Reviews

Look Ma! No Legs!: 'The Genius of Design'

John Lewis, Panton S Chair, Red

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 Genius of Design

Distributor: Acorn [UK]
Length: 243 mins, 5 episodes, 2 discs
Narrator: Denis Lawson
Network: BBC
Release date: 2011-03-10
Website
Amazon

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.

9

Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less
9
TV

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less
9

If space is time—and space is literally time in the comics form—the world of the novel is a temporal cage. Manuele Fior pushes at the formal qualities of that cage to tell his story.

Manuele Fior's 5,000 Km Per Second was originally published in 2009 and, after winning the Angouléme and Lucca comics festivals awards in 2010 and 2011, was translated and published in English for the first time in 2016. As suggested by its title, the graphic novel explores the effects of distance across continents and decades. Its love triangle begins when the teenaged Piero and his best friend Nicola ogle Lucia as she moves into an apartment across the street and concludes 20 estranged years later on that same street. The intervening years include multiple heartbreaks and the one second phone delay Lucia in Norway and Piero in Egypt experience as they speak while 5,000 kilometers apart.

Keep reading... Show less
7

Featuring a shining collaboration with Terry Riley, the Del Sol String Quartet have produced an excellent new music recording during their 25 years as an ensemble.

Dark Queen Mantra, both the composition and the album itself, represent a collaboration between the Del Sol String Quartet and legendary composer Terry Riley. Now in their 25th year, Del Sol have consistently championed modern music through their extensive recordings (11 to date), community and educational outreach efforts, and performances stretching from concert halls and the Library of Congress to San Francisco dance clubs. Riley, a defining figure of minimalist music, has continually infused his compositions with elements of jazz and traditional Indian elements such as raga melodies and rhythms. Featuring two contributions from Riley, as well as one from former Riley collaborator Stefano Scodanibbio, Dark Queen Mantra continues Del Sol's objective of exploring new avenues for the string quartet format.

Keep reading... Show less
9
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image