Phaidon Design Classics | icon 035 | May 2006

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words Marcus Fairs

This hefty, three-tome celebration of design has some rather narrow and outdated notions of what makes a "classic but it’s a mine of information about those little everyday things we never think about.

Designers working in the 17th century were rubbish. Only one object from that period – a pair of Chinese scissors from 1663 – makes it into Phaidon Design Classics. Designers in the 18th century weren't much better, with a feeble five greats. Things hot up in the 19th century, which yields 57 classics, but those 20th-century designers really had it nailed, churning out 913 of the beauties.

These tallies come from a flick through the three volumes of Phaidon Design Classics, a 3,300-page opus that chronologically lists 999 examples of the finest “industrially manufactured objects of aesthetic value and timeless quality”, starting with the aforementioned snips and ending with Barber Osgerby's 2004 Lunar bathroom set.

It looks like the party's over, though: the first five years of our post-millennial era has yielded a measly 23 design classics. By this coarse measure, the object-fetishist era that this book celebrates may already be drawing to a close, in which case Design Classics may come to be seen as its funerary urn.

The yellow-and-black volumes, which are contained in a black carry case designed by Konstantin Grcic, clearly aspire to “design classic” status themselves, and, with a combined thickness of 18.5cm, make as much of a lifestyle statement as the Eames shelving they’ll inevitably sit upon. But Phaidon's definition of a design classic, set out grandly on the cover of each volume, is somewhat old-fashioned already as it excludes many of the most interesting developments in contemporary design, including the return of craft and the one-off; the shift away from mass production offered by mass customisation and rapid prototyping; the gradual replacement of the cult of the object with the cult of the author and the tacit acceptance of the notion of disposability that comes with the ever-shortening lifecycle of consumable goods and that erodes the notion of “timeless quality” as a benchmark of design excellence.

In fact – and conveniently, since we are questioning the relevance of modernism in this issue of icon (see page 104) – Phaidon Design Classics falls into the trap of judging over 350 years of human creativity against what is essentially a modernist yardstick.

With selection criteria including an insistence on industrial manufacture, timelessness and “objects characterized by simplicity, balance and purity of form,” it's no surprise that the pages of the third volume are dominated by the kind of geometric totems you'll find in SCP or any other “design” shop these days.

So Jasper Morrison gets eight entries while Hella Jongerius gets just one; Alvar Aalto seven to William Morris’ zero. The last volume contains 25 objects that are cylinder-shaped: timeless, yes; simple, yes, but innovative? It all points to a degree of lazy aesthetic snobbery creeping into the selection process.

Billed as a history of taste and culture from the industrial revolution to the present day, PDC is impressive in its scale and ambition, although it is often let down by patchy writing and editing; entries are littered with what advertising executives would describe as “overclaim” (is Peter Opsvik’s 1972 Tripp Trapp really the first chair “developed specifically with the needs of children in mind”?) and what newspaper editors would call “padding” (“folding bicycles have become very common on urban streets around the world”).

This is the inevitable result of a commissioning process that saw dozens of writers – including several icon staffers and contributors – assigned to write insightful tranches about objects that neither they nor Google knew much about, and for next to no money. It is a cruel but amusing game to flip between the entries and the author credits at the back of each volume to see who undertook painstaking research and who winged it.

What ultimately emerges from the books is a picture of how design's cultural visibility has increased in inverse proportion to its social and industrial relevance. More than half of the first 20 entries, which cover almost a century of human activity, are anonymous but enduring archetypes such as teapots, preserving jars and Windsor chairs. Many of the 19th-century entries, which make up the most fascinating section and include the crown-cap bottle top, the incandescent light bulb and the sardine tin, are really inventions.

Most recent entries, by contrast, are beautiful but ultimately unnecessary reiterations. The selection of Barber Osgerby's Lunar toilet brush as the final entry is unfortunate, as I have had two of them in the past year and they both snapped in half. Where's the “timeless quality” in that? However, as a reference book PDC is invaluable and will not need replacing nearly as soon as that “timeless” iPod.

Phaidon Design Classics is published by Phaidon, priced £100

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