Planned Ambiguity: A Design Conflict

David Goss

Design is a human quest for order - a rationale that we try to impress on the world and the surrounding objects. The grotesque - another phenomenon of human creativity represents the polar opposite. The visuality of grotesque aesthetics is overpowering yet contradictive, evasive and ambiguous sometimes repulsive and can even be frightening. However, like all intentional human creation, the grotesque is also conceived through a planned design process. These manifestations of planned ambiguity –grotesqueness –occur frequently in contemporary design, during an increase in designs symbolic function. Contemporary designers seem to abandon designs modern ethos - form for a function, and search for surplus meaning beyond the artifacts immediate utility. This flux, a conflict between symbolic and utilitarian aspects of design, are most apparent in the designs of one of cultures most common and useful artifact – the chair.  This article will examine and identify the metamorphosis in design aesthetics from the ethos of modernism via postmodern tendencies to contemporary practices, of the ontological traits of grotesque aesthetics in contemporary design of chairs Furthermore, I shall discuss and question the modes of this conflicts possible usage and contribution to a reflexive design discourse.


“Design is the conscious and intuitive effort to impose meaningful order.”[1] – Victor Papanek, 1970.


Design is one of our human signifiers. Long before the advent of industry, and well beyond the physical boundaries of developed countries and their markets, design as a cognitive process has been with us since primordial humanity. Victor Papanek’s definition, although exceedingly broad in scope, pinpoints the centrality of design in our lives. Since its conception forty years ago, this definition still holds true for ongoing changes and innovations in design practice and design discourse. Indeed, meaningful order, or rather, the oxymoron of planned disorder in design—the reification of the internal conflict between the symbolic (meaning of an artifact) and the utilitarian (use of an artifact) aspects of designed objects—is the crux of this article.

Representing a human quest for order, design is a rationale that we attempt to impress upon our world and surrounding objects. But we should remember that designed artifacts intrinsically possess, as do all artifacts, two basic functions: the utility function and the symbolic function (additional meaning beyond the object’s direct utility). Another phenomenon of human creativity is the grotesque, which seems to represent the polar opposite of design with many elements of the irrational. The visual presence of grotesque aesthetics is overpowering yet contradictory, evasive and ambiguous, sometimes repulsive and even frightening. However, like all intentional human creation, the grotesque is also conceived through a planned design process, a fact that is generally disregarded. But much like stealth technology, the grotesque is designed to be ambiguous, evading our aesthetic categorizing tendencies. It is, in fact, planned ambiguity.

Ambiguous or grotesque manifestations have appeared more frequently during recent decades, together with an increased emphasis by designers on symbolic function. Contemporary designers have gradually abandoned modern design’s harsh ethos of solely seeking form for function; contemporary design seems to crave surplus meaning and visual impact beyond the artifact’s immediate utility. The visibility of the grotesque has increased in many fields of today’s culture, and warrants consideration when discussing contemporary design aesthetics. Yet the modern ethos of good design—the rationale of form following function that developed through the twentieth century—stands in dichotomy with these manifestations. This internal (and seemingly eternal) argument in contemporary design discourse can be regarded as a continuation and/or a reification of nineteenth-century early modern design polemics debating utility versus decoration.

The ever-changing balance and flux in the conflict between symbolic and utilitarian aspects of design are most apparent in a most common and useful artifact: the chair.  In this article, I shall attempt to chart, examine, and identify the metamorphosis in design aesthetics—from early to high modernism via postmodern tendencies to contemporary practices—of the ontological traits of grotesque aesthetics in contemporary design of the chair. Furthermore, by bringing to light grotesque manifestations in contemporary design, I shall discuss and question the modes of this design conflict, its usage, and its contribution to a reflexive design discourse.

The Grotesque: A Borderline Aesthetic[2]

“Grotesques have no consistent properties other than their own grotesqueness, and they do not manifest predictable behavior.” [3] – Geoffrey Galt Harpham, 1982.


The grotesque is a concept lacking specific form or category. The origins of the term la grottesca/grottesco refer to the grotta (a cave) where, at the close of the fifteenth century, ornamental paintings decorating the walls of Neros’ Domus Aurea caverns in Rome were discovered. Grotesque styling then became popular as a decorative manner of painting.From the time of the grotesque’s reappearance as a functional aesthetic of decoration, its meaning as a concept has undergone numerous transformations, performances, and variations. The following questions arise: Is the grotesque appearing and influencing visual aspects in contemporary design through the use and promotion of alternative and borderline aesthetics? Do these aesthetics incorporate exaggerated modes of popular culture, such as extremity, absurdity, obesity, disproportion, and undefined physical borders? Have such modes transformed the visual style and symbolic functions of contemporary objects?

Defining the grotesque leads to contradictions, and such attempts can result in descriptions that leave the actual object of contemplation out of the scope of debate. Wolfgang Kayser (Kayser, 1957) has characterized the grotesque as a hostile, alien, and inhuman concept. In his view, the grotesque is part of a threatening and estranged world. Such a concept is rife with ominous overtones. In this interpretation, the grotesque possesses a psychological borderline character that may induce a frightening aesthetic state. Even when, in reaction, the beholder of a grotesque laughs, this is usually the result of aesthetic and psychological discomfort. In Kayser’s opinion, these manifestations are most apparent and applicable in the modern art movement of surrealism. “The new art wants to destroy the rationalistic concatenation of our worldview, as well as the treacherous connections perceived by our senses.”[4] 

The grotesque seems much less frightening in Mikhail Bakhtin’s (1965)carnavalesque world. Referring to the era of medieval carnivals — which can be interpreted as a construction of a social structure and an expression of the grotesque — he claims “there is a temporary suspension of all hierarchic distinctions and barriers among men and of certain norms and prohibitions of usual life.”[5] The carnival-grotesque as a social construction allows for freedom of thought and action, thus enabling liberation from the standard outlook of the world, beyond the patterns of normative conventions and practices. This position of outside looking inwards defines the grotesque as a reflexive view of the world.

