All photos © Bis Publishers
Divide and rule
by Znidaric Amelie
Sep 26, 2012

“Careful, this book is now open!” the blurb inside the fly jacket of the book states in large letters. A minor pun, because in the case of the volume with the programmatic title “Open Design Now. Why Design Cannot Remain Exclusive” it means much more than the fact that the reader has just opened the book cover. And the text continues: “This work comes under ‘Creative Commons Licence Attribution NonCommercial ShareAlike 3.0 Unported’.”

Pardon me? Such gobbledygook before the book even gets going evidences the greatest weakness of “Open Design Now”. Although the editors broadly outline in the blurb what the long concatenation of words means, and although this is the first truly comprehensive work on the topic of Open Design, the book is definitely not for beginners. People who do not yet subscribe to intellectual property soon being history will probably close it again before having even leafed past the imprint. Which is a shame as “Open Design Now” contains things really worth reading. In his essay on “Authors and Owners”, for example, copyright expert Andrew Katz declares the end of an era. Since the invention of book printing, the major publishing companies, radio stations, film producers and music levels have acted as “gatekeepers” who, safeguarded by copyright, determine what the mass get to read, hear or see. This “one-to-many distribution”, Katz says, turned the public into passive consumers, making creativity a marginal phenomenon. With Web 2.0, however, people are now overcoming the monopoly and reconquering the creativity as a networked collective.

All of this is somehow right and yet it is only half the truth. Because as long as creative minds earn enough money to live on in the terrain protected by copyright, they will hardly be that willing to unquestioningly share their intellectual property online, as can be seen from various lawsuits brought by established artists. It is not only an age issue that Open Source is propagated and lived above all by young Web-literate creative minds, be it in the fields of music, photos or even furniture design. To grasp why Open Design could sooner or later revolutionize the design world we have to start differently. Perhaps with the question whether designers earn money in the furniture industry: through the hopefully massive sale of their designs. A certain, individually negotiated percentage of the sales price (usually in the low single digits) goes to the designer. Meaning the designer first earns money if the piece goes into mass production and sells well. At the design stage, which often takes years, he often earns not a penny.

Now it definitely does happen that a manufacturer cancels a project halfway through or even later. And it happens just as frequently that a design gets to the prototype stage, is presented at a trade fair and is indeed extravagant enough to cause a notable media stir – but then silently gets condemned to the archives because such a crazy design looks good at the fair but doesn’t sell well. Even if it makes the stores, that doesn’t mean that the designer will be able to live off the royalties. Because unlike in the 1950s, when products were destined for an up-and-coming emerging middle class, furniture design today is for the most part a luxury industry with corresponding low unit sales.

The precarious life of young (and not so young) designers is often used as an argument against Open Design. But precisely because it is not always easy to make money in the conventional system, for some it seems logical to look to the Web, as least Web 2.0 makes you independent of the gatekeepers. “The amount designers make,” says Dutchman Joris Laarman in the book, “is ridiculously low. If we were to use digital production means and change the way retailing functions, then the relationship would more strongly favor creativity and local craftsmen.” For the latter, the designer opines, would of course likewise benefit from organizing production and sales themselves as well as eliminating large mass producers as gatekeepers.

For instance, the idea of rendering yourself independent from the industry by means of instructions on build-your-own furniture is in any case new. During the Great Depression in 1932 Dutchman Gerrit Rietveld offered a DIY set called “Crate” with an accompanying brochure: “Furniture that you can make yourself”. In 1974 Italy’s Enzo Mari brought out the 19-part furniture series “Autoprogettazione”, exclusively as DIY instructions. You yourself had to have the wood, the hammer and the DIY talent.

There are two differences between these two solitary pioneers and the trend today: simplified communication via Web networks and the general accessibility of favorable computer-controlled production techniques. “Makerbot” offers both. In 2009, the New York trio launched “Cupcake CNC” on the market, the first 3D printer costing less than 1,000 dollars. The trio also floated an online platform called “” – by geeks for geeks as it were. Since then, users have swapped info on their 3D-printed works on Thingiverse. They upload photos, publish their data, and post their designs for discussion. Makerbot has of course also posted the files for Cupcake CNC – with the result that users have used Cupcake CNC to print it out, build it and improve on it.

