Focus on Form and Function: A Q& A With the Authors of 'Design Your Life'

By Nora Krug
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, July 30, 2009

When Ellen Lupton was recovering after the birth of her daughter, her husband's eyes strayed from the beatific scene of mother and child to something less palatable: the poor design of the hospital room. Unable to stand it, he decided to reconfigure, fashioning a new seating area near the window beside Lupton's bed rather than at her feet.

"Daddy has a furniture problem," Lupton later explained to her children. But if it's a problem, it's one he shares with his wife, a curator of contemporary design at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York and director of the graphic design master of fine arts program at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, where she lives. She's also the co-author of the new book "Design Your Life: The Pleasures and Perils of Everyday Things" (St. Martin's Griffin, $23.95) and a blog ( with her twin sister, Julia Lupton, a professor of English at the University of California at Irvine.

Ellen, 45, explains that for her family, "moving the furniture has become a way of pulling happiness and sociability . . . out of ordinary situations."

The book, a glossy paperback punctuated with colorful, painterly illustrations by Ellen, examines the highs and lows of everyday design, such as the pitfalls of the modern toaster, why porches are making a comeback and what's wrong with rolling luggage. It also offers tips on how design can make your life not only more visually appealing but also more efficient, even happier.

If this sounds like self-help hooey, never fear. "Design Your Life" is brainy and irreverent: "Design has psychological as well as mechanical functions," Ellen writes. Even "an ordinary toilet paper holder can instill feelings of security, freedom, and restraint in addition to keeping the clean roll off the dirty floor." In a phone interview, we asked the authors to elaborate.

How do you define good design?

Ellen: We think design is not just objects but what you do with them, and that if you can arrange them in your life so they work for you, that's good design. Good design gives you pleasure and efficiency. When you start to become aware and pay attention to the details and habits of your day, then you start thinking like a designer.

How can you spot poor design?

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