I sometimes struggle with the idea of the artist/designer as an irrational person. Picasso, Basquiat, many artists and designers in history seem to have functioned through a chaotic personal life, full of irrational decisions (Carravagio killed a man in a brawl before running for his life, Galliano pissed off a lot of people one day when he’d had too much to drink) that somehow translated into productivity, output, lots and lots of it.
The truth is that so far, I belong solidly in camp ‘rational’. In high school I was voted Miss Organized from a graduating class of 600+. Yet my favourite classmate-artist was Eleojo, whose brushstrokes exhibited a fauvist carelessness (my strokes were deliberate, very orderly… luckily our art teachers recognized the merit in both styles).
Why does high school matter? Because often I wish for the type of savagery in design that I see in the work of John Galliano and Alexander McQueen but my form-follows-function approach trumps this more often than not. True, in 2005 McQueen’s spring/summer collection was so streamlined and demure it could be mistaken for early Proenzer Schouler. And true it takes the budget of a house like Dior to support the gorgeously impractical, multi-layered designs of a theater king like Galliano. But I still am not 100% sure that time and budget are all it would take for me to venture out of the practical and into the otherworldly.
I remember watching a movie about the 60s where we briefly saw the world through the protagonist’s LSD-clouded eyes – with unicorns emerging from swirly walls and colours melting into each other. I remember wondering if that was why Western culture ties creativity so much to recreational drug use. I also remember seeing another movie where three thirty-somethings decided to go on a drug-fuelled trip to a major city, and how, on seeing what a mess they were halfway into the movie, I lost interest in experimentation and any creativity that may or may not come with it.
To date the most irrational thing I did in my everyday life was leave an IT job in the States to study art in Spain. But even that took a year of careful deliberation, smart saving, and gentle talking-through with my family, as though my rational self was mocking any efforts, perceived or actual, at being the spontaneous twenty-something who quits her life in the big city in search of something ‘more’.
But what is design afterall, and for non safety-critical things like handbags and dresses, to some extent architecture and furniture (as opposed to say a bridge or a heart rate monitor), are we really drawn more to functionality (rational) than to beauty (often irrational)? And what is our responsibility to the world as fashion designers: to deliver the beautiful or to deliver the usable? After playing the role of ensuring that web sites delivered a page or application to the user in the shortest and most logical path, my new role as a designer of fashion goods is one that poses questions like these that assert a new freedom while also hinting at a collective responsibility. For as designers, our best work is often the lens through which a culture is viewed, the filter through which a wider audience over space and time comes to discover and understand a hitherto unknown people. And in many cases, from Gaudi to Starck, from McQueen to El Anatsui, what the world sees as our best work seldom doubles as our most rational.
Kunmi Otitoju is a Nigerian leather goods designer and ONB contributor. Her brand Minku combines the functional with the irrational. Or tries to.
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