Changing Philosophies – Design: The Whole Story

Thames & Hudson’s encyclopaedic volume surveys the innovations of inspired practitioners from the 19th century up until the present day.

In 1880 English textile designer William Morris famously declared to his Birmingham audience: “Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.” Behind this statement was Morris’s passion for true craft and his hope to persuade the masses that their homes should be filled only with objects of “real art.”

He proceeded to lead the Arts and Crafts Movement, promoting honest, handmade work and the ideal of rural simplicity, drawing on the creative and stripped-back processes of the past. At the heart of his vision was a rejection of Victorian clutter – cheap, inferior goods produced in poor conditions by severely underpaid workers – and the conservation of traditional skills, which Morris and his followers feared would be phased out by mass production. Socially and environmentally concerned, he sought to prevent industrialisation whilst restoring self-respect to employees by improving working conditions. This aspiration – borne in the late 19th century – would attempt to revive the collaboration of art and design: manufacture would be something beautiful and meaningful for everyone, achieved by using local materials whilst striving for originality.

As co-author of Thames & Hudson’s new weighty tome, Elizabeth Wilhide, explains: “The impetus behind the movement is evident today: Morris was against the separation of human beings from hand-work in factory processes and the same kind of thing is happening now. There is a new hunger for making things physically – in response to the growth in technology – as we are inherently a creative species yet contemporary designers seem alienated from their work.”

The ideas of Morris’s pioneering group spread from Britain to America, and all the way to Japan, and although their influence can still be seen today, growth ended because the ideal was ultimately flawed. As Wilhide explains, the Arts and Crafts Movement was inspired by a desire to provide the masses with a decorative sense of living and create greater equality through “art for all.” However, as the author explains:

“The truth of the matter was that a lot of people couldn’t afford the things that were produced.” It was a socialist ideal that, in execution, could only serve the elite. To truly address the needs of the population, mass production has prevailed.

Still, one key principle was the relationship between quality of design and of life – a truth that today everyone takes for granted. Thames & Hudson’s text initiates conversations between past and present ideals – how our domestic world should be constructed. A key example noted is the juxtaposition between Morris’s definition of quality and how we understand it now: for the 19th century visionary, the notion was more closely related to materiality and beauty. But, the landscape of design did grow to value practicality, especially with the demands of developing populations.

Before describing this step into functionality and adaptability, Wilhide charts the shifts made in the late 19th century: by then the previously established school of thought had moved on with the entrance of Aestheticism. This period of decadence drew on the motifs of Morris but rejected his moral principles in favour of boundless ostentation. With the new ideas based in Britain, the 1862 International Exhibition had introduced Chinese and Japanese porcelain and ceramics, ivory carvings and cotton tapestries to the elite of London. The 1878 Third World’s Fair in Paris featured an ornate Japanese pavilion and extravagant fashion: Japanese gowns and rich velvet jackets were on sale in London’s Liberty store, worn by renowned dandies such as writer Oscar Wilde.

According to this new book, Aestheticism died in 1900 with Wilde, who lived a life in search of beauty. His controversial play Salome was banned from the stage due to its lavish visuals and themes of lust and violence. Wilde famously quoted, in the preface of his philosophical novel The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890): “all art is quite useless”, a sentence which encapsulates the entire principle of the Aesthetic Movement. Paintings, novels, music and any other mediums have no responsibility, and as such, they should not be expected to influence the social or moral identities of society.

For the provocative author, creative output was to be only an act of pleasure, be it the process of making or the enjoyment of its merits. Life should be led to maximise one’s own enjoyment. Yet, Wilde ultimately criticises the decadent mode of living through the tale of the ultimate hedonist – the handsome young Dorian – whose lifestyle of vanity, and corruption leads him to despair. Although a seeming advocate of materialistic design, the narrative critiques the obedience to one’s desires and reflects the fallacy of Aestheticism. More and more practitioners would come to reject this state of desirability, seeking something more.

Delving further into the text, one witnesses the global embrace of Art Nouveau, coupling rich, imaginative style with new technologies and materials. Lithography prints, ceramics painted with translucent enamels and coloured glass made an entrance into styles of construction. By 1914 the Arts and Crafts Movement, Aestheticism and Art Nouveau were forced to an abrupt halt as World War I initiated dramatic change. From weaponry to metal homewares and bicycles, the efficient “US system of manufacture” or divided labour had sped up production by the early 1900s, catalysed in 1913 with Henry Ford Motors’ adoption of the moving assembly line. By the beginning of the war a machine age had begun.

