Last updated: January 25, 2013 8:44 pm

Breaking the mould

A new exhibition at London’s Design Museum reveals the extraordinary stories behind some of the world’s design classics

Unless you know something about the story of how it was made, and why and who used it, putting a chair on a plinth in a museum as if it were a piece of mass-produced sculpture doesn’t make much sense.

They may sometimes look like each other, but design is not art and art is not design. In the context of a museum, art is best left to speak for itself. It may be interesting to know how one of Jeff Koons’s hyperrealistic balloon dogs is really made – from highly polished steel in a factory in the former East Germany as it happens. But it is a distraction from experiencing it as art. It’s different for design. Mass production shapes everyday life far more than exotic one-offs, creating remarkable objects that, precisely because they are so ubiquitous, make us lose sight of just how extraordinary they really are.

Joe Colombo’s Universale chair for Kartell, designed in 1967, has a high gloss finish that helped break down the prejudice against plastic. Colombo was making the most of how artificial plastic could look as a material with glacial smooth surfaces that showed no trace of handcraft. It was also the first time anybody had succeeded in making a full-size, stackable chair that could be made by pushing molten plastic into a single mould and waiting for a complete chair to come out at the other end.

That’s why it is one of the 150 objects from the Design Museum’s collection in its new show: Extraordinary Stories about Ordinary Things. It is one of several chairs in the exhibition, each of which tells its own story.

Marcel Breuer designed one of the first tubular steel cantilever chairs while at the Bauhaus in 1925. That was just as revolutionary in its day as Colombo’s plastic chair. But the steel armchair by Breuer that the Design Museum has on show is there not because it is technically ingenious, but because it has a lot to say about how British taste has fluctuated over the years. Breuer created his cantilevered chair during the brief period he spent in London before the second world war and it was used in the apartment that he designed for Dora Ventris in Highpoint, the north London block of flats whose architect was Berthold Lubetkin, another European refugee to Britain. In those days, British taste viewed the modernism that Breuer and Lubetkin pioneered with suspicion. Now, it has become part of mainstream interior design.

Jasper Morrison’s side table, designed in 1983, is the most recent addition to the museum’s collection, purchased with help from the Art Fund. Morrison is one of the most successful British designers of his generation and the table is the first thing he produced after leaving college. It is made from the simplest of elements – a glass top, a piece of timber and two sets of bicycle handlebars. But there is more to it than simple utility. For Morrison, it was a way to explore the idea of “ready-made” in design, which has its roots in Marcel Duchamp’s famous fountain, the urinal that he put in an art gallery, asking us to look at a ready-made industrial object in a new way. It is also a sly reference to Breuer’s original tubular steel cantilevered chair. The legend is that Breuer was riding his Adler bicycle, looked at the handlebars and realised the possibilities of the material for use in furniture.

Ettore Sottsass’s Valentine typewriter, designed in 1969, was made in tens of thousands at the Olivetti factory in Barcelona. What makes it fascinating is that it was the first time a company that specialised in making office equipment tried to turn the kind of machine that signalled work into something that looked playful. Or, as Sottsass put it, the kind of thing that might keep poets company on lonely Sundays in the country.

Sottsass made the Valentine bright red and used moulded plastic for the shell. The two ribbon spools were bright orange. According to Perry King, Sottsass’s British assistant on the project, the spools were meant to suggest the flashing of a pair of nipples. Less sexist, the carrying case was designed to be as stylish as the machine itself and could, at a push, be turned into a makeshift stool. But the marketing department at Olivetti vetoed Sottsass’s other idea: that it should only have upper case letters so as to simplify the mechanism and lower the price. The company saw itself as radical but not that radical.

 
 
Joe Colombo’s Universale Chair Marcel Breuer’s Cesca Armchair
 
 
Jasper Morrison’s Handlebar Table Ettore Sottsass’s Valentine
 
 
Jonathan Ive’s iMac Stefan Geisbauer’s Look So Flat Lamp
 
 
Philippe Starck’s Portable TV Daniel Weil’s Radio in a Bag

The mass extinctions of analogue machines triggered by the digital age have made not just the Valentine but all typewriters as much of a historic period piece as a silver snuff box. The Valentine deserves a place in any museum collection of design, partly because of Sottsass’s creative approach, but also because it did something Jonathan Ive was to do much later for Apple.

