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15.01.11 | Opinion

Design: The back story

Antonia Williams takes a couch-side tour of what’s on offer in the world of design TV – a reality check to say the least.

This is absolutely the moment to consider a little design history, a refresher course, perhaps. And, blinding flash, available now is the complete BBC2 series The Genius of Design. (You may recall producer Tim Kirby’s last riff in The Genius of Photography.)

This is a history of design as function, described with the greatest clarity.

It was only 250 years ago – as the machinery of industrialisation and capitalism chuntered into being – the words design, designing and designer arrived.  (This was a bit of a surprise.) While living in a world smothered in stuff we need to grasp that design isn’t stuff, but what happens to stuff: good, bad and indifferent.

In five hourly parts, and sadly not a sixth to bring us truly up to date, we hear from: J Mays, Ford’s global head of design; Apple’s Jonathan Ives; and Dieter Rams, the industrial designer who helped resurrect a flattened Germany via Braun products. It is easy to understand why he is GoD: the Grand old Man of Design. His sane and clear view of design’s social progress is summed up by his commandments for good design. These include the need for design to be aesthetic, to be useful, to be honest and as discrete as an English butler  (I really like that one).

We see Wedgwood, we see William Morris and we see the work of nameless designers. Then, as art nouveau and friends get thoroughly knotted, in comes the future with integrated simple functionality, the discipline of the Bauhaus and modernism. Industrial designers, such as Raymond Loewy and Henry Dreyfus, feed the dreams of the American consumer. There is admiration for the machine and the machine-made, for open plan living, tubular steel furniture and the fitted kitchen.

Design, says Kirby, is the inescapable element in our man-made world, the shadow that outlines the working shape of man. And so, we meet Margaret Calvert, the woman whose typographically simple and elegant road signage became the template for highways everywhere. We get wonderful new materials out of the powerhouse of the American war. This is where plastics enter our world and where the clever Eameses come in. Before long, plastics are the thrilling and beautiful experimental backdrop; the servants of a hopeful new society. There is Robin Day’s polyprop chair: light, strong, stackable, washable, comfortable, cheap and fast to produce. Wall-to-wall and ceiling-to-ceiling we are liberated by plastics, exemplified by Joe Colombo and Verner Panton. And the postmodernists had to have a say: Barthes announces that plastics are “the first magical material that consents to be banal.” Indeed it seems everyone has a say.

Then the Japanese invent miniaturised electronics. The whole world wants nano and Sony’s Walkman. And Stephen Bayley says, “you know design is good for you if you want to lick it”.

Creating with a purpose? Alessi says ‘bah’ to market research. And a very different innovation arrives with Memphis and Sottsass. The politics of design? Or the design of politics? Now they are having fun. Ikea flatpacks: a cleverly designed life for democracy. There is wonderful, wonderful Scandinavia from the go-get. Swift on the heels of democracy comes celebrity, lead by uber designers Philippe Starck, Marc Newson and Ron Arad. Look out for Harvey Molotch. Listen to Stephen Fry, no educational program is truly a pleasure unless Fry struts his stuff.

Well, if it doesn’t bring us quite up to date with 2010, just think what on earth we must do with landfill. Is that where our human design duty lies?


Words_ Antonia Williams
Illustrator_ The Gallery

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