keeping up with design online

Most mornings start on the computer looking through some 20 or so web sites on architecture, design, fashion and graphics that are bookmarked in the browser. This is my way to keep up with news and developments and the way to find out about exhibitions, new design stores that have opened and new products. Inevitably, I also follow any interesting links and so, over the years, the list has changed with some new sites bookmarked and some sites dropped when they tail off or close down.

Of course the sites vary enormously in format and scope from those with a large team of writers and a clear editorial policy that makes them essentially professional digital magazines …. today archdaily had posted 15 new entries since I looked yesterday morning. Other sites post fewer but much longer articles so they are rather more like a design journal … last week the article by Chappell Ellinson on the Design Observer site under the title You’ll Never Guess the Amazing Ways Online Design Writing and Criticism Has Changed was particularly well written and thought provoking …. not least because it struck me as ironic that the title alone was longer than complete entries by many bloggers. Some sites like Remodelista tackle the buyers end and model themselves on magazines like House and Garden. Others like CreativeReview see product design and graphic design on a par with so-called fine art. Some sites tackle the practical application of good design and the consequent gains … they are, if you like, more political in their broader view of design: today CoDesign had a short article on infographics that show that the root of the conflict in Ukraine may be economic disparity rather than political differences. 

For obvious reasons Emma Fexeus is on my bookmark list: she posts some striking images; she has hands-on experience and the viewpoint of a professional insider but has a clear straightforward style of writing to engage a general reader. However, brevity and a light style of writing doesn’t mean light or superficial content because her observations can and do raise some crucial issues that really deserve to be more widely discussed. Last week was typical. 

In her first post, in the early part of last week, Emma wrote about The Asplund Stockholm Store. She was writing about a meeting of a group of design bloggers and their visit to the store where there was a discussion with three of the team of designers from Asplund. The post is short but crammed with interesting points and good links but above all I was drawn to the observation that “the entire Asplund Collection is produced in Sweden.” Significant and now sufficiently unusual to prompt the remark from Emma.

This set me thinking again about the whole sequence of design, manufacture and sales, and how it is organised and about how much this differs from company to company. Recently I wrote here about Artek and their parent company Vitra and the recent decision to acquire the manufacturer Korhonen Oy to keep production of furniture for Artek in Finland. Design House Stockholm, as a design agency, are at the opposite end of the spectrum, commissioning not just production from a wide number of companies but also designs from a number of independent designers …. and those designers can be anywhere in the world and either working free-lance or working within a design group or design studio. For Artek their design heritage and physical proximity create a coherent design policy: Design House Stockholm use selection and direction to create their clearly recognisable style but also to maintain their specific and Scandinavian aesthetic. Between Artek and Design House are companies like Marimekko who have their own design studio and with textile production in their own print works on the same site as the studio in Helsinki but fashion and ceramics and so on are outsourced for manufacture elsewhere. And of course there are proactive manufacturers like Carl Hansen who commission design.

Clearly there are no right or wrong ways … the location of production can be determined by the history of the company, the specific nature of the product or the reality of the economic situation.

But do customer understand the different approaches and the consequences? The difference between maintaining an in-house design studio or commissioning design and the differences between controlling manufacture in-house, or contracting out manufacture either locally or now more often to factories on the other side of the world? 

Even at the retail end there are huge differences. Carl Hansen, saw the merit of opening a prominent new flagship store on Bredgade in Copenhagen in March last year and, now on a roll, opened a major store, a second flagship, in Tokyo at the beginning of this month. Both Marimekko and Artek have their own brand stores as well as selling through independent retailers. In Sweden, in contrast, Norrgavel under Läs Nirvan Richter and G.A.D formed by Kristian Eriksson are both companies that are very much the products of men with a clear view of what their companies will make and will sell through their own shops or on line. Major department stores may have an arrangement with franchises where, within each subdivision of the retail floor, it is really left to the separate company to select what they sell. Last year Design House Stockholm moved out of their store in Stockholm to focus on their area within a nearby department store. Or there are stores like Nyt i bo in Copenhagen or even, on a larger scale, Illums Bolighus in Copenhagen and Stockholm that are ostensibly more like a traditional furniture store but are carefully curated. 

Do customers understand these different approaches to design, manufacture and retail and does it effect what they buy and why? 

A second article that Emma posted towards the end of last week was shorter but actually raised the same general questions. For me it was, in some ways, more controversial. It was a post about Basics from H&M Home. I hope Emma does not mind if I quote the post in full.

“I am very into basic, anonymous design in my own home. I like surrounding myself with timeless things that no one can point out and say where they are from or how much they cost. Flashy things that just shout "designer piece" or "super expensive" aren't my thing, even if I appreciate good design. But I believe that good design can be found anywhere and in any price range. To me, good design is sustainable, both in terms of materials and appearance. My eyes never grow tired of simple lines, and natural materials always age with grace. That is why I like these pictures from H&M Home, showing parts of their Basic range; products that are always in the collections. Timeless pieces in linen, metal, glass and cotton.”

This honest, open and straightforward paragraph actually raises a huge number of important questions. For a start I am fascinated that someone who works professionally within the design world declares a preference for “anonymous design” but I can guess some reasons why. For a start, is there here real satisfaction from tracking down something different or unusual?

Should all designers from the newest and youngest to the most established and most famous be better known and be identified and acknowledged on their work? A much wider appreciation of signature pieces … not just for craftsmen or chefs. For a start, I really like the way that Marimekko fabrics have the name of the designer and the year of the design printed on the selvedge. 

Conversely, there are some horrendous and badly designed products out there in so-called design stores where it really would be good to name and shame.

Do people only buy classic pieces by well-established designers to spotlight their own wealth? Well certainly for some that is true. Does the name of an established designer help someone decide to buy one thing rather than another because they are unsure of their own taste and want to have help in choosing the right thing? Possibly. 

Certainly mediocre design persists because many people feel that they don't have the time or the money to seek out something better.

Emma has both the broad professional knowledge of design and designers of an insider and confidence in her own taste. How wide spread, at a more general level in Sweden, is that interest in design?  Does even a little knowledge of design and the design process give the consumer more confidence in their choice? Definitely.

Does good design necessarily mean more Kroner on the price tag? In some cases yes but not always. Is good design something that gets added to a product as a second and optional stage of the process? Really it shouldn’t be like that for the simple reason that everything that is manufactured has to be designed … that’s implicit in the process .… and it can cost as much to design an object badly as it costs to design it well .… on the assumption that a design “name” does not command the wages of a footballer. 

Surely bad design can cost a company more in the short term if unattractive objects do not sell in sufficient numbers simply because they are unattractive? Bad design can certainly cost the customer more in the long term if the item does not work as well or doesn’t last as long as a well-designed and well-made alternative even if the initial outlay is more expensive. 

Sustainability is more and more important for obvious reasons but I would broaden this out from implying generally just materials - at the moment some manufacturers are concerned about using sustainable timber, not depleting natural resources, not wasting power in manufacturing or fuel for transport of materials or products - but there is also a real need to retain and support (sustain and not waste) local and regional manufacturing and craft skills. 

In terms of style and taste, I agree completely with Emma that simple lines and natural materials are incredibly important but of course those too are rarely just chance qualities but the consequence of the right design decisions being made by manufacturers and their designers. And that applies through the whole manufacturing and retail sequence. That business of making the right or the wrong design decisions. It’s not just buyers who make bad design decisions. How often have you found something that was beautifully designed but wondered what an earth possessed them to make it in that particular colour or rejected something that was beautifully designed but badly made or even initially dismissed a product only to realise that it was because the packaging was badly designed or because the adverts were awful?