Monday 17 March 2008

Engineers, boffins, geeks and rude mechanicals

Design: Intelligence Made Visible, by Stephen Bayley and Terence Conran

This book is written by two authors who are leading figures in their fields. Sir Terence Conran, combining practicality with attractiveness, gave the fruits of his imagination and acumen to the Britain that was just emerging from the rigours of post-war austerity, and has gone on to being a leading designer, retailer and restaurateur. Stephen Bayley is a prominent commentator on modern culture, among other things brilliantly attacking the cultural pretensions of New Labour. So we should rightly expect them to have produced a book on the meaning of design that provides clear guidance about what many may think has been an over-hyped topic.

Both authors start with pithy views on design. Sir Terence states that good design is ‘intelligence made visible’ - you wouldn’t want to use the clumsy results of bad design - and says that the designer ‘always needs a proper working relationship with the engineer, the materials technologist’. It’s the designer’s responsibility ‘to help improve the quality of people’s lives through products that work well, are affordable, and look beautiful’. For Bayley, design ‘is an art that works’. So far, so clear. But how do the authors elaborate on their visions, and what do they have to say about the development of design?

The book consists of eight essays on various aspects of design from the past two hundred years or so, covering such things as mass consumption and symbolism and consumer psychology, followed by a compendium of influential design-related people and topics. After this comes an essay on national characteristics, followed by a list of museums and institutions concerned with design. But the topics these sections cover are inter-related; they raise questions about each other’s content. Points of agreement or contention bounce between them. All we can do by way of evaluation is to look at the way the authors cover various themes wherever they happen to crop up in the book.

The first essay, on the beginnings of design, points out that a Parliamentary Select Committee report of 1836 on Arts and Manufactures found that French and German education and manufacturing were so far ahead of their British counterparts that there was little chance of Britain ever catching up, a finding that was confirmed by the Great Exhibition of 1851. Henry Cole - Prince Albert’s design guide - established art schools, but their graduates were better versed in painting and architecture than design. (As Corelli Barnett has pointed out in his assessment of Britain’s decline, this failure to provide education for adequate design manufacture was to cost the country dear).

From the remaining essays we learn of the architect Augustus Welby Pugin’s concern for architecture to have a moral meaning, making him - in that respect – a precursor of Modernism (though whether he’d have had much time aesthically for the products of Modernism is another matter). No such concerns troubled the Americans, whose designers and manufacturers were more aware of market needs and weren’t ashamed to respond to them. Design was not only about aesthetic appearance, but also stimulating sales. As a result, American designers eventually made democratic luxury goods out of Europe’s intellectualised and politicised designs. They had no need for design to make moral statements as favoured by Pugin and William Morris. (ln the 20th century the American architect Philip Johnson would - arguably- be a practical example of these attitudes in action. Starting his career as a Modernist, in 1975 he was asked by the AT&T Corporation to design their corporate headquarters in New York, coming up with a monumental tower block with a Chippendale open pediment, thus defying the Modernist taboo against decoration. Johnson was a right-wing anarchist who enjoyed going against the grain, but one suspects his design here had much to do with Modernism’s unpopularity among ordinary people in the States.)

Meanwhile in Britain the followers of the Arts and Crafts movement -which eschewed industrialisation (perhaps an understandable attitude given the social fall-out from the Industrial Revolution, but it was a misguided stance as the Americans embrace of industry led to a higher standard of living for American workers) – was not all it seemed, for some of its designers, such as Ernest Gimson and William Lethaby were happy to use the railway. But the Arts and Crafts movement (combined with the German Hermann Muthesius’ theories about standardisation) would leave a legacy in the form of the Bauhaus – better described as an idea rather than an architectural school – in post Great-War Germany.

