No more normcore

Sam Jacob on the cult of normality, from the October 2014 issue

By Sam Jacob

Rex vegetable peeler, 1947, at Super Normal, Axis Gallery, Tokyo, 2006. Courtesy Jasper Morrison Studio, London

Luckily for us, just as we’ve apparently lost the organic ability to generate trends and movements ourselves, there are trend forecasters more than willing to do it for us. Such is the case with ‘normcore’, a word coined by the self-styled ‘trend forecasting group’ K-Hole in late 2013 that has gone on to feature in columns like this one ever since. It’s a word that, though it may not actually describe a real phenomenon, does suggest a semblance of zeitgeisty sensibility.

‘Normcore doesn’t want the freedom to become someone,’ K-Hole wrote in the ‘Youth Mode’ report that introduced the idea: ‘Normcore moves away from a coolness that relies on difference to a postauthenticity that opts into sameness.’ In other words, it’s postavant- garde, an imaginary trend that declares itself exhausted by the stylistic revolutions that have traditionally characterised youth culture. It suggests that only by rejecting the trappings of stylistic expression can we find a new authentic form of expression; normality as something uncompromising, ordinariness being as in-your-face as the aural assaults or fleshy provocation that ‘-core’ usually denotes.

The irony being, of course, that the world normcore wants to escape from is the very world co-opted by trend forecasters and their ilk, a world where everything we own is imagined to be a prop, where our clothes are costumes and the places we live are stage sets. In other words, any authentic cultural expression has been rendered impossible by the kind of industry that K-Hole represents. Normcore is the sound of that world collapsing from the inside even as it smirks.

Morrison wrote, ‘I have been feeling more and more uncomfortable with the increasing presence of design in everyday situations and in products lined up on the shelves of everyday shops… Design, which is supposed to be responsible for the man-made environment we all inhabit, seems to be polluting it instead.’

The idea of the normal-as-radical is, of course, nothing new. Back in 2005, designers Jasper Morrison and Naoto Fukasawa coined the term ‘supernormal’ as a way to describe objects of design ‘with the design left out’. Morrison wrote, ‘I have been feeling more and more uncomfortable with the increasing presence of design in everyday situations and in products lined up on the shelves of everyday shops… Design, which is supposed to be responsible for the man-made environment we all inhabit, seems to be polluting it instead.’ For Morrison and Fukasawa, the agents of design culture – magazines, blogs, marketing – have distorted the real role of design (and designers). If, they say, contemporary ‘design makes things seem special’, then ‘who wants normal if they can have special?’ Their collection of supernormal objects included the Rex vegetable peeler, the simple plastic bag as well as design classics like Marcel Breuer’s tubular steel side table and Dieter Ram’s 606 shelving system.

Reclaiming ‘normal’ was, for Morrison and Fukasawa, an idealistic project that attempted to reclaim authenticity, a heartfelt plea from designers caught in the cycles of production that industry demands. Unsurprisingly, they were struck by the idea in the midst of the Salone del Mobile, the gigantic Milan trade fair that annually debuts a vast slick of new and entirely unnecessary designer objects.

Both supernormal and normcore are tactics that attempt to construct an escape from the contemporary world of design, an escape we all sympathise with.

But beware the idea of normality in design, because ‘normal’ itself is just as artificial a concept as that which it seeks to escape from. What we imagine normal to be is simply a set of established codes and typologies that are subject to exactly the same cultural tides as the most extreme designed gestures.

In other words, there is no escape. If anything, the idea of the normal, through its rejection of the possibility of an avant-garde, denies the possibility that we might design our way out of our current predicament. Instead of showing us a way out, it simply freezes us in an eternal present. The elevation of normality sets design apart from the grand sweep of history and annexes it from the socioeconomic milieu from which design actually emerges. The cult of normality may reject the excesses of designer culture, yet at the same time it only serves to reinforce those very tendencies.  

This article was first published in the October 2014 issue.