morris' lifetime.

We shall leave all these questions unanswered and only ask: which exclusive distinction is applied as provocative simplification, when something is ascribed to design? In which form does design appear to be leading society to put itself into a state of uncertainty?

In order to answer this question, we may refer to a paradigmatic debate about design, which has been fully differentiated and is now tackling its professionalization. We can single out this debate, because it has been undertaken on a sufficiently abstract level. It puts enough distance between our question about the form of design and its reference to one of the functional systems or even the reference to the designer as a person and/or an idea, without losing sight of society as a point of reference. This debate allows us to observe the problem of design from a socio-structural point of view. The debate I am referring to is the argument between Hermann Muthesius and Henry van de Velde in 1914 about the problem, whether the process of design is about standardization (Typisierung) or individualization (cf. Pevsner 1991, 36ff.) We have already shifted a little here, for Pevsner speaks of "individualism" (37); we have also shifted Bürdek's interpretation of the same as alternating between industrial standard and artistic individuality, which essentially already marks the two decisive directions of creative work in the twentieth century (cf. Bürdek 1994, 24). (7) We change this interpretation in the sense of Simon's and Bonsiepe's interface-theorem. We leave unanswered whether it is about the typology/the individuality of the designer, the user, or the design itself. We thus leave the inside/outside question undecided.

The discussion about standard or individuality, standardization or individualization can be immediately loosened up or, as already indicated, ironized, by taking the or for an and. In order to clarify this, a short digression on the differentiation between 'form' and 'thing' is needed.



According to the definition of George Spencer Brown (1969, 1), a form comes into existence when an observer drawes a distinction. Spencer Brown does not comment on how this is possible, and only qualifies it thus: Let us call this distinction the first distinction, indicate one of the two sides separated by this difference and thus defined as a difference, and let us take the form of distinction for the form, because this one-sided indication is both unavoidable and contingent (cf. Luhmann 1993a on the discussion of the "because".) It is about coming up with an operative term without ontological status (cf. Luhmann 1993a, 199), and about a theory of time, which understands "form" as limitation - a limitation, which is a distinction. This means that all possibilities to set apart form from content, idea and matter are eliminated (also cf. Baecker 1990, 70f.). It is not about an "inner" form, an unobservable pure "seed" in contrast to a perceivable and therefore impure "outer shape". Spencer Brown's definition of form thereby contradicts design's traditional self-definition. He only draws up a boundary line which distinguishes inside from outside. This boundary is the distinction, and whoever is interested in the difference, which this distinction claims, has in turn to observe it (again by simultaneously drawing a distinction and an indication.) "Inside" and "outside" can now only be separated ironically, because there is neither "inside" nor "outside". This simultaneously knocks the bottom out of suspicions of hypocrisy or evil; symbolism presupposes diabolicalness (cf. Luhmann 1997, 320). The possibility to stabilize the form as a code ( as central distinction) is not needed here. Design profits from this by observing social distinctions with focus on their excluded rest, and in turn lets itself be observed in this process (cf. Baecker 1990, 70, who puts forward that architecture itself benefits from the inside/outside distinction by renunciation of a "central idea".)

A thing, as defined by Fritz Heider (1927), is perceivable in a medium mediating this perception. The thing owes itself to perception, which in turn is only possible through the medium. So no thing can exist outside of its medium. It can only be and be seen within the medium, and the medium also is, albeit invisible (cf. ibid, 115). The only question is, how we can make a distinction between thing and medium. Heider supposes that the condition which makes the thing possible is inherent in the thing itself; the condition which makes the medium possible is external to it. According to Heider then, the thing is determined from the inside, the medium from the outside (cf. ibid, 116). At the same time, the possibility to see the same thing differently depends on the medium. The elements of the substrate, which both thing and medium have in common due to the operation "perception", are correspondingly strictly coupled in the object, and loosely coupled in the medium. A rigid intervention can only spell success on the side of the medium, for this would be formed by rigidity, as opposed to the thing which would be destroyed (for to couple means to referl, cf. ibid, 120).

Following a dictum of Luhmann, referring to the metaphor of transferral and mediation in general, we can also criticise Heider's thing/medium distinction for implying too much ontology (cf. Luhmann 1993b, 193). The form of the thing is an ontological nothing, as Luhmann put it with reference to Leonardo (ibid. 1995, 427) (8), since the boundary (te form itself) is neither on the inside nor on the outside. The fact that disegno becomes the expression of a distinguishable ability, owes itself to the incomprehensibility of the thing's form, and not to the difficulty of its perfection. Right from its beginning, design therefore cannot refer to artistic ability or skillfulness, but simply to the process of distinction-and-indication: observation. To design is to observe how others observe, and also to observe oneself as being observed ­ a second order observation, in other words. And according to Behler (1997, 279ff), this is ironic ability, for it accepts that the paradox of the two sided form can only be unfolded under the condition of lost meaning, therefore provoking new attempts, always confirming the form by extending its scope of reference to other forms: not logical, but creative, not in necessary form, but contingent (Luhmann 2000, 56). (9)



If the observations of observations as design have to (or can) leave the question open, whether there can be an exclusive observer who deserves to be called 'designer', a concluding reflection seems necessary. The social dimension could be the dominant direction of observation in design. As proof for this thesis, I can here only provide a few impressions. Throughout the history of design, strong ambitions for social reform can be detected, work and the work place are often central themes, attempts are made to intervene through designer-user interfaces; it is often thought that relationships to objects and rooms are of a social nature (communications). The main concern of design seems to be at one and the same time both the inclusiveness and the exclusiveness of its observations.

