‘Good Design’ Comes Under Question


A Design Reckoning at MOMA

Beyond Bauhaus furniture and the Charles and Ray Eames chair, how is good design defined? Is it functional? Decorative? Minimal? Techy? Be the judge at a new exhibition called The Value of Good Design opening February 10 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, which is showcasing design from the 1930s to 1970s, from graphics to toys, electronics and appliances.

Among the masterpieces in the exhibit, postwar design of the 1950s, which was a sign of economic reconstruction, plays a key role. Find a parked Italian Fiat Cinquecento car alongside a Soviet-era East German Werra photo camera, in all its vintage glory. There’s also a Japanese Sony television, which looks space-age and futuristic, alongside a dramatic Brazilian bowl chair.

Good Design show: Sony Corporation (Tokyo, Japan, est. 1946). Television (TX8-301). 1959. Plastic, metal, and glass, 8 1/2 × 8 1/4 × 10″ (21.6 × 21 × 25.4 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Jo Carole and Ronald S. Lauder

Sony Corporation (Tokyo, Japan, est. 1946). Television (TX8-301). 1959. Plastic, metal, and glass, 8 1/2 × 8 1/4 × 10″ (21.6 × 21 × 25.4 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Jo Carole and Ronald S. Lauder

A few key highlights from American-made design includes the famed Eames chair, La Chaise, as well as an old Chemex Coffee Maker, which saw its rise in the 1940s. There’s also a Mitsubishi sewing machine advertisement, created by Japanese designer Hiroshi Ohchi, who has used traditional Japanese brushwork techniques. There’s also a pop art seafoam green kitchen clock by Swiss designer Max Bill, as well as an illustrious Festival of Britain lithograph designed by Abram Games.

Good design kitchen clock: Max Bill (Swiss, 1908–1994). Kitchen Clock. 1956–57. Ceramic, metal, and glass, 10 1/4 × 7 5/16 × 2 1/4″ (26 × 18.5 × 5.7 cm). Manufactured by Gebrüder Junghans AG (Schramberg, Germany, est. 1861). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Architecture and Design Purchase Fund. Photo by Thomas Griesel © The Museum of Modern Art

Max Bill (Swiss, 1908–1994). Kitchen Clock. 1956–57. Ceramic, metal, and glass, 10 1/4 × 7 5/16 × 2 1/4″ (26 × 18.5 × 5.7 cm). Manufactured by Gebrüder Junghans AG (Schramberg, Germany, est. 1861). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Architecture and Design Purchase Fund. Photo by Thomas Griesel © The Museum of Modern Art

Looking at the past is easy, but trying to find good design today is of a different standard altogether. The exhibit is co-curated by Juliet Kinchin and Andrew Gardner, curators in the museum’s design department. Kinchin spoke to us about the Iron Curtain, sustainability and the power of glamour.

Why did you feel it was time to host this exhibit now?

In such uncertain changeable times we wanted to turn our attention to the decades following WW2 when many designers, politicians, critics and consumers were thinking internationally, and looking towards the future in an energetic, optimistic way. There was a sense of the constructive and democratizing potential of design—an idealistic belief that functional, beautiful, low cost design, using modern materials and technologies, could enhance the daily lives of more people than ever before. Good Design is a reflection of its time, one we continue to grapple with in a consumerist society easily tempted by trends and fads.

Good design sewing machine Hiroshi Ohchi (Japanese, 1908–1974). Mitsubishi Sewing Machine. c. 1950s. Silkscreen, 28 1/4 × 20″ (71.8 × 50.8 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of the designer. © 2017 Hiroshi Ohchi

Hiroshi Ohchi (Japanese, 1908–1974). Mitsubishi Sewing Machine. c. 1950s. Silkscreen, 28 1/4 × 20″ (71.8 × 50.8 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of the designer. © 2017 Hiroshi Ohchi

What is the definition today of good design 

These days we are allergic to the idea of universalizing models of design—no one-size-suits-all, and we need to be conscious of whose values are driving any definition of what we consider good or bad. Having said which, I think it is still valid to aim for design that is humane, affordable, useful and beautiful! We hope the exhibition will be engaging, encouraging visitors to pause and think about whether ‘useful objects’ like cookie cutters and plastic dog bowls as well as more glamorous mid-century furniture and textiles, have stood the test of time, and perhaps also think about the choices we all make as consumers. 

Good design Abram Games (British, 1914–1996). Festival of Britain. 1951. Lithograph, 10 1/8 × 12 1/2″ (25.7 × 31.8 cm). Printed by The Baynard Press (London, United Kingdom, est. 1894). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. © Estate of Abram Games and Transport for London. Photo by Denis Doorly © The Museum of Modern Art

Abram Games (British, 1914–1996). Festival of Britain. 1951. Lithograph, 10 1/8 × 12 1/2″ (25.7 × 31.8 cm). Printed by The Baynard Press (London, United Kingdom, est. 1894). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. © Estate of Abram Games and Transport for London. Photo by Denis Doorly © The Museum of Modern Art

Today, I would say the best designs are the ones that are chiefly guided by their functional purpose, but also grapple with issues of labor and sustainability. A design can be beautiful in its form and function, but if it is made by employing questionable labor practices or by utilizing environmentally destructive production practices, then it’s not a good design.  

Good design typewriter Giovanni Pintori (Italian, 1912–1999). Olivetti Lexikon. 1954. Lithograph, 27 3/4 × 19 1/2″ (70.5 × 49.5 cm). Printed by Industrie Grafiche N. Moneta S.p.A. (Milan, Italy). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of the designer. © Olivetti S.p.A. and the Estate of Giovanni Pintori

Giovanni Pintori (Italian, 1912–1999). Olivetti Lexikon. 1954. Lithograph, 27 3/4 × 19 1/2″ (70.5 × 49.5 cm). Printed by Industrie Grafiche N. Moneta S.p.A. (Milan, Italy). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of the designer. © Olivetti S.p.A. and the Estate of Giovanni Pintori

What countries in the exhibit influenced American design the most? I see a lot of Japanese, Finnish and German design is in the exhibit.

At mid-century progressive spirits in many different parts of the world, and on both sides of the Iron Curtain, were certainly watching and learning from each other. There was a spate of awards, new magazines and international exhibitions of contemporary design, many of them supported by government agencies and professional design organizations.

What is the ‘golden era’ of design in your opinion?

A well-designed product at one moment may appear differently the next. Some mid-century designs have outlived their use, but what I appreciate about that period is the lively engagement in design of so many different people at all levels of society. We shouldn’t lose sight of the cumulative power of unassuming things to spread a bit of joy, comfort and aesthetic pleasure in our lives.

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