The art of non-design

Hugh Pearman takes a look at objects that are too odd or ugly to be created by a designer, but concludes that if a designer didn’t create them, someone else did

Non-design. I always liked the sound of that. Of the many book projects I have considered and ditched, this is the one that I periodically fetch up from the archives to pat affectionately before consigning it to oblivion again. It’s about 20 years old now. One reason I never get on with it is that, as an idea, it is just so damn obvious: design without designers.

Of course, everyone has had the same notion at some time or other. Just as each new generation of students discovers afresh the decorative potential of Bacofoil and traffic cones, so at some point every design critic will get worked up over the idea of artless design. It’s a phase we go through, like buying Red Stripe lager or Arne Jacobsen chairs or doing without socks or shaving our heads. Stuff that’s not really designed at all, hey. Later in life, we wonder why these things once seemed important. Not that we’re superficial or anything like that.

But the non-design idea won’t go away. It’s because you run across examples all the time. One of my favourites is the style of poster – usually found outside churches, schools and village halls – which has clearly been put together by the local printer and never seen a graphic designer. Yet they share a common aesthetic – bold lettering, usually on a white background, but sometimes a screaming fluorescent yellow or pink.

Temporary signs are a rich source of delight to non-design aficionados. As are objects such as house bricks, garden sheds, white pudding basins, wine bottles and pub signs (before they became self-consciously ironic). Years back, when I was writing a “design classics” column for a newspaper, it was these things, rather than the obviously designed and unavoidable icons such as the London Underground map or the Boeing 747, which interested me most.

Call me an anorak, but it was joyful to discover that there are (or were, at the time of asking) just two companies in the UK making the familiar large caramel-and-cream mixing bowl with its raised piecrust-like patterning. Both companies are in the same Midlands town, because only that town provides the right sort of clay. Their products differed minutely, but they were agreed on one thing: this is how such mixing bowls had always been. The design was fixed. Nobody knew for sure how long it had been in production. It was unimprovable.

If the mixing bowl provided a small moment of epiphany, the British electricity pylon – which being so functional, not to say ugly, I had always assumed to be a fine example of non-design – proved a disappointment. It was not just the product of some anonymous engineering hack, but involved, in the 1920s, the architect Sir Reginald Blomfield. It may indeed have been he, with his classical training, who applied the superior word “pylon” in the first place.

And there’s the problem. Every idiot knows that there’s no such thing as non-design because every man-made object has been given form by someone. A jobbing provincial printer designs. A blacksmith designs. Philippe Starck designs. So are we talking about the distinction between high and low design, professionals and amateurs, trained and untrained? Or just between anonymous and “signature” design?

Then there’s the matter of trained designers doing their best to appear artless, such as so-called “vernacular” architecture, and quite a bit of graphic design. And much that emanates from the increasingly brilliant product designer Jasper Morrison. Whatever the distinction is, it has nothing to do with good or bad design.

All this has probably been clear for centuries, but certainly since Owen Jones produced his great book The Grammar of Ornament in 1856, and again when design magazines started getting interested in naive art, architecture and design in the 1940s. The great photographer Eric de Mare, with his glowing studies of then unregarded canal bridges and industrial structures, rediscovered it. Today, a thousand photographers tread the same path every year. Remember the extraordinary success of the Boring Postcards book? That was a photographer stumbling across non-design.

The harder you look, the more artful everything appears to be, and the less easy it is to define what you’re on about when you discuss non-design. Which is the other reason this project has never got anywhere. It’s bloody obvious, but then again it’s not obvious at all. It’s been done before, but then again it hasn’t, not properly. Oh well – back into the archives it goes. Look – I don’t mind. You’ve all had the same idea. One of you lot do it. Good luck to you.

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