Innovation & Design

Phaidon Defines Design


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There are best-selling products that dominate their market niches for months or years -– the iPod, say, or the Razr. And then there are the design classics: enduring products, gadgets, and objects that never seem to see sales dwindle or manufacturing slow down -- for centuries. Think of the barrel-shaped police whistle, for instance, on the market and building revenues for Acme Whistle Co. since 1883.

A new three-volume book, Phaidon Design Classics, features 999 examples of everyday things that embody the winning combination of elegant form and ease of use. What exactly makes that winning combination?

According to the book's editors, a timeless object "is innovative in its use of new material, or unites technological advances with beautiful design. It is characterized by simplicity, balance, and purity of form and has remained largely unchanged since its creation."

Some items chosen for inclusion in the tome are iconic and immediately recognizable as sexy design. These include, unsurprisingly, a crop of Apple (APL) products -- the first Macintosh, the iPod, and the iMac G5. Others are sleek status symbols like the Porsche 356A Speedster. And others might seem utterly mundane, like Kikkoman's soy sauce bottle. Yet the bottle, with its hand-friendly shape and carefully calibrated spout, has been in use since 1961. It has long served as a distinct symbol of the Kikkoman brand.

Recently, BusinessWeek Online's Reena Jana spoke with Phaidon Press editorial director Emilia Terragni, to discuss how and why manufacturers and consumers benefit from excellent design. An edited excerpt of their conversation follows.

How did you come up with an authoritative definition of classic design?

Many of us think we know what a design classic is. There are the usual suspects, like the safety pin. So the list was largely self-selected, meaning the designs just naturally came to mind. The safety pin is such a great example. Designed in 1849 by Walter Hunt, it's never been out of production. So we looked at objects like this and then we tried to figure out what that "great design" meant by listing its characteristics.

Our final list, to our surprise, included objects that had nothing to do with fashion or taste. And it's not a question of beauty. What great design consistently means is simplicity and clear form. What this means is that people are more keen to buy things that are more simple and less intrusive.

Why did you start with an object from the 17th century -- a pair of Chinese scissors?

We had no plan to start in 1600s. Originally we thought we'd start around 1900, the Industrial Age, when objects were starting to become mass-produced or were conceived from the beginning as appropriate for mass production. We actually didn't know that the design of today's everyday household scissors dated back to 17th-century China. Then we researched scissors, and found out that they did. What's fascinating is that the scissors illustrate how important simplicity is in terms of design. The scissors also illustrate that good design doesn't have to be completely high-tech or industrial.

There are a number of objects designed by "anonymous." Is there any significance to including objects by no-name designers in the history of classic design?

Absolutely. Design sometimes isn't the result of one mind. Many objects are the result of many people improving and improving a design until they reach the point at which the object doesn't need to change. It's not fair to give credit to the last person who refined a design. Our inclusion of anonymous designs, we hope, emphasizes the teamwork needed to create a great design.

Why is it important to consider the production process when looking at a design classic? A lot of people assume great design is all about style and user-friendliness.

Sometimes people think design is an easy exercise. They say "designers make a sketch and then take it to production." But design is very complex. It's about teamwork, and also about the role of the manufacturer. So we felt it was necessary to show different aspects of the long process often involved in creating something very simple. We hope that looking at drawings and molds, the behind-the-scenes material, might give readers an idea of how fascinating design is. And the process really tells the story of the object, from start to finish, from idea to thing.

Do you believe that businesses can look to this book to help prompt their R&D departments to come up with the next iPod?

Companies right now clearly would like to make more design classics. But perhaps they should really care more about good design. They could examine how to make life easier and better via design. If this set of books will inspire more design-classics-to-be, though, that would be fantastic.

The book also seems like a good shopping guide for collectors looking to invest in valuable design objects.

It's an ideal shopping list. But it's also a history of taste. If you read the book in a strictly chronological way, you start to see how people's needs and wants changed. You can see how tech-inspired designers and consumers were in 1920s and 30s, and then how things changed before and after the world wars, for example.

Why include only 999 classic examples of design and not 1,000? Does the number 999 imply that there's always room for more?

The 999 makes it clear that we are not offering a final number. Also, 999 is very nice and neat. We wanted to make sure that the three volumes would each have same weight; there wouldn't be one volume that was slightly bigger than the others. Overall, we wanted to present a very neat design for a book about design.


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