Book Review: The Language of Things

The Language of Things: Understanding the World of Desirable Objects by Deyan Sudjic
W.W. Norton, 2009
Paperback, 208 pages

Man of many hats in the realms of architecture, design and urbanism (museum director, critic, magazine founder, editor, educator and author can all rightly be used at some point in his prolific career), Deyan Sudjic's writings are marked by a clarity, accessibility and a diversity of subject matter, all centered on the role of design in shaping everything from tea kettles and buildings to cities. His latest book, coming after the popular Edifice Complex, targets the "world of desirable objects." Yes, architecture is found in these pages, but the focus is on more inexpensive, mass-produced fare, what could best be described as industrial design. As the cover indicates, this includes lamps, cars, phones, chairs, typewriters and those objects that have displaced other objects. One needs only think of the irrelevance of the last in the age of word processing to start to understand the complex relationship between us and the objects we own and/or use. Sudjic's book illuminates these relationships while making us question our insatiable desire for more and more stuff.

In five chapters the reader is taken on a voyage through the world of design, looking at how objects are designed but also the mechanisms that make design an integral part of how objects are sold to people. Would the tea kettles of Michael Graves sell so well if his name was not associated with them? Can IKEA's success be divorced from its means of packaging its cheap furniture? Can boutiques the likes of Prada and other fashion designers take a chance by not showing their wares in high-design venues, without a name architect associated with them? The answers to these questions is a resounding NO. Design permeates the objects we acquire and use, from their functionality and packaging to their marketing and context.

Architecture in Sudjic's book is viewed in the context of fashion. The co-option of architecture by fashion houses has spawned some well-designed spaces by Tadao Ando, Rem Koolhaas and others, but fashion's planned obsolescence can be seen as architecture's arch-enemy. But instead of bemoaning how architecture serves a more shallow force, Sudjic makes the reader realize that fashion is a strong cultural force that must be contended with...somehow. This makes his book read as an abbreviated history of industrial design and a snapshot of its current state, with critique bubbling under the surface, popping up from time to time. One such instance focuses on MoMA's treatment of design as art, instead of as functional objects; his disagreement with this point of view is clear. Not surprisingly, a critique of the Design Museum in London, Sudjic's current home, is nowhere to be found.