This temporal state of the grotesque represents a flux, a constant transformation/transition, an unfinished metamorphosis, and a time not governed by time. Separate yet part of the fringes of the transformation, the beginning and the end, the old and the new, the newborn and the dying.


“In contrast to modern canons, the grotesque body is not separate from the world.  It is not a closed, complete unit: it is unfinished, outgrows itself, and transgresses its own limits.”[6]


The grotesque body or objects are inseparable from their surrounding world; borders and tangency are unclear. We are not always sure what we are viewing, and whether we comprehend its visuality or physicality completely; nothing functions as a defined, separate, and categorical unit.


 “The concept of the body in grotesque realism [...]  is of course in flagrant contradiction with the literary and artistic canon of antiquity, which formed the basis of Renaissance aesthetics and was connected to the further development of art.”[7]


Bakhtin professes that according to these classic canons, the grotesque was considered hideous and formless. It certainly did not fit the “aesthetic of the beautiful,”[8] which was based on the art of the Renaissance. Furthermore, it may be stated that the grotesque is devoid of consistent properties, criteria, or predictability other than its “grotesqueness,”[9]according to which it may be defined or categorized. To emphasize these non-categorical and ambiguous properties, Harpham (1982) engages in a very visual and formalistic comparison of the circle—a paradigm of the perfect, ideal, and harmonious form—versus the formlessness of the grotesque.  In his opinion: “The grotesque is the opposite, the least ideal form.”[10]

According to Madeleine Schechter (2007) [11]the use of the moniker grotesquemay actually assist our cultural categorical tendencies when facing this categorization ambiguity:


“The term ‘grotesque’ provides a rule for organizing the experience of those works of art that cannot be classified in accordance with canonical or traditionally accepted Western poetic and/or aesthetic categories, which are basically the classical ones.”[12]


Schechter summarizes the common denominators for critical uses of this term as a representation (naturalistic or symbolic) of a physical–psychological natural deformity, a verbal or visual form of ambiguity, an embodiment of an ontological principle such as a clash of opposites and finally a logical incompatibility like a contradiction in terms.[13] 

As such, this term aids us in categorizing, defining, and organizing the uncategorized and distinguishing sense from non-sense. “In other words, those artworks that defy any attempt at classification may be described as grotesque or liminal [...] ”[14] If the grotesque is liminal, or a metaphorical mix up of form and content, or “a boundary violation” [15]as Michel Chaouli (1999) phrased it, we may ask whether such a boundary exists. In the design context, does this metaphorical mix-up of form and content (grotesqueness) occur when form and/or the significance and meanings embalmed in an artifact are in conflict with its utility function?


Utility vs. Decoration

“Every possible valence of an object, all its ambivalence, which cannot be reduced to any model, are reduced by design to two rational components, two general models – utility and the aesthetic which design isolates and artificially opposes to one another.”[16] – Jean Baudrillard, 1981.


In his book, The Politics of the Artificial (2002), Victor Margolin differentiates between two basic conflicting models of design activity in human industrial development: the expansionist model and the sustainable model. Though most contemporary practitioners and pedagogues of design would wholeheartedly adopt the environmentally and socially responsible sustainable model of design, the large majority of human activity and production is still in the realm of expansionism. The expansionist “ [...] world consists of markets in which products function first and foremost as tokens of economic exchange,”[17] where problems are solved by increasing production, improving products and re-designing artifacts. A historic metaphorical collision (or even conflict) between these two models of production was described by Victor Papanek (1972), who presented slides of his communication device—a tin can transistor radio, which used no batteries or electrical current but depended on a candle as its energy source—at the Hochschule für Gestaltung at Ulm, Germany. This cheap, easy-to-construct, sustainable transistor designed for use in developing countries was negatively criticized in the “Good Design,” rational-functionalist context of Ulm due to “ [...] its lack of ‘formal’ design.”[18]

Although sustainability—by definition—clearly represents the optimistic, positive, and only perceivable future for design and industrial production in the long run, in this article I intend to focus on the existing problematic expansionistic model where conflictive manifestations of grotesque aesthetics flourish. Over the last 150 years, design discourse, creation, and pedagogy have developed within this model. Here, design practice has defined the aesthetic ideological concept of the Modern era. These aesthetic concepts have been articulated in designed objects bearing the two intrinsic and basic functions of any object produced by humans: utility and symbolic[19] representing today’s dichotomy of function versus decoration.

The conflict of function has accompanied design discourse since the outset of the industrial era, when industrial design developed as a field of practice. Though terms of use have changed over time, this dichotomy persists in its centrality within design discourse. According to Ralph Nicholson Wornum (1851), when considering the designed objects exhibited at the Crystal Palace, the basic dichotomy in design is what he termeddecoration versus uses. In 1851, most of the artifacts exhibited showed, in his opinion, a gross and unbalanced combination of decoration and utility. This usually vulgar over-decoration is sometimes seen as a typical trait of Victorian taste. Without negating decoration as such, Wornum expressed that many of the designs of his time displayed unbalanced ornamentation. Wornum illustrated this claim in length with numerous examples from the exhibition, which displayed obtrusive taste.


