The chimera of cost
Economics may be the dismal science, but it’s not rocket science. While astronomers can land a space probe on a comet more than one billion kilometres away and physicists can calculate the diameter of a quark to twenty billion-billionths of a centimetre, it’s something of a conundrum that we still cannot work out the cost of a chair. We’ve been sitting on them for at least ten thousand years, and we’ve been buying things for almost as long; surely we've had enough time to determine a rough relationship between these two behaviours? Cost, however, is a many-splendored thing, depending on the rationale used to think about it. It is an alienable and abstracted bit of information about the chair in general; it is both materially inextricable from and a material equivalence to that chair in particular; and it describes and constitutes a relationship between the previous, current, and future owners of the chair—including its design and its constituent materials—at any given moment.

Cost is further complicated because its various forms continuously interact with each other. For example, knowing how much a chair generally costs is valuable information when debating the price of a specific chair with its current owner. A famous sitter can become permanently embedded in the material of the chair itself as an additional source of value. Certain modifications to the chair (the gradual burnishing of a wooden seat by thousands of bottoms) may increase its cost, while others (such as the scratches and gouges left by mindless sitters) may be seen as detrimental and reduce it. By merely moving the chair through space, its price can fluctuate wildly depending on how scarce, exotic, or desirable its materials are considered in any specific location. The inextricable cost and the extricable cost of the chair might diverge greatly, depending on the presence or absence of potential future owners. The combinations and permutations of these qualities can lead to an infinite number of scenarios of dizzying complexity.

As a simple quantity of financial units, however, cost is also very simple. So simple, in fact, that it cannot fully account for the reality it is meant to quantify. Two wooden stools might look essentially the same but have vastly different prices, while a high-end ergonomic office chair might have the same price as a handmade chair that cannot actually support any weight. Because the number itself is so reductive and inflexible, the environment and people around these chairs must stretch and adapt to make up the difference—and before the number changes, these contortions manifest in more nuanced ways as the ethics and aesthetics of production and consumption. Between the quantitative realm of numeric price and the qualitative realm of social and cultural worth, design may be considered as one of the most powerful tactics of negotiation (other examples include law and market regulations). We could hypothesise that design resolves the encounter between cultural context and price into multiple optimum states, each translating into an essentially moral instinct about what that chair, for instance, is worth.

At certain points in the history of design, the prevailing design ethos has articulated a particular ethical stance about cost as a primary concern. In 1910, Adolf Loos declared it “a crime against the national economy that [ornamentation] should result in a waste of human labour, money, and material.” At first, this rejection of anachronistic visual styles in the cultural media of the new century would resonate with a predominantly aesthetic idealisation of the new language of machine tooling, but eventually the financial implications of mechanised production would return to the foreground. This transition can be observed in the early exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art in New York: in 1934, Philip Johnson presented “Machine Art”, while four years later John McAndrew curated “Useful Objects Under Five Dollars”. The potential of industrial manufacture to make well-designed objects more accessible through lower prices would reach its apotheosis in the 1940s in Charles and Ray Eames's motto of making “the best for the most for the least”, as the industrialisation process fuelled by World War II sought civilian applications.

However, in the 1960s and 1970s, Buckminster Fuller and Victor Papanek were highly critical of the way cost was being manipulated to flood the consumer market with cheap, unnecessary, and badly-produced factory goods, in the pursuit of higher corporate profits. In Design for the Real World, Papanek quoted Fuller as saying “You have to make up your mind either to make sense or to make money, if you want to be a designer.” Their theories suggested that cost should be measured not only in financial units but also in societal and environmental impact, and disconnected the act of design from the normative cost of work. In particular, Papanek’s assertion that “ideas are plentiful and cheap, and it is wrong to make money from the needs of others” presents design as a morally implicated but financially ineffable practice. Since the 1970s, however, it is the latter position that has grown in strength, while design's moral responsibility has been eroded by cynicism, the well-intentioned failures of the sustainability movement, and the austerity policies of post-recession governments. In this climate, the cost of design has become a rhetorical puzzle with competing paths to resolution.

