What Robert Pirsig Taught Me About Design

What Robert Pirsig Taught Me About Design



Robert Pirsig, the author of the cult novel “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,” passed away yesterday at his home in Maine. The below reflections are in lieu of an obituary.

One day in my early twenties I stood in the Zen Buddhist book section of a Barnes & Noble in Union Square, holding a book with a peculiar and intriguing title, “Zen and the Art of the Motorcycle Maintenance” by Robert Pirsig. It seemed at once esoteric but also of this world. As many people of my age I was searching for answers as to why the world I lived in felt so alienating. And, like many others, I was reading books on Buddhist philosophy in the hope of finding some insight. This one seemed different. “You should get that one,” a chubby girl standing next to me said. I looked at her and the conviction in her eyes pushed me over the edge. In my mind from time to time I still thank her, because ZAMM became my guiding light in terms of my worldview, which also includes my appreciation of design. When people ask where the principles that underpin my opinions come from, I point them to Pirsig.

I became engrossed in the book from its opening passages, and I gobbled it up, though it was a dense read. The arc of Pirsig’s thoughts was not for the faint of brain – not having his IQ of 170, mine had to work at full capacity. But the rewards of my newfound understanding were immense.

In short, Pirsig proposed that alienation we feel is because what he called our classic understanding of the world – everything that has to do with reason, which includes science and technology, and its underlying principle of function – and our romantic understanding of the world – everything that has to do with intuition, such as art and other cultural disciplines, and its underlying principle of form – have been artificially put at odds with each other by the fundamental teachings of Western civilization. Pirsig puts the blame on Plato and Aristotle, though I would not go so far back in history. I think the separation of form and function occurred after the Renaissance and at the dawn of industrial revolution (Martin Luther is also to blame, but that’s another story).

To put it crudely, Pirsig maintains that before the split there was no distinction in the West between art and craft. There was no such thing as fine art, nor was art considered useless. Those decorated Greek urns we now look at behind glass in museums had a function. “Actually a root word of technology, techne, originally meant ‘art.’ The ancient Greeks never separated art from manufacture in their minds, and so never developed separate words for them,” he wrote.

According to Pirsig, as Europe’s population grew, we had good reasons to decouple form from function in order to let scientific revolution reign, which in turn eventually clothed, fed, and raised the quality of life for most people in the West. In the process everything that has to do with the classic understanding came to be viewed as serious and useful, and everything that has to do with the romantic understanding came to be viewed as frivolous and useless. And because we removed all romantic thinking from scientific revolution, we have built a world full of technological ugliness that is evident in everything from bad architecture to a sea of horrible mass market stuff we now drown in, alienated from what once was familiar.

Now that we have been sated with stuff and that for many of us in the West the quality of life is unprecedentedly high, at least in historical terms, what Pirsig foresaw is the flight to quality we are witnessing now. This is why we are fascinated with design more than ever before. And for Pirsig the only way to quality was through uniting the classic and the romantic understanding of the world. And that’s when the light bulb went on for me – there is nothing in this world that combines form and function, intuition and pragmatism, aesthetics and technology, the way design does. All around me I was witnessing the rise of interest in design on society’s part, and now I knew why. It made total sense.

To say that ZAMM has taught me something would not be entirely correct. Rather, like many great books, it did for me what Saul Bellow called “putting your soul in order.” It provided the framework to what I intuitively felt but could not quite explain to others. A few years after I read ZAMM for the first time I enrolled into an MA program in Liberal Studies at the New School. The idea was to escape my soul-crushing Wall Street job and go teach literature to high school kids. But I was also interested in fashion. As I was searching for a thesis topic, I decided to jettison literature in favor of applying Pirsig’s theory to fashion design. My question was simple – what was it that made fashion design good? I knew I could tell good design from bad, but what was it exactly that I was doing? I reached out to Pirsig through an academic who was familiar with him, asking if his methods could be applied to forming a loose value-judgment framework to fashion design. “It’s possible,” came his laconic reply.

Pirsig postulated that there exists an unnamed phenomenon that he called Quality that contains both the classic and romantic understandings of the world, and that it was artificially split into classic Quality and romantic Quality since Plato’s time (no such division has been made in the East). He could not be more apt in naming the phenomenon, because when we talk about design, we inevitably talk about quality.

Complicating matters, Pirsig maintained that Quality cannot be defined, because definitions are the product of reason and reason alone can only grasp classic Quality and not Quality itself. Perhaps this is why so few university philosophy departments took his book seriously and it would continuously end up in the spirituality section of bookstores, which is a shame. But, I understood exactly what he meant.

My own question was where did the value judgments come from when I examined this or that piece of clothing. How did I know that one is better than the other? Part of it was that I knew intuitively what was beautiful and what was ugly, but that was not nearly enough, because that would be falling into the same postmodernist trap in which all value judgments are in the eye of the beholder. But values were not in my eyes only – values resided IN THE GARMENTS THEMSELVES. You could see it in the quality of the fabric, the quality of the cut, in the way the garment fit, and in the way it was finished. And there was more – there was a kind of CARE built into certain garments. I could tell that some garments were made by the people who cared about what they were doing.

