Cuadernos de arquitectura y urbanismo was, between 1971 and 1980, the magazine of the Catalonia and Balearic Islands Institue of Architects. This magazine presented Catalonian and international architectural and urban production and the theoretical trends and cultural debates of the moment. The 82nd edition of May-June 1971 was devoted to the 1971 ICSID Congress held in Ibiza and includes an interview by Nils Castro to Ivan Espín and Carlos Ruiz de la Tejera, with the participation of Olga Astorquiza and Edmundo Desnoes about the Ministry of Light Industry's first School of Industrial Design which was founded in 1969.
This school was part of the initiatives undertaken by Enrique Escalona, founder of that Ministry for the promotion of a quality industrial design geared to the needs of the population. Like other initiatives promoted by Escalona, the school disappeared in 1971, shortly after he was replaced as head of the Ministry.
I have recovered here that interview's text, which was then illustrated with some of the photos taken by Paolo Gasparini of our prototype furnishings for the Multiflex experimental module. Let this serve to remember our dear departed friends Ivan Espin and Carlos Ruiz de la Tejera.
Interview with Ivan Espín and Carlos Ruiz de la Tejera.
by Nils Castro.
Published in Cuadernos de arquitectura y urbanismo, N. 82 (May-June 1971), pages 62-68.
The Ministry of Light Industry's School of Industrial Design is the subject of lively discussions between architects, designers and higher education professionals in Cuba. Apart from the position that each one can take regarding the technical, aesthetic and pedagogical thesis of its leaders, one can not deny that this is one of our most interesting teaching experiments. On the other hand, there is no doubt that the school has achieved very encouraging results in its first year of work, intense and bold. In turn, the group's conceptions about the designer's social role and professional delimitation - main part of the arguments that arise in this interview - provide a strong injection of ideas about the relationship between art and culture with those issues regarding accelerating society's development and the satisfaction of its material needs.
Nils Castro: The fashion of revaluing the Bauhaus is widely spread; this makes me fear that the School of Industrial Design is a Creole version of such a fashion. Is it really something that responds to a specifically Cuban need?
Oscar Ruiz de la Tejera: In contrast to the Bauhaus, we start from a very concrete analysis of our own reality. From the need for a special kind of creator, linked to our future industrial development. The concept of the designer, from the beginning, must therefore be different from that of the Bauhaus. They did not define their criteria from social pressure, as is our case, that is to consider meeting the needs of large populations at the best quality level our manufacturing facilities allow in the coming years (for which the handcraft conception is not valid). There is therefore, at school, an awareness of social responsibility, that of the designer as an individual immersed within a social group, which forms him and to which he must provide his services. At school it arises even in its composition, that is, its structure and organic composition that correspond to our country's social structure.
NC: How do these differences manifest themselves from the point of view of the skills taught at school? So, what does this mean regarding the training students must be given?
IE: The answer lies in the ideological distinction that Oscar spoke about. It follows that, because by us being directly connected with the resolution of social problems, it colors all our teaching. The problem of the designer is posed as a problem of transforming reality, not just as the production of beautiful and useful objects... The only way to effectively contribute to this transformation of society is with a series of instruments, largely coming from Marxism as the concrete analysis of a concrete reality. That is, this type of continuous confrontation, of continuous analysis of a reality in order to act effectively on it, permeates the whole school's pedagogical approach, it is the spirit that we want to instill. This implies that the designer's school training must be of a much higher level than is generally conceived. First, it should not be that of an individual who is a bit isolated, which faces a drawing table, and who given a few indications about an object devotes himself to prepare its drawing.
NC: We must clarify, then, what you understand by a Designer, unlike the established idea. Then we'll see how do you manage it.
IE: The concept of the designer should be precisely the opposite of that image of man bent over the drawing board. We define the design process as two major sections: that part about making the drawing, which is the least important, since it results from work previously done, and what is central, the analytical part of information processing, which leads to define precisely, first, the design problem, second, what the parameters and limits of that problem are and, third, seeing the limits of the possible solution. And here, then, is when it can be drawn, but already most of the work has been done, the part of greater intellectual level.
NC: What is this preliminary stage, what steps does it comprises Therefore, what taining will the future designer need to undertake it?