But the insights of the authors are not without problems and inconsistencies. Modernism gets off too easily. As the authors remind us, Walter Gropius, one of the originators of the Bauhaus, was satirised by Evelyn Waugh as the character of the ‘mad’ Dr Otto Silenus in his novel Decline and Fall. Waugh makes his character say that the problem of architecture is the problem of all art - the elimination of the human element. Because it is built to house machines, not men, the factory is the only perfect building. An exaggeration of Modernist attitudes – yes, but only just. The authors note that Tom Wolfe’s book From Bauhaus to Our House upset the architectural establishment, but quickly pass over the reasons as to exactly why it did so. Modernism was presented as an architecture that was moral, bearing the load of a socially-progressive Zeitgeist.

The authors don’t stop to consider the idea that there is no necessary link between morality and architecture and that Modernism should just be seen as simply another architectural style. Arts and Crafts architect MH Baillie Scott gets a rather dismissive mention for having legitimised the English domestic villa (ie, the preferred style of the vast majority of English home-owners). But his contemporary Charles Voysey, whose style was also copied by numerous unnamed architects of suburbia, gets a good write-up, presumably because he’s generally assumed - by virtue of the simple lines he adopted for his designs - to have been a precursor of Modernism. Another contemporary, Lutyens, gets no special mention at all, possibly because he was an architectural traditionalist who was both popular and playful, all things which purist Modernists would hold against him. Frank Pick, the commercial manager of London Transport in the 1920s, gets a mention for organising its corporate identity, but would he be that well-known if he hadn’t made the inspired choice of using Harry Beck’s design for the London Underground map of 1931, a style almost-universally adopted for the maps of all major transport systems today? Dress designer Mary Quant is praised for ‘youth, play, fun and wit’, but the authors could have floated the idea that – arguably – her designs helped to initiate the cult of the thin model and the moral panic about anorexia which it has engendered. The authors refer to current ‘stale, pale, male’ ideas about design and status – apparently forgetting that it’s those pesky SPM ideas that have been the mainspring of the design concepts that the rest of the world has adopted and adapted over the years.

But there are excellent inclusions, too. The Jeep is rightly shown, not only as a salute to its iconic status - which Second World War movie is complete without one? - but because it has served as an inspiration for most other rough terrain vehicles. Rightful praise for Douglas Scott, designer of the beloved, iconic Routemaster bus, gives the authors the opportunity to deliciously remind us that its phasing-out in 2005 excited ‘a nostalgia for the days when London Transport was not a self-exculpating association of unaccountable, politicised, incompetent time-servers’, a comment that could well be applied to virtually all institutions today, public and private. Allen Lane and his creation, Penguin books, deserve their mentions because of the books’ convenient format which freed readers from the physical inconvenience of weighty hardbacks: paperbacks could be easily read on public transport or shelved in confined spaces. Readers who realise the importance of technical theory as well as design aesthetics will appreciate the reference to Claude Shannon, who established information theory predicting and directing the merger of computing with communications.

Some readers may find their attention caught by the inclusion of Swedish designer Sixten Sason’s interpretation of the brief for the SAAB 92 car showing, as it does, a female emerging from the car with visible stocking-tops. On a more serious note, we learn of Norwegian designer Johan Vaaier whose invention - the humble paperclip - was worn by his fellow countrymen on their lapels as a sign of unity during the German occupation in the Second World War.

What of the future? The authors remind us of the excellent German apprentice system which produces highly-skilled, high-status workers who do not feel inferior to accountants or dentists. They also point-out that with ‘advanced economies… entering a post-industrial phase… distinctions between craft and design are becoming ever less rigid and less clear’. Designers have a chequered history, as popular responses to Modernism show. Let’s hope that the engineers, boffins, geeks and rude mechanicals not only keep contributing to good design but - along with the commercial nous that has benefitted American design so well - keep designers’ worst excesses in check. Meanwhile this book does us the service of showing that evaluating the good, the true and the beautiful in design is not an easy business, and it repays careful study for anyone who wants to appreciate the highs - and avoid the pitfalls - of design and its history.


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