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History Of Design

Before the Industrial Revolution craftsmen made their own decisions about what they created. Only in exceptional cases, such as in the work of Leonardo Da Vinci (1452 - 1519), did a person draw a design and have other people make it. That wasn't to say there weren't standard techniques or forms for products. Going back to the beginnings of human history, Randy White of New York University has studied the abundance of beads and other body ornaments that suddenly appeared in France, Belgium and Germany 28,000 years ago. White comes to the conclusion that "once the prized raw material was procured, it was shaped, polished and drilled using standardised production techniques to ensure uniformity of design" (P326 The Neandertal Enigma by James Shreeve). Generally speaking, however, this kind of standardisation was not planned. Individual craftsman simply worked within the prevailing technology, and accepted the fashions of the times.


The period from 1770 to 1914 saw European society change profoundly. Industrialisation meant that craftsmen could no longer make spontaneous decisions about what they made. The actual creation of a product was increasingly mechanised, and a product's form had to be worked out carefully beforehand. The person doing this planning became known as a designer. This process began late in the eighteenth century, and is well illustrated by developments in textile production. In 1764 James Hargreaves invented the spinning jenny, a machine with sixteen spindles that greatly speeded up the spinning process. By 1769 this machine was being sold widely. Before any item was made using the spinning jenny it had to be planned, and then put into production. Now with a separate group of people taking responsibility for the design of products, it occurred to many that planned changes in design would help sales. From the 1760s the Lyons silk industry introduced twice yearly collections to enhance differentiation between products, to stimulate trade, and to combat copying. By 1800 patterns in printed cotton for dresses changed routinely with each season. For furniture fabrics new patterns were produced every two to three years. In the 1840s the Journal of Design estimated that "there are upwards of six thousand patterns for calico printing registered annually" (quoted The Oxford History of Western Art ed Martin Kemp, P380).


In this way design took on a dual identity. In one sense it was the planning of a product which would work efficiently. John Gloag calls this type of designer a "putter up of structures" (quoted An Introduction to Design and Culture by Penny Sparkle P38). In another sense design was the planned change of products to keep them looking fresh and contemporary, and to maintain their sales. These people, once again according to John Gloag, are "putters on of style". In the textile industry putters on of style were important from the beginning. But in other industries stylists were sometimes resisted. Henry Ford, for example, was a great pioneer in the mass production of cars. As such his products had to be carefully planned by designers of the putters up of structures variety. Ford, however, had no time for design in the sense of styling, and as a result his black Model T Ford remained visually, if not mechanically, uniform for almost twenty years. In 1903 Ford was to write: "The way to make automobiles is to make them come from the factory all alike, just like one pin is like another when it comes from a pin factory." Generally speaking in the early industrial period, the Americans were more concerned with function. Eventually though, the Depression of the late 1920s, and increasing competition from rival companies, meant that even people like Ford had to start thinking about styling. General Motors had already been working hard at styling for a number of years by this time, under the guidance of Harley Earl. Earl had been born in Hollywood and gave Cecil B. Demille and Al Jolson as his influences (see Harley Earl and the Dream Machine by Stephen Bayley). The practical Ford, son of a farmer, was obliged to follow Harley Earl, the showman from Hollywood. Form and function now had to be thought of together.


Whether you think of design in terms of things that work well, or look nice, or a combination of both, mass production allowed these new products to be produced cheaply. Now well made, attractive things were no longer the preserve of the rich. Many have applauded this. One work on industrialisation says that mass production released people "from the encumbrance of prescriptive privilege and traditional hierarchy " (Industrialisation and Culture Harvie, Martin, Scharf). Not everybody agreed. William Morris feared that industrialised production would deny individual creativity and dehumanise the working lives of millions of people. Morris helped set up the Arts and Crafts movement as a remedy, allowing craftsmen to produce their products in traditional ways. Perhaps this kind of thinking delayed the development of respect for design in Britain. The first president of the Royal Academy Of Art, Joshua Reynolds, thought that excellence in the fine arts would somehow trickle down to apparently lower levels of product design. Inevitably this did not really happen. When the lack of competitiveness of British goods became apparent in the 1820s and 1830s, attitudes changed. By the 1840s a national system of publicly funded design schools had been set up. In 1851 the Great Exhibition once again showed a lack of British design skill compared with work from other countries. A year after the Great Exhibition in 1851, the Museum of Manufacturers, now known as the Victoria And Albert Museum, was founded in London by civil servant, designer and writer Henry Cole. The museum's aim was to promote art and design, and to contribute to an improvement in British goods. Cole's original museum collections were centred around objects acquired from the Great Exhibition, and his aim was to represent production in metalwork, woodwork, textiles, ceramics and glass. Although the Victoria and Albert's utilitarian aims were quickly toned down, there was a marked improvement in the design of British goods at the London International Exhibition of 1862. This encouraged other countries to set up similar institutions to the V and A, and by 1890 almost every European capital had a similar museum. In Germany about thirty such museums were founded in major cities.


A Renault Formula 1 car at the Design Museum

All this effort at developing design helped to bring putters up of structures and putters on of style together. By the early twentieth century, as the Arts and Crafts movement died out, design became more associated with functional beauty. The American architect and designer Frank Lloyd Wright believed that industrialised production was "capable of carrying to fruition high ideals in art" and "ultimately to emancipate human expression" (quoted The Oxford History of Western Art ed Martin Kemp). Meanwhile new groups such as the Deutscher Werkbund, founded in 1907 came together to develop high quality designs for mass production. The First World War turned some people against mass production for a while, with its connotations of mechanised slaughter. Even the great designer Walter Gropius felt like this temporarily. But by the 1920s the commitment to rational mass produced design had returned.

Today the idea of mass production stifling creativity still lingers, perhaps most strongly in association with the Green movement, which has an instinctive distrust of industrialised society. In reality as Frank Lloyd Wright and Walter Gropius and many thousands of designers have realised, creativity can actually be enhanced by modern industrialisation. And of course this method of making things remains the most efficient. It is interesting that the vast furniture concern Ikea, puts such emphasis on its designers in its promotional literature. Photos of the designers appear in the catalogues, along with short quotes about their work. You could look upon this as a gimmick to make cheap mass produced goods look more human. But the fact is these goods are human, designed by people, and then produced as economically as possible by machines.