Good Design – form vs. decoration

Zeiss-Werk, Jena, East Germany (DDR). Werra I camera. c. 1955–60
Zeiss-Werk, Jena, East Germany (DDR). Werra I camera. c. 1955–60

Although designers, critics, theorists, and historians have offered countless definitions of ‘good design for centuries. A particular concept of the term emerged at the end of World War 2 that was opposed to superfluous styling to increase sales. In many ways, it can be seen as the latter stage of a continuum of design reform first articulated by Nikolaus Pevsner in his Pioneers of the Modern Movement in 1936. Pevsner articulated a reconciliation of William Morris and the Arts and Crafts Movement’s moral precepts with modern production processes, new materials, and the manipulation of abstract form.

Pioneers of Modern Design

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Good design exhibitions

Edgar Kaufmann Jr., Director of Industrial Design at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA), New York, issued a strong warning in August 1948’s Architectural Review. He drew attention to what he described as ‘Borax or the Chromium Plated Calf,’ criticising what he saw as a prevalent American trend of ‘style follows sales.’ Kaufmann pursued such views by curating a series of Good Design exhibitions at MOMA from 1950 to 1955, which contained many objects that endorsed European Modernist aesthetics and built on design trends that had been evident since the establishment of the Museum’s Department of Architecture and Industrial Art in 1932.

What Do We Mean By Good Design? | Magazine | MoMA

Our latest exhibition, The Value of Good Design , gets to the heart of a question MoMA has been asking since its inception: What is good design and how can it enhance everyday life? From dinnerware to lounge chairs, knife sets to Slinkys, and table lamps to plumb bobs, objects of daily life have always played a unique role in the history of this museum.

With the 1934 Machine Art exhibition curated by arch-modernist Philip Johnson, MOMA Design Collection was inaugurated. These Good Design displays were mounted in conjunction with the Chicago Merchandise Mart and supported and advertised by retail stores using the ‘Good Design’ labels attached to manufacturers’ selected products. 

Form vs. Decoration

Like Modernism, ‘Good Design’ was generally characterised by an emphasis on pure form rather than decoration, a restrained palette, and proper use of materials. MOMA’s 1952 ‘Olivetti Design in Industry’ exhibition and its inclusion of Braun products in its permanent display in 1958 also endorsed European exemplars. Jay Doblin’s article on ‘100’ Best Designed ‘Products’ in Fortune magazine in 1959 (republished in 1970 as 100 Great Product Designs), a survey of the views of 100 ‘world-leading designers, architects, and design teachers,’ confirmed this American perspective. Although several of the products selected reflected some aspects of ephemeral styling, Nizzoli’s Olivetti Lettera 22 typewriter (1947), the Eames side-chair for Herman Miller (1947) and the Barcelona Chair of Mies van der Rohe (originally 1929, but reproduced after the Second World War by Knoll Associates) were the top three designs. Doblin’s List highlighted other modernist products from Europe and Scandinavia.

What is “Good” Design? A quick look at Dieter Rams’ Ten Principles.

In the late 1970s, Dieter Rams was becoming increasingly interested in the world of things that surrounded him – “an impenetrable confusion of forms, colours and noises.” As a designer, Rams was aware that he played an important role in the world he was helping create, he asked himself an important question: is my design good design?

Establishment of Design Councils

Of course, there was a lot of ‘Good Design’ propaganda in Europe itself, with institutions such as the British Board of Trade funded by the Industrial Design Council (COID, see Design Council), established in 1944, its Design Centre (established in 1956), and the Design Centre Awards (established 1957). 

Germany

State initiatives in other countries, such as the Rat für Formgebung (Design Council) in Germany, established in 1953 following an act of the German Parliament in 1951, a country which had also seen the Die Gute Form (Good form) exhibition by Max Bill in 1949, reinforced such an outlook. 

France

In France, the Ministry of Industry and Commerce launched the Beauté France label for well-designed products. 

Japan

The Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI) in Japan, influenced by such European precedents, established its G-Mark award in 1957 for aesthetic excellence in design. 

Netherlands

The Dutch Stichting Goed Wonen (Good Living Foundation, established in 1948) and the De Bijenkorf department store’s ‘Good Design’ promotions were other contemporary initiatives. 

Italian

The Compasso d’Oro design awards were initiated in Italy by the department store La Rinascente in 1954. 

Commonwealth

The British COID and it’s Good Design’ promotion have also impacted New Zealand and Australia on design promotional organisations. In the latter, the Industrial Design Council of Australia created its Good Design Label in 1960, alongside a whole range of ‘Good Design’ initiatives, which bore the message ‘Selected as Good Design for Australian Design Index, Industrial Design Council of Australia.’

Sources

Oxford University Press. (2004). A Dictionary of Modern Design (1st ed.).

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