Articles Written / Design as Story Telling

Lueckenhausen, H, Design as Story Telling, Platform, Spark (DIA Newsletter), Autumn 2006, p5

Whether we are conscious of it or not, the things we design and produce sit within a range of political, social, commercial, religious, institutional and personal narratives.

My own work sits across four categories of narrative:

• Commercial/Political, including furniture installed in commercial and corporate spaces,
• Sacred, including works created for religious ceremony,
• Collection, including works made for curated exhibitions, and
• Domestic, including works intended for domestic use and display.

How do visual narratives, three-dimensional stories, actually work?


Recently a confluence of disciplines around an essentially Darwinian model of human behaviour has joined forces, coming from such fields as cognitive neuroscience and genetics. They regard all aspects of human behaviour as having an evolutionary basis; in other words, our understanding, our emotions, and in the event, the intellectual structures that we devise to give ourselves the means of operating in the world.

In this context, our creative actions, including the artefacts that we design, and the method in which we deploy them, can consequently be seen as extensions of a primary, Darwinian, strategy for survival. So how does this impact on the creation of, for example, domestic environments and on those of us who design for them?

Values in design

Contemporary design mores continue to privilege principles of simplicity and understatement and describe the works approved of and celebrated within those mores with prosaic terms such as 'having clean lines' and being 'uncluttered'. The development of the International Style or Modernism during the early part of the twentieth century included the taking on of a quasi-religious mission by many of its proponents in which decoration was equated with moral degeneracy. A hundred years on - and in the dialogue of designers, educators, writers, curators, critics and their fellow travellers - the core values of minimalisation and understatement remain paramount.

In the visual arts and the built environment, the late twentieth century development of Post-modernism created a new space for eclecticism, celebration and visual theatre. As a movement. Post-modernism is currently suffering some reverses and is under attack for being too relativist as a philosophy, having eschewed belief in an absolute canon of truth and beauty, and for being too much of an undisciplined pastiche as an aesthetic movement. Both movements (argued by some to be aspects of the same movement) are located in the values and practices of Western or Western-influenced societies. The design community is a manifestation of and a toolbox for that phenomenon.

Design and industrial production was seen by some of the early champions of Modernism as a force for social good and equality - a means, by the agency of which, ordinary people could access a quality environment and improve their lives. This was left wing Modernism, an honourable mission that is still cited in the context of the search for truth, beauty and positive social development by its supporters today.

However some of its developments, such as Italian Futurism - which was enlisted in the service of Fascism before the Second World War - became decidedly right wing. Furthermore, the worst and most alienating manifestations of contemporary urban development are sometimes cited as examples of Modernism in the hands of an uncaring power elite. Fritz Lang's film 'Metropolis' became an early icon for this attitude and an unfortunately large proportion of the post World War 2 built environment now reproaches us similarly.

Both political poles involved concepts of social modelling, and yet the aesthetic values lived and celebrated by most members of the public remain apart. The average person simply does not order his or her environment on
the basis of an abstract theory of beauty and structure or the development of theories of social good.

The sparse and minimally modulated interior of the architectural and interior design magazine is actually a minority phenomenon. Most people's homes - the primal site of the built environment - are populated with an eclectic mix of objects sitting within a personal and/or family history and are chosen within quite prosaic values of comfort and cultural recognition.

Owning the story

Human beings are comfortable with what they know, and they know what they have experienced or that which has been bequeathed to them. Memory is one of humanity's anchors in a fast changing and sometimes alienating world. Domestic culture evolves naturally, as does Culture writ large, and cannot be ordained or easily manipulated into an agenda.

On a more prosaic level, nor do most people have recourse to an interior decorating movement where external agents sell their artificial illusions and themes and totally integrated looks to homeowners who have lost authorship of their own stories. The idea of subjugating one's living environment (populated by icons of a past and continually evolving personal and family history) to a completely disconnected and irrelevant interior theme park is not only problematic - it misunderstands the key role of the domestic environment as a meaningful personal space.

Designers and makers can, of course, create works which are conceived within and which bring with them a rich narrative. When they are absorbed into any public or private environment, they take their place within a new critical mass and begin to attract new levels of meaning, usually by association with people and events. They are mitigated by, and in turn mitigate, the other components of their environment.

How absurd would it be to dislocate the patina of personal and family meaning that accrues to the domestic environment in which each core element has a story to tell, the passing through by attendant ephemera notwithstanding, and in the process, negating one's own iconographic history? We can measure the difference between a themed space and our personal spaces by comparing, for example, our emotional connection with (albeit) good hotel rooms to that of our homes.

Most important in this context is the understanding of personal space as a sanctuary - the space, in some cases the last, or only, place, in which the primacy of the occupant's world and his or her place in it is unchallenged. A more intuitive perceptual-cognitive category of designed objects and spaces begs further development.

I borrow the term 'perceptual-cognitive' from my colleague Professor Allan Whitfield, who advocates for the notion of aesthetics as pre-linguistic cognition, as a form of 'knowing' that preceded the evolution of language. Here, I specifically mean a category of design that explores the relationship between people and the objects they gather about themselves to mark and to protect their environment - and which includes a place for the decorative elements to which people are attracted as a form of benign, personal graffiti.

Iconic resonance and identity

In my own case, I own that the particular nature of my practice has facilitated the development of a category of sensory perceptual knowledge with relative ease. The work, expressed initially through my visual narratives, thereafter allows mediation by the user, accruing a patina of meaning by association and attribution. I have sometimes consciously referenced the icons and narratives of primal myths in the belief that there is a place in our material culture for icons that connect past narratives (where they contain some continuing resonance) with contemporary relevance. I make a distinction, however, between the celebration of story - the use of visual metaphor - and religiosity.

Through coalescing four distinct categories into one, new, perceptual cognitive category, I have attempted to join those artists, crafts practitioners and designers who have created a recognisable, fused category: a recognisable identity.

In the larger, public domain it is not dogma that attracts a client to a particular design, but the capacity of the work to illustrate his or her own developing story - to appropriate the identity of the designer and to harness it to a personal end.