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Industrial Design suffers from the fact that it has become one of the alternative religions of our century. Essentially, the definition of the meaning of the phrase ought to be a very simple matter——it is the business of determining the form of objects which are to be made by machines, rather than produced by hand. But how immense that range of objects now is, and what a multitude of different categories they occupy! Industrial design can concern itself with everything from a teacup to a jet aeroplane. Yet it is not a matter of diversity alone——there is also our feeling that the machine production of a whole series of objects which are not merely similar but identical puts the designer of the those objects into a very different position from the person who designs objects which are produced by hand. The former is divorced from the actual business of making, while the latter probably (but not absolutely inevitably) remains very close to it . The industrial designer therefore stands aside from the physicality of the manufacturing process, yet is responsible for analyzing and trying to make sense of it. He is responsible for what F.H.K.Herion , President of the Society of Industrial Artists, called “an ordering process, creating at its best an inspired, new and unique order from a state of chaos”.
But this is not all. Industrial design is not a neutral occupation. It remains coloured with the moralism of a race of Victorian prophets and pioneers——the chief among them was John Ruskin——who reacted against what they saw as the intolerable waste and squalor of the Industrial Revolution. This moralism has since been carried over into situations where it is not always appropriate. The twentieth-century industrial designer is seen as the custodian of public taste, a person responsible for guiding the recalcitrant mass towards enlightenment. Herbert Read, one of the great propagandists for industrial design in the first half of this century, spoke of “the conflict between ideal form and popular taste” as if this was something inevitable. It is easier to understand what industrial design really is, and how the concept has developed historically, if one makes a resolution to ignore the more hectoring kinds of design propaganda.
In this connection ——the actual history of design and the emergence of industrial design as a recognized profession——it is worth recalling that the word “industry” was itself quite slow to acquire the meaning with which we endow it today when we employ it in the context presupposed by this book. In French, for instance, the equivalent word “industrie” appears no earlier than the eighteenth century, while the adjective “industrial” is first recorded in 1770. The paradox is that many centuries before this the idea that beauty in everyday objects was somehow linked to efficiency and appropriateness for use had already occurred to intelligent men. In Xenophon’s Memorabilia Socrates is quoted as saying, in reply to Aristippus:” Is a dung-basket beautiful then? ——Of course, and a golden shield is ugly, if the one is well made for its special work and the other badly.”
People were also acquainted with the notion that use must often be allowed to dictate form. Francis Bacon wrote:” Houses are built to live in , and not to look on; therefore let use be preferred before uniformity , except when both may be bad.” Bacon’s statement already seems to presuppose the kind of thought process outlined by Herbert Read in his eassay, “ The Origins of Form in Art” , which seems so typical of our century thanks to the emphasis it puts on functionlism.
Read distinguishes three stages in the development of objects of utility:” Namely (1) discovery of functional form, (2) refinement of the functional form to its maximum efficiency, and (3) refinement of the functional form in the direction of free or symbolic form.”
Long before the profession of industrial designer was invented , there were people who carried out the designer’s function. Basically, they can be divided into two groups —— the artisans and the architects. Artisan design evolved from direct work with tools and materials, and even, in the early stages of the Industrial Revolution, from direct work with machines and an intelligent exploration of their possibilities. Industry unconsciously evolved its own aesthetic, and this aesthetic was from the beginning one which intelligent designers, whatever their background , tried to obey. Philips Webb, the architect who built the seminal Red House for William Morries, and who later made designs for that fountainhead of the English Arts and Crafts Movement , the firm of Morris & Co., once said :” I never begin to be satisfied until my work looks commonplace.” The table-glass which he designed for manufacture by James Powell & Sons at Whitefriars proves that he meant what he said. The idea was thus planted very early that the successful industrially produced object eschewed not only ornament but anything which might make it seem conspicuous.
Yet it is also deeply significant that architecture was Webb’s basic profession. The notion of a responsible designer who is separated from the craft process, but who still has the right to instruct the craftsman, and tell him what to do, was established by the great architects of the eighteenth century, and particularly by Robert Adam, who designed the fittings and contents of some of his great country houses almost to the last detail。 The furniture which Thomas Chippendale produced to Adam’s designs was very different from the furniture he designed himself and published in his book The Director .The architect was a professional man, and it is from him that the industrial designer of our own day inherits his claim to professional status. Indeed, the two professions are still very often combined.
Industry , however, did not simply establish itself and then become a constant, a stable background against which the designer must work. It constantly threw up new problem. What happens, for example, when a machine is used to produce, not just some simple object, but another machine? Here, newborn, is a mechanism which may seem to dictate a surface which is visually complex, to reflect the complexity of a multitude of parts. Is the designer obliged to follow faithfully whatever lies beneath the casing? If he does, this may result in a form which is economic from the material point of view, but uneconomic visually because it requires a much greater effort of perception.
If one looks at the career of a pioneer American designer, Raymond Loewy, one finds that much of what he did was an effort to solve this kind of problem. Ofen his proposals met with resistance from the engineers with whom he had to deal. Thus, when Loewy arrived to redesign the locomotives of the Pennsylvania Railroad, there was already an established notion in railway workshop about what a locomotive ought to live like—— a tradition which stretched well back into the nineteenth century. To engineers, if not to traveling public, a locomotive of traditional form seemed preferable to the streamlined design Loewy came up with, because for them it was far more expressive of the true nature of steam power.
Loewy was not himself a trained engineer, but someone who took over after the engineers had done their best or worst. This is a very common situation where industrial designers are concerned , and it calls into question the assertion made by one authority on the subject——that good design is “the outward expression of the engineers’s confidence in his work.” In fact, whether it is the creation of trained engineers or not, industrial design is quite often palliative, not radical. It is a technique that may be used to conceal faults, such as distortions in die-castings, introduced by the inaccuracy of machines, rather than to show off their accuracy. In these circumstances the industrial designer’s job is to see that these inevitable faults do not spoil the finished result —— for example by introducing a moulding to disguise an imperfect fit . In any case , the designer’s task is often to establish limits rather than to conduct a search for perfection. He tries to trace the frontiers within which a range of acceptable solutions can be found. These boundaries are usually drawn for him by questions of cost as well as by those of structural strength and mechanical efficiency.