Admittedly, this openness in using ideas relies on several things. To return to the fly jacket blurb of Open Design Now, there must be a binding agreement on how and to what extent an idea may be taken and used. Creative Commons is a not-for-profit organization that has set such standards. Using these standard licenses, an author can clarify the usufruct to his work. If the editors of Open Design Now place their work under the Creative Commons license “Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported” then they allow use of the texts as long as you cite the course (attribution), the use is non-commercial, and you make your own final result equally accessible (ShareAlike). “Unported” means the license refers only to the English-language original and 3.0 is the customary Creative Commons version used in the United States.

The sharing and further use of ideas on the basis of an obligatory naming of courses definitely undermines a popular design-world myth: that of the creative genius who just like the artist is kissed by his/her Muse and so creates out of thin air. Yet we all have long known that extraordinary ideas seldom come from nowhere. Psychiatrist, psychotherapist and creativity researcher, Rainer Matthias Holm-Hadulla, suggests, for instance, that creativity is merely the “recombination of information”. But when during while lecturing at the Vienna Design Week last October, Viennese industrial designer Adam Wehsely-Swiczinsky called for the “disempowerment of the creative genius”, many of his listeners did not want to follow. What is inconceivable in the domain of science, and that is the way it should be, namely to quote without citing sources, is often difficult to reconcile with the way many creative minds see themselves. Plagiarism is simply a nasty word and only too swiftly voiced.

Yet there are designers who are incredibly creative when it comes to naming their sources. For example, Viennese duo Vandasye carefully lists on its homepage and in its product catalogs every object, artwork or theoretical concept that inspired the two designers during their work, or served as a point of reference. In this way, they imbue their own pieces with a whole universe of stories, condense them and give them greater depth, as if we were watching the creative mind thinking. At the 2011 graduate-year exhibition at the Eindhoven Design Academy there was a project that openly played with others’ ideas without lacking its own creativity. Bas Geelen called his series of objects “Ideas for free”: he reinterpreted the respective underlying idea of the Thonet no. 14, Castiglioni’s Arco luminaire, Philippe Starck’s Juicy Salif and Gerrit Rietveld’s Red-and-Blue chair. The originals looked little like his pieces.

Needless to say, the most important basic condition for Open Design is the essential willingness to share ideas with others at all. “Open Design will not become mainstream if only because there are now 3D printers,” says Avinash Rajagopal, the New York author of a study on the topic, “but because people change their attitudes and are ready to swap ideas.” The business model for this has been devised by Harvard Professor Yochai Benkler and is called commons-based peer production. He also argues that in a culture it can be more economic and efficient to exchange information rather than to impede innovation by patents and copyrights. Rajagopal points to an area in which free and shared content has long since gained sway. “In our online life we have already made this shift,” he says, “think only of the freely-available Website or Blog templates. We use them, adapt them to our needs, but they will all always bear the signature of the person who originally designed them.”

Droog Design proved in 2011 at the Milan furniture salon that things could proceed very similarly in the 3D world. “Design for Download” was a series of furniture and other objects designed such that the end user could easily adapt them to personal needs. By clicking the “” online platform to download these digital design tools, which automatically provided a construction plan and ensure that the final design corresponds to all the load-bearing and other conditions. In a workshop or perhaps in a 3D copyshop of tomorrow, the so-called FabLab, the design can then be built in any manner of materials. You may find it disappointing that up to now there is only a Beta version available. But the Open Design revolution has nevertheless long since begun.

Amelie Znidaric, who previously wrote for New&Stories from New York, has been curator at the Vitra Design Museum in Weil am Rhein since 2011.

Open Design Now.
Edited by Bas van Abel, Lucas Evers, Roel Klaassen and Peter Troxler
Softcover, 320 pages, English
Bis Publishers, Amsterdam, 2011
EUR 29.90