Meet Thy Maker
For example, consider the idea that the price of the chair should reflect what it cost to make it. It is difficult to directly compare two chairs produced in different locations, much less two designers with different practices. For the purpose of this argument, however, let us take a chair that is specifically designed for similar conditions of production all around the world—the Edie stool by Opendesk. The furniture within the Opendesk range is designed to be cut from plywood or another sheet material and can be obtained through two methods—as a free download of the plans enabling you to make the chair yourself or as a finished object from a manufacturer within Opendesk’s global network.

In order to calculate the price and resulting profit margin for a chair, the manufacturer must consider a range of costs.1 Apart from Opendesk’s fees for the use of the design and sales platform, these costs include the expense of acquiring the raw materials; renting or buying a workspace; transporting the materials to that space; acquiring new tools or maintaining current ones; using energy and utilities; creating sales information in words or images; announcing the chair's availability for purchase; communicating with the future owner; processing the financial transaction; packaging and insuring the chair for transport; and, finally, transporting the chair to its new owner. The manufacturer would also have to factor in a percentage of living costs for both the time the manufacturer is working and the time they might wait until the next buyer appears.

Naturally these costs are very different for a manufacturer in London and a manufacturer living in Shenzhen—and the factors that differ the most (workshop rental and the designer’s living expenses for example) will not be apparent in the chair.2 Based on these costs alone, it seems logical that the chair made in London would cost more than the chair made in Shenzhen; but in that case, why would I buy the London chair? For some standardised commodities, such as pet food or prescription medication, this price gap might be justified on the basis of consumer bias, but identical wooden chairs should be less affected by such preconceptions.3 In order to make us choose the more expensive chair, the London designer would have to justify the higher cost through other means.

One way might be to emphasise the chair’s origin as an indicator of its relative costliness—perhaps with a “Made in the UK” label.4 This addition, however, only works on the superficial level of information; the designer might further express the chair’s origin more abstractly, perhaps by using a typically “English” wood, treating it with a particular stain or finish, or altering the design to appeal to traditional proportions or recognisable historical examples. A conspicuously “English” chair would imply a moral cachet residing within the dual presumptions of ethical superiority in locally-produced furniture and aesthetic superiority in Western European furniture. The sense of conspicuous localism could even be heightened by design choices that were visibly antithetical to the logics of efficient transport, such as making the chair heavier, bulkier, and more difficult to disassemble, thus stressing its low-travel radius.

It must be noted that a valorisation of localism cannot be reduced to an expression of xenophobia, no more than the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century celebration of imported curiosities can be taken as a sign of open-armed multiculturalism. The relative value of objects produced in foreign countries fluctuates according to their availability to the rich or exceptionally enterprising, in contrast to their availability to the average consumer. Consider, for instance, a 1725 British hall chair own by Sir Herbert Pakington that was produced in China, flat-packed and shipped to Britain, where it was assembled and finished with lac or resin in imitation of Japanese lacquer techniques. Although the basic supply chain of flat-packed furniture, manufactured in a foreign country and assembled in the UK, still applies to many chairs today, it no longer implies a sense of bourgeois cosmopolitanism, but merely a cost-effective way of producing and selling furniture.

Without appealing to national stereotypes, another way of embedding symbolic value into the chair would be through the language of craft. In the contemporary design world, craft has renewed significance as an aesthetic expression of care and deeper meaning. However, the moral agency of craft emerges equally from design’s negotiation between cost and local realities. Imagine, for instance, if the two manufacturers in London and Shenzhen attempted to lower their overall costs by producing more chairs at once (a practice known as an economy of scale). Again, for the exact same chair, the London designer would be penalised by specific local costs, notably the cost of additional work and storage space necessary to facilitate this expanded production. Moreover, as long as the Shenzhen chair continued to be cheaper than the London chair, the potential revenue gained by the Shenzhen designer would be higher than that of the London designer, while the higher cost of the London chair would also incur more financial risk if they failed to sell.

