Andrew Blauvelt recently posted a very thoughtful essay on the subject of relational design (some visual references and a more concise statement of his position are available at the Walker Art Center blog). Blauvelt frames his argument like so:
Some of the most interesting work today is not reducible to the same polemic of form and counter-form, action and reaction, which has become the predictable basis for most on-going debates for decades. Instead, we are in the midst of a much larger paradigm shift across all design disciplines, one that is uneven in its development, but is potentially more transformative than previous isms, or micro-historic trends, would indicate. More specifically, I believe we are in the third major phase of modern design history: an era of relationally-based, contextually-specific design.
This claim along with the titular component of the piece call to mind Nicolas Bourriaud’s Relational Aesthetics, a text which appears to present a similar thesis with respect to contemporary art since the mid 1990s. But upon closer inspection, I think the two are quite different. Bourriaud suggests that what’s novel about some recent art is the way that a “work” has come to encompass less a specific object than a duration of experience, a being-there among others. The exemplar of his position is Rirkrit Tiravanija, who is known for cooking and giving away Thai food, water or pudding at his openings. The “work” includes not simply the performance of the cooking, but the relationships developed among those who attend these performances.
Rirkrit Tiravanija, Untitled, 1992/2007
Blauvelt’s use of the term “relational” seems less specific to me. Judging by his examples, he’s not talking strictly about inter-human relationships, but also about what might be called reactive technologies. Things like a typeface that alters in appearance depending on changes in the air temperature of a given site, or Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s Blur Building, which incorporates programmed jets that shroud the building in mist. These sorts of programmed reactions to variable conditions are certainly interesting, but I’m not sure that they constitute the sort of radical break with the past that Blauvelt’s “third phase” would suggest. It seems to me that these are decidedly familiar gestures that employ a strict set of conditions/constraints to execute a program, much in the way that Sol LeWitt established his working practice.
Diller, Scofidio + Renfro’s Blur Building, 2002
I think Blauvelt is definitely onto something in regard to his acknowledgment of a tendency in recent years to see design as a facilitator of social relationships, but I’m a bit skeptical of the sort of periodizing logic that he’s couched his statements in. Design encompasses formal features and symbolic meanings and pragmatic solutions. These aren’t discreet objectives, but overlapping concerns. Form, meaning, and use are all keystones of the design process and will continue to be across any foreseeable trajectory of relational design.