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When We Talk About Good Design

Many architects and designers, when talked down from the theoretical towers of “sculptural forms” and “floating volumes” and made to speak of their craft in humbler terms, are apt to use a phrase as naive as it is loaded: “good design.” It suggests such an apparent universality that any of us should be able to spot it. But implicit in “good design” is a system of values, aesthetics, and objects that demonstrate that the seemingly innocuous little term is anything but. Nowhere is the idiom as alive and well as in the realm of modern design, which wants to suggest—formally, stylistically, and most importantly, commercially—that the two might just be synonymous.

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Many architects and designers, when talked down from the theoretical towers of “sculptural forms” and “floating volumes” and made to speak of their craft in humbler terms, are apt to use a phrase as naive as it is loaded: “good design.” Former Dwell editor Aaron Britt asks: What do we talk about when we talk "good design"?

“The term ‘good design’ isn’t one that just cropped up in the mid-20th century,” says design historian Marilyn Friedman, alluding to the modernists who would come to define it. “It began as a concept in the mid-19th century when Englishmen were reacting to all the stylistic revivals that proliferated. You really had two schools [of furniture makers] that were talking about ‘good design.’” One was that of Augustus Pugin, who sought to take machines out of the applied arts, moving back toward a more medieval model “when craftsmen were craftsmen.” The other belonged to Arts and Crafts movement founder William Morris, who aimed for a simpler aesthetic in which the use of machines freed up artisans to do what they were best at, like handcarving or painting. Friedman argues that Morris was after “simplicity, something the modernists also wanted.”

As the fabrication of objects by mechanical means placed greater emphasis on the designer than the crafts-person, “design” took on a new and stronger meaning. The Oxford English Dictionary traces terms like “design book,” “design-conscious,” and “industrial design” to the first half of the 20th century—and as modernists produced manifestos, rants, and treatises on their nascent style, they imbued existing terminology like “good design” with new connotations. And, thanks to the work of Edgar Kaufmann Jr., a man fortuitously placed at the nexus of elite taste and the department-store floor, the term was to gain incredible life and an irrevocable meaning to designers and middle-class consumers alike.

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Kaufmann—whose father owned Kaufmann’s Department Store in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and commissioned Frank Lloyd Wright’s masterpiece Fallingwater—worked in the home department of the family business, but it was as a curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York from 1937 to 1955 that he made his mark. In 1950, marrying his taste for high modernist objects with a deft sense for marketing, Kaufmann launched a six-year exhibition series of modern furnishings and housewares. He called it Good Design, and it was rife with the work of those who would comprise the mid-century modernist canon: Charles and Ray Eames, Marcel Breuer, Mies van der Rohe, Le Corbusier, George Nelson, and their peers.

Then the most extensive exhibition in the applied arts in MoMA’s history, Good Design was a semiannual collaboration between the museum and the Merchandise Mart of Chicago, the nation’s largest wholesale vendor of housewares. Kaufmann relished the role of tastemaker. Twice yearly, from 1950 to 1955, he led a team that selected objects for exhibitions timed to coincide with the summer and winter markets at the Merchandise Mart. He then chose his favorites from the two seasonal shows for an annual exhibition at MoMA that served as a culmination of the year’s best.

Kaufmann created a closed circuit of reinforced prestige. As MoMA lent its distinguished heft to the Merchandise Mart, so too did the Mart offer popular and commercial validation to the museum with every side chair and end table sold. And, so as to leave no doubt about his taste, and to invite consumers into the modernist club, selected items from the exhibits were sold affixed with a small orange tag proudly marking them as “Good Design.” By equating the latest modern design with good design, and wedding the predilections of the elite with the shopping habits of the middle class, Kaufmann’s aim seemed, at times, less concerned with exposing America to his notions of good design than with exposing them to his broader sense of good taste.

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In a 1950 pamphlet entitled “What Is Modern Design?” Kaufmann takes up the more specific question “What is good design?” Though the precepts he lays out often describe the output of the Eameses or Isamu Noguchi or Fin Juhl, his criteria are still vague. In an effort to establish a standard, Kaufmann avers, “Good design in any period is simply: the best its designers produce.” He describes the anticipated “thorough merging of form and function” but when forced to comment on “the requirements of beauty” he hardly breaks ground, relying on “the three qualities which Thomas Aquinas listed as requisite to beauty: integrity, clarity, harmony.” Not exactly a novel rubric for goodness.

Unsurprisingly, Kaufmann excels in describing his canon of exalted objects when he leaves aside the aesthetic and manufacturing jargon and takes up the pitch of the showroom salesman. “When did you last look at your floor cover and ask yourself what you thought of it—is it clean, is it comfortable, is it durable, is it easy to keep up, what does it add to the appearance of the room, is it the best present techniques can supply; in short is it sensible and attractive? Does it enhance your life?”

His inability to define, much less codify, an essentially subjective term that had been floating around for over a hundred years had little consequence. Good Design sold well, modernism took root, Kaufmann had America’s attention. “The era of ‘good design’ as a universal value seemed to reach its high point in those postwar years,”  says graphic designer and design critic Michael Bierut. He points to “a unique moment of optimism that also ushered in the wide application of International Style architecture in the corporate world and a trust in the institutions that defeated the Axis powers in World War II—a trust that disintegrated in the ’60s and finally imploded in the ’70s.” As the output of the European avant-garde—whose arrival and ascendance coincided with World War II and America’s postwar boom—caught on across the U.S. and started to define mid-century design, one could never again talk about “good design” without referring, obliquely or otherwise, to what Kaufmann sought to put in every American’s living room. Just as the term “Oedipus complex” necessarily points to Freud, regardless of context, “good design” has come to suggest not simply an aesthetic but a group of furniture designers, an era, and a dedicated set of politics and values.