The individuality of handwork, however, could be employed to counter the uniformity of mass production. For example, the London designer could make the Edie stool entirely by hand, using non-computerised saws, carving and shaping the seat, and changing the joinery details to more complex geometries that could not be achieved with a machine. While the designer and maker’s technical mastery of the craft would be demonstrated in the quality of the chair’s assembly, aesthetic imperfections could also have an implicit value if they suggested that the chair was one-of-a-kind and that the hand of the designer, as both a conscientious artisan and a unique individual, was present.5 By materially embedding their identity in the chair, the designer would force the consumer to reflect more on their craft and their right to practise design as both a lifestyle and an intellectual service, akin to a writer, a coder or an architect.

Added Value
The expression of the humanity of the maker (and their relationship to the user) through design has clear ethical implications, but design can also shape our assumptions about worth through the object itself as a material good. A wooden chair weighing ten kilograms would thus cost more than a wooden chair weighing five kilograms. The chair might be itemised as a collection of materials with integral value and applied value: in other words, a certain quantity of wood, augmented by material treatments (like lacquer, varnish, oil, or wax) and fasteners (like screws, nails, or glue) and a series of actions by the designer or maker, as well as the woodcutter, the distributor, and so on. Furthermore, since few people have the skill or inclination to work with raw material sourced directly from their environment, our understanding of this wooden chair as an object of inherent material value must be expanded to include all of the actions taken upon that material that have brought it to its destined position, with me sat on top of it.

From that perspective, the chair can be divided into two kinds of value. The first is that which is materially present, and the second is that which is not—and which, by its very absence from or alteration of the material substrate, could be said to make the chair “better” by a given metric such as utility, durability, ingenuity, uniqueness and so on. That distinction underpins the concept of “added value”—defined in economics as the difference between the sale price and the production cost—that is so crucial to the contemporary service economy, where productivity cannot simply be quantified by the number of widgets made. But material goods, unlike intangible financial products, make the notion of added value eminently concrete by their physical presence and processing.

If our wooden chair were a solid block sawn from a tree, the added value would be only the cost of cutting it and moving it to a convenient place. (Otherwise, the cost of a certain volume of wood would be the same for the consumer as for the maker.) But it might not be comfortable to sit on a block of wood for hours at a time. Let’s imagine that the maker has sourced an even larger block of wood and carved out a human-shaped hollow from its centre. We might end up with the same volume of wood as a materially-present value, but the maker had to begin with a larger block of wood and put more labour into the endeavour. To compensate for those costs, the immaterial value of the maker’s contribution could be interpreted as a source of “added value” that can only be accessed through the experience of sitting. In this case, my sedentary comfort would be worth not only more material but also the removal of material (to be precise, the negative shape of my posterior).

In the 1990s, the rise of conceptual design would embed the notion of added value at the core of the object. By elevating the designer’s expression of a metaphor, narrative, or speculation over other criteria such as utility, durability or exchange value, conceptual design began to erode the relationship between production cost and sales price as a metric based on marginal costs, overheads, supply and demand. This framework for evaluating design placed a premium on the authorial voice, thus increasing how much value could potentially be added to an object in proportion to its essential worth as a material resource. At times, that emphasis on the designer’s idea made the imperfection of a handmade object, especially at the hands of the designer him- or herself, a financial asset. For example, Marijn van der Poll’s Do Hit Chair, created in 1999 and sold by Droog to this day, is a stainless steel cube that must be bashed in with a sledgehammer to assume the shape of a seat. The unaltered chair, ready to be bashed in by the customer, costs about €4,000, while the chair smashed by van der Poll himself sells for more than €6,500. Presumably, the extra €2,500 for the second chair includes not only the cost of more labour in general, but also the added value of van der Poll’s labour as an enlightened maker. As added value becomes a matter of intellectual investment rather than increased functionality, longevity, or material treatment, its limitations are drawn only by human imagination.

Consider Maarten Baas’s Smoke chairs, which he made by burning designer chairs and then treating them with an epoxy sealant them in order to preserve their charred exteriors. The material value is therefore, at a minimum, the original chair—a perfectly serviceable chair, one might add—and the sealant. One could debate whether the fuel and fire needed to set the chair alight should be considered materially present or not. Nevertheless, it is clear that the final cost of a Smoke chair augments that initial material investment with an enormous amount of added value. But what, exactly, is being added by the literal destruction of the chair, and how should we measure it? Can the notion of added value in such a chair be quantified—and if so, should it be defined by the degree of material transformation, the length of the procedure, or the depth of the concept?

