Towers of inspiration

Icons as diverse as the red telephone box and the Kalashnikov rifle, on show in a special 20th Century design exhibition at London’s Design Museum, offer valuable lessons for today’s engineers, writes Brian Davis. Good design is said to be the key to selling new products, but is this just a question of style or […]

Icons as diverse as the red telephone box and the Kalashnikov rifle, on show in a special 20th Century design exhibition at London’s Design Museum, offer valuable lessons for today’s engineers, writes Brian Davis.

Good design is said to be the key to selling new products, but is this just a question of style or of meeting defined needs? Does it require a divine spark or careful analysis?

An exhibition at London’s Design Museum called Design: Process, Progress, Practice examines the thinking behind a wide variety of design icons, from the classic red telephone box to the AK47 rifle.

An eclectic selection chosen by curator James Peto, assistant curatorial director Dr Eric Kentley and education head Leslie Butterworth, offers profound lessons about the way new design has been manifested from the home to the industrial arena – to good or sometimes ill effect.

Engineering knowhow has often translated into the domestic arena with popular results. Retired aircraft engineer Owen Maclaren came up with the idea for a folding pushchair in the 1970s, due to frustration at trying to get a grandchild’s pram onto a plane. He developed an X-folding strut arrangement which enabled construction of a light but sturdy push chair called the Maclaren buggy, which was completely collapsible.

`This is an example of industrial knowhow spurring revolution in a consumer product,’ says Peto. `We are eager to show the importance of engineers in the design process, as many consider styling is only created by artists or the fashion conscious.’

Another message of the exhibition is that successful design rarely arises from a sudden bolt of inspiration, `but is a combination of a great idea, careful analysis and numerous iterations.’ As Thomas Edison said, it is often 2% inspiration and 98% perspiration.

James Dyson’s Dual Cyclone vacuum cleaner was reputedly conceived after a frustrating morning trying to vacuum his home. But Peto suggests Dyson’s real inspiration came while working in his ball-barrow factory (an earlier invention), when he noticed how the air conditioning system was extracting paint emissions. His design evolved through over 5,000 prototypes, several of which are shown in the exhibition.

In this he emulated Edison, who also went through countless attempts to create a lightbulb. When asked why he was so patient, he is said to have replied: `Every wrong version was a step nearer the right one.’

This is the first Design Museum show to display prototypes as well as finished articles. `We want to make people think about the design process, not simply admire the products,’ says Peto. Prototypes range from Heath Robinson-like assemblies to slick foam models, including beautiful contoured elements for the Daytona motorbike.

There is a continuing argument over whether good design should be functional as well as aesthetic – highlighted in the Design Museum by a futuristic Philippe Starck kettle carrying the message: `Do not use when hot’.

Where the human factor is taken into account, the results can be remarkable. The Moti wheelchair designed by quadraplegic David Constantine and fellow RCA graduate Ian Harris looks good and works well. It was developed from Constantine’s own experience, with the help of physiotherapists here and abroad, to adapt to the needs of children with cerebral palsy and other handicaps.

Design for manufacturability is also an important issue. Constantine took this a stage further, wanting to replicate his Bristol-based wheelchair workshop in developing world and eastern European countries, where the availability of certain materials could not be guaranteed and construction had to be simple.

Recognising the lack of readily available steel nuts and bolts in Bangladesh, he designed a wheelchair with wooden fasteners; he also found substitutes for steel plate, which was only available in large `state plant-sized’ volumes, for a workshop in Moscow.

Peto cites the Eiffel Tower as a successful marriage of form and function. It was built as a temporary structure at the Paris Exhibition in 1889 in the face of considerable objections. On completion it proved so popular that nobody would sanction taking Gustav Eiffel’s creation down. Engineers claim that there is absolutely no extraneous feature, and Eiffel’s original concept sketches were almost identical to the final structure. It will be interesting to see if the new BA London Eye – the Millennium Wheel – will prove as popular when it reaches the end of its planned five-year lifespan.

Failures also teach designers lessons. Aesthetics were a factor in one of the most famous engineering disasters, the Titanic, where original drawings showed 32 life-boats doubled up, one inside the other. Unfortunately, `for aesthetic reasons’ only half the lifeboats were installed, so many more lives were lost.

Design can open up new markets. The JCB 3CX Sitemaster loader is a classic whose design, though it has evolved, remains unchanged in essence since it was first conceived 40 years ago. JC Bamford came up with the idea of combining a farmer’s tractor/hay loader with a Norwegian trench digger in the 1950s. The combination was so successful that the JCB – and its imitators – quickly became ubiquitous on construction sites.

It is commonly believed that design can revitalise old brands. Design: Process, Progress, Practice features the new VW Beetle, a recent reinvention of a 20th century design classic, created mainly for the US market where the original Beetle was seen as a statement of individuality. But is it good design? When the new version was unveiled in 1994 it was criticised for being all style and ignoring function, with limited rear headroom and little luggage space.

But sales have been brisk in the US. In its home country – where the earlier Beetle was considered to be a poor man’s car, lacking the connotations of individuality it had in the US – the new version has been slow to catch on.

Ultimately, perhaps the exhibition shows style to be a question of taste, not function. Yesterday’s object of desire becomes tomorrow’s object of disgust. But well-executed functional design can have intrinsic aesthetic merit which will endure over time – as the Eiffel Tower, K2 phone box and the JCB testify. What will we think of the new Beetle in 40 years’ time?