Design itself is at an important stage in its development. Thanks to proponents of design such as Tim Brown and the rise in popularity of TED talks that often cover design issues, the topic has gradually become more nuanced. Whereas before people generally thought of design as a mushy, esoteric idea left to the machinations of turtleneck clad artists, now it is gradually coming to be understood as something more holistic including issues such as functionality, sustainability, systems, aesthetics etc.
This brings us to the question: Is the Sagmeister and Walsh office bad design? Well this depends on a few things. How do we define design? If we accept that the definition has changed from merely having to do with aesthetics, then I think I can make a fairly good argument that it is bad design.
But before I attempt to do this, you may be wondering why this even matters. Sagmeister and Walsh are considered one of the top design firms in the United States, with Jessica Walsh herself being on a number of rising star lists. In other words, what they do matters. If you google their office, you will find numerous examples of people fawning over the "design" of their office. It would be one thing if Sagmeister and Walsh just wanted a nice looking space for themselves but they have provided highly staged photos and even set up a live feed of their office (this in some ways undermines the illusion that they have created, but more on that later).
The fundamental problem is that their office perpetuates the idea that design is merely about aesthetics. It is chock-full of Eames chairs and carefully planned out color schemes that go as far as their book collection. Aside from the high end HGTV nightmare that this represents, their are a number of other issues at play.
First off, I own Eames chairs and I can tell you: No one working on a computer all day wants to do it on an Eames chair. And they can only have books that fit into a certain color scheme? Who needs fahrenheit 451 when you can have "design"? The real problem with their approach is that it bleeds into other areas of design where we find beautiful yet wholly dysfunctional products. Their office as presented is much like this gold plated juicer that cannot actually be used because the acidity of most fruits will corrode the gold plating.
But if we investigate further and go onto their live feed we find employees using functional and comfortable office chairs with a space drastically different from the images supplied by the firm. Therein lies the problem for me. They are perpetuating the idea that design is about aesthetics. At times their efforts are deceptive but overall it is ludicrous. The live feed shows that they know what they have presented is unrealistic.
To be fair, I can probably go to any number of design firms and find the same problem but that is my point. The problem is pervasive and it doesn't help when top designers play into it. We need to get away from the idea that good design can be dysfunctional.