“ [...] Just as there are mechanical laws which regulate all our efforts in pure uses, so there are laws of the mind which must regulate those aesthetical efforts expressed in the attempt at decoration or ornamental design.”[20]


Christopher Dresser, considered by many to be the father of modern industrial design, attempted to solve this intrinsic conflict in design practice by putting forward aesthetic principles for successful design using ornamentation (1873). He stated that “ [...] good decorations of any character, have qualities which appeal to the educated, but are silent to the ignorant [...] ”[21] At the height of Victorian over-decoration and ornamentation, Dresser maintained that the primary function of an artifact is its utility, and the aim of every designer should be to make useful objects:


“ [...] it must first be formed as though it were a mere work of utility, and after it has been carefully created with this end in view it may then be rendered as beautiful as you please.”[22]


Here Dresser broke away from earlier decorative perspectives in design by primarily emphasizing the utility of an artifact as an instigator of its form.

Another utilitarian bias representing the birth of modern design was that of Richard Redgrave, a co-director of the National Schools of Design in Britain from 1852. Discussing the origin of style in design in his Manual of Design (1876), Redgrave claimed that “ [...] style does not merely relate to decoration, as is too often supposed, but originates in construction, to which decoration is only subsidiary.”[23] Robert Dohme, Custodian of the Arts in the Prussian Court of Frederick III, was influenced by developments in design in England, and in his survey, The English House (1888), encouraged a modern, functional reform in German design. His metaphor for functionality being:


 “ [...] modern vehicles and ships, whose beauty, in fulfilling their task, we have to a great extent achieved by limiting any and all decorative ornaments merely to graceful lines, in seeking the object’s greatest functionality and simplicity of form, and in divesting it of all superfluities.”[24]


A landmark in the debate on design and functionality—forming designed artifacts whilst considering decoration and utility—occurred with the Chicago skyscraper architect Louis Sullivan (1896), who coined what would become the motto of modernist functionalism: “ [...] form ever follows function, and this is the law. Where function does not change, form does not change.”[25] Another German theorist of design, Hermann Muthesius, negated the then-popular naturalistic decorative Jugendstil[26] in New Ornament and New Art(1901), when he built upon Dohme’s message by stating that a person with greater sensitivity does not decorate—regarding it as inherently superficial—but rather transfigures from the inside out. Muthesius was promoting the then-nascent Sachlichkeit design—a forerunner of yet-to-become German modernism—as a sensible design outlook derived from object utility. The Belgian art nouveau proto-modernist designer Henry van de Velde, who lived and worked in Germany, also sought a new expression of ornamentation. In The New Ornament (1901), van de Velde describes a notion of ornamentation that searches for abstract harmony and balance: “The same laws that guide the works of engineers should also guide ornament, which I want to make one and the same with technology.” That same year a similar quest evolved into a virtual antithesis to the Arts and Crafts movement in the United States. Frank Lloyd Wright, in his address to the Arts and Crafts movement in Chicago, The Art and Craft of the Machine (1901), solved this conflict of decoration and utility by praising the age of machinery, maintaining that design of artifacts should be derived from machine-made shapes. In Ornament and Crime (1908) Adolf Loos expresses another extreme reaction of deep repulsion to the decorative arts of his time:


“As ornament is no longer organically related to our culture, it is also no longer the expression of our culture. The ornament that is produced today bears no relation to us, or to any other human or the world at large. It has no potential for development.”[27]


Thus, from the earliest stage in its development in the modern industrial era and throughout the twentieth century, design discourse has acknowledged and intensely discussed the polemics of its dual purpose: utility and symbolic function. There are cases, of course, where these dual functions are fluid and ambiguous in definition, yet merge conceptually. As such, it might be impossible to distinguish or separate these functions. In this context it is interesting to recall the Romantic or African chair designed by Marcel Breuer and Gunta Stozl at the Bauhaus in 1921. This chair was manufactured prior to Theo van Doesburg’s industrial influence on their school in 1921-1922. This chair exemplifies a synthesis of African tribal decorative aspects with modern joinery and shapes. It is a unique representation of early Bauhaus aesthetic of crafts and the syntheses of functions, utilitarian and symbolic, which seem to merge in this early-modern “throne.”

Furthermore, though the balance and necessity of each one of these functions were hotly debated, we cannot forget that sometimes even the most basic objects, which we all consider as purely utility, are also laden with symbolic meaning. A slight change in historic or geographic context can turn even the most utilitarian of designs into socially and symbolically charged items. Considering the possession of flush toilets in the nineteenth century:


“ [...] it is extremely difficult to disentangle the use-related function from the symbolic meanings in even the most practical objects. Even purely functional things serve to socialize a person to a certain habit or way of life and are representative signs of that way of life.” [28]


Post from Modern Design

“Every industrial product serves a specific purpose. People do not buy a specific product just to look at it, rather it performs certain functions.”[29] – Dieter Rams, 1984.

The forefront of modern design arose at the beginning of the twentieth century when designers abandoned surplus decoration and symbolic meaning, and distilled the components of artifacts to create a more functional and rational object. This change is most apparent in the transformation of one of culture’s most common and useful artifact—the chair. To demonstrate these principles, I have chosen two paradigms of modern chair design: that of Alvar Aalto and of Charles & Ray Eames. Afterwards to show a further change in the utility – symbolic dichotomy, I will discuss two exemplars of Post-modern design: by Alessandro Mendini and by Robert Venturi & Denise Scott Brown.

