Looking for a grand design

seaThe queue was moving again. If any of the people around me had looked up from their phones long enough to show any human emotions, the excitement would have been palpable. We were moments away from entering the Design Indaba Expo.

I confess that I had been brought there by a sort of morbid fascination, a cynical desire to wander through a cathedral of poseur materialism. I knew I would despair at what I saw, but I also knew I had to see it. I would not rest until I had found a steam-punk Scandi eco-teepee in a tree, powered by the Northern Lights and the vapour emissions of e-cigarettes. I could not leave until I had tried out an exercise bike that spun mohair into a sleeve for an iPhone that calculated global inequality (and by “mohair” I obviously mean moustache hair, plucked with bespoke tweezers from the top lips of professional skateboarders).

But, when I left an hour later, I was disappointed. Certainly, I had seen some delicious nonsense, for example, a full-scale public toilet with sexy video screens over the urinals selling the work of a famous fashion designer, reminding us that when design and price converge in the rarefied air of high fashion one can literally take the piss and still be taken seriously.

But I hadn’t seen solutions for many of humanity’s oldest problems, like the shortage of places to sit at trade shows. The comfiest chair in the place was occupied by a teddy bear no doubt made of fabric from 1936 Berlin cabaret costumes and stuffed with lint harvested from the shirt pockets of Seattle software designers. Besides, it had a sign on it that read “Do Not Touch”, so we sat love handle to love handle on plastic benches in the food ghetto in the corner, watching the people come and go, talking of Michelangelo.

But mostly I was disappointed because I had found myself a stranger in a crowd all speaking a language I could not understand, passionately discussing a spectacle I could not see. Perhaps this was inevitable given that I am an aesthetic heathen living among my pagan fetish objects; stacks of old documents forming totems to the gods of chaos; boxes of old files forming caves in which oracles dispense paper clips.

It was easy to think in religious metaphors. I was the pagan; they were the saved, debating dogma, trying to define in words and shapes a holy spirit felt by almost everyone in the room. And yet as I watched them, they seemed more like zoologists than zealots. Their ardour was tinged with scientific rigour. These were people who took pleasure in the ordered boundaries and laws of design, who felt a physical discomfort if a lapel badge was an inch too high or low; who tasted mathematical perfection in a drawer that could open and close with the smoothness of twilight sliding over dusk.

Beauty was not a disembodied ghost to them but rather a cloud of moths, and they were trying to net just one, an elusive fragment of the whole, to pin it down and examine it and lay it out in an exquisitely plain box frame. These were scientists, obsessed with researching the loveliness of objects.

*

There was a red rescue helicopter hovering close to the cliffs on the Atlantic seaboard, steady as a dragonfly over a pond; but the sea below was heaving, heavy ill-tempered waves breaking icy blue out beyond the kelp and sending a wash of foam to seethe against the sea wall. A rubber dinghy nosed around the small bay, helmeted rescuers scanning water. Someone had gone in. Onlookers lined the cliffs, some up in penthouses, some walking dogs along the pavement, all silenced by the roar of the helicopter and the anxiety of what they might see.

Fresh from a space full of structure, the scene felt terribly incongruous. It is wrong to die on a sunny afternoon, but to die in a scene from a postcard seems somehow worse, the words “Wish you were here” about to take on a terrible new meaning for a bereaved person waiting at home. It made no sense, no sense at all, to get into such terrible danger within earshot of the balconies of wealthy holidaymakers; to be in the world in the morning and gone by the evening.

It seemed a horrific waste, a terrible failure of sense, a lack of design. And perhaps that is why we crowded into the convention centre, celebrating order and creation, a world full of meaning: because beyond the known, the measured, the designed, there flows an arbitrary ocean. Perhaps the objects we curate and love are a small rampart against these clouds, these waves, a helicopter hovering, silence.

*

First published in The Times and TimesLive

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