WHAT MAKES A DESIGN TIMELESS?

By Michelle Ogundehin


I believe that good design springs from a response to the context in which it is created — in other words, it reflects or reacts to the zeitgeist. Conversely, truly great design, and therefore in my opinion timeless design, responds exclusively to the need to solve a problem; whether that is to sit in comfort or to be able to pour tea without drips. And these creative provocateurs are quite different. But to really understand why some things become eternally venerated on the podium of timelessness, and many do not, it helps to consider the opposite fate — built-in obsolescence.

Regrettably, the idea that something could be designed deliberately to fail, seems acutely symptomatic of the fast pace of contemporary life. It is the very essence of a take-make-waste approach; the siren call of the constant upgrade exploiting a perceived need to do everything ever faster or differently in some way. It is a lure to shop based on the notion that what you have already is out-moded, and to stay on-top, if not to stay meaningful, you must immediately switch up to a new and improved latest edition. What tosh!

Of course, some might argue that if you have five years of use from a product, then surely that’s good enough. But we expect our buildings and homes to last a lot longer than half a decade, so why not everything else? Why is it seemingly ‘ok’ to buy anything ‘throwaway’?

Left: The highly collectable Alveston Tea Pot, designed over four years 1961-64.


Indeed, a 2012 report by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, champion of the ‘circular economy’ model of re-use, revealed that 80 per cent of the goods bought in a year by one person are not returned for any further economic use, ending up in incinerators, landfill or wastewater. This is no way to go on.

Let us not forget too, the thorny influence of trends — the pendulum swing of what’s deemed ‘in’ and then ‘out’ — generally just another incitement to the unwitting to purchase beyond their requirements.

Although I must make a distinction between the smaller flights of fashionable whimsy — hot new colours, finishes, fabrics and new season styles — that are nothing more than marketing; and the larger shifts of cultural change that inevitably impact every aspect of lifestyle.

By way of example, the inexorable march of technology falls into the latter camp, and it precipitated a genuine reaction — the need for our homes to be steeped in tactility as a retreat from the tech. Ergo, the surge in appreciation for rattan, coir, hemp and other such materials. Imbued with touchy feely texture, they reflected the innate human desire to seek balance — the impulse to offset the veritable smoothness of our omnipresent smartphones and screens.

Additionally, because these materials are ecological, sustainable and affordable, the ‘trend for texture’ becomes amplified by mainstream preoccupations with the environment. Right: The Campden Triple Candleholder in stainless steel, 1957. Designed from 1956-1958, the Campden range was Robert Welch’s first original stainless steel tableware design for Old Hall.

In the early 1960s Robert Welch designed his first piece in cast iron, a candleholder he named Hobart. Cast iron was an important addition to Robert Welch's portfolio, complementing his designs in silver and steel. At first Hobart was produced in small numbers,

the initial order was only two dozen, but after displaying them in his studio and home the designs popularity grew and led to a second order of one-hundred. Robert sold the designs himself out of a suitcase for a year, and initial buyers included Liberty and Heals.



Result? It’s highly likely to be an authentic long-player in the style stakes. Built-in obsolescence on the other hand is the product of a manufactured creative response to the conflicting pressures of the 21st Century; albeit arguably very of-the-moment in a time of constant flux. Nevertheless, in this way the design driver has gradually become less about service and more about status, for the designer as much as the consumer. Therein lying the answer to why little crafted today earns the accolade of timeless.

Sadly, this won’t change until the incentive to not sell more of something, but to instead extend a product’s longevity, and keep it in circulation for as long as possible, becomes the norm again. After all, we’ve done it before.


Accordingly, let’s jump back to the 1950s, as many stalwarts of ‘timeless’ design hail from this era, dubbed Mid-Century Modern. Ironically, this was a time when the primary motivator was a vision of a new and improved future for all. Significantly though, it was also a moment of great confidence and optimism that modern design could play a role in shaping a better society. Yet despite this enthusiastic quest for the new, the idea of designing something to be wantonly discarded after a season or two was anathema. Rather this was about thinking beyond the moment and innovating for the common goal of a glorious tomorrow.

As such, many designs were creatively inspired by a bid for efficiency, a love of ergonomics and function, and the draw of materials like stainless steel, which epitomised a shiny ‘New Look’ for the home, alongside more traditional rosewood and rattan. It was a forward-looking approach that sat respectfully on the shoulders of history.

Right: The toast rack from the Campden tableware range was praised for its “elegant and ingenious construction” and remains iconic over sixty years on.

 


The motivation being not to create icons, but simply the desire to create something more elegant, affordable or useful than that which had come before. In this way, whether we look at Robert Welch’s Campden coffee set and toast rack, the walnut stools designed by the Eames’ for the Rockefeller Centre in New York or Sori Yanagi’s sinuous Butterfly stool to pick just a few of my favourite timeless designs, it is impossible to date them.

Ultimately then, such inherent longevity comes from honesty. Such pieces are not trying to seduce the consumer into buying something they do not need. They exist only to say, we do what we do exceptionally well, and we are considered in every detail; treasure us, and we will last a lifetime. Consequently, as we stand on the precipice of another New Era, let us hope that we may channel some of that Mid Century integrity and engender a new wave of timeless creativity. Only this time, it’ll be us and our planet that gets the chance to last another lifetime.