IE: Well, we are temporarily using terminology borrowed from cybernetics, because it is useful to us. To this first part we call software, that is, information processing, and the «design» itself that is to say, the drawing, we call hardware. We are emphasizing the first. The designer needs some instruments of analysis to capture reality as a whole, since it is the problem of transforming it, their sector of course. Anyway, it's a carreer of synthesis, he is a professional who works with the data prepared by specialists in many branches, economists, engineers, psychologists, educators, sociologists, physicians, and he is the one who has to synthesize, in an object, all those parameters, giving them its final shape. He is forced to analyze the situation as a whole in order to communicate, and evaluate the results with the different specialists. The designer is not a specialist in the sense that other professionals are, limited within a narrow range of knowledge, reaching deeper in it; the designer belongs to a new type of professional that «specializes» precisely on methods of analysis and synthesis. In this sense, he has many things in common with those professionals engaged in information theory, semiotics, or cybernetics, which also have certain generalizing principles that apply to different sectors of reality. This makes the designer a very peculiar specialist, dealing with methods rather than specific knowledge of a certain phenomena area.
ORT: More specifically, this is made clear in the teaching method we are using to form that designer. Students do not make the first contact with the design on the basis of an isolated individual leaning to draw, but what comes first is to do what we call questioning the object. That is, before you start designing a particular object, he must begin by discovering what need does that object respond to, that is, what problems are hidden behind the object, what does that object satisfy, in which environment does it work, what is needed to produce it. From here design analysis begins.
NC: And from here the research method and the interdisciplinary nature of research on the object springs, right?
ORT: That is, to be precise, suppose we had a matchbox. What is the functional problem a matchbox represents? What purpose is it needed for? To produce a flame through physical means, by friction. What scratching surface is needed for a given quantity of matches from a given type? Is it possible to use a better economical method than that of scratching? It is also a means of transportation with a capacity, volume, weight, strength. Are they the most appropriate? A flatter and larger box, for what kind of pocket, of briefcase, or for the kitchen shelf? Wooden, cardboard, plastic? The box may carry information, through color, drawing, texts. How much information and which contents? The box can serve other purposes, educate, saving coins, filing nails, which can be solved by modifying its design. It is in this first analysis is that different images shall be created starting from that image we have before us, that is - or was - a box of matches. Well, knowing how many ways flames can be produced, by what means, with what resources, based on what actions, carried out under what conditions... I mean, there are a number of problems that lie behind the image of an object, and one must learn to describe them.
NC: So the designer as his first step, examines an everyday object, in a way that problematizes it. He shall not accept its usual way of presenting itself - that being so usual may lead us to believe that Havana's Industrial Design School is not natural or necessary - but they will investigate looking for ways to maximize its performance, its functionality. Is it like that?
NC: So the conclusion is structural: there is a system of needs, on the one hand, and a system of objects, on the other. It is about getting the most rational satisfaction formula to link both systems, to establish their homology.
IE: Yes, but the existing technological system also remains, and more importantly, that which is possible for the country because this is a country that has to increase its production of industrial objects to more than the double in less than ten years. Thus, the means of production, which are crucial in meeting the needs, are our major concern as industrial designers.
NC: This introduces another concern. The designer is suggested as working slightly as a technologist, a bit as an economist, in the sense of obtaining more efficient solutions at a lower cost which can be achieved in a certain technological state. But it is not only these factors, we need to consider that these objects are part of the world that surrounds man, which requires regarding their design as ethical-psychological problem, as a pedagogical, aesthetic problem, etc.
IE: Yes of course. That is the area in between these two poles, that of the needs and that of the intrinsic rationality of existing technologies. When I speak of needs, I understand them as a whole, not just as utilitarian needs, but in the sense that the object meets the needs of the human being as a whole. However, technology has a kind of rationality of production, an internal logic that doesn't match a priori with human needs. Then, one of the main functions of the designer is to establish a balance between these two poles, based always on the integral human being. Because if you focus on meeting the needs from a broader, ethical, aesthetic, point of view, and ignore the technological part, actually you're not being very effective in the transformation of human beings. You would be working on an ideological level without a real base, the object as design can be exquisite, but if you fail to produce it in series, and at an acceptable cost, because it does not conform to technology, it will not have a wide distribution, and your effectiveness will reduced. We must find precisely the point of optimum efficiency, but this has to include the consideration of technology and its laws.
