Herewith a precis of 20th-century design styles.

By Thomas Hine
Inquirer Architecture Critic
The Philadelphia Inquirer
23 August 1987

At the turn of the century came the tendril, as objects were embedded in the sinuous, vinelike line of organic growth. In the 20s came zigzags and ziggurats, as jazz, cubism and skyscrapers gave the cue for everything to look spiky and nervous. From the 30s through the 50s there were steamships and streamlining, followed in the mid-50s by jet fighter planes and tail fins.

A summary of design

Late in the 60s, the tail fin gave way to the shark’s mouth, which was supplanted for a while during the 70s by the plain black box. But the shark came back in minimalist form in the late 70s with the wedge shape. Recently, we have been struck once again by wave shapes with a kind of neo-streamlining.

There are, of course, tremendous deficiencies in this summary. It ignores immense technological changes in the material things are made from, as well in the way they work. It ignores the changes in the distribution of wealth, the way items are sold, and the expectations people have about the things in their lives will do for them.

It ignores everything necessary about science, economics and society. All that is left is the metaphor.

Yet this summary may be enough to get you through a cocktail party, an afternoon at the museum or a survey course. And despite all, it leaves out it is not wrong. It may even say most of what’s essential. The crucial thing about human-made objects is not the technology that produces them, but how people understand them and relate to them.

No Machinery can work if people do not want to use it.

Virtually everything we touch is overlaid with imagery – much of it is irrelevant to the object itself, but all of it is tied to the way that people feel about an object. This is true of dishes and mirrors and silverware, but it is essential for tools and machinery. No machinery can work if people do not want to use it.

The most beautiful and satisfying tools are the simplest, those whose form expresses the human hand at one end and the grass to be cut or the wood to be carved at the other. But such tools are relatively primitive. Other, more complex tools can do the same work much more productively, provided that people have some positive feeling when they use them.

Indeed, everyday life demands the use of so many objects that few people understand that simple survival requires taking a lot on faith. The goal of design is, in large part, to make people believe in things.

Thus, the design of industrial and consumer products is suffused with imagery, which can have its source in the human body, in nature or even in other kinds of machinery. At any given time the same motifs will appear on many different types of things, from teacups to office buildings, because they feel new and they are exciting. Giving a machine a new casing can hide in fact that nothing new is happening underneath. But a unique shape can also represent something that original is about the machine, something that most people are not the least bit interested in understanding.

For example, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe put non-functional girders on the outsides of some of his buildings, to tell passers-by how the building stands up. Standing up is something people identify with.

The poetry of everyday objects

The poetry of everyday objects went relatively unnoted for decades, but in the last few years, typewriters and coffeepots have been getting the formal scrutiny once reserved for Brancusi sculpture. Museums have been searching through our collective attic and telling the story of our lives in coffee spoons, toasters and thermos jugs.

One reason for this sudden fascination with how form transcends function is suggested by the design of Mario Bellini. One of the principal reasons for studying the Milan-based designer is that his career has coincided with the transition from mechanical to microelectronic technology.

The Problem of Design

“Having no specific shape, and free of the restraints of mechanical independence argues Cara McCarty, curator at the Museum of Modern Art. She writes, “micro components could be combined in any number of ways, thus providing designers with a unique opportunity to create new industrial forms. Industrial designers are facing the same challenge that faces architects. Nearly everything can be built.

Such freedom is terrifying. Design thrives on constraints. The language of both architecture and design is peppered with a discussion of “the problem” and “the solution,” falsely implying that there is only one of each. There are countless ways of defining what to do and even more approaches by doing it.

The ability to proceed in so many different ways might unleash the occasional genius, but it makes most people self-conscious. The spate of books and museum shows on both architecture and design is, in part, a response to the frantic search for influences. With the rules gone, there is a temptation to turn to heroes.

The Wedge Form

Bellini, who was born in 1935, has been an influential designer during the last three decades, mainly through his association with Olivetti, the office equipment manufacturer. Indeed, his designs for calculators and typewriters helped redefine their form and make the wedge form pervasive during the 1970s.

A wedge is a logical form for most keyboard machines since it tilts the keys toward the user. But its principal appeal was visual. It brought an electronic age sense of newness to devices that have previously been complicated mechanical contraptions. A wedge tape deck and tv is a wedge on its side, along with several more pieces of electronic equipment in pure, geometric casings.

Clay to Styrofoam

This evolution of design associated with these designs relates to a change in the material from which Bellini made his models. Early in his career, he used clay, which resulted in more rounded designs, but in the early 1970s, be began to use polystyrene foam, which is best cut in straight lines. Note that the change in form did accompany a difference in the material the actual material machines were made from, but rather an evolution of the medium Bellini used to study his designs. So much for expressing the nature of the material; it’s the thoughts that count.

Table-top calculating machine

One of Bellini’s earliest designs dating from 1965, was for a large table-top calculating machine in which he designed a new kind of number key. He wanted to resolve the round indentation implied by the fingertip with the square base determined by the manufacturing requirements for the machine.

He derived the shape of the keys by stretching a thin plastic membrane between the round indentation and the rectangular base, then having that irregular curving form cast in hard plastic. The result was a highly sculptural key that, like more primitive tools, expressed the person at one end and task at the other. It also evoked the forms being explored around the same time by architects who had become fascinated with tent structures.

Bellini used the idea of the stretched membrane on a much larger scale in a video display terminal he designed for Olivetti in 1966. This cantilevered structure, with its ugly fisheye screen, seems a functional disaster. The worker would be looking the wrong way. And there is nowhere to put any work on paper to which he might be referring. The terminal has a mysterious quality one that refers to a paperless sci-fi future rather than anything to be found in any real office.

It is a short step from the idea of a stretched membrane to that of a skin, which shows up in a 1972 hand calculator in which the keys are bumps beneath a yellow rubberized skin. Something is disturbing about it as an object. You would feel as if you were tickling it.

The metaphor of skin makes the most sense in Bellini’s furniture. Architects often talk about the skin of the building when referring to the cladding that goes on the outside. But on the body, the skin is more important than that. It helps to define a creature’s shape and to keep its organs together.

Bellini’s furniture

So it is with Bellini’s furniture notably the overstuffed Bambole series of chairs in the early 1970s and the classic leather-covered CAB series of a few years later. Both have steel frames inside, but if you saw only the frames, it would be hard to guess what the chair looks like. The frame of the Bambole resembles an over-turned table, while that of the CAB is the merest diagram of a chair, with both seat and back missing.

In both chairs, the skin zips over the frame, covering four foam pellets of four different densities in the Bambole. The CAB is all skin and bone, one of the most elegant pieces of contemporary furniture.

Thus does Bellini remind us that people respond to the metaphor of the human body. In a time when so much is possible that choice is a burden and meaning is elusive, skin and bones will provide an excellent place to start.

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