Dynamic Technologies

A new publication provides a diverse overview of well-known pioneers and the innovative solutions they have produced for domesticated life.

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Alvar Aalto, Charles and Ray Eames and Jean Prouvé – these are all household names for aficionados. Lesser known, but no less innovative or pioneering, are the names of Poul Henningsen, Tapio Wirkkala, Joep van Lieshout and Karim Rashid. These designers are but a small selection of 50 included in the revised edition of the Prestel publication 50 Designers You Should Know. Edited by Adeline Henzschel, the book is a compendium starting with Michael Thonet and ending with Droog. Within these bookends are practitioners like Karim Rashid, a “pop icon” who has created over 3,000 products for leading brands such as Samsung, Veuve Cliquot, Swarowski and Ettore Sottsass, renowned for playful and colourful creations that he propagated as part of a wider anti-design movement. Despite Rashid’s cult pop-star status and Sottsass’ niche following, it is their ability to create appealing designs that ensure their longevity – neither of them exists at the whim of their uber-stylish audience, in much the same way that Charles Rennie Mackintosh was not at the whim of his.

Selecting 50 individuals from a 150-year period is no small feat and one fraught with difficulty. Of the names included, only four are female – Eileen Gray, Marianne Brandt, Lucienne Day and Andrée Putman. Major manufacturers or brands presented include Vitra, Muji, Swatch and Droog. Henzschel argues that ultimately “each of the 50 presented have reacted in their own original way to the contemporary developments in material and technical innovations – more than in any other areas of artistic expression – simply for the reason that, the needs of the consumers or end-users are constantly changing.” Surprisingly, some key pioneers have been omitted – Antoni Gaudí and Zaha Hadid being two key examples – but, as they straddle a line between architecture and design, perhaps this is not so surprising. 

The longevity of some of the featured firms means that some of the selected names work for another company which is featured – Tom Dixon joining Artek, the furniture manufacturer set up by Finnish designer Alvar Aalto 70 years earlier, Lucienne Day creating fabrics for Heal’s in the 1950s and consulting for John Lewis in the 1980s, and Marcel Breuer and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe for Michael Thonet’s legacy, the firm of Thonet Frères. This is unsurprising as the field of design, as with fine art, is interconnected and a complex web of influences, inspirations, and derivations. Featuring more than a century of ideas, it is difficult to pinpoint a trend or over-riding movement. Saying that, what is clear is a movement towards simplicity in functional, technological devices and a more rich, luxurious and complicated sense of form in the everyday solutions. Henzschel describes it as beginning with designers such as Michael Thonet, William Morris and Charles Rennie Mackintosh: “influenced by the Arts and Craft movement with its strong sense for floral- and organic-based forms and decorative elements.” Thonet (the first in the compendium), was renowned for his innovations in the 1830s using bentwood furniture but equally so for capitalising on the “tool-box” principle, which allowed for individual finished elements to be combined with other parts. For the first time (and long before Ikea’s flatpack furniture) this allowed for industrial mass production. Thonet’s chair No 14 (1855) is considered the “greatest chair ever made” and was described by the jury at the 1862 London Exhibition as representing “an excellent application of a happy thought … not works of show, but practical furniture for daily use … graceful, light and strong.”

However, Thonet’s achievements in industrial mass-production were precisely what his contemporaries, such as William Morris, moved away from. Morris expounded a return to traditional manufacturing and craftwork, away from industrial production which he believed produced poor-quality products. Though Morris was not successful in this regard, his floral wallpaper and textile designs have been infinitely successful – today sold under licence by companies such as Sanderson and Liberty. The stylised organic forms he created are in stark contrast  to the work of the Bauhaus pioneers of the 1920s, which Henzschel says “refused the playful forms at the turn of the 19th century and elevated functionality, clarity and simplicity of form to its central design principles.” This emphasis on functionality and purity can be seen replicated in the modern achievements of Swatch, Muji and Apple design visionary Jonathan Ives.

Translating functionality and purity of form into an everyday solution is not a simple task; the most austere, simple products are often most complex to achieve, especially in the case of a computer or mobile phone. Ives not only achieved this but he also managed to “emotionalise” the product: his Apple designs were both functional as well as attractive. The candy-coloured iMacs from the 1990s, with their bulbous form, are echoed in more contemporary shapes. Karim Rashid argues: “Furniture must deal with our emotional ground therefore increasing the popular imagination and experience … Our lives are elevated when we experience beauty, comfort, luxury, performance, and utility seamlessly together.” Rashid, like Ives, responds to changing technology and the social tendencies of the consumer.

