Monday, 7 June 2010

Day 158, on which John considers what a design should be for [7.6.10]

Dag hundrede otteoghalvfjerds. So, today I returned to school. Now is not a good time to shout 'Hooray!', for I'll throttle you. Actually, throttling jokes aside, it wasn't too bad. I did go home to discover that the new iPhone was out, and that it was kinda like what Gizmodo had. So maybe I was wrong, but it really is a radical move for Apple. And, though the look of it is awful (in my opinion), it has reduced the price a lot so the iPhone 4 16GB version will be £170. Not too shoddy.

OK, our topic. What should design be for? From what I've observed, there are two options when a person sits down to design a product...

1. More often than not, and unfortunately so, the point of a product is to fill a gap in the market. Some people may object that this is what a product is for - find a problem, get something to fix it. The biggest example of this is the humble Polyprop chair, designed by Robin Day:

"Recognise me?"
I'm sure that all UK teenagers, and probably adults too, know what this chair is. It's the staple chair for any school - incredibly cheap, only three pieces, and can be put together on the factory floor, from moulding of the polypropylene seat to attaching the metal legs, in under 2 minutes per unit. Very, very cost effective.

But what was Day thinking when he designed this? Was it to create something beautiful, to create a design that is both marketable and a work of art? There's no doubt that such a thing is possible with a mass-produced chair, just look at the No.14 chair which I reviewed oh-so long ago:

Look, I'm a modernist. If you haven't already worked that out, then feel free to leave now. So I'm a modernist, but this design still looks better to me than the Polyprop chair. Sure, it's not as mass-produceable, but it was the Polyprop chair of its time - and you'd think, that with all our technological advancements, that in the future, the mass-produced chair would look good.

So that's what most designers are reduced to: form underpinned by sheer marketability. Even function is reduced to its bare skeleton; the chair does only what it needs to do in the simplest of concepts. There's no extra features. The Polyprop chair is simply a handle, a safe plastic seat, and sturdy legs.

2. Of course, that's not the only way to design. I'd say the first way was 'industrial design', but even industrial design can be of this second way to design.

This second way is about exploring the expression you can achieve with a product. Now shut up all you non-arty people. I'm talking sense here. Art, as you all know, is expression. And who says that furniture isn't expression? Who says that furniture isn't art?

The best furniture is art. Take the Red and Blue chair, for instance, which helped drive the De Stijl art movement as much as Mondrian did with his paintings. If anything, it topped Mondrian because it could represent De Stijl in three dimensions, and with some functionality too.

Who says that only form can be art? Functionality can be expression, as to what function it is, where the function is used and how it is used. In the Red and Blue chair, Rietveld brings a sense of reality to the Mondrian drawings by making something you can interact with. How's that for helping the viewer understand art?

Unfortunately, with the rise of true 'industrial design', the mass-produced Polyprop and Monobloc chairs, furniture as art is becoming more and more rarefied, and pushed to the Vitra section of the market. Chairs by Starck and the Eames couple cost hundreds of pounds... but is that how we want art? More expensive that some 'traditional' art, even when it has extra functionality? I'll leave you to ponder that question.


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