how can we understand more about good design?

Just before Christmas I spent a good part of a day looking around Arbejdermuseet, the Workers’ Museum in Copenhagen, and, following the chronological sequence through the galleries and displays, I ended up at the basement level looking at reconstructed interiors of some fairly typical Danish homes from around 1960 including the workshop shown above. 

It started me thinking … ok it started me reminiscing and then it started me thinking. 

When I was a boy nearly every home or rather, I suppose to be more precise, nearly every father had either a garden shed or a garage and the garden shed or the garage had a work bench and at least a few tools. The end of our garage looked much like this but not quite as neat … my father got curiously animated when he came across men who had peg boards with hooks and each hook with the outline of a tool that it was supposed to be home to. To be honest, my father hated DIY and in our garage, although there were hooks and plenty of tools, it was a matter of rummaging in a box to find something and inevitably it was going rusty or it needed sharpening. But the point was that when shelves were needed we went to a timber merchant for wood and an ironmonger for brackets and screws and somehow the shelves got put up.

My grandfather was better organised and had an amazing garden shed that I loved as a kid. Generally, he was banished to the shed to smoke - mainly because my grandmother was trying desperately to not give in and start smoking again - and I’d go out there with him. He had amazing stocks of screws and bolts, mostly kept in old tobacco tins, and weird and wonderful things that had been saved or salvaged and a large basket under the work bench with scraps of wood. Having lived through two wars and the Depression, he never threw anything away if there was even an outside chance he could find a new use for it. While he had a cigarette and I sat up on a stool, he taught me, by showing me, what oak is like and what the different pines are like and how to sharpen a chisel and by the time I was six or seven he had shown me how to mark out and cut a mortice and tenon joint and a dovetail and taught me how to glue or pin or use dowels to fix bits of wood together. 

side table from GAD

the drawers have proper dovetails

When I went on to senior school, I went to a grammar school where the focus was ostensibly on academic work but never-the-less we had amazing workshops and all the boys had to do carpentry, metal work and technical drawing so I learnt how to use workshop tools like circular saws; was taught to hammer and shape copper; did enamelling and metal cutting and soldering.

A couple of days before I stood lost in thought in the basement of the Workers’ Museum and got all misty eyed about 3in1 there had been an article in the news about a major DIY chain in England shutting half their outlets. 

So does anyone have a work bench now and does it matter if people no longer put up shelves or know how to cut a butt joint? … and no that’s really not a euphemism.

Well - actually - yes it does matter.

And before I go any further I wasn’t going to say that men should do manly things because everyone should understand a little about materials and about how things are put together and how they work. How can we be discriminating buyers of design - how can we begin to see if something is good or bad design - if we don’t understand how and why it was put together in that way? You don’t have to be a brilliant cook to appreciate a meal in a great restaurant but understanding a little about food and flavours and the cooking process helps you to appreciate just how fantastic the meal is and the more you understand music, whatever style of music you are into, the more you can appreciate it. Mobile phones, music players, computers and cars are now way beyond the stage where DIY repairs or modification are possible but it still helps to understand a little when confronted with a line of options when you go to buy something. 

So understanding timber; knowing where mdf should or should not be used; being able to spot cheap chrome plating; understanding where or when or why wool or cotton or linen is most appropriate for upholstery or seeing immediately that a drawer is shoddy and badly made and will pull apart within weeks all makes us better consumers and makes us more likely to be able to see where something is well designed and well made or badly designed and badly made and a false economy.

I’m not suggesting that every one should have a work bench and not suggesting that everyone can or should want to put up a shelf but we should be worried that the internet and the quick-fix of purchasing something new as soon as something breaks have infantilised us and there are certain life skills children need along with being able to swipe an index finger across a screen to find the right app. Is there an app that tells you that the printed veneer on that fake walnut coffee table will mark and lift as soon as you put a hot coffee cup anywhere near it? If something breaks, will that fixing fix it? Which glue does which job? Will that shelf bend or split as soon as something is put on it?

If more buyers are to understand what makes a good design good and that in part something is expensive because it is well made in high-quality materials then designers and design shops have to point out, be it in a subtle and discrete way, why it is good and well made and maybe even why the cheaper version is cheap.

If my father thought a man had been emasculated if he had the outline of a fret saw around a peg on a board to show him what should be hanging there, I’m not sure what he would make of someone going into a tizzy and typing angrily on Twitter because there they thought that a grub screw was missing from their flat pack. And no that isn’t a euphemism either. Maybe it should be.