Missing links

A new book on 20th Century Design has been published in association with the Design Museum. Hugh Pearman relishes it, as far as it goes…

What would you say was the single thing, in the whole of the 20th century, that has had most impact on most people? War, obviously. And after that? Advances in medical treatment, no question – remember, more people died of influenza just after the Great War than had died in the slaughter in the trenches. Next must come the transport-related stuff; cars, planes, anything powered by oil-derived products. After that, should electrically powered domestic appliances – from washing machines to kettles and toasters – come higher up the list than aspects of mass communication – advertising, TV graphics, cameras, palmtop computers?

And where does fashion come in? Does a different kind of frock or jacket define the 20th century more, say, than the peacock garb of the 18th century dandy defined his era? Furniture? Well, that’s a bit more like it, though, of course, we must nod vaguely in the general direction of William Morris where a modernist purity of line, though certainly not mass production, is concerned.

We can argue about all this as long as we like, and it’s good fun. Still, if you produce a book called 20th Century Design, as Catherine McDermott has done under the aegis of the Design Museum, then presumably your task is to balance all these various aspects. After all, it does claim on the flyleaf: “No other book takes such a sweeping and comprehensive look at what constitutes an essential example of contemporary design.”

Odd, then, to find no weapons in it. Weapons have to be the most successful pieces of design going because, if they aren’t, the people using them are likely to be killed by people with better ones, and the country with the best ones is likely to take over the country with inferior ones. So weapons are horribly important. I don’t see any in this book. Not a peep of a Kalashnikov or an Armalite or a Mills Bomb or a V1 or a Trident missile or a plastic bullet or a mass-produced plastic-explosive land mine. Perhaps McDermott took the view that to display these brilliantly designed objects would somehow glorify them – which is the old argument against war museums. If so, I don’t agree.

Instead, the Fashion section shows us Katherine Hamnett wearing her 1984 Anti-Pershing T-shirt at Number Ten, Downing Street (it’s there as a “Slogan T-shirt” rather than as an anti-war thing). We get a Dig for Victory poster from the Second World War. We get The Chinese Revolution. But that too, weirdly, comes under Fashion. Sorry about all you people who died out there, but as far as McDermott is concerned: “Mao Tse Tung has been described as the most influential fashion designer of the twentieth century.”

I go to the Transport section. I find rockets, planes, buses, cars, bikes, but all civil: no Sopwith Camel, no Spitfire, no Messerschmitt 109, no F-15, no Stealth fighter. The Land Rover is there, but not the original military Jeep it copied, which gets merely a passing reference. No Panzer, no Sherman tank. No… but you get the point. Let’s try medicine, then.

This, admittedly, is more difficult, since drugs are the big news here and a pack of Zantac doesn’t make a picture like the Chinese Revolution does. Still, there are plenty of wonderful medical gizmos. What about an asthma inhaler, something that would have transformed my life had it been available when I was a child? Nope. Or Charles Eames’s famous moulded plywood leg splints? Nope. Surgical lasers? Nope. Ultrasound scanners? Nope. Microscopic cameras that spot stomach ulcers? Nope.

The Products section is 100 per cent domestic-consumption stuff, from Aga to Zanussi. Medical and pharmaceutical references are scarce and oblique: you’ll find a push-out foil pack of contraceptive pills, and Mates condoms (both in the Packaging section) and some health-warning posters in Advertising, along with the posters that look like health warnings but aren’t (Bartle Bogle Hegarty’s steamy Haagen-Dazs ad, for instance, that has Aids Threat hovering invisibly over it). Oh, and there is a blue-sky research project by Philips, a putative electronic clipboard for nurses that has yet to make it into production.

Perhaps McDermott, or maybe Paul Thompson at the Design Museum who writes the foreword (there is no introduction), or maybe the editors at Carlton Books (related to the London TV Channel of that name) decided not to take any risks by widening the definition of design excellence. Or perhaps it just didn’t occur to any of them. Because, after all, such surveys are all about consumption, which means people like you and me going out to buy things, and being bombarded with “buy” messages from whatever screen we choose to turn on, whatever street corner we pass. After all, the Design Museum has always been very like a shop, and I have a feeling you’re not allowed to sell weapons or non-prescription medical gear in a shop.

If you’re getting the impression that I don’t think much of 20th Century Design. Wrong. © Once you accept its regrettable omission of the two most important design aspects of the century – once you realise that this is another run-of-the-mill book about nice-looking things – it is pretty good of its kind. It is particularly good on graphics and packaging, which I don’t recall as being a particular strength of the Design Museum – I associate it, perhaps wrongly, with products. Fantastic, for instance, to find a billboard ad from the early Nineties which seared itself on my memory: the Ian Wright Gary Who? ad for Nike by Tiger Savage. Also, one I didn’t know, a rather beautiful and mysterious Air France ad of 1965 by Roger Excoffon. You can’t expect everything to be fresh and unexpected in a book like this – the ground has been trodden too many times already – and the selection is mostly sound. Of course the Lucky Strike Pack, of course the Coke bottle (though the one shown is certainly not from 1915 as claimed), but good to see also the pressurised plastic drinks bottle and the cardboard Tetra Pak.

To illustrate Jacobsen’s Ant chairs with a picture of the later and rather less delicate Series Seven range is a bit odd, but anyone can pick holes. All in all, this is a very good run-down of domestic design and you can have fun checking off the things you own yourself: I’ve so far clocked the Jacobsen chairs, the Eileen Gray E1027 side table, the Russell Hobbs K2 kettle, the Dyson Dual Cyclone DC02 stairhugger, the Swatch, the Philippe Starck Miss Sissi lamps, and something else I’ve forgotten already. Oh yes, the cardboard egg box. My, this book is making me feel so GOOOOOD!

Hang on, though. All this domestic stuff – what about offices? Is not office working the other great development of the 20th century? Feverishly I flick through. At least there’s George Nelson’s 1964 Action Office furniture for Herman Miller. Do you count Norman Foster’s Nomos furniture as office kit? Up to a point. In the Interiors section there’s Gaetano Pesce’s colour-saturated Chiat Day offices in New York. There’s Frank Lloyd Wright’s Johnson Wax building, and a couple of others. In the Communication section there’s the usual two iconic typewriters and a light sprinkling of computers. Not too bad, but not too good either. To have a very predictable architecture section with all the usual suspects is one thing – there is Foster in Hong Kong, there is Rogers at Lloyd’s – but then to omit Herman Hertzberger’s 1972 Centraal Beheer office building, which transformed office working methods, and to pass over the whole post war science of brolandschaft, is quixotic to say the least.

So – not too good on offices. As for industry, well, forget it. This is a book with manufactured things in it, not a book which wants to lift the veil on the breakthroughs in how those things are made. I would have thought a car-making robot might have sneaked in there, or maybe some cunning device from the oil or nuclear industries, but, you guessed it, no.

So there we are. The book is fine so far as it goes, but it is almost entirely consumer-led. The true history of 20th century design still remains to be written, as long as commissioning organisations such as the Design Museum insist on regarding it as being principally a branch of retailing. I’m not sure, looking back on the great design century, just how well an Armani suit should score alongside – oh, I don’t know. How about an aqualung. Or a portable chemotherapy pack. Or even a bazooka.

The Design Museum Book of 20th Century Design, by Catherine McDermott, priced 25 hardback, Carlton Books.

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