The Finnish architect and designer Alvar Aalto was one of the first designers in the twentieth century to pioneer the use of laminated wood as a material in chair production. These experiments were based on constructive elements that began with the Austrian furniture manufacturer Thonet. Aalto blended these functional constructive principles with those of modern design. The modern ethos was manifested through a simple formalism by form following the function of the design; a complete discarding of all decorations (and conflicts of meaning); using industrially produced materials to increase standardization and availability to ever-growing markets and users; and aiming for non-differentiation in social status through the design of objects.  Aalto’s works:

 “[ [...] ] utilized laminated birch and plywood sheet for forms which were fascinating combinations of constructivist and organic ideas, austere in structure, but softened by curved forms and the warmth of the polished timber.”[30]


Creating formalistic, humble, and very functional furniture pieces, Aalto promoted what may be called invisible modernism[31] with non-declarative modernist works intended to be functional utility artifacts. 

His Chair 69, 1935, was a development of his earlier Laminated wood stacking chair from 1929–1930. Here Aalto maintains the austere quality of the constructional and formalistic elements and adheres to the modernist idea of form following function by discarding any excess structural fat to achieve the leanest possible functional artifact. The chair is lightweight; relatively easily constructed using the new material of laminated wood; and stackable for easy storage and use. Thus, Aalto produced a clear item in modernist terms by considering all aspects of production (according to ideals of modernist design), including the producer’s technical and economic constraints coupled with, most importantly, user functionality. Thus Aalto strived to eliminate any ambiguity concerning the artifact’s usability and meaning, now derived completely from its efficient form and production.

A continuation and development of this modernist stance can be found in the work of the American designer couple Charles & Ray Eames during the 1940’s. The Eames’s works aimed for functional, cheap, and ergonomic designs. Charles Eames collaborated with Eero Saarinen in 1941 to exhibit in the MoMA competition and exhibition for Organic Design in Home Furnishing. Their designs adhered to requirements of MoMA then-curator, Eliot Noyes, who maintained that the designers and their designs should be “ [...] necessarily limited by the existing facilities of the collaborating manufacturers.”[32] Noyes’ outlook conveyed a number of requirements, including that the producer be a national American company; the design be producible on large scale and therefore marketable and usable; and the cost efficiency in relation to retail price be upheld. Through these exhibition requirements Noyes subtly forwarded another basic ethos of modern design, in general, and of American modern design in particular—that design as a practice has a positive contribution to production, sales, and utility. When writing, in 1950, What is Modern Design?[33] Edgar Kaufmann jr[34] expressed the ethical aspects of modern design. In his opinion, modern design fulfills a necessity for finding appropriate constructions and character for things—for eliminating ambiguity—in contemporary life; and by satisfying the wants of the public, modern design represents a clear expression of democratic contemporary life. “Modern design is intended to implement the lives of free individuals,”[35] and expresses the values of our age. For Kaufmann, the clarity of modern design is made manifest through “ [...]  a thorough merging of form and function, and an awareness of human values expressed in relation to industrial production for a democratic society.”[36]Being so, modern design could be seen as a necessary step to eliminating unnecessary ambiguity in the complexity of democratic capitalistic modern industrial society.

An excellent example of these design principles is the Chair DCM,[37] designed by Charles and Rae Eames in 1946. This chair was among the new plywood prototypes designed by the couple. These chairs were designed with pure modernist clarity, in a paraphrasing of Kaufmann’s requirements of modern designed artifacts: “to get the most of the best to the greatest number of people for the least.”[38] The chair pioneered new techniques of joining metal structure and a plywood base. Developed in the automobile industry, this certainly brought the implementation of state-of-the-art technology into the home seating context. The actual use of plywood in furniture aimed for mass production in a modern context can be seen in the previous designs of the Finnish designer Alvar Aalto and Marcel Breuer of the Bauhaus. But their designs, like the Eames’s previous experiments with this “new” material, based the complete construction on the use of bended plywood. Though giving the structure flexibility, the earlier plywood-based chair was relatively heavier, more costly, and complicated to manufacture, and not as sustainable a structure as that with the metal base. Furthermore, this new seating construction enabled a more versatile and rational approach to maintenance. The main wear and tear could be expected in the two smaller plywood seat and back pieces, which enabled the easier breakdown of storing exchangeable parts, easier transportation, and interchangeability if needed.

An alternative and different approach to the concept of seating and chair design was seen with the Radical movements of the 1960s and later, in what was coined as the postmodern design movements of the 1970s. This historicist-orientated style aimed to transform the space of operations of design and to rethink design’s purpose and meaning in relation to culture and industrial production.

“Political conviction, commercial imperatives, principles of form and function: all had been jettisoned. Even radicalism itself, the critical posture of the avant-garde, came to seem a distant memory [...] ”[39]


Post-modernism became identified with ambiguous design characteristics, such as eclecticism, ornamentation, kitsch, wit, and irony, which had been considered abominations during modernism’s reign of form for function.[40]

As illustrated by the following examples, a new emphasis focused on the creation of meaning and on the symbolic function of design, expressed through an amorphous questioning of who creates or dictates the narrative of designed artifacts. Is the designer of the artifact the dictator of its usage and meaning, or is the user/viewer a co-creator? 

