There is a Greek myth that details a creature, or rather, a beast that had the body of a lion with the head of a goat jutting from its back and a serpent’s tail. In the Iliad, Homer described it as “a thing of immoral make, not human.” The creature named Chimera was feared for its hybrid body that had no comparison to any singular creature and therefore had no root in the world in which it existed. It resembled the known, and yet its reality was alien.
Nowadays the term Chimera is used more generally to convey an inventive idea, a dazzling thought, a fragment of imagination, or something that is implausible. In science the term has come to be used to refer to ‘a single organism that’s made up of cells from two or more individuals’, such as a person who has different coloured eyes is a Chimera. Similarly, in nature when a plant is a mixture of two or more cell types or there is mutation of cells, then it too is referred to as a Chimera. A citrus fruit that has stripes of different colour on its skin is a clear example of this.
In design the word Chimera could be adopted to describe hybridization and the mutation of various creative pursuits into a single entity. Chimera might be used to refer to the development of a design body made up of various parts, such as the spatiality of architecture with the fabrics of fashion and the precision of typography. There are clearly a plethora of combinations that could be drawn together to create a fleet of design chimeras. However, are these hybrids – the designer plus something else – to be feared as unknown, or perceived as dazzling with possibilities?
The problem with extending the meaning of the word Chimera into design is that it can become a battlefield of connotations. When used it can lead to a state of confusion. Does the word signal a compliment or a criticism? Is it a natural mutation or an artificial hybrid? An evolution or a gene edit? A myth or reality?
There is a commonality between the myth of the Chimera and the reality of design as they both share the concept of a hybrid body. In both myth and design the hybrid body is feared for the way it appears on the outside and yet is popularised for its curious existence. Both battle between the truth of that ‘what you see is what you get’ (revived in the 1970s by Flip Wilson’s drag queen persona Geraldine) and the cryptic advice ‘not to judge a book by its cover’ (first attested in the journal ‘American Speech’ 1944). There seems to be a disparity in what the Chimera is trying to achieve in its hybrid state – between something truthful and something cryptic. Perhaps this is why such a creature is a rarity. Both the myth and the reality inhabit a space that seems to ping-pong between the foundations of a truth to the allure of the myth.
If we take what we know about hybrids from nature, science and myth, then we can begin to see how cross-fertilisation is notorious for having a low number of successes from a high number of trials. Hybrids in general cannot reproduce and so in a sense, they are beautiful one-offs.
There have been moments in the past where the course of hybrid innovation has undoubtedly been somewhat successfully tried and tested. For example, in Art Nouveau and Bauhaus there was a move to merge, to create and develop a new body of design that was not this, that or the other. Like in dance, these movements understood that when two or more entities move together, their interplay can synchronise to become one.
More recent examples of individuals that may be included in the canon of ‘Chimera designers’ are the skateboarder come actor turned photographer Jason Lee, Civil engineer turned architect come Fashion designer and Off-White CEO Virgil Abloh, and Michael Webb the artist and renowned architect who had success in fashion as part of the 1960s Archigram Group. These Chimera designers are all famed for their success in merging either one design silo into another or seamlessly crossing over between two. They are celebrated for their hybrid nature and will, more than likely, be remembered in design history for their intersectional existence.
These Chimera designers are the first that emerge as the result of an internet search for ‘designer X who became designer Y’ such as ‘architect who became a fashion designer’. Disputably they appear in this predictive search suggestion due to the success of their cross-fertilisation. These few success stories could also be an indication that the title of Chimera designer may be rarely given due to the high risk and low success rates of pursuing such a transition.
In some respects, these Chimera Designers are celebrated because they go against the standard. A standard in which the norm is for designers to stick to their design field. Certainly, some might dabble with collaborations and partner with others outside of their field, but in truth, the vast majority don’t end up making the jump or fully flip from one field of design into another. Possibly there is a fear that if a designer does decide to transition that they risk being attacked by their new peers and isolated by their past colleagues. Yet fear is known to build confidence and when used correctly it can be channelled into achieving things that before seemed impossible. Directing a sense of fear into the cross-fertilisation of Chimera design has the possibility to create new varieties that can produce innovative outcomes.
In a sense, designers are Chimeras when they bravely become a single hybrid of two or more design silos, and design becomes a Chimera when it is the synchronised outcome of two or more different collaborating designers. There are successes and failures in both cases.
The beauty in the monstrous nature of a Chimera comes from its obvious alien presence. It has a body that Homer has called ‘not human’, and that many others have carefully studied in the hope of better understanding the true nature of the beast. Although what Homer perhaps missed is that despite also calling the Chimera ‘immoral’, it is in fact the creatures’ disregard to conform and accept the common standard that has cemented it in myth and given it the Chimera it’s relevance in a number of different subjects today.
No doubt we will still be seeing the likes of Chimeras in years to come, and in all probability we will still question their hybrid status and celebrate in their rare one-off victories. There may similarly never be complete clarity about how to create a successful Chimera. Of what parts should and shouldn’t be connected, and how they should come together to create a hybrid of design fields that is in equal parts ethical, sustainable, expressive and new.
Design is far from the extinction of the fear for Chimeras – but to promote innovation, we need to encourage acceptance that there needs to be an emerging field in which the Chimera designer has more of a place in common practice.