The proportional, functional chairs by Michael Thonet: since the 1830s, they have been made in all possible variations, of all possible materials, copied, interpreted and stylized. They do not plan to grow old – unless with grace, that is. Here: Ton factory in Czech Republic. picture: WOJCIECH TRZCIONKA

CAN DESIGN… BE BEAUTIFUL?

BY: AGNIESZKA JACOBSON-CIELECKA*

WARSAW 25.5.2016

DESIGN OPINION

Real design means objects which are timeless and, to a certain extent, invisible. Their beauty is not evidenced by appearance or price, but by functionality, proportions and aging with grace. By being ordinary.
In discussions concerning what design is and what it is not, as well as what it is for and what it can do, the issue of esthetics is often omitted or disregarded. One can frequently hear that perceiving design in esthetic terms makes it trivial and oversimplified.

One could draw a conclusion that an object’s beauty is embarrassing. This is just as true as the statement that a beautiful woman cannot be wise. We know this is false. We also know that at the outset the beauty is often enough, but it can be an obstacle in reaching one’s intellect and virtues. However, research proves that we trust beautiful people more than those who are unattractive, disabled or too eccentric. Still, faced with a pretty person and an exceptionally beautiful person, we will more readily approach the former, classifying the latter as self-centered, big-headed and stand-offish, features that are usually a projection of our own fears and anxieties.

The situation is the same with objects. We choose a chair with our eyes and test it with our bottom. A pretty yet uncomfortable one we soon replace, or change its label from “functional” to “decorative”. A pretty and comfortable one we recommend to others. The advantages of a functional eyesore we most likely never discover, like the advantages of a chair made of an eccentric, unknown material.

In discussions about design we encounter a mixture of notions. We speak of a process, research, needs and audience. We use the same words, but we think of different things. We mix categories of design as a research, humanist, social, industrial and conceptual discipline. In discourse about whether “pretty” is a compliment or an insult we speak of industrial design, i.e. of widely available products or goods, mass-produced and addressed to the masses. If we arrange it all this way, everything becomes fairly simple. One just needs to ask oneself a few questions: What does it mean when an object is “pretty”? Does it equal “well designed”? What is an icon? Is the icon a well designed object?

Let us use the teapot as the basis for our considerations. What is “a pretty teapot”? The one we like. Type “nice teapot” in your browser... You do not like every single result this query produces, do you? Thus, the notion of “pretty” is relative, but it is also absolute: “pretty” does not mean the one which best fulfills our needs or is the most comfortable, the cheapest or the handiest. “Pretty” is not even the one which fits best... Pretty is pretty. To each his own.

Each of us has quite a large collection of such “pretty” objects, but they are not necessarily pretty for us. These are usually gifts. Following the Great Commandment saying “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself”, we buy for others things we would like to receive ourselves. Sometimes the empathy is more noticeable: we buy for someone what they like most or what they are interested in: something from the automotive industry, a Garfield cartoon, a frog... perfect inspirations for (not) handy and (not) pretty gifts. Unfortunately, a designer object often equals “weird”, “expensive”, “fashionable” or “useless”. Just a gadget. Do not be surprised, then, that to a designer the words “pretty object” and “designer object” sound like insults.

Take Hot Bertaa kettle, designed by Philippe Starck for Alessi in 1989. In those days it was just as obligatory during interior photo sessions as Panton’s chair (still) is today. It was also a best seller, an icon and a symbol of the status. Today it is hardly used or sold. Why? Well, it has aged and ceased to be fashionable – it has ceased to be an object of desire. The return wave of the style of the 1980s has not helped. Even worse, the kettle has proved not to be functional. Starck himself speaks of it with aversion: “...this is one of those objects of which I am ashamed the most...”. Still, it has not disappeared without a trace. It has earned a place in museums and design textbooks because Starck had not only attempted to amaze the world: he had also taken up the challenge of questioning the ever-present functional layout of the kettle/teapot. The dynamic object without a lip, handle and lid was an attempt to solve an old problem in a new way. In the functional aspect, though, the attempt was unsuccessful. Thus, the once “pretty” and “designer” Bertaa proved to have been up in lights only for some time; its beauty is not timeless. Maybe, then, real design means objects which are timeless and, to a certain extent, invisible? Nameless objects – because nobody remembers who designed them and when. Finally, objects which undergo stylistic modifications and last without losing their character. These are frequently usual forms, too simple and decent to deserve a “designer” adjective. They are often treated with disdain: “Is this supposed to be design? Just a table, that’s all...”, one hears. Or as much as a table. Their beauty is not evidenced by appearance or price, but by functionality, proportions and beauty which ages with grace. By being ordinary. Ordinary tables and chairs, ordinary pots. Chinese bowls from the times of long-dead dynasties. Clay, enamel, porcelain, cast iron, brass and silver teapots. They have handy handles and lips which pour the drink evenly. They bear lids which do not fall when the teapot is tilted and do not let the tea out. They are neither too heavy nor too light. They are comfortable. Functional. Proportional. Available... well, pretty. That is why they were or have been produced for 100, 150 or 200 years.

An example? Michael Thonet’s bent chairs. They have enjoyed constant popularity since the 1830s. Made in all possible variations, of all possible materials, copied, interpreted and stylized, they do not plan to grow old.

Let me finish with a quotation from Richard Buckminster Fuller, an American architect and philosopher, a great engineer and construction engineer, who cannot really be suspected of love for gadgets, showing off and sentimentalism: “When I work on a problem, I never think in terms of beauty. I only think of how to solve the problem. However, when the solution does not prove beautiful at the end, this simply means that it is bad”.

That fits all: Thonet, the Ming dynasty and Starck. Even Garfield. The works of Fuller himself are the best proof of this suitability. Those words do not fit in where design has a more philosophical, conceptual, narrative, critical or speculative function. But that is another story...

* Agnieszka Jacobson-Cielecka is a journalist, design curator and director of the School of Form, a higher school of design in Poznań (Poland).

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