We set old friends Jolyon Nott, of retail, graphics and branding consultancy I-am Associates, and Joseph Durrow, workplace specialist for Gensler, upon each other to ponder this conundrum. Where else than the underground beer garden of a Bavarian-themed restaurant in Islington? Well, nowhere better sprang to mind …
Jolyon Nott: Good design often seems to become the epitome of a time.
Joseph Durrow: I think design as a concept is a lot wider in scope than just product design. The general public’s view of what good design is might be Philippe Starck or another name that they recognise.
But I think design first and foremost answers particular needs – whatever the outcome might be. It could even be a fashion item, but there’s always a brief to be answered. There’s always a set of parameters. I actually think good design is from a holistic point of view quite black and white: if it doesn’t do the job, then there’s something wrong with it. Good design solves problems.
Now whether that becomes timeless or not is another matter. It’s almost a separate debate! Good design is different in every situation. It depends on the client’s or the markets needs, or the designer’s inspiration. If that design doesn’t work, then it’s bad design.
JN: But it’s more than just the brief. I work with estate agents, such as Douglas & Gordon, and they are likely to give the same brief in three years that they do today. The only material thing that might change, really, is technology. Therefore it’s about style.
JD: Yes, but it’s all part of the design issue! A style – the brand: what’s right for them isn’t necessarily going to be right for someone else. Good design is something that works in that particular situation. If you took the Barcelona chair [by Mies van der Rohe and Lilly Reich, 1929] and put it in Tesco, it would still be a design icon, but would it still be properly appreciated?
JN: You said yourself the Barcelona chair has been recognised as a design icon, and is a classic piece of design for a period of time. There’s this whole thing now that you can pick and choose different styles – you’ve got your Art Nouveau, your modernism … all these different subcategories. They are slowly getting smaller and smaller as turnover gets faster and faster. The choice is there. People can just pick and grab whatever they want.
JD: Is it because the choice is there and people want it or because businesses are marketing that? My area [interior design] is more about business solutions and design, the kind that not only looks great and is a great place to be but also boosts profits and staff retention.
We offer services in offices such as banking or a travel agency. If the company is big enough to realise these kinds of needs and their staff do not have to leave the building to book a holiday, that improves productivity and profits. It’s part of our design.
JN: Companies may not know what you are doing, but they know the difference it is making to the company’s balance sheet.
JD: This is just one element of good design.
JN: Traditionally good design is a very even distribution of form and function. I suppose it’s the interaction with the environment as well.
JD: It’s so many things.
JN: If you go to the Design Museum and walk around you’ve got cross sections in time – what happened during a particular year. For example, people say, “There’s the Hacienda by Ben Kelly, and that was the best of its time.” But fashions come round again, so are not timeless. Take Wedgwood. They’ve been offered an opportunity by the rise of decorative floral and it’s almost as though they’ve been waiting for this moment and grabbed hold of it.
Each thing in the Design Museum has been designed to be the best. From being a response to a brief, these products have become a gold standard for other designers to look at. It’s a cultural and historical experience. Yet it is often not only society’s acceptance that is needed to develop a design concept but also the existence of the technology that supports it.
JD: Everything is about functionality combined with form. These are two elements that great design has to incorporate. It works in that situation and it should be evolutionary: quicker to make than the last one, for example. Or cheaper.
But how many versions of the chair had come before? Cheapness and speed aren’t the only factors. People are now developing the ergonomic side, and the sustainability side too. It’s about designing something that you think is the perfect form and then asking: “How can we make it better?”
I mean the Aeron chair is exactly the opposite end of things as the Barcelona chair. But it is an iconic piece of design because it is so comfortable and ergonomic. It had recycled content. It had a mesh back. It keeps your back cool. It gives you lumbar support. They have the technology. They were able to develop it in that way. Because of its function it gives itself form too.
JN: There are certain things you can try and improve on but can’t, such as the paperclip. I can’t see any way it could be improved on. It’s a simple piece of metal.
JD: It does what it’s meant to. It clips paper.
JN: But they have improved on the stapler. There’s the staple-less stapler, which just uses the paper.
JD: It unfortunately damages the document, but you can’t have everything.
Moderator: So if something is considered extremely well-designed until a new factor comes into being, such as ergonomics or sustainability, and it fails on that count, does it mean that the thing is badly designed?
JN: Well, I think that’s where the public eye comes into it.
JD: That makes it more of an art form.
JN: Look at Philippe Starck’s lemon squeezer: useless! But people still buy it! It’s brilliant marketing. Starck designs something and people believe – like they do with Posh and Becks – that that’s the way that you have to live.
JD: There is so much great design about that it’s hard to get into the public mind because of all the noise. There’s great, unknown design about that answers problems people want solved with the addition of a bit of “art”. But things like Starck and Alessi, which I don’t like, flood the market. Great design isn’t just what is popular.
JN: But things still progress. You don’t have to have running water or a tree in a building to make it inspiring like in the old days. Now, people are looking at other ways of doing things – such as how do you get to that meeting room. For example, the Red Bull offices, where the designers put slides in as an exit strategy – and why would you walk downstairs when you can take the slide? It makes the whole process more sensible.
JD: It’s a story, a journey, an experience – otherwise you might as well be in a shed.
JN: Which a whole lot of the old 1960s buildings were. And lighting is another, newer factor, that can make a space more intimate or more open. There’s a lot more scope to explore and clients are a lot more open as well.
JD: There’s a lot more potential. You are looking at business strategy, so why shouldn’t the design of the environment come into that? It becomes a part of life rather than a “nice to have”.
JN: You spend a long part of your life there at work.
JD: People have said that design is a luxury item – but it’s really just a part of life. It’s not necessarily luxury – a frivolous, hedonistic thing.
Moderator: Is beauty timeless?
JN: It’s of its time!
JD: I don’t think it is [timeless]. Look at the Victorians. They thought that beauty was one thing. We think it’s something completely different. I don’t think there’s an answer. It’s a philosophical conundrum. There are too many factors.
JN: I think design is good when something enhances someone’s life but in a way that they could not have foretold. Very rarely do people’s basic needs and routines change, ie living in houses, having families, etc. Therefore the only way to improve on our way of living is to take everyday, previously designed items and spaces and bring them into the new era, using new technology or new materials. An iconic piece of design has the foresight to inspire and change the direction of its generation. The essence of how we survive will remain constant but iconic design can change the way we live.