By accident or design

What does it take for an iconic design? As little design as possible, coupled with a philosophy that focuses on aesthetics, usability and innovation. Ideally, the result is something beautiful, a classic in the truest sense of the word. About Icons of Design - on the »World Day of Design«.
Text Lutz Fügener
Photo WE! shoot it

Let’s start where everything ends: at the edges. When it comes to design, the edges are fringy and it’s hard to draw a line. Some call design the purposeful or inventive arrangement of parts or details. Others call it blueprints for showing the look, function or workings of objects before they are produced. Whichever way you slice it, you can never fully trust this term, as its meaning intrinsically depends on the context. Some have very high standards, as you can read in “The 10 principles of good product design” by globally renowned industrial designer Dieter Rams, who states in his tenth principle: “Good design is as little design as possible.” That’s some food for thought.

Not only is the notion of design fuzzy, but so is the job description of a designer. You don’t have to earn a degree to call yourself a designer – everybody can become a designer “overnight”. Time and again, we hear of B-list celebs who seem to undergo this magical transformation.

One thing is for certain: Designers walk a fine line between the measurable world of engineering and that of art, the latter of which, by definition, cannot be rationally explained. Like a pendulum, designers swing back and forth between these two worlds. The full amplitude of these swings is best represented by the Juicy Salif Citrus Squeezer, created by French star designer Philippe Starck. The citrus squeezer, which has been available commercially since 1990, brought the company Alessi commercial success and earned itself a spot on the list of the most popular contemporary design objects. No one who beholds its iconic shape will ever forget it. Aesthetics and functionality strike a perfect balance, even though some may beg to differ. To be honest, however, the citrus squeezer is not really the best choice for squeezing lemons. This is owing to its proximity to art, kitchen sculpting, functional self-certification, as a deeply eclectic product typical of postmodern style. It’s only consistent that the limited-edition golden squeezer came with a note that described it as unsuitable for squeezing citrus fruit.

The Plastic Chair’s claim to fame is that it was the first mass-produced chair made of polymer. But regardless of its historical significance, it’s comfortable – even by today’s standards.

For all intents and purposes, one exciting aspect of designing a citrus squeezer is the absence of inner workings, which are otherwise characteristic of entire product ranges. On the surface of a squeezer, form and function are inseparable, as there is no interior. One of the most complex design objects without an inner mechanism, and thus a persistent challenge for designers, is the bicycle. Contrasting with a growing number of electronic devices whose content is invisible and indecipherable to users, bicycles are an uphill task for designers, because what you see is what you get. You can grasp the totality of its features, its mode of operation, in one glance. Moreover, in urban areas bikes are increasingly useful for shaping your reputation. It’s difficult to impress anyone with a Ferrari that is sitting deep down in an underground car park. By contrast, you can casually carry your high-tech, equipment-laden hipster flat bar road bike on your shoulder – for all the world to see. The profession of bicycle designers seems future-proof.

The other, more rational and seemingly unironic swing of the pendulum produces items with timeless features and looks. Sadly, many of these products take a back seat to glamorous and exalted concepts because we take their existence for granted and are deceived by their simplicity. The Plastic Chair by Charles and Ray Eames doesn’t turn heads, yet its ageless appearance makes it one of the grandees of the design world. Realising and using the possibilities of an innovative material, its ergonomics, modularity and universality make the Plastic Chair the embodiment of classic design values, as Dieter Rams would later lay out in his ten principles. The Plastic Chair’s claim to fame is that it was the first mass-produced chair made of polymer. But regardless of its historical significance, it’s comfortable – even by today’s standards.

Designers shine where leeway is small and requirements are big. In the early 1960s, beverage producer Afri-Cola made the bold move to attack its biggest rival, Coca-Cola, in the German market. In its advertising effort, the German brand had to come up with something huge to match the corporate identity of the US giant. Protagonists of the German design scene such as Jupp Ernst und Wilhelm Wagenfeld took up this herculean task. The results were not to be sniffed at. Ernst created an ergonomic and beautiful bottle that rivalled the iconic shape of the Coke bottle. In a brochure with the pithy title “Kampf dem Kitsch” (“Fight kitsch”), Ernst wrote: “Manufacturing goods should really be about manufacturing values.” Touché!

Even today, design can hardly be observed or even evaluated without looking at the relationship between form and function. Whether you prefer the modern concept of this leitmotiv over the postmodern attempt at reinterpreting or even substituting it is of little import. Sullivan’s directive that “form follows function” towers like a mountain amid the design landscape, and it rests on the bedrock of Rams’ “as little design as possible” approach. What do safety pins, the good old white round-neck T-shirt and stealth bombers have in common? They are the formal result of a functional optimisation and – thanks to or despite of this, deliberately or accidentally – develop aesthetics that serve as perennial reference. In this extreme case, the pendulum swings towards technology, or function.

But if the pendulum swings the other way, there is a risk of devolving into decorativeness. When in the 1950s American automotive styling freed itself from purely engineering demands, it gave rise to the great era of concept cars, futuristic sculptures, merry-go-round horses on wheels with convoluted details that didn’t necessarily hit the mark but certainly looked grandiose. Not all protagonists of that style era limited their activities to the automobile, yet it eclipsed all their other works.

Take the unforgettable automotive fantasies of Harley Earl, whose design firm created the cartridge-filling fountain pen Waterman CF. These pens with their drop-in loading and disposable cartridges were an innovation in the Fifties, which was reflected in their exterior. Earl and his staff integrated the nib into the overall shape of the pen and modelled its contour on the automobiles they were known for, if without the friskiness, due to a lack of projection surface. The basic concept and the rigid elegance were so timeless that you couldn’t guess the age of Waterman CFs of the past sixty years – as opposed to Harley Earl’s cars.

The Sixtant electric Shaver - a programmatic denial of ornamentation – the embodiment of “as little design as possible”.

No essay on design classics would be complete without mentioning the names Braun and Leica. Few companies back in their day did as much for the acceptance of the design effort and, above all, its emancipation on a par with the value-creating part of the development process. Today’s designers see their raison d’être in the breathtaking timelessness of their products, in their aesthetic and functional validity. While he worked at Braun, Dieter Rams had the opportunity to put his ten commandments for good design into practice. His work for the appliance manufacturer ideally incorporates these standards. Many of his designs with their straightforward simplicity, like the transistor radio Braun TP1 /TP2, the shortwave radio receiver T1000 or the electric razor, stand out as a warning against today’s exchangeable consumer goods and arguably serve as models for Apple’s design strategy: Jonathan Ive, chief design officer of the successful Cupertino-based brand, admits to being an admirer of Rams.

So it’s only logical that Jonathan Ive should also leave his mark on the products of Leica, which is just as committed to Dieter Rams’ ten principles. The German company highlights the topic of design far more than most competitors and keeps signing up renowned designers. Apart from Ive, Australian Marc Newson and Walter de Silva, the former head of Volkswagen Group Design, have put pen to paper for Leica. They all have to measure up to their role models, who are so difficult to emulate. Whether the predecessors are a boon or a bane for their successors remains to be seen. At any rate, they present a challenge.

One question remains: What will be the design classics of the future? Aside from the aforementioned products that carry the edible fruit logo, the creations by British engineer James Dyson already lay claim to be a classic. Usually, however, only time will tell whose design will enter the hall of fame. What you can do now for a quick evaluation is to apply the rules laid out by Dieter Rams: designs that meet them have already pre-qualified.


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