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Now, more than ever, design is discussed, disseminated, published and celebrated. Magazines glamorise design and websites provide access to the newest fads. Fairs, festivals, exhibitions, biennials and auction rooms elevate design into a cultural medium on an equal footing with art.
No company in recent years has done more to promote the cult of design than Apple, whose style guru is British designer Sir Jonathan Ive, a quiet but obsessive character whose eye for detail and minimal style has created the highest-impact cult products in a generation. After all, what is Apple but design?
Whether it is the sleek, seamless objects themselves, which would have been unimaginable a decade ago, or those magical apps that appear as if from the ether, Apple has put design centre stage and any company aiming to emulate its premium pricing and cult success is forced to accommodate design at the centre of its strategy.
But has even that measure of success really made a difference? Has it made design as an industry more central? Is design fundamentally at the heart of business or is it still regarded only as an add-on or a luxury? The evidence points to the latter. Despite everything, despite the glamour of design and the clamour to be designers, big business still seems to somehow disdain design. Beyond the rarefied world of high fashion, design remains marginalised.
Europe was traditionally the home of design-centred production and its decline can be seen by comparing a golden age in the 1950s and 1960s with contemporary production. Think of Ettore Sottsass’s extraordinary work for Olivetti (comparable with Ive’s work today) or of Dieter Rams’ long line of exquisite products for Braun (Rams has been a huge influence on Ive). Think of those companies today and it is impossible not to perceive the steep decline of design.
Similarly if we think of Sir Kenneth Grange, Britain’s most revered industrial designer, and his mass market work for companies from Kenwood to Kodak, we can see that, despite all the hype, despite the massive proliferation of design as an idea, design was far more mainstream in the middle of the last century than it is today.
Even the big Italian manufacturers, for half a century the mainstay of the European design industry, are now warning that European production could collapse under intense pressure from Asia. And if that does happen there is a real danger that the industry that sustains design will disappear.
Yet, despite the shakiness of the big picture, there are signs that things could be different. The Netherlands brings a particular understanding to design, an idea that its impact need not be solely on products but on society itself. Judging the Netherlands Design Prize earlier this year I was struck by how far almost all the entries had moved from industrial production. There was social design and conceptual design and a complete lack of the usual chairs and coffee pots.
Instead there were real surprises including Temstem, an app developed for people who hear voices in their heads and which purportedly calms those voices by using the affected language recognition part of the brain to play simple word games. It is a stunningly simple solution to a complex and damaging problem achieved in the most direct way imaginable – with a clearly-designed and freely downloadable app.
Another Dutch entry, Fairphone, presented a design for a smartphone in which all the elements are ethically sourced, environmentally friendly and completely recyclable. It seems extraordinary that this phone, almost indistinguishable from most others, could be manufactured in such a radically different way and for a comparable price.
Denmark has famously embraced design – almost to excess. When every home and every commercial interior is impeccably designed and filled with beautiful design objects, the aesthetic landscape can become almost anodyne. Nevertheless, Danish companies have been successfully building on that rich history of modernist design with firms including Fritz Hansen, Stelton and Kvadrat producing superb, Danish-designed products in Denmark itself.
Italy remains arguably the most intriguing model. Its design industry famously grew from the ruins of wartime production when armaments production was switched to consumer goods, helped by generous Marshall Plan funding. Its manufacturing success was an economic miracle almost to match Germany’s, its industry becoming synonymous with everything from motor scooters and fashion to espresso machines and sports cars.
And each of these products was sold on the back of Italy’s uniquely seductive design. The country’s culture of small and medium-sized family companies proved nimble and perfectly suited to the emerging international mid-century design culture. Even today, a walk around the Milan furniture fair is an extraordinary testament to the skill of the craftsmen who rapidly produce hundreds of prototypes for the exhibitions.
In recent years, though, many of the Italian manufacturers have been voicing their concern that things cannot remain the same. Competition and copying from China is crippling their traditional markets. The newer model of commissioning designers from beyond Italy has ensured Italian companies stayed at the forefront of international design but it has also diluted the idea of Italian design, its identity. At the same time the generation of craftsmen is ageing and is not necessarily being replaced.
The current big thing is 3D printing and the idea that we will all be enabled to become small-batch manufacturers of our own designs. But the way in which this may accelerate a loss of crafts skills is little discussed. It is not a Luddite position to express nervousness about diluting the skills that have made European design such a thriving industry and have given it that distinctive edge.
One arena in which Europe has been embracing design is the automotive industry. Prestige manufacturers such as Ferrari and Porsche have always made an issue out of design, celebrating individual talents and design consultants (Ghia and Pininfarina, for example) but the more commercial companies have kept design in-house and anonymous. A big change has been the deliberate association of cars with design.
In April, Volkswagen showcased its neat, diminutive XL1 not at a car show but at the Milan Furniture Fair, just as last year Renault first showed its extraordinary Twin Z concept car with its theatrical brake lights extending across the whole rear and its stunning, organic wheels at the Milan show. For this, Renault commissioned British designer Ross Lovegrove, known for his fluid science fiction designs, to reimagine the small car. This was a brave move but a prescient one, placing the mass car manufacturer among an elite of design companies. In fact it seems odd that more car manufacturers do not work with outside designers – this is precisely the sort of collaboration that can lead not only to breakthroughs and crossovers in technology but also to a kind of brand differentiation that might be critical in the current struggling market.
Britain has had huge success in exporting industrial designers. If the Netherlands is known for its unconventional, eccentric concepts and Italy for its sexy styling, the Brits are known for a robust and elegant functionalism in a tradition that stretches back to Kenneth Grange and beyond. Currently Jasper Morrison is one of the most renowned designers working for a range of international companies but other less familiar names include Sam Hecht and Kim Collin of Industrial Facility, Sebastian Bergne and Barber Osgerby, all working for a remarkable range of international companies and creating a kind of hybrid European design that blends functional, elegant British design with continental European manufacturing flair.
The Belgians have also been a surprisingly strong design presence. Ann Demeulemeester, Dries van Noten and Martin Margiela and Raf Simons have exerted a huge impact on the fashion scene completely out of proportion to their home country’s size. They present only the most visible crown of a country in thrall to design.
We have become used to product designers, fashion designers, architects, graphic designers and so on – and their role in any evolution of European design is secure as the continent continues to export its most famous brands. But perhaps where the future lies is in the application of design to less familiar areas.
The emergence of social design and conceptual design, for instance, promises to question, undermine and reinterpret accepted dogma. If designers are able to apply their intelligence to processes as well as products, to society as well as shoes, then real changes might emerge. Corporations are cautious, but it will happen. Some of the more radical and intellectual design practices including Jurgen Bey, Ezio Manzini and Marti Guixe have been positing probing questions.
They have introduced the idea of a critical design that, rather than using design to solve a problem, uses it to begin to illuminate the complex issues around a problem, as well as taking design beyond product and into human behaviour.
In the meantime, social design, the idea that design should contribute to good in the world, is beginning to have an impact on services and delivery in everything from social work to healthcare and education. Perhaps, counterintuitively, an alternative future for design may well lie here. Designers always work in the future with an ability to anticipate change. If industry declines and power shifts, design still may have a future, albeit one that looks very different.