Why Good Design Matters – Reference Mark

Following World War II, nearly all the world’s major industrialized powers were in ruin following the global slaughter; only America’s infrastructure had stayed intact, though it had just emerged from nearly two decades of economic depression and war.

But America was in a rejuvenated consumerist mood, and the Marshall Plan helped Europe and Japan rebuild swiftly. Suddenly, citizens of First World countries enjoyed a certain limited prosperity compared to previous decades and generations. And those in the business of providing the tools of life—from housewares to office equipment to transportation—discovered that consumers were now taking notice of how their products looked as much as how they functioned. It was the time of democratizing design. The middle and working classes deserved intriguing-looking goods, as well.

Images courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art.

The rise of Good Design in the midcentury modern 1950s was the focus of a briefly held exhibition at The Museum of Modern Art in New York that ends on June 15.

To stroll through the halls of MOMA, glimpsing elegant yet egalitarian products like the Olivetti Lexikon typewriter beloved by millions of secretaries, the Chemex coffee maker (still trendy today, though actually designed during the war to save on scrap metal), and even something as basic as Irwin Gershen’s shrimp peeler is to see the #ValueOfGoodDesign. It was an era when form could walk hand in hand with function. An attic’s worth of Eames and Scandinavian modern furniture shows where today’s Ikea designers get their inspiration.

Although the search for and unveiling of good design was actually part of MOMA’s mission in the prewar 1930s, it took the postwar boom to take such thinking to the masses. MOMA actually collaborated with famed Chicago retailer Lord & Taylor in the 1950s to help curate its wares. Despite its highfalutin airs, Lord & Taylor understood the concept. “Good design is simply art applied to living,” stated Dorothy Shaver, president of Lord & Taylor at the time.

As far as transportation goes, the movable items on display were limited (this is New York, after all; gallery space was limited). But you could be treated to an early edition Fiat 500, the Bombard Spacelander bicycle, and a Bell 47D1 helicopter hanging from the rafters. But all were essential to the time. The Fiat was the first car that showed that small didn’t have to look cheap, a challenge carmakers still face even today. The Spacelander evoked what an astronaut might ride on the moon—a decade before astronauts even existed. And the Bell redefined how air travel worked.

This exhibit shows the first goods and products that could give the user an emotive result as well as a physical one.

Images courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art.

And for a time, this sort of thinking pervaded the automotive sector. Iconically designed vehicles seemed to appear by the month through the 1960s. But cost-cutting, engineering restrictions, and reams of regulations have since curtailed designers’ ability to give modern vehicles that differentiating factor, let alone iconic status. Go ahead, line up every mainstream-branded compact SUV nose to tail and walk back to take a hard-side perspective. If you can pick any three out of the lineup, I’ll give you a free month of MotorTrend on Demand.

And this is the challenge MOMA raises: Commodity products need not look like commodities. Inside the exhibition was a wall placard with the equivalent of a Seven Commandments of Design:

Good Design is not a label or a price tag
Good Design is international both in origin and appeal
Good Design is a statement and not a gadget
Good Design need not be costly
Good Design is neither a book of etiquette nor a social register
Good Design is one that achieves integrity
Good Design depends on the harmony established between the form of an object and its use.

Sounds like something every automotive designer and stylist should tattoo on their arm.

Images courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art.

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