“Objects can take away our fear of dying.” Designer and researcher Bitten Stetter talks about death and design and reflects on the “aura of the end of life.”
Tessa Apitz: As a fashion designer, how did you become concerned with death and dying?
Bitten Stetter: For personal reasons. I supported my sick mother when she was dying and spent a lot of time at the hospice and in palliative care units. On the one hand, I was a relative and thus directly affected; on the other, I was still a designer. I observe things very closely: What surrounds us? How do things and objects influence our well-being and unwellness? I asked myself how this last phase of life is shaped and how it relates to society.
What did you find out?
There is a lack of provision and ideas! One might even say that dying as a phase of life is completely ostracised. Even death is designed, right down to the napkins used at funeral banquets. And yet, for dying itself nothing beautiful or identity-creating exists. Our whole life is geared towards individualisation, so why are the dying deprived in this regard?
How do death and design go together?
Dying is part of life, so I see no reason why we should not treat it as we do life. We repress death and fear dying. Design can help us understand dying as a part of life. Dying, if consciously shaped, becomes more tangible and therefore less frightening.
Dying is emotional and personal, the surroundings often sparse and functional, even in private dying rooms. Isn’t this paradoxical?
I have also supported people at home and was shocked to see how their homes were furnished. Sparse, medical aspects are foregrounded. Anyone who has visited a hospice or palliative care unit senses this “aura of the end of life.” This atmosphere is created by rooms and the objects in them. We need to see this historically: In the past, people used to die in the living room among their family. Later, death was delegated to institutions. This shift is strongly rooted in our cultural memory, and we once again need to learn that other possibilities exist. I also see this in my work: from the moment of diagnosis, everything else disappears. There are no more ideas.
Do you have any concrete ideas?
Very simple things: a magnetic socket by the bed to enable the dying to charge their mobile phones on their own and help them stay in touch with the world. A lamp that creates different lighting atmospheres. A basket for personal belongings that can be hung on the bed. In my experience, the absolute crisis is that the dying keep their belongings in their bed. During the care process, these things are removed. But patients are ashamed to ask for their handkerchief or notebook, i.e. “unimportant” things. They lose their autonomy.
Can design help us understand dying differently?
Design is not a miracle cure, but I do believe that we deal with mortality differently when certain products are visible in everyday life. When we see a pacifier bottle in the supermarket, we automatically know that a child in its first phase of life ingests fluids differently than adults. The object conveys this notion. Nobody knows how liquid is ingested at the end of life. In the past, spouted cups made of porcelain were part of the tableware bought at a specialist shop. Today you can no longer buy them offline, but have to order ugly products on care supply sites. That says a lot. Design can impart knowledge in a lifelike and low-threshold way through the presence of things. I believe this presents us with opportunities.
Which “things for dying” have you designed?
I have designed prototypes for patient tunics. These resemble the classical model, but their material and aesthetics have changed and they have additional features, for instance, pockets. With “Design Interventions,” I’m trying out how products can be used differently. I buy porcelain cups from old stocks and add porcelain painting pens so that the dying or their relatives can individualise them, i.e. do-it-yourself kits. Or sets that say something about eating habits — which is a major source of conflict at the end of life. Dying people eat less. Relatives do not accept this and stuff their loved ones with (unwanted) food. Small-sized tableware already suggests that eating less is possible. I thus seek to convey a different haptic experience on the one hand and knowledge on the other, which is why my designs include instructions.
Which research methods do you use?
Observation and trial and error. I call my method “Multi-Layered Ethnography”: I observe how dying and design are negotiated across the world, which things were (and are still) used in the past or in other cultures. I analyse which products are available on the market in other contexts and how I might use them. Design doesn’t mean completely redesigning everything. I often understand contextual shifts as a design method. So it’s a very open concept of design. My “Cultural Probes” are about reflection: I give carers and relatives tips and little exercises they can go through, and then interview them. I make my objects available to institutions, yet leave them to help themselves.
At a recent exhibition, you asked people what they wanted to have around them when they died. What would you put in the suitcase for your last journey?
I’d start packing my bag right now. Personal textiles are important, in my case a scarf with my favourite fragrance. A collection of patient tunics. Things that make me feel safe and strong, little private mementos. A notebook, music and my mobile phone. A container in which I can put my things. And something fun. We should not surround dying with total gloom and doom.