Good Design

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Museum of Modern Art

Sir Nikolaus Pevsner (1902—1983) architectural historian

William Morris (1834—1896) designer, author, and visionary socialist

Arts and Crafts Movement

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Although countless definitions of ‘Good Design’ have been offered by designers, critics, theorists, and historians for centuries a very particular concept of the term was current in the decades immediately following the end of the Second World War and represented opposition to superfluous styling as a means of increasing sales. In many ways it may be seen as the latter phase of a design reform continuum first articulated by Nikolaus Pevsner in his 1936 Pioneers of the Modern Movement, in which the moral precepts of William Morris and the Arts and Crafts Movement were reconciled with modern manufacturing processes, new materials, and the manipulation of abstract form in early 20th century Germany. Edgar Kaufmann Jr., Director of Industrial Design at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA), New York, in the 1940s and 1950s, had issued a stark warning in the Architectural Review of August 1948. He drew attention to what he described as ‘Borax or the Chromium Plated Calf’, castigating what he saw as a prevalent and spreading American tendency of ‘style follows sales’. Kaufmann pursued such views through the curation of a series of Good Design exhibitions at MOMA from 1950 to 1955 that contained many objects that endorsed the European Modernist aesthetic and built upon the design tendencies that had been apparent since the establishment of the Department of Architecture and Industrial Art at the Museum in 1932. The MOMA Design Collection was inaugurated with the 1934 Machine Art exhibition curated by the arch‐Modernist Philip Johnson. These Good Design displays were mounted in conjunction with the Chicago Merchandise Mart and supported and advertised by retail stores that also utilized the ‘Good Design’ labels that manufacturers attached to selected products. Like Modernism, ‘Good Design’ was characterized generally by an emphasis on pure form rather than decoration, a restrained palette and an appropriate use of materials. European exemplars were further endorsed by MOMA's 1952 exhibition of ‘Olivetti Design in Industry’ and its inclusion of Braun products in its permanent display in 1958. This American perspective was confirmed by Jay Doblin's article on ‘100 “Best Designed” Products’ in Fortune magazine in 1959 (republished in 1970 as 100 Great Product Designs), a survey of the opinions of 100 ‘leading designers, architects, and design teachers around the world’. Although a number of the products selected did reflect some aspects of ephemeral styling, the top three designs were Nizzoli's Olivetti Lettera 22 typewriter (1947), the Eames side‐chair for Herman Miller (1947) and Mies van der Rohe's Barcelona Chair (originally 1929, but reproduced by Knoll Associates after the Second World War). Other Modernist products from Europe and Scandinavia featured significantly in Doblin's list.

Of course, in Europe itself there was a great deal of ‘Good Design’ propaganda, with institutions such as the British Board of Trade funded Council of Industrial Design (COID, see Design Council), established in 1944, its Design Centre (established 1956), and Design Centre Awards (established 1957). Such an outlook was reinforced by state initiatives in other countries such as the Rat für Formgebung (Design Council) in Germany, established in 1953 following an act of the German Parliament in 1951, a country which had also seen Max Bill's Die Gute Form (Good Form) exhibition in 1949. In France the Ministry of Industry and Commerce launched the Beauté France label for well‐designed products and, influenced by such European precedents, the Ministry of Trade and Industry (MITI) in Japan established its G‐Mark award for aesthetic excellence in design in 1957. Other contemporary initatives included the Dutch Stichting Goed Wonen (Good Living Foundation, established in 1948) and the ‘Good Design’ promotions of the De Bijenkorf department store. In Italy the department store La Rinascente initiated the Compasso d'Oro design awards in 1954. The British COID and its promotion of ‘Good Design’ also had an impact on design promotional organizations in New Zealand and Australia. In the latter, alongside a whole range of ‘Good Design’ initiatives the Industrial Design Council of Australia established in 1960 its Good Design Label, which bore the message ‘Selected as Good Design for Australian Design Index—Industrial Design Council of Australia’.See also Design Awards.


Subjects: Industrial and Commercial Art.

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