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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"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."

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Aaron Britt
Aaron writes the men's style column "The Pocket Square" for the San Francisco Chronicle and has written for the New York Times, the Times Magazine, Newsweek, National Geographic and others.


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