Alice Rawsthorn on Good Design 30.06.09

Written by 

words Anna Bates

A group sing-a-long of Tainted Love kicked off proceedings at The School of Life's Sermon on Sunday morning at Conway Hall Humanist Centre. The Gloria Jones (and latterly Marc Almond) song was chosen by design critic Alice Rawsthorn by way of a hymn in this unorthodox lecture series by The School of Life - a new cultural enterprise offering self-improvement classes, travel and now sermons.

Rawsthorn took the opportunity to preach about "Good Design", starting, predictably, with a list of iconic chairs: Vernor Panton's Panton Chair, Konstantin Grcic's innovative Myto chair and Marc Newson's Lockheed lounge chair.

But these objects "designed for the 10% that have more than what they need," were elevated only to be attacked "for dominating public perception of design."

Rawsthorn's aim was not to commend the designers that present beautiful furniture at the Milan furniture fair, it was to launch a "fundamental re-evaluation of what good design is." She called for designers to "remember the other 90%", use their skills to come up with solutions for the environmental and economic crisis, take into consideration the afterlife of a product, collaborate, and allow for open sourcing of information.

Most of the practices that fulfilled her criteria appeared in Icon's 20/20 list of emerging innovators (icon 071), for which Rawsthorn was a judge. But she started with a surprise by hailing American super brand Apple, often criticised for the rapid obsolescence of its product line. Rawsthorn commended the iPhone for squeezing so many products into one, and the company for its democratic approach - inviting those that built applications illegally from their couch to sell in their store and become millionaires.

Less surprising was the presence of service designers Participate and Live Work, for using their lateral thinking to solve social problems and introduce systems where they are needed. These weren't the only designers on Rawsthorn's list who were not making products. Buckminster Fuller's Geodesic Domes, and the Mahlangu hand washing device template, which shows you how to turn an empty bottle into a tap of sorts, were praised for "being less dictatorial and allowing for others to do things rather than doing them themselves."

Rawsthorn also talked about user interface software, the most ignored form of design, admiring the way it allows us to use products that increasingly offer no clues as to what they are.

Rawsthorn did touch on designs that had failed. She began her tirade with the white plastic monobloc chair, a product "it's easy to be snooty about": it's light, cheap, comfy, wipe-clean and as common in slums as in middle class gardens. But it can't be mended or recycled, so despite achieving what many modernists dreamed of, it was given a red mark. It would have been good to have more examples like this, as there needs to be more debate about what society should throw away; according to Rawsthorn, quite simply, "if we have the slightest reason to feel guilty it can no longer qualify as good design."

But then defining these boundaries isn't one discussion, it's the next challenge for designers and design critics. What Rawsthorn did do at the altar was to bid farewell to the old concept of the star designer. Following some entertaining anecdotes of the eccentrics we've so enjoyed, she said: "The design world will be sadder without the old heroes. But there will be others in a different context. If designers succeed we will have a wonderful new definition of good design."

image Irene Van Peer’s Mahlangu hand washing device
credit Irene Van Peer

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