Freedom of style means aesthetically questioning norms – including gender norms and role models: On queer design, self-determination, and the dangers of commercial appropriation.

I can’t be overlooked. As soon as I enter the room where the workshop is due to take place this weekend everyone turns to look at me. Despite the FFP2 mask I stand out like a sore thumb because my mask is pink. Not a soft, delicate rose, but a shocking pink. Just like the stripes on the shirt I’m wearing and the color accents on my sneakers. Color matching in a color conventionally reserved for persons read as women. By appropriating this convention, I am questioning and undermining it rather than assimilating myself.

This initial description already contains indications of a queer style policy: The perfectly designed pink look undermines a convention and the price for doing so is being conspicuous. What is less noticeable, however, is that precisely this can be politically interpreted. In her 1964 style manifesto “Notes on Camp” Susan Sontag wrote that the seriously intended emphasis of style means the neglect of all serious content. Camp is playful, frivolous, superficial and always ventures onto thin ice where it proceeds to perform daring pirouettes. As such, camp sensibility is a depoliticizing or at least an apolitical attitude lacking in interest. This in turn is something that is frequently leveled as a criticism at the overly colorful parades and hedonist parties associated with Christopher Street Day.

In her “Notes on Camp”, which she incidentally dedicated to Oscar Wilde (the most stylish person who ever lived) Sontag describes camp as a sensibility that judges the world as an aesthetic phenomenon in terms of its artificiality. In the process, the artificial, androgynous style transcends all “naturalness” and abandons binary clothing regulations for the sexes – say by wearing a pink FFP2 mask decorated with rhinestones. Camp is a vision of the world in which nothing is what it should be any more and in which everything happens with a propensity for exaggeration. However, is Sontag right in describing precisely this “stylish” attitude to the world as apolitical and disinterested?

Felix Kosok (c) Photo: Robert Schittko

According to Sontag the most widely developed form of camp is Art Nouveau: Luminaires are transformed into fairy forests, nothing is left without blossoms and decoration, everything glitters and shimmers. And this is precisely what architect and theorist Adolf Loos railed against 1904 in a talk that is considered by many as the founding document of Modernist, objective design, namely “Ornament and Crime”. Architecture, design, and morality are closely associated with one another in the very title, indeed even placed on an equal footing. Loos proclaims that overcoming style must be seen as historic and an achievement of Modernism. Good taste that despises all style and decoration indicates an understanding of the need for sensible, rational design. Style is a waste of time, labor and energy, he argues. Loos favors everything that is simple and smooth: cigarette boxes; furniture; plain gingerbread; and shoes – in exactly that order.

What is the political aspect of style?

Since then, style has had a really bad reputation especially in design. Styling, in other words, design aimed solely at the surface of objects behind which the conventional technology was hidden became the alternative concept to honest, upright, streamlined and good design. A “degeneration” as design theorist Gui Bonsiepe put it in 2005. Style, he argues, is everything that goes beyond the design of the pure function of an object, so is actually always marketing and almost amounts to betrayal of the nature of the function. However, does this not perhaps constitute the political aspect of style?

Lamp, Model "Bamboo", Rights: GDKE - Landesmuseum Mainz / Ursula Rudischer (CC BY-NC-SA), Image via rlp.museum-digital.de

Fauteuil designed by Adolf Loos, Image via Wikicommons

The modern slogan by architect Louis Sullivan “form follows function” that can be perfectly combined with a “less is more” by Dieter Rams, assumes the primary nature of function and that the latter must be evident in the form alone. The function is a given, something natural while form is something artificially imposed over it. But is that really the case? Or do we not recognize precisely in style that the functions, social purposes and norms that are formed in design are made by us and only seem like second nature to us? Is it not the case that we only become the person we want to be through our style? And is not the function of things only revealed in their form?

As such, Adolf Loos was right. Style is a crime: a crime against the rational, against any supposedly natural order, but equally against the seeming immutability of the norm. And most certainly against everything simple and bigoted. Objects, fashion, colors and shapes, trivialities that fall out of the framework of “good taste” betray in their ambivalence a sinister presence – the difference. For a moment the brief, scandalous spectacle of the subcultural style snatches us out of our everyday routine, makes things conspicuous, indeed obtrusive and lends them a new meaning.

form follows func­tion

Louis Sullivan

Dieter Rams, Regalsystem 606, 1960, Image via WikiCommons

Style means that nothing has to remain as it is. As such, Sontag was wrong in claiming that the detachment from any given content revealed the unpolitical nature of style. After all, liberating style from any role determined by content also means being able to aesthetically transform normative specifications including gender norms and role models.

Style means that nothing has to remain as it is

Queer artist Coco Riot visualized this idea in her work entitled Gender Poo. Coco Riot created a series of new bathroom signs that were previously coded in male and female. Her new icons in the guise of bearded mermaids, drag queens and trans-people that do not comply with any norm seem to shout out that they should also be allowed to feature in a place intended for everyone. The affirmation of style is also an affirmation that there is fundamentally no end to the designability of things that can be juxtaposed with a desperate rejection of all style in favor of “honest” design as the legacy of Modernism. For a person this attitude always entails the possibility of becoming detached from one’s own self and embracing a new relationship to oneself and the world, a new self-determination.

Coco Riot, Gender Poo, Courtesy the artist

Queer design is not design for a group of queer consumers as design theorist Ece Canli stresses but rather a constant challenge and a never-ending questioning of norms, given structures and hierarchies. A queer politics of style – and be it no more than a pink face covering also visualizes this in public. In defending style, I also have to take seriously the warnings of upright designers – if only as a view – if I am not to become part of an old, familiar problem rather than part of its solution. Precisely in Pride Month June it is evident that not only the heteronormative assimilation to a mainstream society poses a danger for the political difference of style.

If all large capitalist corporations whose only maxim is otherwise maximizing profit were to add rainbow flags to their social media accounts, then this reveals a greater danger for the political difference of style because it threatens it as a consequence of its own logic. As such, the apolitical aspect of style that Sontag describes contains a kernel of truth here: The danger is no longer that it remains superficial but rather that the previously political content is monopolized. As soon as everything can smoothly become style to great media effect this potential loses its force and becomes limp in some highly visible yet inevitable insignificance.

#PRIDEMONTH

June is #PRIDEMONTH: The month exemplifies the society we want to live in and demand all year round. That means LGBTQIA+ rights, queer visibility and acceptance. We take this as an opportunity to focus on current debates and positions of the queer community on SCHIRN MAG.

CSD Frankfurt 2021