19 September 2012

Enlightenment from Stephen Bayley

It is both an encouragement and a depressing reminder of one’s own ignorance when someone who knows what they are talking about goes some way to answer past musings. After seeing last year’s Postmodernism: Style and Subversion 1970–1990 at the V&A, I posted:
Some people might argue with the dates the curators have used to bracket this show – one argument is that postmodernism was largely pre-internet and that the quest for modernity has now moved on. Certainly, one of the cult objects of the present moment is the iPad, but surely its design seems to represent a continuation of modernism.
And after seeing the Bauhaus exhibition this summer at the Barbican I commented:
The exhibition concludes at the point when the Bauhaus was in effect closed down by the Nazis in 1933. The subsequent achievements of its leading lights, Gropius, van der Rohe and others, many of whom emigrated, are well-known. But it would have been interesting to learn about the careers of its young graduates, whose student days feature in so many of the photographs (‘young people come to the bauhaus’). One imagines that from 1933 to 1945 having trained at the Bauhaus would hardly have enhanced a CV. But presumably those graduates who survived the war, particularly the Holocaust or the Eastern Front, would have played a role in German post-war reconstruction and the Wirtschaftswunder. Was it their influence that we still see in the clean lines and typefaces associated with German products like Bosch, Braun and Neff, and extending to the modernist showrooms favoured by BMW, and VAG?
This week the Spectator included an informative piece in its Arts coverage, Science fiction as reality, by Stephen Bayley, who had been in conversation with Jonathan Ive, Apple’s vice-president of design. By way of background, Bayley is probably Britain’s leading ‘design guru’and was Chief Executive of the Design Museum, and the iPhone 5 was launched last week. Bayley comments on:
… the sheer physical beauty of the products Jony Ive has designed for Apple. Voltaire said it was the business of art to improve on Nature. So it is the business of design to improve on industry. This Ive has done. There were smartphones before Apple’s, but they were all clunkers. The iPhone’s gorgeous shape is deceptively simple. It is a simplicity that has been very hard-won, a proportional masterpiece achieved only after a lot of trial and error. Its textures are deliberately gorgeous. The effect is an understated product that wins universal admiration.
He goes on to provide some interesting design history:
… Apple design [which], in fact, represents a tradition, not a revolution. Jony Ive (born Chingford, 1967) fully acknowledges his own debt to Dieter Rams (born Wiesbaden, 1932). The gorgeous purity of the iPhone was itself inspired by the astonishingly pure, geometrically based designs which, beginning in the Fifties, Rams created for Frankfurt’s Braun electrical company.  
A student of Ulm’s Hochschule für Gestaltung, itself a postwar revival of the famous Bauhaus, Rams perfected the aesthetics of restraint, of paring down his cabinets for Braun’s radios and tape-recorders until they were little more than a solid graphic. He still likes to say ‘Weniger, aber besser’ (Less, but more). Rams was trained as a cabinet-maker, not a philosopher, but his achievement was to bring the essential beauty of Platonic form to the production line.  
But Rams himself owed something to an older German tradition. The architect Heinrich Tessenow built under the motto: ‘Das Einfache is nicht immer das Beste, aber das Beste ist immer einfach’ (Simple is not always best, but the best is always simple). And this austere aesthetic is itself based on the German pedagogic tradition of Froebel and Pestalozzi, of the nursery building blocks and the Kindergarten, who insisted that understanding fundamental geometrical shapes was an essential part not just of art education, but of all education.  
Long before Samsung aped Apple, Sony, the Apple of its day, was aping Dieter Rams and his infatuation with severe geometry. Designs of Rams shown at trade fairs in Germany in the Sixties were the inspiration for Sony’s own impressive range of purist electrical and electronic appliances. And here you find another link. Circa 1980, Sony’s Trinitron televisions were the ultimate expression of what was later called Minimalism. They were the work of Hartmut Esslinger, the independent German designer who, in 1984, shaped Apple’s own revolutionary Mac.
For the last 30 years Bayley has been associated in various ways with Terence Conran who through his chain Habitat was a great influence on many in my age group. I’ve just donated a set of Habitat catalogues from 1971 to 1988 to an art director who was born in the 1980s. Apparently they are invaluable references for period set designs – the way we lived then.

Yesterday work started on the new Design Museum which will redevelop the former Commonwealth Institute in Kensington, a landmark 1960s building. A Time Capsule to be opened in 2112 was buried by Conran (with shovel, below) and others, which contains items chosen by leading designers and architects. His choices were an iPhone 4s, a tin of anchovies, and a bottle of burgundy.

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