If the logic of added value tends to the absurd in the case of conceptual design, it is due to a combination of factors. Many such objects begin with a readymade that is already functional, or the designer never bothers to invest increased functionality in their chosen materials—why bother, after all, if it has little effect on the final cost? In that sense, added value is a matter of syntactical modifications—aggregating, juxtaposing, aligning, interfacing, colouring and detailing—rather than constructive actions. The value of such modifications is a culturally situated calculation that reflects our belief in artistry and, by association, our ethical duty to financially support its free expression. That calculation can also be shrewdly manipulated through scarcity: the transfer of moral prerogative from utility to concept reduces the ethical incentive to make more copies, and even encourages the designer to make fewer copies in order to extract as much added value from each unit without risking an inflation of conceptual worth.

The idea that something should cost what it is fundamentally worth to the end user, based on functionality or merit, is the most direct understanding of value beyond the self-interest of the designer. The impression of parity between utility and cost appeals to our sense as consumers because it makes our investment seem less risky. From the perspective of the manufacturer, that relative stability of value is a motivation to make more units, thus decreasing production cost as an economy of scale. However, the designer regains agency by positioning him- or herself as the driver of functionality, acting on behalf of the user’s interests. Indeed, the role of the designer as someone who can increase the functionality of an object without also increasing the cost, simply by arranging the materials and technical processes more intelligently, is essential to design as a form of innovation.

Although this attitude was crystallised in the mid-twentieth century by Charles and Ray Eames, it precedes them by at least two hundred years. In 1742, Benjamin Franklin published designs for a more efficient stove and other domestic appliances, part of a larger philosophical programme that explained how to live thriftily and, by extension, morally. Yet Franklin refused to copyright his inventions, and declared in his autobiography that “as we enjoy great advantages from the inventions of others, we should be glad of an opportunity to serve others by any invention of ours; and this we should do freely and generously.” This resonates with the anti-consumerism and do-it-yourself independence espoused by Papanek and other radical figures of the 1970s, while the Eames motto promised consumers objects of unparalleled quality and efficiency as long as they received them through a streamlined, hierarchical chain of manufacturers and distributors.

“The best for the most for the least” sounds simple, yet it becomes increasingly complex as it mobilises a series of simultaneous processes, from technological advancement to market competition, that apply downward pressure on cost, while consumer advertising and market differentiation drive it upwards. The resulting force field resembles an arms race between “good design” and design for “good value”, in which all sorts of intangible quantities that have nothing to do with functionality become entangled. The appeal to utility is a highly constructed act, situated in various commercial and infrastructural frameworks: the Aeron chair, designed for Herman Miller by Don Chadwick and Bill Stumpf in 1994, builds its claims to functionality on a foundation of marketing, workplace legislation, ergonomic studies, open-plan offices, and sedentary culture. At the same time, the emphasis on functionality also creates a new branch of consumer demand that can equally be satisfied by other manufacturers. The original designer can either outpace his or her imitators through continued innovation, or try to combat the appropriation of their ideas through the assertion of copyright. However, as Franklin’s legacy shows, the virtuous pursuit of utility as a common good has no innate sense of authorship (rather the opposite). 

The irony is that today, many of the original designs advanced under the aegis of Modernism, as the force that would make good design affordable to the masses through the power of mass production, now wield their iconic status as a defensive strategy against other designs that offer the same utility for a much lower price. Let us consider another wooden seat—the three-legged Stool 60 designed by Alvar Aalto in 1933, and still produced by the Finnish brand Artek. Direct reproductions are widely available, such as the version by the Australian furniture company Matt Blatt. With a bit more handwork, consumers can even adapt IKEA’s four-legged Frosta stool into a facsimile of Stool 60 for a twentieth of the price. Is the original Aalto really 20 times better than the IKEA stool? Artek argues, through their website, print material and factory tours, that the difference lies in the fabrication of the L-shaped legs. The originals are made by bending solid birch wood, recognisable in the comb-like pattern visible on the sides, while the Frosta legs are simple plywood with a birch veneer. While Artek could attempt to block the sale of the Matt Blatt and IKEA stools on the basis of copyright infringement, it would be harder to prove that there is much difference in utility between the original, the replica, and the close copy. The cheapest version of these virtually identical stools, a kind of lowest common denominator, would be the best evocation of the Modernist precept.