If the form of social differentiation changes to primarily functional polycontexturality, there is a tendency for all observations to be extremely selective, but their temporal ephemerality makes them bearable. It changes to inclusion through exclusion (cf. Luhmann 1997, 618ff.). In the sense of the critique of irony (cf. especially Bourdieu 1999, 315ff.) this is hypocritical, evil, diabolical; but it is the only possibility left to integrate society and the individual under the conditions of functional differentiation. It is precisely for this reason, that design makes a distinction between the dimensions of matter and of time, for in these respects selectivity is possible which does not deny the individuality of the person, but rather makes it possible for a person to be an individual. These two dimensions of meaning respectively the selectivities of them therefore seem suitable to make the form of design independent of the status of a person, independent of its state of being-inside-or-outside.

According to this thesis then, design proves itself in the way in which it underlines both the objectivity and the temporary nature of any observation. It takes observed observations and turns them into functions (objectification, standardization), and at the same time attributes to them a degree of temporality. Through this, each and everyone of us can be observed as a designer (individualization). Everyone is both a designer and not a designer. Standardized products (modular do-it-yourself-furniture kits, mix-your-own detergents, fashion in general) open up the world of objects to observing glances of individuals (amateurs, cf. Stanizek, 2000), who are "really" not able to do so ­ at least in the sense the "pioneers of design", i.e. defendors of last certainties without irony, meant and mean. But the act of observing cannot be attributed to an exclusive group; everyone is capable of doing so. Inclusiveness makes exclusiveness problematical, thus the simultaneity of Inclusiveness and exclusiveness, its temporary solution and regeneration, is the concern of design. By temporalization and objectification of each observed distinction, design solves the problem of elites and the problem of levelling off (cf. Georg Simmel's opus) both at the same time (cf. Baecker 2000c, 161, concerning modernity (10); cf. Steinwachs 1986, especially 344ff. for the interpretation of the distinction design/styling in the sense of post industriam individualization; cf. Drucker 2000/01).

What Bourdieu (1999) describes as behaviour characteristic of the lower classes can be seen as the epitome of individualized behaviour, on condition that we are dealing with a functionally differentiated society, and not with a stratified society. Nowadays everyone can praise the authenticity of his or her access to the world. But how indeed are we going to prove this individual-identity if not by making use of distinctions? As soon as collective identities disappear, rapid change is the most attractive form of distinction. Design owes itself precisely to this push for individualization caused by social differentiation, i.e. the social assertion of extremely temporal-objective selectivity. It owes itself to the transformation into the inclusion of everyone by renunciation of control of the individual way of life. Those observers whom we call the "pioneers of design" (Pevsner) notice this renunciation of self-determination, and they lament it. But at the latest with the founding of the Bauhaus movement in Weimar, design starts to profit from this renunciation. Design owes its existence to it, which is made all the more obvious through the way in which it sees its own foundation as paradoxical, as Pevsner (1991, 175) put it in his exemplary, visionary comment on "the levelling tendency of the coming mass movement ­ and a true architectural style is for everyone". In this sense, the paradox of design is inherent in the social dimension of the difference inclusion/exclusion, and in turn a consequence, or rather an example of the fact that each limitation is only a limitation, a mere substitute for substance (cf. Bourdieu 1999, 321): no more and no less.

What makes for the efficiency of design is then its renunciation of a central code. It is not a system of functions. Its medium is observation (distinction and indication) of the trivalency (thus including the multivalency) of all possible observations in the mode of standardization and simultaneous individualization of each observing third value, of each observing observation. That is why it prefers form over code, it remains without an exclusive defining distinction, and correspondingly it is only of limited directive value and possesses little binding force. It is nothing but a highly mobile quantity of possible aspects (cf. Luhmann 1997, 343). We are left with the following conclusion: the basic paradox of design is the polycontexturality of society.



(1) So "soll alles Scherz und alles Ernst sein, alles treuherzig offen, und alles tief verstellt" (Schlegel 1967a, 160).

(2) It stands "zwischen allen Stühlen" (Grasskamp 1991; Erlhoff 1996, 90).

(3) It stands "auf sumpfigem Grund" (Jonas 2000).

(4) A "Mogelei" (Baecker 2000c, 161).

(5) "Wenn eines gewiß ist, dann dies: "Nie kann eine Paradoxie ... sinnverlustlos in eine Identität umgewandelt werden ... Für das schwarze Loch der Paradoxie ... müssen unterscheidbare Identitäten substituiert werden, die einschränken, was ihnen anschließend zugemutet werden kann" Luhmann (2000, 55).

(6) "Ganz ernst gemeint war das nie, und geblieben ist es dabei auch nicht" (Baecker 1990, 78).

(7) An alternative, which "im wesentlichen schon die beiden entscheidenden Richtungen gestalterischen Arbeitens im 20. Jahrhundert [ ] kennzeichnet"

(8) An "ontologisches Nichts" (Luhmann 1995, 427).

(9) "Nicht logisch, sondern kreativ, nicht in notwendiger Form, sondern kontingent" (Luhmann 2000, 56).

(10) "Mode" (Baecker 2000c, 161), but not in the selective sense of "fashion", rather, I think, in the sense of "latest style".



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About the author

Maren Lehmann (DPhil) was born in Saxony in 1966. After an apprenticeship in printing industry and studies of industrial design at Burg Giebichenstein, Halle, she changed to the university's faculty of philosophy. She then completed degrees in educational science and sociology at the universities of Halle and Bielefeld. She wrote her dissertation on the form inclusion using the example of religion. At present, she has been appointed research assistant at the Institute of Economics at the Martin-Luther-University, Halle-Wittenberg. Research interest: system's theory, form/medium, religion, art/design, inclusion, career.