NC: But only technology?
IE: No at all. The ideological and cultural factors are key to the designer, as they are the designer's goal, while technology is the means. The designer's task begins with an ideological and cultural work. In Cuba, for example, you have the problem of furniture: obviously there is a great need for furniture and a large consumer sector reclaims a type of furniture that, from a technological point of view, is very irrational. Furniture that is truly degenerate version of «style» furniture, upholstered, with carvings, etc., in each time cheaper versions that are truly monstrous. Why? Because we lived in a society in which that model had a meaning.
NC: A prestige...
In the concrete analysis of concrete reality, the axis of our method, we consider that this situation is transformed through the play of the analysis of the situation of consumption or, it may be said, the psychology in depth of the reasons why the consumer asks for that, the knowledge of the mass media, the available technology, and the educational work. Then making a design that is culturally and technically valid, that does not represent a class situation, and that fills the aesthetic and ethical aspirations, to a higher average level than that of the older furniture, while studying how to educate consumers at the same time on the use of this new furniture.
So, you find yourself with the basic fact that the designer's main task is in the field of changing mindsets. Of course, the design in the modern world can not act alone, but forms a system, say, with mass communication, with sociological analysis, with the technological apparatus... These things cannot be conceived separately and together their essential purpose must be this modification, this permanent renewal of mental structures.
NC: The large and abrupt changes that have taken place in our society give rise to another type of problem, that they may not always be in harmony. The revolution hits first and strongest in the most urgent points, and other points lag behind. Different social sectors develop at different rates, as do different ideological and psychological levels in each individual. Many delays are not perceived until they become, in turn, problematic. The case is found in which men who are radically revolutionary in some fields don't know how to be the same in other fields. For example, the teacher who is radical in politics but remains traditionalist and normativist in the teaching of Spanish grammar, or a man advanced in economic tasks that is a conservative in his family relationships. Sometimes the structures of theoretical thinking and of emotional life are mismatched, for example, the old coherence is lost with the rapid transformation of the environment, and a more rational and fair one must be developed. At the same time, the designers themselves are involved in this problem and also suffer the disharmonies and contradictions.
IE: Well, of course, it is clear from the responsibility and role that we attribute to the designer that he must have a very strong ideological soundness. It is no longer about the designer «being clear» politically as a citizen, but must be politically sound even as a professional need, for being able to design well. Moreover, as people have an improved development in knowledge structures, the more likely they are to properly develop emotional structures. There is a great relationship between these two aspects, one helps the other, or forms it or deforms it, as appropriate. This we have in mind regarding the pedagogical approach we have in the school, perhaps Edmundo would like to elaborate on this topic...
Edmundo Desnoes: Well, actually I come from another city of culture, from literature and art criticism, and I am not a designer. In the early years of the Revolution, I was an arts critic, of those in their traditional forms, and I think today that's ridiculous, because actually a popular revolution must also have a popular art form, mass reproduced, and hence I think fits the whole problem of industrial design. Even painting itself is in crisis in Cuba, even though it is one of our most developed cultural forms, and that in the Revolution's early years it was given a big boost. But a work uniquely reproduced, a picture, say, can go to a museum, to an office, or can be purchased as a present for a head of state abroad, etc. Mass reproduction is the solution to the creator's problem, including to the artist's alienation problem, who almost always felt excluded from society, who did not participate. I think that through design, and that includes the poster and even the design of a pot, an useful solution can be attained. Another question that I had was the critical aspect; actually, through painting and literature you may have greater independence to be critical, but that independence is actually useless, because say, in capitalist countries, this independence is in direct relation to its inefficiency. A writer or a painter can say all they want because nothing of what they say is effective. However, a journalist, who works in the media, or a movie star, or a designer of an object, is subject to a number of laws because it does have a real function within society. The designer is not free in that sense, but depends on a whole series of pressures from needs, including from moral concerns.
