I am only 31 years old, yet it appears I’m hitting some sort of design middle age. I first noticed the symptoms while attempting to buy a ski hat for my eight-year-old niece. “Is she more Diesel or Ted Baker?” asked the shop-owner. I searched for a flicker of irony in her thickly Rimmel’d eyes, but she was in earnest. Trying not to sound like a tweedy Twenties throwback, I enquired whether this level of brand-awareness was common among children of such an age. “Oh yes,” she replied. “It’s the peer group thing. They know all about the cool brands, and they pressurise their parents to buy them all the latest stuff.”
A stream of future newspaper headlines filled my mind: “Label wars in the playground”; “The new brand generation demands uniforms by Lacroix”; “‘Forget British Bulldog and conkers, we’re only interested in the catwalk’, say designer-crazy label junkies”. When I was a nipper (cue orchestral background music and sepia footage of recreation ground footie match), you worried if you had skid marks in your underpants, not whether they had Calvin Klein emblazoned across the waistband.
My rapid transition (descent?) into design middle age became explicit the following day, when I found myself in Foyles book shop on London’s Charing Cross Road in search of Classic Plant Machinery by Brian Johnson (18.99 in new money), the hardback accompanying the current Channel Four TV series of the same name.
For the uninitiated, the programmes trace the history of “The Machines That Built The Modern World”, from forklift trucks to cranes, tractors, excavators, combine harvesters and the like and, in so doing, have created some of the best pieces of televisual design history you’re likely to see. The clear, measured narration by John Peel and the continual narrative link between design ingenuity and commercial and social improvement has created a surprise hit of a programme.
Yes, Classic Plant Machinery is as unfashionable a name for a TV show as you can get. Asking for its twin tome at those cathedrals of design book spine-browsing, Waterstones and Dillons, raised instinctive smirks from the coloured spectacles brigade within earshot of the counters. Neither of the retailers had it. Shame; Johnson’s book contains more information about the influence and importance of design on contemporary Britain than most stylezine retrospectives, beauty parade awards annuals or Internet manifestos.
So, I ventured into the corridors of Foyles’ specialist floor. Resisting the siren lures of European Ferry Scene magazine and Modern Welding – “complete coverage of the welding field in one easy-to-use volume!” – I found the rather modest mechanical equipment section and located the target of my unbridled desire.
In truth, the book is a bit of a disappointment. Inevitably, it goes into much more detail than the programme and the attendant increase in dates, statistics and facts serves to fog the simple illuminations of the on-screen stories. But there’s still enough between its covers to merit a purchase by anyone interested in extraordinary design. You can thrill to the photo of a 3000 tonne excavator that walked two and a half miles to another site, or a forklift truck manufactured by The Coventry Climax Company (which, I assume, came to a sticky end) lifting a huge Lancia Aprilia saloon above its head.
I think such objects are fascinating, but I particularly like the clear link between their design and their physical effectiveness. This seems to be a long way from the current obsession with the visual and the virtual. It probably locates me in some pipe and slippers school of thinking to say this, but the pulling power of plant machinery seems at least as noteworthy as the mental pulling power of the latest print, brand and new media design. In fact, the dirty realism of Classic Plant Machinery comes as something of a refreshing break in our increasingly ethereal world.
Following my Private View last month on the McDonald’s commercial featuring a “life space architect”, I noticed that members of the architecture community had already complained to the ITC about the ad. I’ve long suspected that architects are turning into the most precious, pompous and self-important profession in Britain; reaction to the burger chain’s TV ad appears to confirm my view.