Everybody knows that design in Britain was invented by Terrance Conran and Robert Elms in a deserted warehouse on the southside of the Thames in 1980. Before that, Britain looked and dressed like an episode of Minder. It was ugly, but it was innocent and we were happy.
Remember the Genesis Device in Star Treck II: The Wrath of Kahn? The thing that explodes on a grey, barren moon, its shockwave leaving a trail of lush green natural beauty. Well, it was just like that, except the anti-devistation was original 501s, cappuccino, jazz, Lucky Strike cigarettes … This Face/Conran revolution has shaped our attitude to design ever since.
I’m on the first floor of the Design Museum in the midst of Thomas Heatherwicks collection for the Conran Foundation. It’s 30 000 pounds worth of novelty design culled from pound stores, duty free shops and specialist equipment suppliers around the world. Its an array of beautiful and anonymous design: Welding masks with warthog faces, a glass rifles filled with wine, Pop Tarts, a cardboard coffin …
Wonderful, charming, clever, witty and optimistic, these mini ecstasies of design are moments when designs ambition outstrips its material presence – where a kind of cheapskate alchemy makes more out of less in a way that would make Mies spin in his grave. They show the paucity of imagination, parochial tastes and prosaic predicability of designers.
Upstairs there is an exhibition of the Smithsons houses. The Smithsons would have loved these weird objects. They wrote things called ‘And Now We collect Adverts’, hung around with the Independent Group where Richard Hamilton cut up John McHales American magazines, Edwardo Paulozzi lectured on the anatomy of Donald Duck, and Reyner Banham wrote histories of architecture that ended with highways and movies. The groups interests celebrated and critiqued popular culture, thought that the popular and the mass produced belonged alongside high culture.
After the Independent Group, after Pop, after Punk there is a rich tradition of the ordinary, the everyday as high art. So you wonder what the real point of Heatherwicks exhibition is: to challenge the hegemony of taste? to critique designs relationship to function? Billed as ‘ingenious’ and ‘ideas’ it slowly transpires that the point is just this vague.
While the collection is fantastic, the curation is naive. Other similar ventures like Jeremy Dellers Folk Art Archive, Jim Shaws Thrift Store Art collection or the Venturis ‘Learning from Las Vegas’ show how difficult, deeply perplexing, and rewarding the serious study of things usually perceived as ephemera can be. Through its good-natured naivety it avoids all kinds of difficult issues. Because it ignores the context of high design connoisseurship, it lets these beautiful objects down, leaving them as curiosities. Like the show, Britain is inarticulate about design – unlike literature, music, comedy, cooking … all of which are discussed publicly and in some depth. Just like the climax of Changing Rooms, the British open their eyes to design, blink, open their mouths and are completely unable to explain what they see.
Which is understandable, because Design is strange. It isn’t really about function – more a branch of metaphysical poetry. Design in the 21st century doesn’t need to be beautiful or functional. It needs to tell us something about the world: Kitchenware that speaks of existential angst, vanity units that probe mystery of love, executive toys that ponder mortality. Design is a way of talking that is so mute that it becomes eloquent.
There are three great traditions of British design: Moral (Hawksmoor, Ruskin, Morris, Unwin and Parker, the Smithsons …), Stylistic (Inigo Jones, Wren, Lutyens, Pawson …) and Technological (Paxton, Brunel, Rogers, Foster). The beauty of Heatherwicks objects suggests a crashing together of these distinct ideologies in ways that pull the blinkers off designers to reveal gigantic vistas of unexplored territory. Its just a shame that they are presented in a way which loos like a quirky dead end.
First Published in Contemporary