by hallie delvillian, cudc graduate student

Immediately, “class” may trigger us to organize in our minds nice even dollar amount brackets; where we slice the spectrum into clean equal thirds and assign the lower, middle, and upper. Then, we tend to put them on a ladder, of who is on top, and who is on bottom. Easy.

Class is much more complex than that. French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu gave an interesting visual of class: a flat plane where our spot on this 2 dimensional surface are factors of not only economics, but also of cultural, capital, academics, networks, attitudes, prestige, and tastes. All these things combined form how we act, how we interpret the world, and how we regulate the acts in that world. Class directly tells us “who we think we are, how we behave, and how we expect to be treated”.


Point- blank, it has to do with success.

Garry Stevens, an architectural sociologist best known for his controversial 1998 book The Favored Circle, believes that ultimately social background wieghs more on our success than our creative aptitude. He told us that a select few architects become successful (and famous) not out of sheer genius, or even dumb luck, but because of who they studied with; by extension, those “lucky breaks”—college acceptance, contacts, internships, first jobs, career advancement—depend to a significant degree on class and taste.

While Stevens doesn’t say that class is the only influence that gets us to the top, evidently pure talent doesn’t get us there either.

Is Steven’s right? Is the history of our pasts, our mothers and fathers, the way we learned to write, what dolls we played with, what music we’ve come to enjoy, all sum into the leading influence of our success as designers? I agree, it is a huge part, bigger than anyone likes to admit, but if it is the leading cause is debatable, as it was in 1998.

Take notice at juries of the students to most likely mingle with the stars that come to critique us; often it is those with a good amount of social class standing (remember class is not only money, but manners, taste, culture, academics and networks).


Sure, our class has a hand in our success, our networks, what firms we end up in, but success is more complex than just social class plus talent. It may be seen by now that class is really broad, and especially today, very vague. Class, although in my opinion not a factor alone that determines our success in design, influences all factors.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, studier of happiness and creativity, in his rsearch has found these factors that aid for success in any creative field, like design.

• access to the domain (the set of symbolic rules and procedures)
• access to the field (the individuals who act as the gatekeepers to the domain)
• the individual him/herself.

As mentioned before, class has an effect on all these pieces to our success. Our access to certain schools is certainly influenced by class and status, the firms that are “in our league” are dictated by our status, even access to professors/ mentors rely on a status of academics and one’s network-pool.

The factor we can control most is our individualism. Because of this, our individualism should be our most prized weapon to get to the top. Uniqueness can be channeled to grab the attention of the gatekeepers, and curb our chances and routes for success. While typically those of the upper class get noticed the most (recieve the most attention), the design field is such an incredible exception because of the individual element that defines our work and our image that we are in control of. While social background propels or retards movement in every profession, the design field is a different playing field, where announcing our personalities and attitudes about the world influence how far we make it.


Jake said...

This interprets class as something unchangeable.

This is probably true for certain things (manners, speech, clothes), but a lot of this is changeable in college, especially architecture school, don't you think?

The kind of mentors we have (teachers, jurors) are pretty indiscriminate, and I know I've seen students construct a facade over 4 years of school. In first year, they were an extension of high school (and their family, friends), but by 4th year had homogenized to the 'designer' they wanted to be. Dressing spiffy (= wearing black), speaking well (and with arrogance), and aware of the social constructs in the world of architecture - that mingling is the way to win.

I guess I'm supposing: While getting a slick job at a firm may not be available to the uncouth, I think that the construct of architecture school encourages the construction of a persona that can place them on the level of a new social class.

Hallie said...

I like the idea of a "new social class" and do believe each individual can improve / grow into "the designer they wanted to be". This article isn't to debate whether social mobility is possible (of course it is!) the aim is only to uncover realization that our roots matter at the heart of most life/career decisions (likely, our roots determine how we problem-solve, which has much to do with design).