On the other hand, what interests us most, instead of transmitting knowledge, is to develop an analysis system, so that students are endowed with a capacity to question and understand things for himself. The development of information, of technology, are dizzying, and the knowledge we can give students is limited. Therefore, what we can convey to them is a working and analysis method. In this case we have seen how students feel that a revolution has taken place in them, a new way to see the objects around them, a new way of thinking. They expected rules, categorical statements, laws, and indeed we have always rejected that. Consider a specific case, because always when we analyze cases theoretically we are somewhat in the air. Say, on a film: «Antonio das Mortes» was discussed; what matters is not the conclusion, whether it be good or bad, but the ability to analyze the film, with a range of views, both aesthetic and political, social, about design. Conclusion depends on each individual student, but the key is a method of analysis, namely placing the work in context, social, historical, cultural, artistic. Generally traditional methods were all the way around, right? What you get is the conclusion.
IE: I believe that teaching is in crisis, not only because of ideological reasons, but because of practical ones. It is impossible to deliver to the student in five years the knowledge produced in a year. If design is not conceived as information processing, i.e. as the ability to sift information through methods of analysis, of synthesis, and processing it, and do this in a consistent way, the problem cannot be resolved. Reality already rejects that old conception of education.
NC: Teaching as the unlimited accumulation of tiny details, and knowledge not as the training on investigating and doing, but as the ability to quote... A very interesting thing in our school is the teaching method, as the presentation of problems to solve, and not as the memorization of rules and data. From the analysis of the results come the theorizable suggestions. Would you elaborate on this?
IE: At school we have totally abandoned the traditional classroom, in which a teacher stood at one end of the classroom, and dictated or spoke from there, in a sense, and then went away, and the connection it had with that audience, passive and patient, was unknown. For us it is essential to start from the students' actual knowledge, because it is the only way to connect knowledge with them. We start from a practical problem in the area in question, which necessarily implies a response from them. This gives them a level of awareness on their own knowledge, and their limitations and failures, and to us a concrete and objective view about what their level is. Incidentally, we are not using the old terminology of «subject» or «discipline», precisely because we want to emphasize that difference in character, rejecting traditional connotations. We are talking about «minimum codes», name designating the essential knowledge system needed to base the operations in a given area, the effective minimum for a subsequent design, the bare minimum to start with. Then, the minimum «presentation of information» code was presented at the first «class» one of those Italian coffee makers, the domestic type, so that they could see and manipulate it, and they were presented the following problem, without any prior explanation: they were given pencil and paper and asked to communicate as designers, with the people that were in charge of their production. They had to communicate everything necessary so the coffee maker could be reproduced exactly, communicating it in the most efficient way. The issue of drawing was not even raised, the word drawing was not even mentioned, it was a practical problem of communicating the information (which is the problem behind all technical drawing). The results were extraordinary, as almost all produced exploited perspectives. This was amazing for most of us, who come from schools of architecture of the traditional type, in which it is very difficult for students to do that kind of drawings even in the last years of the career. They just concluded that this was the most effective way to do it, quite spontaneously, without ever learning that it was supposedly difficult. The criteria they had: it was to communicate or not to communicate the information.
Olga Astorquiza: Indeed, its success was due to have been raised as a problem of communication with factory workers and not as a drawing exercise, forcing them to think in terms of totality. Therefore, they did not feel the drawing as a constraint - although there is drawing anyway - but simply as an instrument they spontaneously used to achieve a certain goal. That is, changing the problem leads them to an intellectual effort, as if stated otherwise, they would have resisted, as they had never received a drawing «class». In traditional schools, the student starts by drawing in the abstract, parallels, circles, squares, letters, draws without having a purpose. Well, you can achieve manual training, but it is still very frustrating to be drawing with no purpose; in this case the goal was set without even saying they had to draw.
ORT: Manual training is implicit in achieving the stated problem's goal, which is to effectively address that communication.
NC: Well, often when one wants to explain how to get to a certain place, one makes little sketches of streets and blocks, with arrows and crosses, bad as drawings, but allowing to tell so-and-so exactly how to get to what's-his-name's home. Ivan said at the beginning that the designer's problem was being able to analyze the problem and not so much knowing how to draw. Now the need for transmitting the resulting design efficiently is added, and drawing is neither essential; it remains a subsequent medium.
