Beyond Normcore: The Inherent Meaning of Normal Design

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Editor’s Note: The following piece on normcore fashion and design was contributed by Marc Hohmann, branding expert and partner at global design and brand firm Lippincott.

While Normcore is now a mainstream tag for all things boring (see Gap’s unfortunate “Dress Normal” campaign) I, as an unexpected fan of the idea, am interested in digging a bit deeper into its roots—and its fantastic design appeal.

The Art of Letting Be

Back in 1997, I was working on the identity for Zero Maria Cornejo, by the NY fashion designer Maria Cornejo and her husband, photographer Mark Borthwick. Those were incredibly inspiring times for me. Growing up in the 1980’s and being obsessed with a very conceptual, highly controlling approach to designing, I fell in love with the couple’s intuitive and spontaneous style. Most striking for me, was their constant desire to use predefined, off-the shelf products. In our projects we did not transform these standard items through design—the obvious reason to do so would be to sidestep their inherent baggage—but we left their role in the status quo completely untouched. For example, a shopping bag we “designed” for the shop wasn’t at all tampered with, but remained just a normal clear plastic bag that didn’t have anything printed on it—this was very unusual at the time—and we only used a small logo sticker to close it.

Zero + Maria Cornejo Logo

Identity for Zero Maria Cornejo

The Zero shop’s changing room was a common, static metal tube and fabric wall of doctor’s office screens, ordered from a medical supply catalog. White T-shirts were bought in China Town and awkwardly had the Zero logo silkscreened on it. During that time, while working on a Martin Margiela catalog, Mark had one of the models just wear a garment bag as a dress. On another occasion, he pushed ordinary pillows under a top for a fantastic body, shape-changing effect. Today, we may see these improvised and humble ideas in any given independent Brooklyn boutique, but in the mid 90’s, after the slick, streamlined futurism of the 80’s, this kind of approach was a true revelation! This was design that never looked to the past for its components. It was so modern because it remained in our time, with all its references. It was a coolness that was liberated from status because it didn’t care about definitions. It was selfless, classless and independent. It was free. In fashion at the time, only Helmut Lang and Bless were successfully exploring these themes.

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The Super Normal Era

After 2002, the design world entered a highly polished phase of maximal control and highly stylized retrofit—practiced by fashion designers like Hedi Slimane and Tom Ford, and product designers like Marc Newson and John Pawson. Yes, these creators often collided high and low brow ideas; however, they were always attempting to create a new standard, rather than using common elements just as they are. This course shifted in 2007 when Jasper Conran and Naoto Fukusawa released the book Super Normal, along with a show of carefully selected every day objects. Conran and Fukusawa attempted to define the “new classics” in terms of their lack of status, and as a result highlighted their ability to blend naturally into our lives. In the show, ordinary Muji notebooks were exhibited next to Casio Databank watches and celebrated as objects of desire for humbler, less pretentious design era.

Normcore: Casio Databank watches

Casio Databank watch

Overlooked everyday designs were suddenly hip and culturally significant. Their original designers were rediscovered and products remixed with millennial flourishes. The current concept of Normcore is nothing more but to introduce a mainstream fashion product into this context. Something of note is that beauty takes second rank here: The social and practical definition of the object outshines its aesthetic value. It becomes desirable because it was always there, taken for granted and because it is convenient, comfortable and dependable.

Normal by definition: conforming to the standard or the common type; usual; regular; natural.

It’s interesting that the definition itself has contradicting notions of liberation (natural) and effort (conforming). In general, we define the opposite of design as accident, an act of chance. So in the case of normal as a design ideal, we consciously need to design normally. Something normal can be unique and special. As a matter of fact, it became the norm because it was special, right and purposeful, or of unmatched quality. It won. It survived. To create something normal is as much of an art form as it is to design something that stands apart from the common landscape.

I would also argue that the workings of Normcore are exactly that: a common object taken out of its context, unchanged with its inherent meaning intact and then made to collide with a very isolated vision. Therein lies Normcore’s appeal and its almost sexual beauty. Dressing Normcore says: “I control so much over here but I’m totally fine letting go over there. I am free to make this decision. I did it consciously. It was not by chance.”

Normcore: Alvaar Alto’s Artek stool

Alvaar Alto’s Artek stool

The Zero Object

Once a design is perceived as normal, or, once it seems completely natural to us, we take it for granted and it becomes a blank canvas. It loses the baggage of recognition and discovery. It blends in. I call this a “Zero Object”—here is where we can pile on new meaning. We are given a universal, white canvas and we can redress it. From Baggu bags to Vans sneakers to Alvaar Alto’s Artek stools to Times Roman fonts and Coca Cola cans, normal is reborn and made special. Even the ongoing trend of countless designer collaborations fits into this theory. The H&M brand getting its rebirth via designer collaboration’s every year, the Nike Roshe Run everyday. Perhaps Zico will become the ultimate normcore drink? Taken for granted at the supermarket, it’s already at the peak of mainstream recognition, naturally ready for a designer collaboration…

Normcore: Zico Coconut Water

Zico Coconut Water

Normcore: Baggu Bags

Baggu Bags

Normcore: Vans Sneakers

Vans Sneakers

It’s fascinating to see the isolated vision of giants like Apple in this equation. Yes. Technology needs to constantly evolve but at the same time, can it take on a normal, natural position? Something that goes beyond “Wow look what I can do! I am so special!” We’re now at a point where we should take technology for granted and declare a state of normality. Not to stop evolving, but maybe to start defining the new classics that simply just get the job done. We are past the ‘wow’. Maybe the answer is that it somehow doesn’t have to be special, but it should be liberating to the consumer, liberated as in letting some things be. Now is Apple’s chance to create a mainstay product equivalent to the Aalto stool. I think we’re ready for the normcore phone. I urge all of us to hang on to what works and create normality.

Read more from Marc Hohmann:

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