An excellent example of the playful approach to the legacy of modernist design and design history was the Proust Chair designed by Alessandro Mendini in 1978. Mendini, a former activist in the Italian design movements, was a founding member of Global Tools, a school of counter-architecture and design established in 1973. Later, he was among the forerunners of postmodern design with the design collective Studio Alchimia. The Proustchair is an example of Mendini’s postmodern work whereby he transformed historically designed objects with a neo-Duchampian artistic strategy—redesigning the objects by rearranging, decorating, or juxtaposing so that the object gained new meaning. The Proust chair presents a counter-postulation to the rational modernism of form following function. It discards the self-claimed democratic ethos of modernism that upheld the ideal of providing the most of the best to the greatest number of people for the lowest price.  It replaces modernism with an alternative meaning represented in the artifact—one that suggests “the death of the author” in a crossover whereby the viewer/user creates a narrative and meaning. There is no dictation of symbolic meaning. Rather the designer embodies the objects with conflictive meaning by bestowing the democratic ability to ask questions,


“His Proust chair of 1978 was the object that most successfully condensed these restless energies, at least to judge to from its subsequent notoriety [...]  It was another paste-up job: a title taken from literature, a form adapted from eighteenth-century Baroque furniture (albeit swollen to improbable proportions), and decoration swiped from a pointillist painting by Paul Signac.”[41]

This could be considered a trivialization of the historic meaning of style, reducing major cultural milestones in art, decoration, and style to mere quotations—design footnotes building new and alternative meaning. The actual meaning generated in the design is the discourse of meaning itself and its relevance in design, while contradicting the rationality of form postulated by modernism. Originating as a one-off piece, later Mendini’s studio produced versions of the chairs in limited series.

Another excellent example of postmodern practice in chair design is that of the American designer–architects Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown. Venturi was an important theorist and practitioner of postmodern design. He defined many of the characteristics of the style in Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture (1966), stating:


“I am for richness of meaning rather than clarity of meaning; for the implicit function as well as the explicit function. I prefer “both–and” to “either­–or,” black and white, and sometimes gray, to black or white. A valid architecture evokes many levels of meaning and combinations of focus: its space and its elements become readable and workable in several ways at once.”[42]


Venturi further expresses the relevance of the ambiguousness embedded in post-modern architecture as opposed to the unethical exclusion put forward by modernism. In relation to the popular aphorisms of modernism, such as “more is less” or “less is better,” this new architecture, of complexity and of contradiction, possesses:


“A special obligation toward the whole: its truth must be in its totality or its implications of totality. It must embody the difficult unity of inclusion rather the easy unity of exclusion. More is not less.”[43]


Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown’s Chippendale chair, 1984, brings this alternative meaning to the dictums of modernism. Venturi and Scott Brown (working partners and co-writers of Learning from Las Vegas, 1972) were invited by the Knoll Company to design a new line of products. The resulting nine chairs are now considered “quintessential postmodern objects.”[44] The chairs were designed between 1979 and 1984, and manufactured from plywood—inspired by the technical aspects of the modernist structure of Alvar Aalto’s or Marcel Breuer’s innovative plywood chairs of the 1930s and the Eames's in the 1940s. Yet the formal outlines of Venturi’s and Scott Brown’s chairs are two-dimensional cartoon versions of historical chair design milestones, such as theChippendaleSheratonQueen Anne, and Art Deco. The chairs are a mash-up of modernist technique, technology, and materials, with quotations of historic design meaning: functionality blended with symbolic, reflexive, and even ironic quotations of style and taste.


“With their wide, flat fronts and completely linear side view, they are like design drawings unfurled in space. They are adorned with patterns drawn from vernacular and high-style sources.”[45]


By this, they added surplus meaning to the chairs and challenged the clear-cut, utilitarian aesthetics of modern design.

The Grotesque & Contemporary Design

“It is human design that conjures up disorder together with the vision of order, dirt together with the project of purity. The thought trims the image of the world first, so that the world itself can be trimmed right after.” - Zygmunt Bauman, 2004.[46]


Grotesque aesthetics and the concepts of modern good design as previously described represent an oxymoron; within the modernist landscape, these two visual worlds should never rationally meet. Nevertheless, we encounter numerous examples of the grotesque in contemporary design. Thus, we must ask how characteristics of the grotesque are visible, how are they articulated, and what role they play? Zygmunt Bauman defined our era rather appropriately as Liquid Modernity (2000).


“His metaphor of liquid modernity is directed towards a critique of the aqueous foundation of modernity. At the same time, the link with postmodernity is not completely severed because the sense of flexibility and uncertainty implicit in the postmodern is continuous with the notion of liquidity.”[47]


Bauman’s metaphor may relate to the contemporaneous status of objects, which are losing their solid state and their defined form. As such, they share the ambiguity of the grotesque—oozing into the surrounding spaces and objects, and sometimes even merging with it. Following are a few examples that may demonstrate the theme of the grotesque in contemporary design.[48]

The Multido armchair (2002), created by the Brazilian designer duo, the Campana brothers (Fernando and Humberto), is fashioned from dolls originating in northern Brazil. This chair poses a true challenge to the norms of contemporary design aesthetics, and particularly to the functionality of modernism. In this object, as with other designs of the Campana brothers—such as the Banquete series (2002), the Boa sofa (2002), and theSushi sofa and chairs series (2002-2004)—one may detect an internal tension of meaning deriving from the works’ form and function, apart from their apparent functionality. This work (the Multido armchair, 2002) comprises grotesque characteristics such as the inhumane physicality of a pile of bodies (even if only dolls). To use the chair one must sit on these bodies. This morbid composition is a threatening reminiscence of the Disasters of Wars[49] etchings by Goya. It reminds the beholder of military clashes and acts of genocide in a capricious, estranged world. Using typical surrealist tactics, it shakes up our worldview and generates political debate. This shocking effect is exacerbated due to the dolls’ local Brazilian origin and the economic connotations of production in global capitalism. On a symbolic level, the actual function of sitting increases the conceptual tension and virtually negates its own function. The chair may lead one to reflect on the user’s act of sitting down, and the questions of upon whom one sits, and due to whose effort and labor one is able to sit. The form of the Multido chair has an unfinished feeling, as if the act of piling the dolls was suddenly frozen mid-process. The chair is a virtual three-dimensional snapshot depicting a process that may continue in the future, caught up and frozen in a moment of time. An amorphous, chaotic and soft mass, it spurts minimalist and strictly functional metal legs. Our impression is ambiguous, and therefore we tend to reflect on the issue of the chair’s functions: utility and symbolic. When describing their style, the Campana brothers claim it is “very organic, very intensive and very emotional [...] to bring dreams to people, to bring what people have been fed up with daily life, to bring some joys and ironies to people.”[50]