Left: Robert Welch’s sketches of ideas for products: Various designs for condiment sets, c.1960. His sculptural aesthetic can still be recognised in today’s designs.

I believe that good design springs from a response to the context in which it is created — in other words, it reflects or reacts to the zeitgeist. Conversely, truly great design, and therefore in my opinion timeless design, responds exclusively to the need to solve a problem; whether that is to sit in comfort or to be able to pour tea without drips. And these creative provocateurs are quite different. But to really understand why some things become eternally venerated on the podium of timelessness, and many do not, it helps to consider the opposite fate — built-in obsolescence.

Regrettably, the idea that something could be designed deliberately to fail, seems acutely symptomatic of the fast pace of contemporary life. It is the very essence of a take-make-waste approach; the siren call of the constant upgrade exploiting a perceived need to do everything ever faster or differently in some way. It is a lure to shop based on the notion that what you have already is out-moded, and to stay on-top, if not to stay meaningful, you must immediately switch up to a new and improved latest edition. What tosh!

Of course, some might argue that if you have five years of use from a product, then surely that’s good enough. But we expect our buildings and homes to last a lot longer than half a decade, so why not everything else? Why is it seemingly ‘ok’ to buy anything ‘throwaway’?

Below: The highly collectable Alveston Tea Pot, designed over four years 1961-64.


Indeed, a 2012 report by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, champion of the ‘circular economy’ model of re-use, revealed that 80 per cent of the goods bought in a year by one person are not returned for any further economic use, ending up in incinerators, landfill or wastewater. This is no way to go on.

Let us not forget too, the thorny influence of trends — the pendulum swing of what’s deemed ‘in’ and then ‘out’ — generally just another incitement to the unwitting to purchase beyond their requirements.

Although I must make a distinction between the smaller flights of fashionable whimsy — hot new colours, finishes, fabrics and new season styles — that are nothing more than marketing; and the larger shifts of cultural change that inevitably impact every aspect of lifestyle.

By way of example, the inexorable march of technology falls into the latter camp, and it precipitated a genuine reaction — the need for our homes to be steeped in tactility as a retreat from the tech. Ergo, the surge in appreciation for rattan, coir, hemp and other such materials. Imbued with touchy feely texture, they reflected the innate human desire to seek balance — the impulse to offset the veritable smoothness of our omnipresent smartphones and screens.

Additionally, because these materials are ecological, sustainable and affordable, the ‘trend for texture’ becomes amplified by mainstream preoccupations with the environment. Below: The Campden Triple Candleholder in stainless steel, 1957. Designed from 1956-1958, the Campden range was Robert Welch’s first original stainless steel tableware design for Old Hall.


Result? It’s highly likely to be an authentic long-player in the style stakes. Built-in obsolescence on the other hand is the product of a manufactured creative response to the conflicting pressures of the 21st Century; albeit arguably very of-the-moment in a time of constant flux. Nevertheless, in this way the design driver has gradually become less about service and more about status, for the designer as much as the consumer. Therein lying the answer to why little crafted today earns the accolade of timeless. Sadly, this won’t change until the incentive to not sell more of something, but to instead extend a product’s longevity, and keep it in circulation for as long as possible, becomes the norm again. After all, we’ve done it before.


Accordingly, let’s jump back to the 1950s, as many stalwarts of ‘timeless’ design hail from this era, dubbed Mid-Century Modern. Ironically, this was a time when the primary motivator was a vision of a new and improved future for all. Significantly though, it was also a moment of great confidence and optimism that modern design could play a role in shaping a better society. Yet despite this enthusiastic quest for the new, the idea of designing something to be wantonly discarded after a season or two was anathema. Rather this was about thinking beyond the moment and innovating for the common goal of a glorious tomorrow.

As such, many designs were creatively inspired by a bid for efficiency, a love of ergonomics and function, and the draw of materials like stainless steel, which epitomised a shiny ‘New Look’ for the home, alongside more traditional rosewood and rattan. It was a forward-looking approach that sat respectfully on the shoulders of history. Right: The toast rack from the Campden tableware range was praised for its “elegant and ingenious construction” and remains iconic over sixty years on.


The motivation being not to create icons, but simply the desire to create something more elegant, affordable or useful than that which had come before. In this way, whether we look at Robert Welch’s Campden coffee set and toast rack, the walnut stools designed by the Eames’ for the Rockefeller Centre in New York or Sori Yanagi’s sinuous Butterfly stool to pick just a few of my favourite timeless designs, it is impossible to date them.

Ultimately then, such inherent longevity comes from honesty. Such pieces are not trying to seduce the consumer into buying something they do not need. They exist only to say, we do what we do exceptionally well, and we are considered in every detail; treasure us, and we will last a lifetime. Consequently, as we stand on the precipice of another New Era, let us hope that we may channel some of that Mid Century integrity and engender a new wave of timeless creativity. Only this time, it’ll be us and our planet that gets the chance to last another lifetime.

Left: Robert Welch’s sketches of ideas for products: Various designs for condiment sets, c.1960. His sculptural aesthetic can still be recognised in today’s designs.