With the rise of rationing and less-hedonistic sensibilities, the ideas of Cubism, Vorticism and Futurism began to mimick the angular lines and driving speed of mechanised labour, and the home increasingly came to reflect this rational, productive outlook – spurred on in the 1920s by thinkers such as architect Le Corbusier, whose Toward an Architecture (1923) told readers: “The house is a machine for living in.”

In this new post-war climate, homewares began to resemble the technology of factories, formed from industrial materials, such as the tubular steel used in bicycles, that would not disrupt the architecture of open plan, multi-purpose spaces. Modernist furniture both encapsulated the mechanic aesthetic and satisfied the need for a ordable modern goods.

Whilst devised for functionality, the style of elegant simplicity has been one of our most enduring: not only has it reigned from the 1920s to 1970s, but original works of Modernist furniture are highly sought after today: Vitra furniture, Smeg fridges and Roberts radios remain, undeniably, in fashion. Wilhide describes the push for vintage as reflecting “a nostalgia. You’re buying something that harks back to your grandmother’s kitchen or an old film. Perhaps it is also a reaction against overwhelming choice. You’re selecting something that’s already been selected.”

In a way, this is an acceptance that individuality is near impossible for today’s consumer, with mass production having taken over in the mid-20th century and provided a glut of products, as the co-author asserts: “It’s difficult to be individual, especially when the marketplace is so globalised.” Where the Aesthetes of the early 20th century garnered their own exclusive and eccentric tastes through new access to blueprints from Japan and China, today much of the Western world has unprecedented access to international design.

Towards the end of the book it becomes obvious that an unprecedented aspect of the evolving medium is innovation. One of the most significant recent advancements is 3D printing. Whilst plastics entered the everyday interiors of 1916 Rolls-Royce cars, glazed the canopies of Spitfire planes and formed Charles and Ray Eames’ sleek shell chair in 1949, they can now be manipulated in an entirely new way.

The process was first explored in 1983 by Chuck Hull, who was looking for a way to produce fast prototypes, for aeroplane and car parts. Today, objects with intricate internal structures can be printed in their entirety, using CAD drawing and materials ranging from plastic and glass to aluminium and steel and even silver, gold and platinum. Though this has given designers the ability to create stunning works – such as Swedish group Front’s Materialized Sketch Chair (2006), which transforms scribbles into solid resin and ceramic – it has also given way to practical scientific equipment, and more sinister items such as the Liberator (2013) – a 3D-printed gun.

Fortunately, the Liberator didn’t work very well, and the most significant advancements have been in medical equipment and even replacement limbs and bones. For example, in 2014 the 3D-printed vertebra was mastered by Liu Zhongjun at Beijing University Third Hospital, initially to replace the second vertebra in the neck of Minghao, a 12-year-old boy who had a malignant tumour. The second vertebra, or axis, is especially complex as the head pivots on this part of the spine, and whilst this vertebra would once have been replaced with a hollow tube, and the patient’s head held static with pins and a frame for three months, a 3D-printed vertebra can be made to a bespoke fit and is structurally stronger than the tube. Minghao’s recovery was fairly fast, his natural bone grew over the 3D implant, and he regained an almost full range of movement. This has led to new research into disc replacement and replacement of other complex bones.

Not only precise, 3D printing is efficient, provides very little waste and can even transform freely available recyclable plastics such as empty water bottles into useful objects including umbilical cord clips. This particular item was imagined and executed by iLab Haiti after the earthquake in 2010, where medical supplies were so limited that newborns’ umbilical cords were being tied with rubber gloves, so that nurses had to work bare-handed to deliver babies to HIV- positive women. As Wilhilde explains, “3D printing effectively cuts out distribution and transportation costs”, and it is therefore a useful tool for both developing and developed countries – with its easy manipulation of recycled materials leading towards sustainable fashion pieces as well.

We now understand how the quality of design and the ful lment our day-to-day lives refer to safety, education and comfort rather than simply aesthetics, and although the market may now be so globalised that individuality can prove difficult, the ability to share innovation across countries, cultures and even practices means that the next 200 years look to be as nuanced and ingenious as the past.

Words Chloe Hodge

Design: The Whole Story. Thames & Hudson.