Our habits at home have changed drastically as we encounter food-delivery systems like UberEats, Deliveroo and Hungryhouse, shifting emphasis away from the kitchen. The hearth is no longer the home, so Rashid argues that architectural and interior design should reflect this, with smaller kitchens and lean appliances. He goes one step further, arguing that our furniture needs to change to accommodate new sitting postures as we spend more and more of our downtime making use of computers, phones and other forms of technology. Even the notion of the physical book has become relatively obsolete with the introduction of the Kindle and the smartphone. Rashid’s philosophies seem avant-garde but this volume evidences the opposite, as designers like Thonet, Marcel Breuer and Alvar Aalto all capitalised on new technologies in production, manufacturing and distribution: “The Breuer chair used steel tube bending from a bicycle factory. The Alvar Aalto chair used plywood tube technology inspired by a local fabricator of wooden sewage tubes. The first plastic molded mono bloc chair existed because we had the resin technology and injection machine technology to create it. Eames embraced one of the first compound bent plywood machines.” Rashid’s examples all work towards supporting one key idea, that design is not driven by trends but by technology.

This argument is evident in the lighting systems of Ingo Maurer: using the latest and most efficient technologies he has gained a wide appreciative audience. Bulb (1966), his tribute to a lightbulb, which is now in the collections of major museums like MoMA, NYC and SFMOMA; the lighting system YaYaHo (1984); and the winged bulb Lucellino (1992) are three iconic products made by the German designer. For Maurer “lamps … are like family members: Once you have them, you can’t do without them.” The integration of design into the home is the most basic thing,  as pioneered by Eileen Gray in her E1027 home, a villa on the Côte d’Azur. Completed in 1929, it is considered a feat of 20th century architecture – each form is connected to the next whether it be a water tank, a table or a chair. The villa, garishly graffitied on by Le Corbusier (apparently disgruntled by the fact a woman had built something so similar to his “own” style), now survives as a shrine to her achievements in simplicity of form. Gray once famously pronounced, “To create, one must first question everything”, and it is this questioning process which is the root of originality for all of the featured 50 designers here.

This questioning is solidified by Braun designer Dieter Rams’ principles of design. His own straightforward designs – the first “Walkman” for example – are renowned but it is Ten Principles for Good Design that he is equally celebrated for. Having become the Ten Commandments of craftsmanship and engrained within any practitioner working from the 1970s onwards, the guidelines are simple: good design is innovative, aesthetic, understandable, honest, long-lasting, environmentally friendly and unobtrusive, yet thorough down to the last detail. Encouraging a return to simplicity and functionality, Rams’ principles encapsulate the current cultural shifts: away from “fast design” and towards an emphasis on sustainability and quality. This doesn’t mark the end of the “Ikea” era, but it does mark a return to his guiding rules. Even Ettore Sottsass, renowned as the founder of the “Memphis” collective who espoused “anti-functionality”, lauded Rams’ ability to maintain such a clarity of form.

There is a distinct movement from the 1950s to the late 1960s onwards, which Henzschel describes as “a shift away from the pure functionalism to the integration of emotions and passions [with designers such as] Tapio Wirkkala, whose designs are based on natural forms, or Verner Panton with his almost humorous colourful creations, or Philippe Starck.” Wirkkala used nature as his greatest source of inspiration, much as Morris and his characteristic organic natural shapes are lauded for their originality and craftsmanship. Like his Finnish counterpart Alvar Aalto, Wirkkla embraced warmly stylised objects, the influence of their homeland’s geography and the climate. Their designs are at opposite ends of the spectrum, combining the more geometric hard lines of modernist design. Ultimately the aesthetics of the finished product are as important as the utility, the functionality, and the usefulness of the product: no-one wants to carry around a bulky mobile phone when they can carry a sleek Ives-imagined iPhone. This was aptly summed up by William Morris: “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.”

The various notions of “design” can ultimately be brought back to one simple idea of “making”, which Dieter Rams describes in an insightful interview: “My grandfather was a carpenter, I went to visit him often and I watched how he ‘produced’ his forms which were always linked to his technique (by hand). They were simple but very beautiful. That is what I wanted to do. I knew I wanted to make things.”

Niamh Coghlan

50 Designers You Should Know is published by Prestel.