The pioneering Black feminist Gloria Jean Watkins—best known by her lowercase pen name bell hooks—passed away yesterday at the age of 69. She leaves behind countless ideas that serve as the foundation to modern race, class, and gender criticism.
Largely because of hooks’ writings, society is beginning to grasp the interdependencies of these aspects of identity. But until last night, I’d never come across her 1998 essay on the topic of design—Design: A Happening Life—published on her blog Lion’s Roar. After it was quoted by Pentagram partner Michael Bierut, I discovered the original essay is still available to read in full. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it’s the sort of conscious-denting writing that unspools ideas so satisfyingly that every sentence feels like a revelation of the modern era…despite the fact that this was written almost 25 years ago.
hooks’ argument revels within the foundational tensions in design—specifically that design has been coopted by white supremacist, capitalist power structures. We tend to celebrate design for its value ascribed by companies and high class individuals. Yet as design is ascribed such value, we often lose sight of its inherent worth. hooks argues that, while appreciating design is a learned skill to some extent, design’s greatest gift is its ability to deliver continuous, existential joy. And that joy is tough to discover for those who don’t have access to good design.
“Today design has little meaning for masses of people for whom interbeing seems only a romantic dream as they scramble to fulfill materialistic fantasies, believing—as everything teaches them to— that consuming is the only way to ecstasy,” hooks writes. “Sorrow stirs in me every time I face the myriad ways in which advanced capitalism removes the cultural conditions that would enable everyone, including the poor, to have access to learning an aesthetic appreciation of design.”
hooks grounds the discussion in her own life, speaking of the intricate quilts produced by her grandma, which taught hooks to appreciate design—but which were also tempting to discard when compared to more polished, mass-produced textiles. When most of us are surrounded by the low-cost, mass-produced designs we can afford—ranging from goods to housing—we can’t learn to appreciate design at a level it can bring us happiness. hooks laments that the middle class could afford good design as recently as the 1950s, as items like solid, handmade furniture were more the norm.
“Today, there is no design for everybody. Design is primarily for those who can afford it and/or the people who are taught to think about aesthetics. Simply because people have money does not mean that they will have an eye for design, but there is an everyday pedagogy of design in our culture. Its lessons are brought to those of us with class privilege who know the right magazines to look at, the right stores to go to, the best designers to hire.”
Ultimately, hooks concludes that the appreciation of design—which she at one point sums up as “the art that proceeds from the very fiber of things”—is inherent to our enjoyment of life. Indeed, design is the intention that lives all around us, whether we acknowledge it or not.
“For me it has always been a call to search for the beauty that is beyond that which can be made most easily apparent, to find beauty in the everyday,” she writes, later adding this simple coda: “When life is happening, design has meaning. In such a world every design that we encounter strengthens our recognition of the value of being alive, of being able to experience joy and peace.”
Read her full essay here.