Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Why good governance is like good furniture design

A friend returned from New York City and recounted visiting the Guggenheim museum with its famous spriral exhibit room - he'd wanted to go to the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum up the street (on the eastern edge of Central Park along museum row), he declared, but didn't have time. When I'm in NYC we always flip those priorities - if one must pick between those two, I find the design museum on any given day more fun, interesting and useful. (Obviously, much depends on what's being exhibited at each.)

While undertaking some overdue spring cleaning of my home office over the long weekend, I ran across a terrific quote I'd excised from a Cooper-Hewitt exhibit of a furniture designer named Richard Tuttle, whose work was on display there when Kathy and I last visited in 2004. (That also tells you how long its been since my office was thoroughly cleaned). Tuttle boldly declared that:

"A great designer has to know everything (language, history, ethnography, anthropology, psychology, biology, anatomy, etc.), while an artist doesn't have to know anything. This polarity ... is the starting point. But ironically, to really appreciate design, it is not about knowledge, but about the experience of living with the work; you don't have to know anything, and you get its 'information' almost through osmosis. Whereas to appreciate a good artwork, you have to bring and apply absolutely everything you know. Why is that?
Why indeed? It strikes me that good governance is a lot like good furniture design - the best government is that which we comfortably live with because of its ease and utility, the government that people don't notice but rely upon. When government becomes intrusive, uncomfortable and ugly, when it causes problems instead of creates solutions, when it becomes a frequent topic of conversation for average people instead of one of the silent underpinnings of everyday life, it's more frequently because of klunky, ill-fitted design than overtly ill intent.

That's why evil can so often appear "banal" - it's frequently disguised as gracelessness.

I'm not completely sure how the quotes connect, but Tuttle's statement has always reminded me of a famed comment by the great Texas Congressman Sam Rayburn, who served as speaker of both the Texas and US House: "Any fool can tear down a house," Rayburn declared, "but it takes a carpenter to build one."

An artist doesn't have to know anything ... but a designer has to know

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