Beauty of murder

A few contradictions on “Good Form”

A column by Michael Erlhoff

All those who read thrillers or like to watch the relevant films and series at any rate know that murder and manslaughter and even suicide require tools. Namely tools that are very well suited to such deeds.

On closer inspection it swiftly transpires, however, that fatally almost any object can fit the task. Autos are highly preferred and given the frequent accidents fairly unobtrusive tools with which to murder someone or take one’s own life; as are knives, axes, and even forks, all objects with sharp ends, and that includes glasses or tableware if you first break these into shards. Even computers or Smartphones seem to be good blunt objects to kill with, and traffic signs can be used to smack someone or stab them, while shelves and other items of furniture occasionally fall over and crush people.

We all know from books and viewing, that another thing which works very well: those many medical instruments, they are truly perfectly designed for the task of killing someone. In fact, in medicine often small objects suffice, they simply have to be filled or coated, or hooked up to a power socket. Whereby in this context it is not only hard and firm things that help, but the most beautiful scarves or stockings can be used to throttle someone, and that’s probably also possible using the legs of fashionable pants, the arms of a jacket, or even a chic skirt. Pillows and other items are soft, and they can too can send you to your death, by suffocation. Quite unobtrusively, of course.

Possibly there are some objects that although they are well designed and essentially functional are harder to use as murder instruments. How to murder someone with a football or, as opposed to a nail, with a paper clip or the like. It’s not difficult with a lamp, or an umbrella, but somewhat harder with a settee, albeit still conceivable – what counts will then be the design. And the handling, as probably a well-versed fighter will even be able to do the job with a piece of paper. In fact, it is quite conceivable that even a certain sign or symbol functions as a murder weapon if it is precisely designed and the potential victim suffers from a specific trauma such that the sign in question triggers the deadly heart attack or prompts immediate suicide. A process where for the sake of a possibly necessary continuity well-designed Internet sites and other digital media are definitely advantageous.

The pathos of “good form”

Now if the shape of the murder to come is the focus of things then evidently it’s all about design. Which is very plausible since almost everyone who is involved in design has always talked about how functionality needs to be given a beautiful look. About ergonomics and efficiency, major impact, longevity or even, often enough a reason for murder, the economic benefit. And if these factors are visibly redeemed, then, adopting some inevitable moral pathos, the talk is of “good form” or “good design”. No two ways about it, the word “good” in this context invariably comes replete with moral judgment, praises functionality and its implications as a value to society. Just like that, per se. And neither heeding the inner contradictions of what is being termed “functional” nor reflecting on how highly ambivalent the lively influence of such functional and “well” designed products is. For functionality is not unilateral, but, like all else, too, takes place in the open race of the opposition between social intention and effect.

Beautiful murder?

Incidentally, this also applies to the category of beauty, otherwise so gladly used with that of design. Because on the one hand beauty does not stop at things felt to be beautiful being used for brutal ends, and one can certainly assume that objects considered especially beautiful will therefore be all the more preferred when it comes to committing murder and manslaughter. Some myth or other, and be it that of beauty or of the pragmatism of functionality, qualify the product more for the deed. Doubtless at this juncture one asks whether objects can possibly be designed such that they cannot be used to extinguish life. A question that is as exciting as it is hard to answer. It would first require the problem becoming the focus of debate. And in this regard we have a long way to go still.

Weapons also rely on design

For there is also a completely different perspective on the above-mentioned problem: all objects, signs and media expressly intended as weapons are based on design. Every rifle, pistol, bomb, land mine and other such item only exists thanks to engineering and design. The same is true of military airplanes, tanks, drones and of course the instruments required to control them. As it is of the software required to manufacture and handle them.

It is after all general knowledge that the development of high tech definitely first gets financed, conceived, formulated and realized by the military. It is just that this needs to be considered now and again in light of what we consider reality and the consequences then analyzed. Take even all the bragging about self-driving autos in which carmakers are currently indulging. The idea is simply based on inventions and designs the military first developed globally. And in that process designers were key guarantors of quality and thus also of functionality and a certain appeal, as these tools of death were meant to have a certain beauty about them, too.
It also bears considering this when remembering that all these products which essentially function to kill people get attractively packaged and are accompanied by ads and sales brochures. It’s a completely normal market with the usual conditions, meaning a major field for design.

This also includes the fact that both those companies which manufacture and market such products worldwide and those organizations as use them (meaning armies, criminal associations, terrorists and the like) invariably have to own a corporate design and stand out for it. They need to distinguish themselves and, as organizations or bodies, are also proud of their existence and deeds.
Although one must confess that to a certain extent the very concept of corporate design, such an imperative for a company to survive and present itself in the market, is military in origins. Think of the uniforms and flags meant to distinguish the individual groups (nations, organizations, straying groups and the like) and mark them off from the enemy. Which on occasion could also lead to another group’s corporate design being abducted in order to use branding confusion or adaption to stab them in the back – a turning of a coat.

Branding for the German Armed Forces

It would no doubt be of great interest here to state the names of those design studios and designers who take part in making instruments designed and produced expressly with the intention of these being used to kill people. Sadly, all efforts to find this out have to date failed miserably; a few years ago the only designer identified was one working for Italian gun makers “Beretta” and it was pretty much general knowledge that a fairly famous Hamburg design studio that otherwise works for fashion labels handles the branding for the German Armed Forces. In fact, something happens in this field which we also encounter in architecture: you hardly ever find out the names of those architecture offices responsible for the ghastly housing estates and ugly homes.
Because what is also clear is that any contradiction between the officially desired image and the often awful reality relates not just to the design. It is just that in design (unlike in architecture, albeit quite comparably) we encounter the strange phenomenon that such a severe problem does not get discussed within design let alone in the relevant magazines or by the public in general. Yet it would be so very important to grasp this form of design, too, with all its consequences, effects and in particular its current successes. Because this would first prompt self-awareness and critical expertise.

Michael Erlhoff

He is an author, design theorist, corporate consultant, curator and organizer; he has been, among other things, CEO of the German Design Council, Advisory Council member of documenta 8 and Founding Dean (and until 2013 professor at) of the Köln International School of Design/KISD. Erlhoff was founder of the Raymond Loewy Foundation, is a founding member of the German Society of Design Theory and Research and as a visiting professor heads projects and workshops at universities in Tokyo, Nagoya, Fukuoka, Hangzhou, Shanghai, Taipei, Hong Kong, New York and Sydney. Since 2016 he teaches as an honorary professor at the Braunschweig University of Fine Arts.