I went on a date today – very nice girl, very nice day all round. There was even paddling in the sea.
We met outside Brighton Museum, somewhere I’m ashamed to say I’d never been, and went inside for tea. On the way out we passed by some of the exhibits and there, near the entrance were some chairs. There was the famous baseball glove chair “Joe”, and the Mae West’s lips chair by Salvador Dali. I pointed them out to the girl I was with and she shrugged her shoulders and said they looked uncomfortable, then pointed at another one, far less famous, and said “I like that though”.
That, you see, is how design is perceived by real people. “I like it” or “I don’t like it”. It works or it doesn’t work. I can vote using this slip, or I can’t. I am comfortable in this chair or I’m not.
That something was designed by someone famous doesn’t immediately elevate it to being any better than something designed by someone anonymous.
Why do we worship heroes? Is a famous designer automatically a good designer? Is a designer not good until he is famous? I wonder if our profession and our subject has become self-obsessed and narcissistic – incestuous even.
There were exhibits in the museum (which is quite small, but worth visiting, even if only virtually) that are simply nice and decorative. Examples of functional and beautiful artefacts. And there, among them, are the “famous” pieces that aren’t functional, and probably aren’t even beautiful. They draw attention to themselves – no, not even themselves, their designers – in ways that the tea sets and the costumes don’t.
And it’s partly because we hold these examples up as being “great design” that our profession becomes devalued. No one looks at the china dinner service and says “I can do that” but everyone looks at the Dali sofa and thinks “I could have done that”.
Who puts these people on the pedestals? I didn’t vote for them. Where do I stand for election to the canon of the great and the good? Is it like the Catholic notables who need two verified miracles to their name before they are even considered for sainthood?
Every designer should walk around a museum or gallery with an “ordinary” person and attempt to understand how they react to what they see. And they should certainly sit in a shopping mall and observe how “ordinary” people react to the “ordinary” design around them. It is an educational experience.
Should we stop worshipping heroes and instead start understanding design?