How Things Work


“In London, Dissent Roils Design Museum,” reported The New York Times a few months ago—a piece of light-hearted news amid the general turmoil. The roiling dissenter turned out to be James Dyson, known to many Americans as the inventor of a newfangled vacuum cleaner. Dyson had resigned as chairman of the board of the Design Museum, objecting to the direction that the museum was taking. Recent exhibits had been devoted to fashion magazine typography, expensive women’s shoes, and the work of a 1950s British florist, Constance Spry. “Not to be rude about flower arranging, but that is not what the museum was set up to do,” Dyson said. He emphasized that the goal of the Design Museum, which was founded by the home furnishings magnate Sir Terence Conran in 1989, was to “give a lead to the public on the difference between design as styling and design as intelligent problem-solving.”

The dispute at the Design Museum is a symptom of a recent trend. Not so long ago, the term “designer” described someone like Eliot Noyes, who was responsible for the IBM Selectric typewriter in the 1960s, or Henry Dreyfuss, whose clients included Lockheed Aircraft and Bell Telephone (he was responsible for the classic black handset), or Dieter Rams, who created a range of austere-looking but very practical products for the German company Braun. Today, “designer” is more likely to bring to mind Ralph Lauren or Giorgio Armani, that is, a fashion designer. While fashion designers usually start as couturiers, they—or at least their names—are often associated with a wide variety of consumer products, including cosmetics, perfume, luggage, home furnishings, even house paint. As a result, “design” is popularly identified with packaging: the housing of a computer monitor, the barrel of a pen, a frame for eyeglasses.

An example of this is the widely advertised Umbra wastepaper basket, whose fluid shape holds crumpled paper just the way its predecessors did. It’s not a better container, merely a more stylish one. Like fashion for clothes, which is by definition fleeting, design is now perceived to be amusing and superfluous. Perhaps that’s why the word itself has become devalued. Many “designer jeans” are no more than ordinary denim pants with fancy labels. “Designer watches” are not more accurate than a Timex—the Movado is actually harder to read—but they have one important distinction: they are fashionable.

Of course, fashion has always had an influence on design. In the 1930s, there was a fashion for a streamlined look, which showed up in such classic designs as Walter Dorwin Teague’s Kodak Brownie as well as in his service station prototypes for Texaco. Streamlining, which refers to lowering resistance to air or water, made more sense when it was applied to a Pennsylvania locomotive by Raymond Loewy or to the sleek Chrysler Airflow by Carl Breer. The Airflow, introduced in 1934, pioneered such important design advances as built-in headlights and a concealed trunk, but it was not popular with the public and lasted only three years.…

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