The Elusive Quest for Originality

September 27, 2012 | Alex

This is a bit a rif on a comment I made in an earlier post, but in the past few years, I've frequently found myself frustrated by the elusive quest for originality. I've lost count of how many times I've been inspired to try to make something that struck me as an original DIY, only to discover it's old hat in the blogosphere.

Admittedly, it's sort of a weird concept because most DIYs are by definition a Do-It-Yourself version of an existing object. So while the design or concept may not be original, some component of the process is  original-- for example, the construction method or the materials you use. Maybe it could be likened to coming up with a new shortcut for a baking recipe? The desired end result is a cake that is indistinguishable in appearance and flavor, but that replaces an expensive ingredient with a cheaper substitute. Or introduces a novel way to combine ingredients that cuts down on the prep time.

I'm not constantly seeking DIY originals. My design dabblings are limited by time, budget, space and experience. A lack of experience is especially scary. I'm sometimes hesitant to take design risks in other people's space-- like Ryan's apartment. I don't want to spend his money on some hare-brained scheme, then say, whoop, guess it didn't work out as I'd hoped. My bad! Particularly for capital intensive DIYs, I prefer to follow in the footsteps of tried-and-true DIYers, like Jenny of Little Green Notebook  or Daniel of Manhattan Nest.

A ubiquitous example of a safe, but rewarding DIY is the Rast > Campaign Chest Ikea hack. If you want the look of a campaign dresser, without hunting flea markets, Craigs List or shelling out at an antique store, it's brilliant. But you're sure not breaking any new ground.

And many more...

But if you always follow the well-trodden path, it sucks the fun out of the creative process. My favorite DIY ideas are those that hit me over the head while I'm browsing the interwebs: "Oh man, give me some chewing gum, sawdust, fishing wire and a bunch of glow sticks and I could totally make that." DIY MacGyver style.

About 6 months ago, I was feverishly coveting a blown glass chandelier in the style of Lindsey Adelman  or PELLE. Then I popped into CB2 for an edison bulb and saw these nifty little hanging votives:

via CB2

via CB2

Hallelujah!  What an awesome bubble chandelier you could make with a whole mess of those votives. One day, I shall build it. And then I shall blog about it.  My current living environment doesn't provide an opportunity for replacing ceiling fixtures, but I planned to pounce as soon as I had the chance.

Then I saw this in a NY Times Home & Garden slideshow:

"In in for the Long Haul in Bushwick," The New York Times (Photo by Bruce Buck)

"In in for the Long Haul in Bushwick," The New York Times (Photo by Bruce Buck)

Yup. Even my DIY-version of an unoriginal design turned out to be unoriginal. That's two degrees of unoriginality. It's sobering. It's discouraging. It makes me want to crawl back into bed and hide under the covers. Why the heck do I care so much?

Updated 10/1/12 with even more cluster light DIY's using CB2s votive holders: Door Sixteen and  Pelle via Ready Made.

I don't think we've suddenly reached the point as a society where everything's been done before, but I do think that the explosion of the blogosphere has laid bare just how hard it is to be original in a world of 6,973,738,433 homo sapiens (thanks, Google). If you thought of something "unique" and someone in New Zealand had the same idea, before this wretched internet came along, you could float through life in blissful ignorance. Now, not so much. Especially not if you read Design Sponge and Apartment Therapy.

These realizations of unoriginality can be spirit crushing. What's the rub though? Is it because the creative world is so competitive that each time I discover someone out there (in my own borough no less) beat me to the punch I'm reminded that the odds of standing out are stacked against me?

Of course, there are designers who do come up with genuinely new ideas or re-imagine old ideas so that they become new. But what percentage of designers do you think that is? Probably a frighteningly small number. Most industry folks would probably say that there's no room for unoriginality in the design sphere. But if we're ultimately inspired by the same world around us and comprised of 99.5% of the same genetic material (thanks again, Google), that might be an unrealistically high bar to set. Millions of us are bound to independently come up with the same idea. So here's my question: Should the statistics give us comfort that it's okay to be unoriginal? Afterall, it's a numbers game! Just CHILL OUT and stop taking it so personally, me. Or is this self-inflicted torture a necessary motor for invention and innovation?