Let’s not beat about the bush. One of design’s main functions is to make things sexy.
Overtly or subconsciously, designers are seeking to tempt and titillate, to lure you towards their creations and away from the less attractive efforts of others. From a car’s gently giving leather upholstery to a saucy Robert Brownjohn title sequence or a ‘come hither’ magazine cover, design is constantly dipping into the semiotics of eroticism to reach out and touch its audience.
Sex and design are natural bedfellows. Each relies on stoking up desire, creating a mood and an appetite, and producing a satisfying experience for all parties. If you go along with Freud, this path is more or less a given, as he maintained sex is all-pervasive, defining and driving our every action. So designers are naturally inclined to refer to sex in their work, while the consumer is inherently drawn to it.
Sex in design comes in all shapes and sizes – a telling curve, a risqué juxtaposition of mater ials, a seductive repeat pattern or a fetishistic finish. Abstrac ted and recontextualised, these clues and codes appeal to us all somewhere deep down in our sexual psyches. Beautifully designed objects cry out to be held and caressed, their tempting tactility working in tandem with their alluring visual appeal.
There’s certainly no denying sex provides a highly dem ocratic and inclusive design palette that everyone instinctively understands and responds to. Sexual references transcend language and socio-economic barriers, and tap into a subject that fascinates us all, so no wonder they’re used so freely in every discipline – from architecture and product design to graphics and fashion.
The practice has been going on since… well, since people started enjoying each other. Cave paintings, classical Greek pottery, Chinese manu scripts and Egyptian monoliths all wantonly celebrate the parts those killjoy Victorians later decreed should remain private. Wobbly (and not-so-wobbly) bits loom large in ancient Eastern art. Sex has inspired great literature and poetry, while the enduring form of the nude has obsessed artists and transfixed art lovers for centuries.
And, of course, there’s a whole other side to sex. Because it’s not always about ardour and intensity, there’s plenty of fun and comedy to be played out, too. You’ll find a good deal of Carry On humour rising through the design of many everyday objects, from lamps and wallpaper to coat hooks and jewellery, laced as they are with delightfully naughty nuance and innuendo. It’s a means of injecting downto- earth humour into what is sometimes considered an elitist and po-faced profession.
But there are still taboos. The fig leaf and loincloth may finally have been discarded, but even in an age where you can buy sculptural Seymour Powell – designed sex toys in Boots, sex, and its representation, remains a powerful and emotive topic. Cross the line and you can easily upset, outrage and alienate. But use it cleverly and tastefully, and you have an endless source of cheeky amusement, frisson and edginess, which can help you stand out from less sultry efforts.
In these straightened times, sex is one of the few pleasures we can still enjoy for free. Thrift and prudence may be the buzzwords for 2009, but we can still enjoy and appreciate design’s more sensory delights without worrying about the economic consequences. Yes, we may be down, but at least we can still get dirty.