In 1922, in the Valley of the Kings in Egypt, two Britons called Howard Carter and Lord Carnarvon uncovered one of the most spectacular finds in the history of archaeology: the almost untouched tomb of Tutankhamen.
The young king had not been in power long before he died, and in ancient Egyptian terms the treasures he had entombed with him were probably moderate ones. Yet to the twentieth century world, the masks, jewels, caskets and mummies unearthed by the archaeologists spoke of unimaginable wealth, grandeur and nobility, and of a wondrous artistic sensibility.
A few years later, Agatha Christie wrote a story in which the so-called “curse” that later supposedly fell on Lord Carnarvon found an explanation. Hidden in her fictional Lord’s castle were hundreds of small treasures stolen from the tomb before the discovery was made public. Apparently, Christie had been given some inside information years later.
You can understand the temptation of the two explorers. Suddenly confronted with objects of absolutely astounding beauty – the likes of which they knew they were unlikely to ever see again – the urge to pocket some of the treasure must have been immense. What, I wonder, will the twentieth century leave that could entrance the people of future centuries quite so much?
Which brings me on to the BBC Design Awards. Having religiously followed the progress of the competition over its now ten-year history, I think I can safely say that nothing has impressed me quite as much as the ball of string. You know, the ball of machine-wound twine that Kenneth Grange of Pentagram held up on the introductory programme on the 26 February as the pinnacle of good design.
That is one of the best things about designers: they can be so good at recognising and championing the simplest tactile and visual pleasures. And this, of course, is what is so good about design at its best – it delivers an everyday dollop of beauty to millions of people.
Once only princes and kings like Tutankhamen could afford to surround themselves with beautiful things. Now we can find art in commonplace objects. Looked at like this, you can start to think of design in rather grandiose terms, almost as an instrument of democracy.
Fine art is moving steadily further and further away from the sympathies and understanding of ordinary people. Take, for example, Damien Hirst and his love of beasts and formaldehyde, and ask the average animal breeder what they think about him.
Applied art, such as stained glass window design, finds little place in design-and-build. Yet, as William Morris pointed out a century ago, we all need art in our lives, or at least some form of contact with creativity.
There are signs that design is at least partly fulfilling that need. One instance, amazingly enough, is the BBC1 programme Antiques Roadshow – which is frequently just as much about classic design as it is about inspired art. It has become one of the top ten television programmes in the country.
Meanwhile, Fifties, Sixties and now even Seventies designer bric-a-brac is being skip-hunted up and down the land.
This is to say nothing of consumerism itself: what do people do when they win the National Lottery? The feedback to date seems to be that the first thing they buy is that masterpiece of modern design, the car.
The “best” art (whatever that means) is meant to speak its age, and this is more than true of design. Already, boffin-like collectors are putting together hoards of products that they feel symbolise the modern world – stuff like Radion washing powder tins, Coca-Cola cans, Barbie dolls, those free plastic toys from McDonald’s hamburger outlets, and, of course, the most famous disposable collectors’ item of modern times, the Swatch watch. Junk that may one day become jewels.
I suppose the larger question is that of absolute value. What worth will the archeologists of the future put on our disposable age – with its not-so-whiter-than-white washing powder and its sexist-anorexic Barbie dolls? It’s a question I simply cannot answer.