OA: Yes, a psychomotor technique that comes through practice.
ORT: But mastery of this medium is what gives you the efficiency - clearness and accuracy - in that communication.
NC: When you list your minimum codes, I see that mention «value analysis». Do you mean with this the cost of production within a given technological level, or do you refer to the semantic value or otherwise which the object has? ¿Aesthetic, psychological? Which «value» do you mean?
IE: We are not referring to the cost of production but to the social value derived from practical usefulness and, on the other hand, to semantic value.
ORT: If we reversed the terms, it is also the value of the analysis. That is, how can we enhance our own analysis, our research, our final product, regarding which standards, which scale of values, and that scale corresponds to a specific society, which is ours. There you have an ethical evaluation, an aesthetic evaluation, an evaluation of work, of the effectiveness of our own work.
NC: Which are the other minimum codes?
ORT: There is ergonomics, where the relationship between man and object is sought, the minimum energy used by man within that relationship. Anthropometry, physiology, psychology are involved. To make it clear: if I design a water jug, I must consider the weight that it may have when full so it can be manipulated; I consider the handle's shape to achieve the minimal effort solution; its shape and color so we don't have a psychological rejection, etc. On the other hand, there is the study of culture as a context in which the object should be acceptable, so it responds precisely to its ideological environment. In presenting the information, of which we have spoken, apart from communication, perception is also involved, to be aware of the laws of perception, to develop on them achieving an enhanced performance from the experience of perceiving the universe. Then, of course, we have Design itself ranging from the problems of analysis to the drawing. Each of these minimum codes resulting from this analysis are areas in which you have to have training to reach a decision; therefore they can not be considered in isolation, as separate disciplines, but as units of knowledge that are synthesized in the task of designing an object, items of one and only thing.
NC: Now when we talk about presenting information, I noticed something that I do not know whether it is covered in other minimum codes, or in other aspect of your work. You spoke about the designer's communication with the object's manufacturer. But the designer also communicates with the housewife who uses the example's coffee maker, with guests who see the coffee maker on the table, etc. Besides communicating with manufacturers, communicating with consumers should also be considered. Is this also studied within these minimum codes? Is it considered as a different theory or is it also presenting the information? Communication with the worker is a technological problem, it's a matter of specialties within the factory. It is in the other aspect where great problems arise: aesthetic, psychological, ethical, etc. To them I wanted to allude when asking about the object's semantic value.
OA: Through new practical tasks, students move from communicating with the workers to other forms of individual communication, then to group communication, and later, to mass communication. Always, of course based on specific analysis tasks until the structure of each code is assimilated.
IE: We've been talking all the time about objects. In fact, although the school is about Industrial Design, this also involves designing peculiar objects such as information objects, such as posters, films, TV programs, which are designed with the primary purpose of transmitting information. This is an essential axis in the conception we have, which is mainly information design.
NC: Not only is it about semantic objects specifically intended as such. Should we also consider a spoon as a means of communication albeit this is not its primary purpose?
IE: As we conceive it, the spoon is part of a system, and this confers it a semantic value. If you look at the value that people confer to objects, you'll see a huge part of that value are factors of meaning, although this is unconscious and consumers have only present the immediate usefulness of the object. We talked about that with respect to furniture as a «language» that speaks about the social status of the venue or of its owner. Communication with the consumer is the designer's catalytic role, the truly important one, while the other, yes, is a technical function. Within the school this aspect is studied in the general design workshop, where all the minimum codes are synthesized.
ORT: That is, communication is from a man, as a designer to others as consumers, by means of objects. For the object being produced, there is an intermediate communication with the manufacturers.
