The DNA of Design
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Have you ever considered who designed an elastic band? That is, first imagine life before elastic bands, then imagine somebody deciding to design one. What about the safety pin? It came into being to raise money to pay off a $15 debt; the patent sold for only $400. Its inventor, New Yorker Thomas Hunt, also did hobnail boots and the fountain pen, but his conscience would not allow him to pursue his sewing machine lest he put hand-seamstresses out of work. What about the British National Standard pillar box we all loved until the Post Office turned it upside down in the 1980s and took off its distinctive headgear? Invented in 1879. The first box was devised by Anthony Trollope – that Trollope – who had been sent to the Channel Islands to study how the postal service might be improved.

These and other fine facts can be found in Phaidon Design Classics, a three volume set of 999 objects from the past 400 years, which costs £ 100, when piled up is over 7 inches thick, and weighs 37 and a half pounds. Each volume is not going to leave the house or office often (not tube reading at all) but then again they won’t sit on the shelf unread. Not with those covers yellow as a New York city cab (checker Marathon, object 129, 1922).

All 999 objects are arranged chronologically so there’s more creativity up front. Only sometimes do invention and design go hand-in-hand: all inventors are designers, but not all designers are inventors. The drinking straw (object 047, 1888) was never ‘designed’, but created by a maker of paper cigarette holders for a practical purpose with little regard to aesthetics. It is what it is, unimproved apart from the introduction of flexibility.

The invention of the chair was as simple as the straw. Their function was just to let us sit, but the scope for evolution and interpretation was much wider, and therefore 179 of the 999 objects are chairs. They demonstrate how to tinker, update in new materials, reinvent in shape, rework and redesign. A chair can have the ‘warm, receptive look of a well-used first baseman’s mitt’ as Charles Eames described his lounge chair (object 489, 1956), recliner of choice for Manhattan shrinks, or be as artfully uncomfortable as Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s Hill House ladderback chair (object 072, 1902). Your first thought wouldn’t be to sit: climb it perhaps. The initial chair entry is a garden seat mass-produced in cast iron whose mould doubles for a bench (object 008, 1825); the last is Chair_One (object 996, 2003) which might be part of a geodesic dome mounted on a cone. It is the first die-cast aluminium chair shell so it shares the casting process with its Regency forebear. In between are bentwood, upholstered, metal, plastic, glass fibre, stacking, deck, self assembly, reclining, flip-open, blow-up, engineered high-tech, moulded and padded chairs and a whole subdivision of folding chairs. That’s been an obsession in the history of product design – who can make the flattest, cheapest, lightest, most stable and beautiful folding chair? The Propeller folding stool (object 198, 1930) designed by Kaare Klint, who founded the Royal Danish Academy’s furniture school, achieves all those attributes by cleverly twisting a cylinder of wood through 180 degrees, then cutting it in a vertical helix. Simple and ingenious. The history of chairs demonstrates the way that design feeds off the past, twisting it this way and that, making the old new again and again.

The Dutch designer Hella Jongerius’s Soft Urn (object 922, 1994) playfully goes forward and back, too. She took the ideas of an ancient hand-made vase and of mass production. ‘Why would I design yet another new form for a vase,’ she said, and kept the old shape of the old plus the seams and marks of an industrial process, but cast her new vase in paper thin rubber. Her urn is a summary of the history of vases.

On each cover Phaidon offers definitions of ‘design classic’: all objects catalogued are 1) of ‘enduring significance’; 2) ‘innovative in their use of new materials’; 3) have ‘purity of form’; 4) ‘have remained unchanged since their creation’. It’s an ambitious undertaking, ‘encyclopaedic in scale’ as Terence Conran notes, to tell the world-shaping stories behind each invention. The reach is broad (Crayola to Concorde) and quirky (the LZ 129 Hindenberg, Toblerone, Rubik’s Cube). The surprises are not the Apple iPod (object 978, 2001), nor the Aston Martin (object 958, 1963), although both deserve their place, but the never-endorsed-by-Bono-or-Bond everyday objects: household scissors (object 001, 1663), still being made by the company that invented them; the jigsaw puzzle (object 005, 1766); the clothes peg (object 016, 1850s); the Heinz ketchup bottle (object 050, 1890); the paper clip (object 063, 1899); the zip (object 102, 1913); the Rawlplug (object 118, 1919); the hairgrip (object 158, 1926); the credit card (object 393, 1950); the ring-pull can (object 592, 1962). Every one had an inventor and/or designer, a break-through, a production and continuing story of redesign.

These are de rigueur resource books for design professionals or architects, but they are also a history of consumption for a wider audience. You immediately make the connections with your own past, ‘we had those mugs, I use that blender’, and you understand more about who we were and are: Christine Keeler, naked, sits astride Arne Jacobson’s still modern Chair No.3107 (object 460, 1955) with all the insouciant sexuality of the 1960s embodied in her gaze and in the curves of that moulded plywood chair. Even the stripped-down name Chair No. 3107 evokes a label on evidence or the identification numbers held up by the arrested. Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona Chair (object 189, 1929), with its curving steel kiss and hand-stitched seat, reached total ubiquity in the 1980s and now sits in every lobby in every land. It sits. You don’t. It is a chair to be admired, not used.

