The most expensive work by a living designer is Marc Newson’s Lockheed Lounge (1986), which sold at auction house Phillips in April for an astonishing £2.4m. It is a recliner riveted together from sheet aluminium in the manner of a vintage aeroplane. It is impractical to sit on, let alone recline on. It is a thing to look at. A bad design. Yet every design museum desires one and collectors would kill to own one.
The question “what is good design?” was a permanent fixture throughout the history of modernism. Everyone from William Morris to Dieter Rams had a go at answering it. The answer, almost invariably, was some combination of usefulness and simplicity. But that answer is no longer enough.
Bad design can, conversely, prosper. At the more affordable end of the market there is Philippe Starck’s Juicy Salif lemon squeezer for Alessi (1990), an object that became an indispensable totem in the late 20th-century interior and, perhaps, the moment that useless design reached the masses.
Just at that moment, the kitchen was being transformed from a service space to a principal living area and a room to show off. Along came Starck’s sculptural squeezer, its form situated somewhere between a cyborg spider and a space lander, the perfect complement to the newly masculinised stainless-steel landscape of the contemporary urban kitchen. It is a design that fulfils its purpose in every way without, of course, actually working.
Alessi’s most lucrative design is now, incidentally, Michael Graves’s 9093 kettle (1985), the conical one with a whistling bird on its dribbling spout. It doesn’t pour until you take the bird out — which you can’t because hot steam is bubbling out of the spout.
Like Starck’s squeezer, function was never really the point here. This was a design to demonstrate that you appreciated design, a signifier of taste and wealth. Only the rich and discerning can afford to spend that much money on a kettle that doesn’t work (you need a spare one, in a cupboard, to actually make the tea with). There is also Ron Arad’s Bookworm bookshelf, a coil that affixes to a wall and accommodates fewer books than a bedside table. And there is Starck’s Gun table lamp, its stand in the shape of a gold-plated AK-47. Horrible.
From Newson’s useless, unaffordable lounger to Graves’s hopeless kettle, contemporary design culture does not judge through the lens of function — just as the contemporary art world often takes no notice of beauty or skill in representation. Yet this is only the consumer end of design culture. Beyond this is an entire subculture of what we could call conceptual design. This is design to make a point, to articulate a narrative, to illustrate the absurdity of, say, consumer culture. You might illustrate this category with Rolf Sachs’s Tailor Made chair, a standard kitchen chair translated into felt, so that it is unstable and floppy. But this veers into the territory of art, and while it may have provocative things to say about the nature and fashion of design, it tells us less about the real world than mass consumer design.
Everything man-made, we have to remember, has been designed. We may be in thrall to the slick, impossibly smooth interface of our iPhones (Newson, incidentally, now works for Apple), but the everyday frustrations of bad design haunt us.
I recently bought a craft knife in a preformed plastic pack. I couldn’t open it because my existing craft knife had broken. It took me perhaps a minute and a half to get into the packaging and I cut myself in the process. That is bad design. Or how about drinking an overcomplicated cocktail from a glass that has been manufactured to look like a recycled jam jar, although it clearly never was a jam jar because it has the bar’s name cast into the glass?
Or how about that spaghetti of cables, adaptors and plugs you keep in a box somewhere, the detritus of old phones, laptops and tablets — each with a different charging point — is that not an example of staggeringly wasteful, bad design? Even with all my devices being Apple, I still need three different chargers. This, from the company renowned for its obsession with good design. (Though if you’d like to see how reputations change, you could do worse than looking at the stolid lump of its 1993 Macintosh computer television.)
The list of bad design is, of course, almost endless, sometimes risible, at times deadly. There was, for instance, the FP-45 Liberator pistol issued to the French Resistance. It was made by the Guide Lamp division of General Motors, parachuted into France and cost $2.10 a piece to manufacture. It looked like a spud gun and was about as useful: with a single shot and a maximum range of 25ft, you could probably do as much damage by throwing it as firing it. And if you missed, it was curtains — to reload, it needed rodding with a timber dowel to remove the spent cartridge.
Intriguingly, the world’s first 3D-printed gun, the single-shot device that can evade X-ray detection and be built in any bedroom — originally an open-source piece of code, which has been the most controversial design of recent years — was also christened the Liberator. Or, more recently, there was the Bangalore-manufactured REVAi, known as the G-Wiz in Britain, an electric car so ugly, so useless and so underpowered it was classed as a quadricycle.
But if the Liberator and the G-Wiz were at least billed as economy efforts, the same cannot be said of the wonderful world of watches. Somehow watches seem to be immune from the rules of taste that govern other categories of design, with their diamond-studded bezels, dials indicating air pressure or phases of the moon, tachymeters and slide rules. Crowded, fussy, overdetailed and ridiculously oversized, they represent everything good design is not, yet their reputations rely on the craftsmanship, materials and engineering they embody.
We need to remember design is a branch of branding. The modernists might have attempted to persuade us good design was something transcendental that would emerge from an intellectual and practical engagement with function, and that would come to a natural culmination in an exquisite, fashion-defying mass-manufactured product. But we understand now that those classic modernist designs were as much a brand as their predecessors. It was the application of the appearance of modernity.
Around the world there are museums dedicated to the most brilliant designs of the past century or so, and their bookshops are stuffed with volumes on iconic designs and classic chairs. When London’s Victoria and Albert Museum was founded in 1852 the first room visitors came to was the Chamber of Horrors. This was an exhibition of the objects the curators thought were the most disreputable and disgusting designs on the contemporary market.
The idea was to set up a dialogue with the ensuing exhibition which would reveal to the public the finest examples of design. Didactic and wonderfully, pompously Victorian, it assumed that taste could be measured and dictated, beyond fashion, indisputably, and that the definition of good and bad design was black and white.
It is difficult not to admire the museum’s confidence in its own taste. The Chamber of Horrors was, of course, the museum’s most popular room. So popular, in fact, that it shut it down as it was nervous the public was enjoying it too much. Perhaps it is an idea whose time has come again.
Edwin Heathcote is the FT’s architecture critic
Photographs: iguanas.co.uk; V&A
Slideshow photographs: marc-newson.com; Getty; V&A; AFP