Tune into design

After the cringe-fest that was BBC Two’s Design for Life with Philippe Starck last year, it was a relief to find out that the same channel has finally decided to schedule the much-delayed The Genius of Design.

The Designed World
The Designed World

Giving design the treatment afforded photography in the critically acclaimed The Genius of Photography, the five-part series explores questions such as ‘where does design come from, what does it mean to be a designer’ and ‘what is the special nature – the genius of this thing that we call design’.

It’s a promising opener, and the series does seem to aim high. Episode one traces design back to its roots in crafts and the birth of manufacturing, through to the rise of industrial design and the automobile.

Classic Car Designs from the Golden Age of American automobiles 2
Classic Car Designs from the Golden Age of American automobiles 2

It pitches the ‘cavalier design’ approach of manufacturers such as Wedgwood, which ‘offers fashion, status, conspicuous consumption and a willingness to recycle history’ against the ‘roundhead’ design, which stands ‘for functionality, a truth to materials and production methods, and an allegiance to the present’ – Burgon and Ball Sheep Sheers are help up as a prime example of this.

It also touches on design as an ‘emotional’, rather than ‘analytical’ process, in the words of J Mays, global head of design at Ford. His job, he says, is ‘to bend the sheet metal in a way that communicates the brand and pulls the customer in’.

Dieter Rams
Dieter Rams

A number of ‘design gurus’ are predictably wheeled out to add some lustre to the programme – but in a considered, apt way. It’s a pleasure to listen to the quirks of Dieter Rams, for example. Reeling off his ten commandments of design, including ‘good design is honest’, he is asked ‘what’s dishonest design?’ ‘Lying!’, he exclaims with glee.

And contemplating the curve of Thonet’s bent Chair N14 is always a welcome reminder of that enduring posterchild of mass-production design genius.

Designer James Irvine with the back and legs of the Thonet bentwood chair
Designer James Irvine with the back and legs of the Thonet bentwood chair

Thinking of the every-viewer settling down to take in The Genius of Design, you feel the design industry is in good hands. However, – in the first episode at least – the focus is very much on ‘stuff’, i.e. products. Designers are people who ‘worry about stuff – not in a general way , but in particularly the fine detail of stuff – they worry about it so that we don’t have to’.

Hopefully future episodes will deliver more of the same consideration, but go beyond stuff, and get down to the ideas too.

The Genius of Design starts this evening (7 May) at 7pm on BBC Two. It is accompanied by a book of the same name from Quadrille, priced £19.99

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