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The Genius of Design: The compelling Five Part Series on Designs that Shaped our Lives

(BBC; US DVD: 10 Mar 2011)

When is a telephone not a telephone? When it’s a theoretical telephone based on the principles of the German Bauhaus school of design. And when is a chair not a chair? When it’s a ‘60s ‘concept’ chair.


Designers drool over the classics (Bauhaus objects, Alessi kettles, the VW Beetle, Marc Newson’s Lockheed Lounger) in this five-part series first shown on the BBC in 2010. Prominent figures from the world of design and design criticism, such as the ubiquitous Phillipe Starck, the master of German post-war styling Dieter Rams, and Apple’s own Jonathan Ive (of the iMac, MacBook, etc., etc.) offer their rundown of the best and greatest and most influential.


Beginning with the Industrial Revolution and focussing almost entirely on Western Europe and the United States the episodes chart the expansion of mass-production, consumer capitalism, and the desire for beautiful things amongst the most affluent societies. Into the immediate pre-Second World War and post-war years come Russia and Japan; allowed into the frame when their ideas are derived from the ‘mainstream’. Surprising things are uncovered. For example, Stalin’s industrial planners in the ‘30s consulted with designers from the Ford Motor Company to create the assembly line efficiency for production of the T34 tank. Ford staff established offices in the Soviet Union, and helped to design and coordinate the construction of a string of factories across that country based on the Detroit model.


But the most consistent feature of the modern world of design is the attempts on the part of most designers to reinvent the chair. The chair, as one expert describes, is first and foremost the most basic expression of human interaction with the ‘made’ world of designed objects. This philosophical angle is the most interesting of the series and expresses the fundamental concerns that will appeal to most people, even those reluctant to engage with the technical and fashion-conscious aspects of the subject. The story of design, manufacture, and the generating of desire for objects is the story of modern society and capitalism and throws up essential questions about collective responsibility and individual desires.


The re-invention and re-imagining of the chair to enable the seated person to appear as though they are floating on air, takes us from the Bauhaus, to Charles and Ray Eames, to Marc Newson and Starck via the Danish Vitra ‘S’ chair of the ‘60s, designed by Verner Panton. This ‘legless’ chair, cantilevered to within an inch of its life, was not effective as a mode of seating until the ‘90s when computer programmes and more recently developed polymers could contain the form and make it fully realised, without breaking or warping. The ‘S’ chair as one commentator puts it: ‘was to furniture what The White Album was to pop music – a concept chair.’


Most poignant is the third episode: ‘Blueprints for War’. This looks at the overwhelming invention, innovation and creativity that accompany the waging of war. Abhorrent slave labour fuelled the Nazi war machine and helped to popularise the ‘people’s car’ the VW Beetle, for example. The processes of design were hugely accelerated by the imperative for preparedness in the United States and Britain, and capitalism and engineering came into their own to combat totalitarianism, but also to herald the onset of truly global mass-production.


It was during the war years that collaborative design really came into being. The De Havilland Mosquito designed for the RAF and capable of 400mph, was the product of aviation engineers working with cabinet makers and joiners. Together they produced the most streamlined, fastest single wing aircraft to date that could outrun all others. Only four bolts were used to hold the entire fuselage together. As the curator of the aircraft museum where the last example is housed states: ‘the finest piece of furniture this country has ever produced’.


Social and technological development, civilisation, growth and expansion determine the need for design and the output of products. The future, as the series goes on to explore, is deeply uncertain. Whilst the youngest school child is aware of the impact of mass-production on the environment now, action on the part of governments, manufacturers, and designers is painfully slow. In a world where the environment is talked about as the number one priority there has never been such urgency for consumer goods, and replaceable ones with built-in obsolescence at that. From mass-produced replication in the post-Second World War years we have moved on to the individualistic desire for one-offs and limited editions.


More, more, more. Where will it end? The experts consulted are not sure. But one thing sticks in the mind; as one design writer puts it: ‘An eighteenth-century mahogany table only becomes more beautiful with age. The patina grows and it has more value.’ The same cannot be said for the plastic equivalent.


The programme-makers have created a stylish and well-designed series: suitable for students of the subject as well as those with a passing interest, or wider environmental and sociological concerns. The feature of each episode is the use of the milestones of design: well-shot and organised as pointers to the next topic. Most of them are indisputable; but ‘80s Memphis design movement established by Ettore Sottsass, for this reviewer at any rate, was out of place. Influential they may have been, but tasteful they were not!


But that’s just my own opinion. When we are all lying on our Ikea flat-pack constructed bed with our miniaturised technology gently humming and flashing away in the dark, lulled by the murmur of mass-produced cars in the streets below all we have to go on is our own judgement.

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Dr Gabrielle Malcolm is a writer, artist and academic based in the UK. She is known for her publications on Victorian literature and culture and her writing on Shakespeare on stage, TV and Film. She has published alongside writers such as AS Byatt in 'The Dickensian' journal, and her performance art pieces were featured in the Liverpool City of Culture celebrations in 2008, at the Liverpool Tate amongst other venues. Recent publications include a chapter in 'Writing Women of the Fin de Siecle: Authors of Change' (Palgrave McMillan, 2011). She is an avid fan of the Gothic and the Neo-Victorian. Her literary blog 'A Special Mention' has many followers and she can regularly be found tweeting @gabymalcolm, with fellow Shakespeareans and fans of Gene Kelly.


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