A merit-based approach to cost is problematic because it positions utility as ahistorical and a priori to the object itself, and because it assumes that consumers only use objects in the way intended by the designer and manufacturer. Obviously, the very act of sitting is culturally conditioned in ways that evolve over time; as pointed out in the British pavilion’s “Home Economics” exhibition at the 2016 Venice Biennale, the bed overtook the sofa in 2014 as the most used piece of furniture in British homes. Few objects we buy are purely utilitarian: even in the Museum of Modern Art’s category of “Useful Objects”, oddities like napkin rings, paperweights, and Christmas tree ornaments are included in order to demonstrate design’s applicability to the entire spectrum of everyday life, including its moments of preciousness, nostalgia, and fantasy. Contrary to our instincts, we cannot position cost as an expression of relative or objective quantities such as income, material and added value, or utility. Perhaps, given its complexity, ambiguity and instrumentality, cost itself—as an abstract, enigmatic, yet inalienable quality—must be approached as a matter of design.

The Design of Cost
The premise that objects, both very cheap and very expensive, are powerful in ways exclusive to their material makeup or their affordances is not new; the phenomenon has been described variously as conspicuous consumption or commodity fetishism. Such objects evade the traditional logic of supply and demand: for example, the “snob effect” suggests that wealthy consumers prefer certain expensive objects due to their high cost, over any rational appeal; the phenomenon reaches its peak in the case of the collector’s item. Meanwhile, other objects are desirable almost exclusively because of their low (or zero) price, while having low worth in terms of utility or material. In both cases, cost itself is a significant aspect of the way the object is viewed and handled, although it cannot be located in the object as a material resource, a store of labour, or a provider of function.

The radical counterculture and ecological movements that began in the late 1960s had no patience for such market-based machinations. Yet the ideals of ethical consumption and sustainable living that were offered as alternatives to consumer capitalism failed to escape its inertial growth. In practice, these ideals often translated into higher costs based on a moral defence of fair trade, slow production, and mindful consumption. However, in a world characterised by extreme wealth inequality, the option to be an ethical consumer may be predicated on a high level of disposable income. In turn, “sustainable”, “organic”, or “cruelty-free” are now used as branding terms that may only fuel a more subtle form of consumer demand, one that claims the moral high ground while continuing to indulge its basic drives to buy, own, amass, and use up. By wrapping the object in a secondary layer of judgment removed from any obvious material differences in the product itself, the principle of fairness adds even more ambiguity to how cost should be calculated.6

Could this complexity be merely a symptom of how we treat cost, rather than its defining factor? The aforementioned arguments about the cost of a chair—that it should be determined by what its production costs, by the value added to it by the designer’s labour, or by its utility—have all assumed that cost is a retrospective calculation, the inevitable outcome of a series of actions performed in open-ended creative experimentation.7 In other words, the design process is presented as naive and well-intentioned, delaying the consequences of the designer’s decisions until the moment of financial exchange, and thus transferring the responsibility from the individual creator to the collectivity of the market. The disconnect between the designer’s intentions and the real implications of the resultant cost may explain why money is such a taboo subject in design. But what if cost became another part of the designer’s toolkit, like a palette of materials, colours, techniques, or formal references? What might happen if cost became the first decision to be made in the design process?