NC: Now as to the systematicity of that semantic value, I think it would be worthwhile to observe clearly something else: You can be, or should be, extremely aware of something that others manipulate without noting it. So often an archaeologist goes in search of certain remains, without much interest in finding the type of object that could be displayed in a museum; he rather seeks for remains of broken pots, coal, fish bones, pieces of shells, etc. He specially looks for the garbage dumps from communities that left few traces. This happens for example with Martinez Arango's research at our university. Then, from a series of fragments, he begins reconstructing an entire culture, step by step. He finds a piece of a pot: it is painted or not, the clay is fired or not, it is shaped this way or the other, it has a certain thickness, it appears associated with remains of some or other characteristics to a certain depth, in certain kind of place, from what he infers the technological level of community that produced the pot, their livelihoods, etc. From that dump we know it they were gatherers or hunters, whether they fished or knew about agriculture, and so on. There comes a time in which the archaeologist is already establishing hypotheses about their likely family organization, daily life habits, beliefs, etc.
That is: the archaeologist reconstructs the system from some loose fragments, because these elements are coherent, consistent within a totality endowed with a certain order. However, he is not involved in the system and can make a reading of this system from the outside, from another system. It often happens that one does not perceive this, but as you have seen things all your life, occupying a certain place, one believes it to be its only normal way of being, accepting them without questioning their rationale, without comparing them with other real or possible ways of being. But one also lives within a system, an archaeologist of the future could read from outside, we occupying the place where Martinez Arango places its aborigines. Can we study ourselves through the eyes of an archaeologist, the system in which we are immersed, becoming aware of the sistematicities we practice without knowing it? This is implicit in the question posed by the matchbox example posed by Oscar earlier. Say, a chair: its form, materials, its association with other furniture and with a certain place, involving a sitting position, different functions, events, habits, living arrangements, technology, beliefs... a way of living that can be inferred from the way and time of sitting. A divan, a rocking chair, a high back chair, a throne, a desk (with or without a chair), don't imply the same things. An archaeologist discovers how a culture was, and that culture was in a certain way; the designer is inserted into contemporary culture's conditioning and shape.
IE: Historically, the designer has overlooked or ignored that the system of objects is a culture shaping code, that shapes a way of being, not an unquestionable system given beforehand.
NC: The act of communication is achieved by all with apparent ease, but when linguistics inquires into this act, an extraordinary mechanical complexity for its implementation is made evident. Now, behind the universe of more or less necessary objects - or that habit or propaganda made necessary and commonplace - there also is a no less complex language, and perhaps more, but we do not realize it, we don't not figure out its «grammar». The designer is, in this case, somewhat the grammatician of civilization's objects.
IE: For a society that has set as its goal forming the new man, approaching design from this point of view is mandatory, inescapable.
NC: All right, back to the point about the school's origin, to the inclusion of this theory in Cuba, with the problem of underdevelopment and accelerated development. How does it figure within all this?
NC: It is a disturbing thought, a very agreeable one, that a cup and even a bottle's cork shall be considered as mass media. Not as obvious as a television set, but also. However, as the aesthetic value lies mainly in the object's semantics charge, in the object's capacity in order to transmit a large, wide, information complex in a single stroke, by simply showing the object. Why, then, don't you talk about aesthetics?
IE: I think there has always been a project of being implicit in art, right? That is, the artist always raises the possibility of a different way of existence for the social being, so the work of art has a strong content in the sense that it offers a solution. However, that solution is given only within that aesthetic level. I understand that this is a most important aspect of art; giving a vision, a higher possibility, a solution to the improvement of being. That is art's great strength. Thus, this time's truly vital artist is closely linked to these general problems of mass communication and the production of industrial objects. Design is replacing the «classical» artist because our times transforms the approach for a new kind of action, from the hope that was before, to a possibility subject to the artist's will.
NC: In Cuba a pictorial revolution is taking place, but not in painting in general, but in poster art. You can not always distinguish, right now a poster from a painting, and more and more artists are looking to to express themselves by means of the poster.
IE: However I think many of those artists have acted more by instinct than by an awareness, or, in any case, have assumed a political and social consciousness, but not an aesthetics one. I think the important thing is that we are in the midst of a mutation in art: artists such as Picasso or Le Corbusier are almost the last of a breed, because the basis of their work has been taken from them, i.e. no longer can a picture be painted in the same way that Picasso painted, and still be a vital artist. Picasso could do so because at his times he had no alternative, and he had to accomplish the function of art that way. Today, the artist does not simply present the image of a better world, he can rather connect his art in a concrete way with the effective transformation of reality. So much so, that this society has proposed herself a new man.