I found my own history: I was born in Milan in the mid 50s, the child of two designers, surrounded by design without knowing it. We sat on Antelope chairs (object 408, 1951) outside and DAR chairs (object 352, 1948) inside; ate and drank from Arabia’s Kilta plates and cups (object 420, 1952), and Krenit bowls (object 428, 1953), and were photographed by my father using his Rolleiflex (object 182, 1928). When I come across any of those in an ‘antique’ shop I feel pride and irritation. I became a designer. I am writing this on my Powerbook G4 (object 978, 2001), at an Eames table (object 633, 1952), referring to notes in a Dixon Ticonderoga pencil (object 103, 1913), under the light of a Luxo L-1 lamp (object 266, 1937). Design just ain’t what it used to be.

In fact, the meaning of the words ‘design’ and ‘designer’ has been redesigned. They both now define their opposites: ‘design’ means mass-produced, style-less and useless, ‘designer’ means a higher price tag. Philippe Starck’s Juicy Salif (object 892, 1990) doesn’t work and spills juice all over the counter, which is dented by its spindly legs. (But then, his doors don’t close and his taps splash sideways.) However, it is a design classic. The word ‘classic’ has been redesigned too, usually to mean old. Can you really have a classic straight out of the box? Apple seems to have mastered insti-classic: yesterday’s iMac is so last year. Popular objects become design classics, and arrive fresh daily. What happened to integrity and intelligence in product design? Were they terminated in the early 1970s? Does the world need another ashtray (there are eight listed), or ice bucket (object 771, 1974), or throwaway lighter (object 792, 1977)? The inclusion of two loo brushes does suggest a major need – the last listed object, 999, 2004, is a loo brush as part of a bathroom range, with soap dish, toothbrush tumbler, tissue holder and container with lid for cotton buds. A bathetic finale to four centuries. The text gushes over the ‘real joy of this range’, ‘what good product design should be about, honesty, detail and innovation’. What?

We know we don’t want more plastic, cars, non-recyclable goods, anything that depletes our planet or harms our environment. The just-get-a-new-one age is so over. The sight of scarcely used electronic goods put out by the dustbin should deter us from buying the next I-must-have. Charles Eames’s other great design classic, the statement that ‘less is more’ has to expand to mean ‘more is less’. His other credo, ‘to get the most of the best to the greatest number of people for the least’, may have to be radically redesigned as we run rapidly out of resources. Inventors and designers must not fill future editions of this reference work with nonsense. Good design has to be intelligent, responsive and responsible.

Anyway, let me enjoy what I can of this book. The realisation of each object through still-life photographs, drawings, scribbles, plans and blueprints is worthwhile, but the ads and movie stills really animate the stories and put the objects in context: a grainy black and white still from the 1971 film Le Mans of Steve McQueen wearing a Monaco watch (object 713, 1969) with Tag Heuer printed boldly across his protective suit; the impossible beauty of Catherine Deneuve in an ad showing the possible beauty of Chanel’s No5 bottle (object 126, 1921); David Hemmings astride Verushka shooting her through his Nikon F camera (object 540, 1959). Notice the time lapse between the date of object creation and the era of object cool. When Hemmings was doing his best to imitate David Bailey in Antonioni’s 1966 film Blow-Up, the camera was seven years old. It was, is and always will be a design classic, despite digital photography.

Some classics are by-products. Post-it notes (object 812, 1980) were a use for new molecular structures of adhesive. Their simplicity is so satisfying that they have migrated to the screens of the digital world. Some depend on changes in human habits. The shopping trolley (object 267, 1937) was the brainchild of the owner of a supermarket chain and fashioned to increase sales. He had to plant people in his Oklahoma City stores to walk around with the trolley to show its convenience. Packaging and advertising are integral to the books, since objects need a home, a context. Some products ARE their advertising, such as Absolut Vodka (object 810, 1979). Bic (object 766, 1973) celebrates the lighter’s short life. The VW Beetle (object 271, 1938) asks us to ‘Think Small’ and shows a tiny car on an blank page. The designers of Apple Mac (object 843, 1984 – appropriate year) reworked the words of Louis Sullivan (creator of the skyscraper), the dictum ‘form follows function’ as ‘form follows emotion’ and used them to promote their home computer, evading IBM’s computer domination of the office. The Mickey Mouse watch (object 217, 1933) was so popular that it saved Disney from receivership. The Mouse sold himself.

I did end up longing for a bit of bad taste. I can’t help it. In the early 80s I went to supper with an old friend who had moved in with a man she thought she adored. He looked immaculate in unadorned monochrome, wrote about design and architecture, went on to start a design magazine. In the kitchen she poured out her distress about their unhappy life, in which everything had to be just so and every object designed. Their stark loft had no carpets, books on shelves, or, God forbid, toothpaste on display. Nothing at all that might soften or comfort. Everything, walls, floor, tv, stereo, plates, showercurtain, was matte black. They had fought when she unthinkingly returned home with a pale blue plastic washing-up bowl. Design classics need a touch of vulgarity to wake them up from their sleep of perfection. Blue plastic is NOT the enemy.

One last thing: reviewers seldom mention the cover or comment on the typeface. Phaidon have almost succeeded in these but, and it’s a big but, the volumes are caged in a curious, matte black plastic frame with ‘Phaidon Design Classic’ cut out on the side. It looks like a milk crate. Trust me, I’m a designer, I know how things work, but it took me an hour to release the volumes from their cage. Now they’re out there’s no reason to put them back behind bars. A detail perhaps, but then Charles and Ray Eames bevelled the edges of their LTR table at a 20 degree angle to expose the layers of plywood. ‘The details are not the details,’ said Charles, ‘they make the product.’ The books are good, but that cage negates their value. I’m sitting here thinking: what I can do with this cage? What can I turn it into? Answer: nothing.


'Arete is a journal as exquisite in its execution as in its intentions.'
John Updike

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Milan Kundera