Measure of good taste

When does something earn the right to be considered a design classic and why? Should we care anyway? Hugh Pearman struggles with the definition

For years now I’ve been writing an occasional ‘design classics’ column in a newspaper. It’s fun – a bit of light relief, doing 300 words about an object simply because I like it and it has stood the test of time. But the name annoys me. I never wanted to use that word ‘classic’. It’s a debased term. I suggested all kinds of alternative titles. So ‘design classics’ it was, then. And I suppose it’s a useful shorthand for – well, for what, exactly?

This is of course much-trampled ground. People have always singled out well designed objects and held them up to public attention – or more often, held up examples of what was deemed to be bad design for ridicule. This reached a crescendo with the 19th century design evangelists – Ruskin and Morris, Henry Cole, Christopher Dresser, Owen Jones, CR Ashbee and their fellow travellers. After World War II, this became a government propaganda thing, confused with trade and exports. Hurry on past the notorious and long-defunct Design Council swing-ticket scheme, because that was confined to British designs and was applied to a lot of bad or just ordinary stuff.

Then came the books. Stephen Bayley’s ‘In Good Shape’ in 1979 helped set the tone for the growing design awareness of the following decade, in which Bayley first ran the Victoria & Albert Museum’s Boilerhouse design gallery, and then founded the Design Museum, both in consort with Sir Terence Conran. Another marker from that decade was Deyan Sudjic’s ‘Cult Objects’ of 1983, also the launch year for Peter Murray’s influential ‘Blueprint’ magazine, which Sudjic edited. The impact all this had is nicely memorialised in the name of a restaurant of the period: the Blueprint Café at the Design Museum. A lot of historical threads are gathered together there. It was a particular moment. Don’t let anyone ever dare change the name.

No doubt as a knee-jerk reaction to all this, when I first came to the ‘classic designs’ thing I liked the idea of design without celebrity designers. The garden shed. The house brick. The ice-cream cone. The traffic cone. The Kit Kat. Plasticene. Even engineering products, such as the Yale lock or the Briton door closer. But after a while you tire of these things. Who doesn’t know all about the Brown Betty teapot? Who’s interested in Tarmac? Who cares who first designed the skip and its ingenious lorry? Well, I care, to the extent of wishing that I knew. But these days I do big-name designer consumer products as much as anyone.

It’s one thing to take a snapshot of what’s happening in design at any given moment – a book such as David Redhead’s ‘Products of Our Time’ in 2000 is a good example and even dares to include landmines (accounts of design nearly always shy away from military hardware and its implications, more’s the pity). But it’s another thing to take the long view. When you do that, you can’t get away from that ‘classic’ thing. At what point does it start to apply? Somewhere on a timeline between the Thonet bentwood chair of 1859 and Jasper Morrison’s Glo-Ball lamp.

Another reference: Jules Lubbock’s ‘The Tyranny of Taste’ from 1995 is one of the most absorbing books on design I have ever read. Lubbock reveals how the Puritans justified good design on moral grounds – somehow it was better than unfocused consumer spending, which was, of course, ungodly. Unfortunately the book stops in 1960, so does not consider the whole 1980s/1990s design explosion. But bookmark that Cromwellian analogy, because that’s really what it’s all about.

There is quite a lot of bad-taste stuff I like, but on the whole, along with most design commentators, I take the old Republican line with design. That good design is not just functionally good, but somehow morally good as well, an antidote to excess. Which is why I keep my distance from Philippe Starck and am still not sure about Marc Newson. They have a whiff of decadence about them. Someone has just suggested Starck’s Louis Ghost chair as a design classic. I’m sorry – that’s Postmodern, not to say tongue-in-cheek. It doesn’t count.

So what is ‘design classic’ shorthand for? Well, I think it must be for something that generally has a named author, is usually much more expensive than standard products of the same type, has been around for a while, and has an appearance that appeals to more Puritan educated tastes. A snob thing, in other words. Mea culpa.

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