Saturday, April 16, 2016

Designer Robinson Crusoe

After about 50 years, I decided to re-read the book Robinson Crusoe, driven by a suggestion of architect Daniel Libeskind, of all people. Talking about our primary need for furniture, Libeskind mentioned how Robinson Crusoe, barely having settled on his island, had an overwhelming desire to have a chair and a table:

“I began to apply my self to make such necessary things as I found I most wanted, as particularly a chair and a table, for without these I was not able to enjoy the few comforts I had in the world, I could not write, or eat, or do several things with so much pleasure without a table.”

Only when Crusoe fashions these items–with great expense of time and labor– he is able to sit down and start his Journal, which continues for the next hundred pages of the book.  Daniel Defoe’s book has a strange double life. In simplified abridged form it became a timeless bestseller, an adventure book for children of all ages and all nations. The original version, however, is a more complex existential narrative, full of doubts and reflections, an example of one of the first psychological novels in history of literature.

Still, what attracted me – and probably Daniel Libeskind as well – was the fact that Robinson Crusoe had been also a first book about design. The material culture of things, processes, and making is the most important part of the narrative. The list of items that Crusoe salvaged from the wrecked ship takes many pages, and it makes a surprisingly fascinating reading.

What follows is even more captivating. Defoe provides detailed descriptions of how his hero conceived, planned, and made things that fulfilled his daily needs for a relatively comfortable life in the wilderness.  All in all, Crusoe’s method is not very different from the approach of today’s environmentally conscious designers, for example:

– Recycling, re-purposing of materials and resources, both natural and man-made.
It turns out that almost anything could be procured or made from the limited supply of available materials and tools.

–Slow design. It takes him weeks, and sometimes months, to make relatively straightforward items, yet the results are infinitely satisfying.

– Desire for beauty and perfection. Crusoe is not satisfied with mere functional aspect of the items he made. Not without a sense of humor, he constantly comments on awkwardness and ugliness of things he was able to make, due to his lack of skills and proper tools. His first fired claypots functionally served him well, but they looked “as the children make dirt-pies”. After subsequent experiments with self-made potter wheel, Crusoe proudly notes:

”I arrived at an unexpected perfection in my earthen ware and contrived well enough to make them with a wheel, which I found infinitely easyer and better; because I made things round and shapable which before were filthy things indeed to look on.”

If anything, this is an essence of design. “Robinson Crusoe studio” could be a great assignment in today’s design college. When students spend a semester reinventing everyday things with limited supplies and minimal tools, they would reassess the abundance of our material culture, which we too often take for granted.


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