Notions surrounding simplicity in design, from pared-down functionalism to minimalism, have been the scourge of many designers for some years. A whole swathe of textile designers, for example, has rediscovered decoration, glorying in colour and pattern, often putting down this shift in taste to a backlash against, as they perceive it, anodyne minimalism.
Simplicity and minimalism aren’t necessarily the same thing, despite often being conflated. Take Michael Sodeau’s Anything stationery line which, though understated, comes in zingy pop shades like yellow and tangerine, a fusion perhaps of the Modernist obsession with functionalism and funky pop.
But there are signs of a more widespread return to simplicity in design. This is not a sudden sea change. In 2006, Naoto Fukasawa and Jasper Morrison – stalwart standard-bearers of this approach – curated the exhibition Super Normal, which showcased everyday, often overlooked products that are nevertheless beautiful. The recent show Design Real, at London’s Serpentine Gallery and curated by Konstantin Grcic, meanwhile, celebrated highly practical, mass-produced industrial design.
On a similar wavelength are two upcoming London shows. The first, New Simplicity, will display work by 11 designers, from Min-Kyu Choi (creator of the folding plug, recipient of the 2010 Brit Insurance Design of the Year award), Jon Harrison and Jochem Faudet to Morrison and Industrial Facility (co-founded by Sam Hecht and Kim Colin). The second, an exhibition on John Pawson at London’s Design Museum, will include information on such projects as his Cistercian monastery in the Czech Republic and Calvin Klein’s New York flagship store.
Of a similar ilk are new designs such as the super-streamlined Template office storage system by Antenna Design for Knoll and Pearson Lloyd’s PLC chair. On a more frivolous note, fashionistas this summer are pushing a starkly minimalist, frankly Pawson-esque look in pale neutrals.
Why this reappraisal of simplicity? Could this be a reaction against the neo-Baroque look peddled in the Noughties by Marcel Wanders (with his New Antiques pieces), Jaime Hayón’s exuberant adventures in kitsch and countless textile and wallpaper designs channelling the bold, colourful 1960s and 1970s style typified by David Hicks? In a recession, particularly, could the design art phenomenon have lost its relevance, seen now as decadent and overblown, with consumers desiring functional, durable, fashion-transcending objects – a bit like the purgative, palette-cleansing wasabi accompanying a plate of sushi?
According to Industrial Facility’s Colin, a possible influence is the Royal College of Art’s Platform 12 department on its design products course, one of whose tutors is Hecht, and whose mission is to ’treat function as beauty instead of merely treating design as form and image’. Certainly, of those taking part in New Simplicity, Faudet, Choi, Thomas Wagner and Alex Hulme are all Platform 12 alumni.
A po-faced puritanism might also go with the territory, given the austerity and strong functionalist bias of this move towards simplicity. Some people might equate simplicity, humourlessly, with good design.
But many designers don’t see this taste for simplicity as an orthodoxy. ’Simple designs aren’t the only ones I get fulfilment from,’ says furniture and product designer Harrison. ’I’d hate to live in a world which resembled a Muji catalogue. I love being surrounded with old and new objects.’ Nuno Coelho, curator of New Simplicity, says, ’We live in an era where there is no dogma left in the creative industries. Simple design is just one of many styles in a plethora of choices. Rather than being good design, simple design nowadays is just one of the many approaches to personal taste.’
And neither is the vogue for simplicity itself necessarily homogeneous. ’A number of designers produce refined, minimal solutions, but their philosophies are very different despite their shared aesthetic,’ believes Luke Pearson of Pearson Lloyd – you only have to contrast Hulme’s playful turquoise calculator with Morrison’s ultra-sober light for Flos, for example.
According to Coelho, New Simplicity’s ’unifying element is a shared belief in the ideological pursuit of simplicity’. Yet some designers say they don’t self-consciously make simple designs, but arrive at creating them, sometimes out of a dislike of the superfluous.
’I don’t set off to design simple things,’ says Harrison. ’It’s just that my process seems to result in pared-down products. When designing, designers need to justify every element of a piece. If I can’t, it often means it’s removed.’
Two words which crop up a lot when discussing this subject are ’transparency’ and ’honesty’. ’There’s something very honest and transparent about a simply designed product,’ says Sodeau. ’The message it conveys is its function, while the materials and processes involved are not disguised.’ And, yes, continues Sodeau, this approach reflects a change in taste during the economic downturn. ’In a time of recession, this simplicity, honesty and transparency create a connection with the consumer.’
Faudet agrees. ’I think designers are fed up with design that is very fashionable,’ he says. ’That’s why so many of us choose design products that are functional and durable, but also desirable.’