And it wasn’t just Americans who pricked up their ears. Concurrently the term gained traction in Germany as gute Form. Coined in 1949 by designer Max Bill, it was applied to a traveling exhibition for the Swiss Work Federation. Reaching its apex in the 1960s (a particularly flush moment for West German consumers), gute Form, which took many of its cues from the same stock of designers (Mies, Gropius, Corbu), sought to enshrine what qualified as good design. The Design Dictionary by Michael Erlhoff and Timothy Marshall describes the output of gute Form designers as “reserved in appearance, functional in use, serious, reliable, rectangular, gray, black or white, reduced to precise, technically necessary details.” Dieter Rams, a designer and director at Braun, whose industrial design earned the company numerous Gute Form Awards (the prestigious award founded in 1969), took up Kaufmann’s cause, laying down his Ten Rules of Good Design. They include: “Good design is aesthetic; good design is honest; good design is innovative; good design is unobtrusive.” Showing how porous national boundaries can be, and how a little economic prosperity puts more products on the shelves, influential designers like Ettore Sottsass and Mario Bellini became associated with gute Form’s Italian counterpart, Bel Design.

George Nelson, a designer whose work featured prominently in the Good Design exhibitions, had a less sanguine view of MoMA and the Merchandise Mart’s marketing prowess. He took aim at Kaufmann’s canon in a 1957 essay entitled “Good Design: What Is It For?” There he states that “‘Good Design’ is neither a book of etiquette nor a social register,” and that his own essay would be “one of the many attempts to remove the heavy hand of authority from what should be an area of personal enjoyment.” Nelson saw good design less as a program of formal, political, or aesthetic criteria, against which objects can be judged either good or bad, but as a design program that ennobles. “Good design, like good painting, cooking, architecture, or whatever you like, is a manifestation of the capacity of the human spirit to transcend its limitations…it is a statement not a gadget.” Inveighing against the consumerist underpinnings of Kaufmann’s show, he continues: “Used to demonstrate one’s superior taste to the neighbors it loses its essential quality and becomes one more item of conspicuous consumption… It cannot transform a dark brown little life into a large brightly colored one.”

As the postmodernists rebelled against their predecessors’ standards, making more than a few large, brightly colored buildings, the principles of good design took a blow. Industrial designer Jonathan Adler echoes Bierut’s nod toward a lost moment when styles and principles seemed more fixed but sees “good design” as a term that the postmodernists left aside. “You had a new look and a lot of people striving toward the same ends, formally and aesthetically, at mid-century. Then the postmodernists came along and wanted to mock that rigid standard. They did and now we live in a totally fractured [design] world.” Though postmodernism has assuredly relaxed many of modernism’s strict standards, and enraged many modernists who see the style as formless gewgaw, Adler thinks the term still has plenty of traction: “If you talk about ‘good design’ I think that you are probably referring to the design that appeals to upper-middle-class white people who are educated and familiar with the modernist canon.”

With a resurgent interest in modernism, it’s no surprise that its lingo too should come back into vogue. John Christakos, president and CEO of Blu Dot, concedes that the term owes a debt to the mid-century modernists, but he sees their definition as overly narrow—though that hasn’t stopped Blu Dot from using the term in its “Good Design Is Good” campaign, an echo of former IBM head Thomas Watson Jr.’s 1975 dictum “Good design is good business.” Christakos defines it as a “rubric of efficiency, sustainability, and beauty,” but still can’t wholly escape his forebears: “Charles Eames said it well: ‘The best for the most for the least.’”

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What, then, does “the best for the most for the least” look like today? Sadly, it doesn’t necessarily include the wit that uttered it. Like many of their peers in the Good Design exhibitions, the Eameses’ work has been collected, reissued, and fetishized right out of the average American home. Ikea comes closer perhaps, certainly closer than that contemporary clearinghouse of Kaufmann’s beloved objects, Design Within Reach, which sells Eero Saarinen’s Tulip dining tables for as much as $7,200. Oddly enough, Kaufmann might have loved Ikea or Target. Salesmen must be populists—and the prestige Kaufmann wanted to confer wasn’t that of exclusivity—and as such he often clashed with MoMA co-curator Philip Johnson, who cared more for the purity of the high modernism of Mies than the limits of the American consumer’s pocketbook. 

Terrence Riley, who wrote extensively on the Good Design exhibitions while he was the architecture curator at MoMA from 1991 to 2006, claims “the term has two meanings. It refers to those mid-century objects…but also to a certain aesthetic and functional attitude that continues today: formally simple, relatively inexpensive, innovative use of materials, principally household items that were conceived as part of a larger, idealized vision of contemporary domestic life.”

Riley aptly unpacks what Kaufmann and others saw in mid-century-modern design. As the term continues to thrive it will invariably take on new hues. Sustainability, Christakos notes, is a growing concern today and many designers include it as a prerequisite to being a good object.  Though even this notion is hardly new, especially considering how Bauhaus designers working in the resources-poor Weimar-era Germany also learned to do lots with little. But for the foreseeable future, “good design” will remain the property of the modernists, its meaning overwhelmingly indebted to a still-thriving ethic and aesthetic. Though Kaufmann may not have managed to get Good Design into each of our homes, he got it quite squarely into our vocabularies.

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