Of course, this practice can already be observed in the landscape of designed commodities at both high and low extremes. In August 2008, Armin Heinrich launched the I Am Rich app on Apple’s App Store: for the cost of $1,000 or €800, it featured the image of a glowing red gem. Apple removed the app from its digital marketplace after one day, but not before eight users actually purchased it (two were granted a refunded). At the opposite end of the spectrum, IKEA is renowned for its category of “breath-taking” items, or BTIs—what The New Yorker described as “so affordable that you can’t afford not to buy [them].”8 All manner of coat hangers and hooks, coasters, watering cans, wine glasses, placemats, towels, cushions, carrier bags, storage bins, picture frames, potted plants, clocks, and battery-powered milk-frothers can be purchased for about £1; £3 buys a plastic MARIUS stool, £7 a MULIG clothing rail in powder-coated steel, £10 a LACK side-table. A £2 full English breakfast with eggs, beans, tomato, sausage, ham, and hash browns sustains shoppers during their perusal. It is not that these objects are without function; simply that their salient feature is precisely their low cost, their “lack” of any financial onus, that which makes them so effortless to acquire.

By exercising more deliberate control over cost, designers may discover fruitful territory that has hitherto been scarcely explored by individual makers. Joris van Tubergen’s 2011 project €1,- per minute is a rare example, in which the designer sold a range of 3D printed vessels for the precise time it took to print them. The pop-up store raises new questions, such as: does a vase really need to hold water? (In any case, not all designer vases do.) If not, could its surface be reduced to simply suggest the form of a decorative vessel? How little time and plastic filament is necessary to create such an object? Does its attractiveness scale with the density of its surface, or could the price put function and form into competition with one another?

These questions may seem capricious, but they do point to a possible loosening of the overly polite, mask-like relationships between cost and its ostensible equivalencies, including function, craft, material quality, ornamentation, aesthetic taste, conceptual depth, liquidity, and exchange value. Rather than relinquish power to the market-driven calculations of limited-edition design galleries or IKEA, designers might ask themselves more nuanced questions. What could an unapologetically expensive chair do in a spectacle-oriented society? What leaps of logic, feats of engineering, or twists of the social contract might a designer dream up in order to design the cheapest chair possible? Even more intriguingly, what range of possibilities could be expressed in a chair with an absolutely average price? Through these experiments, we might even be able to discuss what it means for this object to cost—and at what price.

  1. Opendesk suggests that a maker’s quote should include, on top of costs and their desired profit margin, a further mark-up of 38 per cent on costs (broken down as 8 per cent for the designer, 12 per cent for use of the Opendesk platform and 18 per cent for use of the sales channel, the Opendesk website), at their Frequently Asked Questions.
  2. According to www.numbeo.com, the cost of public transportation in Shenzhen is 10 per cent the price of London; gasoline is 70 per cent; utilities are 50 per cent; rent varies from 35 to 50 per cent depending on size and distance to city centre. On the other hand, shipping, handling, clearance, and delivery charges would be levied only on the Shenzhen chair; the cost calculation would thus depend on the number, packed size, and weight of the chairs. Online estimates for the cost of sending a shipping container from Shenzhen to London, including costs related to port handling and customs, range from £1500 to £2500. For the sake of the argument, it is assumed that above a certain number of chairs, the savings in manufacture would outweigh the import costs.
  3. Consumers may be biased against pet food or medicine produced in China, following a 2007 incident in which international pet food brands used wheat gluten produced in Xuzhou and Binzhou contaminated with melamine and cyanuric acid, or a 2008 incident of contaminated heparin, a blood thinner, that was produced in Changzhou City and led to 81 deaths in the United States. 
  4. For example, Dr Martens sell two versions of their 1460 boots: the “Originals” range, made in China or Thailand, retails for £105, while the “Made in England” range retails for £195. 
  5. This idea is central to the work of Hella Jongerius, both in the sense of literally unique imperfection (such as the B-Set ceramics, which are fired at a high temperature to slightly distort the shape of each vessel) and in the formal insinuation of imperfection in mass-produced objects (such as her IKEA PS Jonsberg vases).
  6. In the case of clothing made from organic cotton or furniture made from sustainably-harvested wood, they may also be consciously designed to project an ‘ethical’ aesthetic, avoiding bright colours associated with synthetic dye or paint for natural or monochrome shades, although they may still use artificial dye, paint, varnish, or bleach.
  7. In microeconomics, these arguments for determining cost are known, respectively, as the cost-of-production theory of value, the labour theory of value, and the use value. 
  8. Lauren Collins, “House Perfect”, The New Yorker, 3 October 2011. Accessed 6 October 2016.