With similar formalistic and conceptual characteristics, this mode is also present in their Banquete series. The diversity of shape and color of the stuffed toys that comprise the composition increases our sense of ambiguity. Yet with the Banquette series, the symbolic function and conceptualization does not threaten the balance or the utility function. This may seem a borderline design but it is not on-the-verge, or beyond. Although it flirts with the grotesque, it could still not be considered as such.


Discussing their later Diamantina (2008) series, the Campana brothers stated:


“This project grows out of the TransPlastic (2007) series, where we have sought the purity of form inspired by grottos and caves. It is our own journey to the center of earth, like Jules Verne’s book. Complementing this idea,Diamantina is built in a way that the seats are sculpted along the form, creating a new mode of comfort and interaction. Proposing a more subtle connection, it is a rather meditative kind of experiment.”[51]


The cave and the grotto strongly relate to the original historical connotation of the term grotesque.


“Textures and weaves in natural fibers invoke a sense of openness and demonstrate an inherent respect for the natural environment [...] TheDiamantina installation will utilize the native Brazilian plant Apuí that grows on and ultimately garrotes rain forest trees.”[52]


Contrary to usual natural material consumption, the use of the Apuí actually increases sustainability due to reversing its suffocating influence on the rain forests. In this work, the overgrowth of the Apuí plant is woven, entangling and divulging plastic chairs and various refuse objects. Its effect is reversed; instead of the forest being overwhelmed, it is the plastic chairs that are swallowed. This evokes a strong symbolic clash between natural and synthetic elements. Though both materials are used in the outdoors and garden furniture industry, the combination between other opposites enhances this hybrid of materials: handmade and industrial, precious and refuse. The diverse island of organically shaped pieces has engulfed the original minimalist and light functionalistic chairs, becoming a large amorphous shape that still may serve as an island for seating. The intrinsic conflict in the design— ambiguous form, unclear function (yet still functional), hybrid yet complimentary use of materials, sustainability alongside mass-produced industrial plastic chairs—certainly brings these works to the verge of grotesqueness.

Another contemporary designer whose works evoke grotesque associations is the German-born Maarten Baas, who works in the Netherlands. His graduate collectionSmoke (2002-2006), was seen as a unique way to overcome the industrial uniformity of:


“[...] the fashionable expressionist design style. In the backlash against the blandness of globalization, designers are striving to create emotionally expressive objects rich in meaning. By artfully burning existing furniture, Baas questions our perceptions of the beauty and value of objects in mediagenic pieces that also score socio-political points for reflecting the violence of our time.”[53]


After being charred, the pieces are coated in resin, resulting in the perpetuation of their temporary stage of decay. Baas’s work plays with our associations of meaning and form. His pieces are brought out of their former historic state into the contemporary sphere of symbolic discourse. Regarding the burning of Rietveld’s classic chair Baas argued: “I think it’s quite a respectful approach. I don’t want to burn down Rietveld. I always try to make it functional again.”[54] It seems obvious that Baas relates to the historic symbolic function of this chair’s design and seeks to update it. These pieces certainly raise the question of authorship in design. However, they also challenge our precept of good design and enhance a rather positive and reflexive design discourse. Yet these pieces do not push the aesthetic or functional aspect to an ambiguous limit.

Baas’ Clay Furniture series from 2006 intends to address the issue of form–giving in industrial design. In this series, modern design’s quest for pure form, machine forms, and rational technological geometry—dominant since the outset of the twentieth century—is thereby reversed. Baas employs advanced technological industrial processes to reveal the designer’s hand in his designs. The tactile handicraft of the creator–designer that has become less significant in modern industrial design reemerges through these processes. Using hand-sculpted industrial clay on top of metal structures—as if reflexively exposing early-stage modeling practices of the design process—each piece has a unique, hand-touched finish. Expressive contours and organic shapes seem to come to life; reminiscent of animation and cartoons, they look as if they are about to start walking. These lively pieces, which are painted rather artificially and vividly in a contradictable manner, are certainly hybrid furniture. The series embodies an internal contradiction and the pieces seem to question their own shape, as if it is not certain whether they can stay functional. With their meek structure and forceful coloring, designed to represent this contradiction and planned to be strictly symbolic and virtually alive, one could even think that the pieces are grotesque.

In the Sculpt series (2008), pieces of furniture fulfill the same expressive principle in a slightly different manner. The pieces are physically more monumental so, despite their wobbly contour, they seem more stable. They still have a cartoon feeling, but are not as vividly animated as the Clay series. Their form appears to have a geometric basis, but that geometry is on the verge of losing its function. The overall impression is of furniture reflexively questioning its shape and mode of production, yet not becoming ambiguous and grotesque.

