Ahh, lovely design • 18 May 2010 • The SnowBlog

Ahh, lovely design


Just watching The Genius of Design on the BBC. I missed the first ep (though iPlayer will catch me up when I get a minute) but I'm enjoying episode two: Designs for Living. Fascinating to see that all modern fitted kitchens are descended, in design terms, from the Frankfurt Kitchen of Margarete Schtte-Lihotzky. And that minimalist apartments were more or less invented by Le Corbusier and his pals. But what's equally striking to me is how rubbish both of those inspired and original designs are. Their designers set out to be utterly original and ruthlessly ground-breaking - nothing was sacred - and they still went nowhere near far enough. For all the talk of 'machines for living', these designs seem almost rustic in their lack of efficiency and precision. At the time of their conception, they must have been shocking. They were so different from anything domestic that had gone before. But from a modern perspective, an off-the-shelf IKEA kitchen would trounce Le Corbusier at every turn. Perhaps that's partly because of the politics of design, whereby designs are statements for others to talk about and signposts that show the way. Their creators perhaps didn't care that they weren't really 'finished'. But perhaps it's more that when you're so far out in front of anyone else, there's less incentive to keep going, to keep finessing and purifying your design - until the world at least begins to catch up. 

But I'm hoping this series will show me at least one designer who not only broke the mould but also charged off over the horizon with their ideas and didn't stop until they'd got something not only radical but thoroughly well-designed, because those are the examples we need in the real world. That's to say, not just ideas for a new sort of business, but an actual commercially-viable, new sort of business. Not just a sketch for a hydrogen-powered car, but a working, reliable car. And not just a prototype for a minimalist smartphone with a touchscreen, but a production version that's eminently usable too. And as you can tell from that last example, that's what impresses me about Apple: that their design process doesn't stop when they've broken the mould; it continues until their iconoclasm is also practical. I'm hoping to see a few forerunners of that approach.

Update: Now that I've finished watching that episode, I can see that the commercialisation of design tends to have that 'finishing off' effect I was talking about. Particularly impressive is the backyard designer and artisan (not to mention ex-shepherd) Wally Byam with his Airstream Trailer. Along with the works of Raymond Loewe and Henry Dreyfuss.


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