Every week, critic Robert Ham breaks down the mechanics of a particularly excellent Silicon Valley scene, moment or joke. This week, it’s all about Deng.
Architecture and design are two of the disciplines in this world that never cease to amaze me. I look at a well-crafted building, or a piece of furniture or even a font and I marvel at the kind of mind that could generate something so beautiful.
Yet, I also can’t help but feel like there’s some kind of madness and silliness involved in it all too. Like the moments in the 1995 documentary Unzipped where fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi talks about finding the inspiration for his next season of clothing in Nanook of the North and Loretta Young in Call of the Wild. As interesting as it is to get a glimpse into his process, there’s a randomness and absurdity to it, as well.
That’s why the scene where Richard goes toe-to-toe with Deng, the designer hired by Pied Piper CEO Jack Barker to craft the look of their box, is the one that made the most sense to highlight in this week’s wrap up of Silicon Valley. Like a lot of the most memorable moments of the show, it didn’t even really need to be a part of the episode, since it bore no real weight on the plot. Those few minutes, though, had me laughing the hardest and left me with that same note of ridiculousness that I felt when watching Unzipped.
Deng is a complete caricature of the modern designer type, with his Afghan-inspired scarf and teased up hair, as well as his breathless enthusiasm as he plays crappy world music and scrolls through a bunch of pictures of nature scenes to find something that will resonate. But, like all good caricatures, there’s a real ring of truth to it. I live in Portland and see these dudes at bars all the time, making sure that every hair on their head is out of place and that everything in their world is perfect and stylish. It might even be envy-inducing, if it didn’t always seem so exhausting to be so damn self-aware and image conscious. That may be a lot to put on one minor character, but, again, leave it to the writers and costume designers at Silicon Valley to so perfectly bring that type of person to life for all of 10 minutes of screentime.
This character also represents something that the show has captured so well: the foolish spending habits of the tech industry. Do the members of Pied Piper’s staff need a personal chef, and tons of snacks and an on-site gardener to help them do their work? Of course not. Yet there they are. As glaringly unnecessary as the $100,000 statue of a panda that adorns Dropbox’s HQ. The biggest joke that this scene provides is something that Richard points out in his apoplectic bluster: he’s being asked to help design what is essentially just a black rectangle that almost no one in the real world will see. The idea of making it look like anything more than utilitarian box is delightfully laughable.
It only gets funnier as Richard embraces the box idea and immediately scoffs at Deng’s plain design, urging him to come up with something that looks more like a cheetah, or a gazelle, or a jaguar. Again, it’s a box that’s going to be tucked away in a server farm. None of this matters in the slightest. Just like Gavin Belson’s spiritual advisor on the show, Deng has somehow found a way to capitalize on the free flowing revenue stream that is buoying the tech industry. We’ve been made to believe that every last bit of technology we own has to look good, as well as perform at a high level. I’d applaud their chutzpah if I wasn’t so busy trying to get my hands on the next version of the iPhone.
Robert Ham is a Portland-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. Follow him on Twitter.