In 2008 Maarten Baas exhibited in China. To produce the wooden pieces he designed, he employed local woodcarvers from Shanghai and asked them to use their traditional techniques, creating a crossover between Western industrial design and traditional Chinese techniques. An example of these works is Plastic Chair in Wood, fashioned from elm wood (2008). The form of this piece was defined from the monobloc plastic production mold, but it causes a conceptual twist through its material choice and technique of manufacture—carving. It functions as a reverse skeuomorph, drawing attention to the mode of production, turning it into a reflexive ideological statement on the current global economy and its geography of labor. Due to the industrially iconic status of the plastic chair, this piece incorporates a hybrid in both formal and material aspects. The internal conceptual tension between mass-produced and hand-carved is not resolved. But this symbolic function does not threaten the chair’s basic utility of seating (even though mass production and low price may have been included in the original plastic chair’s utility). Although the pieces harbor a conflictive intrinsic function between the symbolic and utility, the chairs do not seem grotesque; they contribute to a reflexive design discourse turning functional items into a conceptual critique of production reality.

Although manifestations of ambiguity, conceptual tension, and conflict of meaning in contemporary design usually accompany a reflexive discourse, not all these conflicts between meaning and utility are necessarily grotesque. The grotesque appears with internal conflict of meaning, accompanied by a sense of ambiguity caused by the artifact’s design, which results in an extreme imbalance at the expense of utility. At the very moment we encounter a threat to the utility function of the design, the grotesque surfaces.

Planned Ambiguity

If design is a human paradigm of order and rationale with relation to the world around us, then the grotesque, as described, is a phenomenon of creativity that represents the opposite. We should remember that even the juxtaposition of the two worlds presented in this article—good design and the grotesque—creates an ontological hybrid that could itself be considered grotesque in nature.

This article has outlined the change in emphasis of an intrinsic design conflict reflected over the past 150 years—the metamorphosis of design aesthetics dealing with the dichotomy of function of utility and symbolic meaning. From the development of the form follows function ethos of modernism, via the mash-up historic Dadaistic attitude professed in postmodern tendencies, to finally express a new diverse synthesis exhibited in contemporary design practices. This was exemplified by tracing the ontological traits of function—utility and the placement of meaning—and the appearance of grotesque characteristics in contemporary design of chairs. In this way, I have attempted to raise questions of grotesqueness with a focus on its contradictive and conflictive aspects in contemporary design discourse, identifying the grotesque’s basic characteristics and modes in the design context. The question whether the small selection of works presented here are grotesque shall be left unanswered. But as demonstrated, these pieces certainly employ many characteristics and tactics in their reflexive design journey that could be considered grotesque.

What is also apparent, even from the small scope of designs examined in this article, is that the existence of an intrinsic, conflictive state in a design with some grotesque characteristics (one or even more) does not essentially render it grotesque. Rather, a unique blend that tends to cause aesthetic and functional ambiguity, defying our categorization tendencies, evokes the viewer/user to proclaim and regard a certain piece grotesque. It is evident that these contradictive and ambiguous characteristics exist necessarily within the so-called symbolic function of meaning in a design. While the utility function, which aims to be a rational and a formalistic language (since modernism), is usually being objectified or negated. But the moment we encounter a threat to our conception of utility—functionality of a design—the grotesque surfaces and a need to use the term descriptively emerges. Finally, it seems that the implementation of the grotesque in contemporary design is an approach that tends to increase the function of meaning and reflexivity in design discourse. The use of internal conflicts—tactics of negation—playing ironically on formalism and logic of good rational design and professed historically by modernism, automatically reveals a contemporary design piece as reflexive. I close with the question of whether the use of the grotesque characterization can become a mode of contemporary design critique?


[1] Papanek. Victor. Design for the real World: Human Ecology and Social Change, Second Ed. Thames and Hudson, London, 1995. p. 4.

[2]  Based on- Goss, David. Grotesque by Design: Borderline aesthetic in Design. Design Principles and Practices; An International Journal, Vol. 4, 2010, Common Ground Pub., Champaign, Illinois,USA. pp. 115 - 126.

[3] Harpham, Geoffrey Galt. (1982) On the Grotesque: Strategies of Contradiction in Art and Literature (Critical Studies in the Humanities), Princeton University Press, 2006. p.3.

[4] Kayser, Wolfgang (1957) The grotesque in Art and Literature, Indiana University Press, McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1966. p. 168.

[5] Bakhtin, Mikhail. (1965). Rabelais and His World, Indiana University Press, 1984. p. 15.

[6] Ibid. p. 26.

[7] Ibid. pp. 28-29.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Harpham, Geoffrey Galt. (1982) On the Grotesque: Strategies of Contradiction in Art and Literature (Critical Studies in the Humanities), Princeton University Press, 2006. p.3.

[10]  Ibid, p. 11.

[11] Schechter Madeleine, Defining the Grotesque: Towards an Aesthetics of Liminality, The International Journal of the Humanities, Vol. 5 No. 6, 2007, Common Ground Pub., Melbourne, Australia. pp. 125 – 132.

[12] Ibid. p. 125.

[13] Ibid, p. 127.

[14] Ibid, p. 128.

[15] Chaouli, Michel. Van Gogh’s Ear; towards a theory of disgust.Modern Art and the Grotesque, Connelly, Frances S. (ed.), Cambridge University Press, 2003. pp. 47-62.

[16] Baudrillard, Jean. Design and  Environment or how Political Economy Escalates into Cyberblitz, (1981).  Design Studies; A Reader . pp. 154 – 159. (Eds. Clark, Hazel and Brody, David), Berg Publishers, 2009. p. 156.

[17] Margolin, Victor. The Politics of the Artificial: Essays on Design and Design Studies, The University of Chicago Press, 2002. p. 82.