The iMac, Ive’s first major project for Apple, had the see-through case and the citrus fruit colours that Steve Jobs once suggested looked delicious enough to lick. Like the Valentine, it was designed to seduce consumers. The difference is that the iMac was the starting point for a corporate turnround, setting Apple on the road to becoming the most valuable company on the US stock market. The Valentine made its way into the history of design but failed to pull Olivetti out of its dive into financial disaster. Sottsass and Ive both set about rethinking how a familiar object could look. Both objects were based on technology coming to the end of its useful life. The iMac is as antediluvian as the Valentine; it’s the last gasp of the cathode-ray vacuum tube monitor, which has given way to the flat screen just as the Valentine gave way to the laptop and the iPad.

Stefan Geisbauer’s Look So Flat lamp for Ingo Maurer is a design made possible by the rapid changes in the technology of artificial light. But it is also an intriguing example of the way certain shapes become shapes and forms that enter into the language of design. It’s the latest variation on a theme started by George Carwardine’s Anglepoise lamp, which has become the iconic shape for the desk lamp. The first time it was done it looked like no other lamp, with opposed pairs of springs allowing it to be adjustable with a finger tip. Ever since designers have kept playing with the basic form.

Philippe Starck and Daniel Weil both worked with the perceptions of materials and form. Starck was called in by Thomson, at the time a French state-owned TV manufacturer, in a last-ditch attempt to design a new product range that would be distinctive enough to stave off competition from Asia. Using moulded chipboard for the case was a reference to the way in which early TV sets were smuggled into the domestic world camouflaged to look like furniture. The bag radio was a more radical approach, a reaction against anonymous black box design that subverted the image of technocratic efficiency.

And both Starck and Weil demonstrate that an essential part of the repertoire of any successful designer is the ability to tell a good story.

Deyan Sudjic is director of London’s Design Museum. ‘Extraordinary Stories about Ordinary Things’, supported by Bird & Bird, runs from January 30

Send us your photographs of ordinary objects with extraordinary stories. You can email your images – with a brief explanation of the object – to FT@HH.com, or upload them to Twitter or Instagram using the hashtag #FTHH. For more details, visit www.ft.com/HH

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Joe Colombo

One of Italy’s most influential product designers, Colombo (1930-71) came to design relatively late having spent his twenties painting and sculpting. He experimented with new materials and technologies, seeing his role as “creator of the environment of the future”

Marcel Breuer

The Hungarian (1902-81) studied at the Bauhaus in where he met Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe and Walter Gropius. In 1968, Breuer won the first Jefferson Foundation Medal, citing him “among all the living architects of the world as excelling all others in the quality of his work”

Jasper Morrison

Londoner Morrison (b 1959) has worked with Alessi, Vitra, Flos and Samsung to name but a few. He believes good design can improve bad atmosphere and has described his home as a laboratory of atmospheric testing through which every new design must pass

Ettore Sottsass

Sottsass (1917-2007) was born in Austria and moved to Milan to open an architecture and design practice. A central figure in the avant-garde movement of the 1960s and 1970s, he then set up the influential Memphis Group, with a postmodern aesthetic described as a “shotgun wedding between Bauhaus and Fisher-Price”

Jonathan Ive

In 1992, Ive (b 1967) moved from his London home to San Francisco to join the Apple design team. Six years later he was vice-president of industrial design and the promotions and awards have followed almost annually since

Stefan Geisbauer

The designer was born in Munich in 1978 and studied photography at university. He set up a company specialising in post-production for catalogue and advertising images and, while working for Ingo Maurer’s design company, came up with his idea for the task light

Philippe Starck

“I like to open the doors of the human brain,” says Starck (b 1949). He began by designing inflatable furniture in the 1960s and his portfolio includes luggage, watches, chairs and hotels. His philosophy is about creating good-looking products that are affordable to all

Daniel Weil

Argentinian-born Weil (b 1953) moved to London in 1978 to study industrial design at the Royal College of Art. In 1992 he joined Pentagram, one of the world’s largest design consultancies, where he has worked for among others, Swatch, Lego and Boots

By Kate Watson-Smyth

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