Spare a thought for your toaster

Designing the 21st Century
January 11, 2002

Christopher Frayling insists that the everyday is as worthy as the avant garde

At a formal dinner the other night, the speaker introducing me made a plea on behalf of the assembled company for a wider definition of design than "the usual, where it is generally confined these days to Philippe Starck lemon squeezers, somewhat niche artefacts from the product design stable". Among the other guests were engineers, design managers, retailers - and designers. In response to the challenge, I talked about the distinction between design with a big D - meaning the work of a very select group of named consultant designers - and design with a little d - the work of all the design managers, engineers, strategists and silent designers who touch a design project at any point on its way through the decision-making process of a business. Ialso talked about the increasing rejection of the "one size fits all" philosophy of industrial design, in favour of customisation on the one hand (whether of lemon squeezers or anything else) and an increasing awareness of social and environmental implications on the other; and about the urgent need to simplify and humanise products that are at present led by the technology (all those special features that no one uses) - the result not, as commonly supposed, of too much design but of too little. The conclusion was that design is not just something that is done to things, but something that is done in social, technological, economic and ecological contexts.

I was forcibly reminded of this exchange while reading Designing the 21st Century . It consists of well-presented colour photos of work by 100 contemporary practitioners - almost entirely Designers with a big D - accompanied by brief "projections" and biographies from each. This selection, which claims to be "a highly representative cross-section of the international contemporary design community", is introduced with an essay by the editors Charlotte and Peter Fiell. All of ten pages long (including translations into German and French), it reads in a curiously clumsy way, as if written by a robot lumbering around an expensive lifestyle shop. Sample: "Cognitive of the fact that the emotional content of a design can determine its ultimate success, the general view among the majority of participating designers is that it is now as important to fulfil the consumer's desire for tools for loving as that for tools for living." The overall theme of the introduction is that "throughout the industrialised world, manufacturers of all types are increasingly... implementing design". To which one can only add that they always have. What must be meant by this profundity is either that more and more businesses are making a conscious decision to integrate design into their strategies (which is true) or that Design is attracting more and more public attention (which is also true).

To judge by the selection of designers, the authors must mean the latter. Nearly all the featured individuals are product or furniture designers (no fashion, graphics, screen design, architectural and interior design, just three automotive designers and no engineering designers at all); many of them are more interested in one-offs and small batch production - in "industries of one" - than in mass manufacture and design as part of a product cycle; and very few of them have anything of interest to say about the relationship between design and business, let alone design and everyday life. The only people who are "designing the 21st century" (with a few exceptions) are, apparently, members of the avant garde, and design is a stand-alone activity that is much nearer to art than to industry. The authors should look around the visual environment in which they live - such as when they cross the road.

There is, as the editors concede in their inimitable style, a "relative absence (in all this) of hypotheses on a unifying theory or a new moral-philosophic basis of design". They can say that again. On second thoughts, I'd prefer it if they didn't. What we are offered instead is a series of more or less random comments (usually one column of type per designer, again translated) about the excitements offered by new materials (flexible ceramics, lightweight strong materials such as carbon fibre; and so on); the implications of the latest digital tools (such as rapid prototyping devices) that can help to produce small runs of customised products; the rise of "smart" products (wearable computing and connected appliances) and the possible design uses of nanotechnology; and the conflict - which runs through the book as well as many individual "projections" - between design as personal expression or as gesture, and design as a contribution to solving environmental and social problems. Can digital technologies manage to reconcile these two approaches to design? Or are they so far apart that the latest toys will not begin to bring them together? In this collection, the gestural people outnumber the others by a very wide margin. Which is depressing in a book supposed to be about how the world of the future will look and feel.

Most of the designers' "projections" are about changing contexts for the design process itself, rather than their implications for the rest of us: the view from the studio rather than the high street or even the superhighway. Many of them read like artists' statements in an exhibition catalogue, only with more than usual emphasis on techniques and machines. There are some welcome comments that break the general flow, many (I am pleased to note) from graduates of the Royal College of Art. Industrial designer Steve Peart says: "There is responsibility in design. By creating something, you are personally approving its existence and directing the fate of many resources." Furniture designer Michael Marriott adds that objects should have "a long, rich and satisfying life" rather than a short and throwaway one, while designer and inventor James Dyson promotes "a creative industry that cares passionately about the products it makes and the people who use them". But such statements tend to get lost or contradicted in the overall creative gush. One designer talks of "the product's right to exist"; another states that "better products edit the marketplace". Meanwhile, 61 of the 100 designers are shown as designing chairs. Some are excited by the possibilities offered by globalisation, others are depressed. One talks in all seriousness about "creating a utopia".

As a visual record of a specialised segment of the contemporary product design world - a segment that generates some terrific ideas and objects and that has located itself within the culture of postmodernism in the post-black box era - this book is valuable. A few of the selections do not fit this pattern: the three car designers who work in-house for Jaguar, Ford and Audi, seem out of place, as does the Sony Design Centre (the only corporate entry). One or two are craftspeople rather than product designers, while Dyson is a manufacturer as well. One is a textile designer specialising in rugs. Most of the designers are from Britain, Italy, Germany, Finland, France and Holland. Surprisingly few are from the United States. Twenty-five of the featured individuals studied industrial or furniture design at the Royal College of Art. It was pleasurable to be reminded of Shin + Tomoko Azumi's Table=Chest, Sebastian Bergne's lamps, Julian Brown's cooking knives, Keith Helfet's F-Type Jaguar, Michael Marriott's furniture, Peter Schreyer's Audi TT Roadster, Jerszy Seymour's watering can and so on. But none of the featured individuals studied design engineering or interaction design or communication design or architectural design or fashion design at the Royal College. Clearly, the latter type of design is not what the editors mean by "designing". To claim that the design projects of this specialised world are the same as "designing the 21st century" is patronising and already out of date.

Do the Fiells really believe that theirs is a representative sample? Or is the problem in the end one of definition? I suspect it goes deeper. The blurb reveals that both editors trained with Sotheby's Educational Studies. Their bottom line seems to be that the only designers worth considering (with a few exceptions) are those whose works might one day come under the hammer, or be exhibited on pedestals in white cubes. Which is fine, so long as inappropriate claims are not made about them, and so long as design is not confused with sculpture. At the end of my speech the other night, I made a plea to take much more seriously the people who "design our day" - starting with our alarm clocks, bathroom fittings, cereal packets, ovens, toasters, cutlery, crockery, newspapers, cars and bicycles and buses and trains, our road systems and street furniture, the clothes we wear and the shoes we walk in: and those are just the ones who help get us to work in the morning. They, just as much as the people covered in this book, will be designing the 21st century. How about making a start with our transport system and our National Health Service?

Christopher Frayling is rector, Royal College of Art, and chairman, Design Council.

Designing the 21st Century

Editor - Charlotte and Peter Fiell
ISBN - 3 8228 5883 8
Publisher - Taschen
Price - £20.00
Pages - 576

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