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DVD Review: The Genius Of Design

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Ponder the word “design” for a moment. Practically every object in the world we live was designed by someone, somewhere. As Denis Lawson, narrator of the new two-DVD five episode set The Genius Of Design notes, “The story of design offers an alternative history of the modern world.”

The Genius Of Design looks at this phenomenon in depth. What emerges are some wonderfully informative discussions of the objects we all take for granted, and how (for example) you favorite chair came to be built the way it is.

The first episode is titled “Ghosts In The Machine.” The origins of design are shown with individual craftsmen designing and building their products. This is illustrated perfectly with the potter – whose cups, bowls, vases and other ceramic objects are handmade, and one of a kind. With the arrival of the 20th-century industrialists, the art of design was taken from the workshop and put into effect on the factory floor. Standardization became the rallying cry. As Henry Ford once famously said about his Model T cars “It is available in any color, as long as it is black.”

Episode Two, “Designs For Living” shows how the social and landscapes of America and England had changed – and how the art of design evolved with them. Here we see the cult of Modernisms (as exemplified by Bauhaus) reshaped architecture and consumer goods. One of the great elements of design that was introduced in this time was how the designers would put non-essential accessories on ordinary items, to give them a sense of motion.

There is also an original desktop black telephone from 1937 – the Model 302. “This was the American telephone for decades, used by upwards of a 160 million Ma Bell customers by the middle of the century.” At around the same time, Wally Byram was producing the first RVS: his famous Airstream. By melding the artistic elements of design with the practical functions of the product, these items were the definitive versions for decades.

These consumer items appealed to people by appealing to their utilitarian, and personal preferences. As Lawson notes at the beginning of episode three, “A Bluprint For War,” “Here’s what they don’t teach at art school, when nations go to war design goes to the frontline.”

As we move forward in the Twentieth century, and into the second World War – aesthetics are clearly the least of our considerations. In a total war environment there can be only one goal – victory. The second world war became a brutal design contest. “In the lead up to the Second World War, nobody thought as deeply about the strategic power of design as the Nazis,” says Lawson.

The designs of objects are neither good nor evil in and of themselves. It is what they are used to do which defines their purpose. The Third Reich were filled with genius level artisans, who were able to create proto-types, and useful weaponry which allowed them such initial superiority in the first years of World War II. It is a sobering thought when once considers the stakes in play during the war.

In 1936, the prototype of a new German car was introduced, the Volkswagen Beetle. Designed by Ferdinand Porsche, it would become the most successful car in the world. As explained by the narrator, “Beneath the Beetle’s simple, yet striking design – lay a master class in the German pursuit of excellence.”

In Episode Four, “Better Living Through Chemistry,” we find a much different group doing battle. In the first scene, we find a group of ladies at a Tupperware party, pondering one of the mid-centuries’ most ubiquitous new products. With plastic Earl Silas Tupper created one of the most durable products of the twentieth century, Tupperware.

The overwhelming public desire of “clean up” after such a hideous event as World War II became personal. “Airtight” Tupperware seals were seen as a way domesticate such unruly items as leftovers. This was popular in the household. But the desire was to remove all of the unruly, messy, and unregulated elements of life from society.

The Bauhaus mantra that “Form should follow function” was thoroughly re-embraced by post-War German designers, and is typified by the Braun Corporation. Lead designer Dieter Bram stripped away all artifice, and simplicity remains the optimal look for thousands of products of the past 60 years.

Where plastics enabled designers to create virtually unhindered in terms of shapes and styles, and the German modernist-minimalist unadorned look became hugely popular in the post-War world, it was the Japanese whose influence has been the most significant. Since the miniature transistor radio, introduced in 1956, the march to create smaller and smaller products has been relentless. In a very real way, Japan built itself out of the rubble of World War Two by designing and marketing the “portable lifestyle.” Thus the Walkman, the Discman, laptop computers, and the like have overwhelmingly changed peoples lives in the present day.

The fifth and final episode “Objects Of Desire” opens with LP cover artist Peter Saville who has designed sleeves for Joy Division and New Order, among others. The world of designer and fine artist have now come together, and at an auction of –’ Lockheed Lounge the designers unique chair sells for just under a million pounds.

The series ends with a discussion of the computer revolution over the past 30 years, and the many design improvements that have been made to them over time, and what is still being worked on. There is even a question towards the end as to how connected is too connected in the world we live in. The computer graveyards shown is pretty remarkable, in that it shows landfill after landfill brimming with already worthless computer components.

Recycling through the “cradle to cradle” system is one way in which this endless cycle of improvement leading to the discarding the old sounds like a promising way towards the future. But as ever, nobody know what will eventually appear and the new face of normal.

As for bonus materials, there are text based biographies of influential designers profiled in the series such as Eal Silas Tupper, Jonathan Ive, Ferdinand Porsche, and Le Corbusier to name a few. There is also an informative 12-page booklet featuring an article titled “Behind The Scenes At Bauhaus,” “The American Factory Rethought,” and “Famous Design Flops.”

Most of us go through our days barely noticing the objects around us. The Genius Of Design is a reminder that even seemingly most mundane item one uses was developed through a great deal of time and thought. In short, the series will make you think, in a most delightful way about the world around you.

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About Greg Barbrick