Designing the paradox
A paradox is a super-exciting starting point for creating the impossible—a force that can drive today’s cutting edge of visual expression and perception. Through the idea of paradox, we can design new experiences through a collision of juxtapositions to make a whole.
René Magritte. ‘La Durée poignardée (Time Transfixed)’, 1938
Photo: Courtesy Art Institute of Chicago
This is less about the tension between two contradicting ideas, but rather about how the essence of each idea relates to each other—or as the German philosopher Kant described it, Das Ding an Sich, or the thing in itself. The result of this potent mixture is a new starting point that offers new perspectives for our imagination to feast on. In other words, the goal of using a paradox device isn’t about using an abstract concept that evokes an emotional response, but the unleashing of imagination as a result of an often-figurative equation.
Of course, aiming to utilize paradox strategies in art and composition is nothing new, yet in contemporary design it’s rarely explored. When done right, it’s a place where commercial experiences can tap into undiscovered values.
Here are a few examples that explore the connectivity of art and design via the paradox:
John Cage’s 4’33
John Cage, ‘4’33, 1952
The most fundamental breakthrough example just describes silence of 4 minutes and 33 seconds. The performer remains motionless at the piano for the duration of that time. As the audience is listening their mind wanders, sharpens their senses to pick up minuscule sounds that are or are not music. Through a paradox—the blank sheet of paper that is filled with content—we become empowered to use 4’33 as a starting point of endless possibilities. The piece forces us to accept nothing as something, leaving the viewer mentally stimulated and satisfied.
Peter Saville’s and Anna Blessmann’s Object Removed for Study Purpose
Peter Saville and Anna Blessmann, “Object Removed for Study Purpose'”, 2006
Photo: Courtesy of Paul Stolper Gallery
The sculpture isn’t there yet—its imaginary value defines the piece, which is really just a cardboard box. It always exists even though it is never present.
Mike Kelley’s retrospective at the PS1
After years of personal neglect, I’ve been becoming obsessed with Mike Kelley’s works in this overarching context. In issue 69 of 2002’s Frieze Magazine one of Kelley’s early students, Charles Labelle, points out “This need to dig deeper into oneself to find things that will touch others is a paradox that every artist negotiates.” Therein lies the universal core of Kelley’s work. Adding to that, LaBelle references Poe, “There are chords in the heart of every man that, once struck, yield a universal harmony”. The deeper we go into the matter of something, the more we gain strength in reaching someone’s reaction on the surface. The more the core is exposed, the quicker the punch that grants immediate attention.
In his piece, Educational Complex, Kelley creates a sculpture that looks like an ultra modernist cityscape, but it’s actually a construct made out of all the schools he’s ever gone to. The powerful weight of the piece isn’t created by its flimsy foam core buildings, but through the highly intimate core of personal history at the center. A lifetime of being shaped by schools, their inherent quality—the thing in itself—becomes a totality that unlocks a huge dimension in our mind. We’re able to emotionally experience the piece through a superficial reproduction of plain fact.
Alberto Campo Baeza
Alberto Campo Baeza, ‘Olnick Spanu House, Garrison, New York’, 2008<br />
Photo: Miguel Quismondo and Javier Callejas
The brilliant, Spanish architect creates buildings that are also born out of a confrontation between past and present. He describes his work as Mnemosyne, from Greek the personification of memory, valuing historical form without mimicking it, as would be the case in postmodernism. ‘Valuing’ here speaks to finding the core of a building’s historical environment (i.e., the natural materials in its proximity) or purpose and then playing that against the attributes of modern life: light, private, seamless, simple. Something that appears futuristic is born out of the present that memorizes the past.
Paradox is one of the reasons Thom Browne’s fashion designs are so fascinating. His shows are over the top theatrical stage productions while the brand’s essence is always the gray suit. In his case we are confronted with 2 suggestions that evoke a rigid flamboyance, an impossible contradiction if there ever was one. Gray, boring associations of a 1950’s business man’s flannel suit collide full force against the fairy tale scenes from Alice in Wonderland. However, it works so well because the contradictions harmonize with the other. Each pole casts a shadow onto another until we see one clearly defined line. Wearing one of his classic suits I’m connecting the minor signature eccentricities to the larger wonderland of his shows. Then again, the drama of show is so credible because of the constraints of a highly focused discipline at its core.
Thom Browne, Fall/Winter 2014, 2014
The list can go on, but hopefully this sampling inspires you. To create meaningful work, we have to be on the lookout for new ways of thinking, and never grow tired of the attempt to push our own approach past the establishment. Can we focus on the opposite to amplify our message? Can we look at the empty space and have the mind fill in the blanks? When I’m faced with design challenges, may they be of a corporate identity nature, editorial or product design, I always try to find the essence, but I also want to explore the inherent contradictions. It’s in those conflicting qualities that often the greatest solutions are found.