[18] Papanek. Victor. Design for the real World: Human Ecology and Social Change, Second Ed. Thames and Hudson, London, 1995. p. 227.

[19] Deforge, Yves. Avatars of Design: Design before Design. The Idea of Design; A Design Issues Reader, Margolin, Victor and Buchanan, Richard (eds’). The MIT Press, Second Printing, 1996. pp. 21-28.

[20] Wornum, Ralph Nicholson. 1851. The Exhibition as a Lesson in Taste. The Crystal Palace Illustrated catalogue, London, 1851. republication of the Art Journal Special Issue, Dover Publications, 1970. p. XXI.

[21] Dresser, Christopher. 1873. Principles of Victorian Decorative Design. (New York: Dover Publications, 1995), p. 4.

[22] Ibid. p. 17.

[23] Redgrave, Richard. “Manual of Design.” 1876. Architectural Theory, Vol II: An Anthology from 1871-2005, ed. Harry Francis Mallgrave, and Christina Contandriopoulos. Blackwell Publishing, 2008. p. 7.

[24] Dohme, Robert. “The English House.” 1888.  Architectural Theory, Vol II: An Anthology from 1871-2005, ed. Harry Francis Mallgrave, and Christina Contandriopoulos. Blackwell Publishing, 2008.  p. 29.

[25] Sullivan, Louis. “The Ta>The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered.”1896. Architectural Theory, Vol II: An Anthology from 1871-2005, ed. Harry Francis Mallgrave, and Christina Contandriopoulos. Blackwell Publishing, 2008.  p. 126.

[26] German version of art nouveau

[27] Loos, Adolf. Ornament and Crime. 1908. Crime and Ornament, The Arts and Popular Culture in the Shadow of Adolf Loos, edited by Bernie Miller and Melony Ward, XYZ Books, 2002. p. 33.

[28] Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. And Rochberg-Halton. The meaning of things; Domestic symbols and the self,  1981. Cambridge University Press, 2002.  p. 21.

[29]  Rams, Dieter, Omit the Unimportant, Design Issues, MIT Press, Vol , No.1, Spring 1984. pp. 24-26.

[30] Heskett, John. 1980. Industrial Design, London: Thames andHudson, 2001. p. 114.

[31] Lucie-Smith, Edward. Furniture: A Concise History, London: Thames & Hudson, 1993. pp. 180-181.

[32] Noyes, Eliot. 1941. Organic Design in Home FurnishingGorman, Carma. ed. The Industrial Design Reader, New York; Allworth Press, 2003. p.146.

[33] Kaufmann Jr. Edgar. 1950. What is Modern Design. Gorman, Carma. The Industrial Design Reader, New York; Allworth Press, 2003. pp. 146 - 151.

[34] Kaufman preferred without a capital letter

[35] Ibid, p.150. – (Itallics in source)

[36] Ibid

[37] DCM (Dining Chair Metal).

[38] Fiell, Charlotte & Peter. Design of the 20th Century, Cologne: Taschen, 2001. p. 64

[39] Adamson, Glenn and Pavitt, Jane. Postmodernism: Style and Subversion, Postmodernism: Style and Subversion1970 -1990,London: V&A Publishing, 2011. p. 40.

[40] Woodham, J. M. Twentieth-Century Design, Oxford: OxfordUniversity Press, 1997. p. 191.

[41] Ibid. p. 41.

[42]Venturi, Robert. Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, Mallgrave and Contandriopoulos, Architectural Theory. Vol 2: An Anthology from 18712005, p. 385

[43] Ibid.

[44]  Adamson, Glenn and Pavitt, Jane. Postmodernism: Style and Subversion, Postmodernism: Style and Subversion1970 -1990,London: V&A Publishing, 2011. p.79.

[45] Ibid.                                                                              

[46]  Bauman. Zygmunt. In the Beginning was Design or the Waste of Order-Building, (2004). Design Studies; A Reader . pp. 166 – 169. (Eds. Clark, Hazel and Brody, David), Berg Publishers, 2009. p. 166.

[47] Lee, Raymond L. M. Bauman, Liquid Modernity and Dilemmas of Development. Thesis Eleven, Number 83, November 2005. pp. 61–77, Sage Publications, p. 62.

[48] Due to the popular use of the term grotesque, I have to emphasize that in no way is the use of the term meant as a judgment of taste or as an adjective of value, but as an ontological framework to look at characteristics that are apparent in the designs.

[49]  The Disasters of War, series of etchings of Francisco Goya, between 1810 -1820.

[50] Fernando + Humberto Campana: interview with the Campana brothers, January 19, 2004,

[51] Ozler, Levent.  Humberto and Fernando Campana Win Designer of the Year Award, Dexigner Portal,,  Wednesday, 1 October 2008.

[52] Palta ,Tanya. At Design Miami: Designer of the Year Award 2008 Fernando and Humberto Campana for Transplastic, ,,  Monday, November 24th, 2008.

[53] Rawsthorn, Alice. A world in Smoke and Clay - Style & Design -International Herald Tribune. Sunday, November 5, 2006.

[54] Hales , Linda . Maarten Baas’s Claims to Flame, Washington Post, Saturday, May 22, 2004; p. C02.


Goss is a painter who has participated in many solo and group exhibitions. Teaches painting and drawing; the history and theory of contemporary design; and African art. Lectures at: the Faculty of Architecture and Urban Design of the Technion; Cultural studies of Shenkar Academy; and the Inter University program for African studies, Ben Gurion.

Conflict: Antagonism and Creation