I also knew that some were truly designed and others weren’t – namely that design was a careful and deliberate thought process that led to creation of something new and unconventional. The way the seams flowed in certain garments, the way the pockets were placed, the way it was draped, or the way a garment’s asymmetry worked all told me that thought went into it – in other words this was true fashion design. This care and thought process were the things that spoke to me, that awed me, and that made me fall in love with fashion. It was a relationship deeper than mere adornment or Veblenian status symbols – the things that give fashion its reputation for shallowness and frivolity.

Mind you, I was not a tailor, and I did not have a fashion design education. If I were one, I probably would be able to tell good design from bad even better. I thought that if I could tell good design from bad, then anyone could – what you needed was enthusiasm that would drive you to learn more.

All of this I knew instinctively but did not know how to express. But Pirsig did. What I was doing was engaging Quality in my evaluation process, and I was using both romantic Quality – I was directly seeing and experiencing a garment, and classic Quality – I could partly analyze and define why something was better than something else. At the bottom it all seemed to be about care. “When one isn’t dominated by feelings of separateness from what he’s working on, then one can be said to ‘care’ about what he’s doing. That is what caring really is, a feeling of identification with what one’s doing. When one has this feeling he also sees the inverse side of caring, Quality itself,” Pirsig wrote.

He also expressed, better than I could, what was wrong with much of the mass-manufactured stuff, and why I hated it with such passion. The corporations that made this stuff actively hid the lack of care with which it was made, but anyone could see right through it if he or she wanted to. “The result is rather typical of modern technology, an overall dullness of appearance so depressing that it must be overlaid with a veneer of ‘style’ to make it acceptable. And that, to anyone who is sensitive to romantic Quality, just makes it all the worse. Now it’s not just depressingly dull, it’s also phony. Put the two together and you get a pretty accurate basic description of modern American technology: stylized cars… and stylized clothes. Stylized refrigerators filled with stylized food in stylized kitchens in stylized homes. Plastic stylized toys for stylized children, who at Christmas and birthdays are in style with their stylish parents. You have to be awfully stylish yourself not to get sick of it once in a while.” Or constantly. “It’s the style that gets you; technological ugliness syruped over with romantic phoniness in an effort to produce beauty and profit by people who, though stylish, don’t know where to start because no one ever told them there’s such a thing as Quality in this world and it’s real, not style. Quality isn’t something you lay on top of subjects and objects like tinsel on Christmas tree. Real Quality must be the source of the subjects and objects, the cone from which the tree must start.” You can also see the same phoniness dressing up bad fashion design – in a Vetements logo on a simple sweatshirt, in Gucci’s overwhelming embellishment, or in any number of photos that make garments look better than they do in real life.

There were other things Pirsig made me understand better. For example that there is no such thing as a bad type of material, though there are bad materials. “Neither is the ugliness inherent in the materials of modern technology – a statement you sometimes hear. They’ve just acquired bad associations. A person who’s lived inside stone walls of a prison most of his life is likely to see stone as an inherently ugly material, even though it’s also the prime material of sculpture, and a person who’s lived in a prison of ugly plastic technology that started with his childhood toys and continues through a lifetime of junky consumer products is likely to see this material as inherently ugly. But the real ugliness of modern technology isn’t found in any material or shape or act or product. These are just the objects in which the low Quality appears to reside. It’s our habit of assigning Quality to subjects and objects that gives this impression.” Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garcons has repeatedly proved that polyester can be material for high fashion. Rick Owens did the same for denim and cotton jersey. And I also truly believe that this dissatisfaction with bad mass produced products is at the root of the consumer frenzy fueled by fast fashion. I think that deep down many consumers inherently know or feel that they are buying crap. They may be enamored with something during the shopping high, but once they really examine what they bought they become dissatisfied with it and discard it, often only in order to go out and buy more crap. But there are others, whom this stylized phoniness drives to seek good design. Pirsig also wrote that Quality does not necessarily reside in the objects or subjects themselves, but rather in the relationship between the objects and the subjects. Things are made with care tend to be better appreciated and better treated by their owners. They are cherished and they last longer.

Pirsig believed that if we were to put back the romantic and classic Quality into one Quality and make this our central philosophy of life, we would go far beyond designing and making products with care. Businesses, factories, and at the end societies would be structured in a different way. And this is why I will never believe that fast fashion companies like H&M, no matter how much organic cotton they buy or how much of their subpar clothes they recycle, could truly be good for society. Because, at the end of the day it is the company itself that is not structured on the principles of Quality.

I could go on and on about Pirsig, but I will stop here. Read this book. You won’t regret it.

About the author

Eugene Rabkin

Eugene Rabkin is the founder of stylezeitgeist.com. He has contributed articles on fashion and culture to The Business of Fashion, Vogue Russia, Buro247, the Haaretz Daily Newspaper, and other publications. He has taught critical writing and fashion writing courses at Parsons the New School for Design.


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