Increasing details: an analysis of good design

My posts through June were mostly about 3daysofdesign - a series of events that were held in Copenhagen at the end of May. Just to conclude those posts, I want to write a bit more here about one of the events … an exhibition at The Silo, called Re-Framing Danish Design, that was  staged as a collaboration between Frame magazine and the new online design site DANISH™. 


Two young designers, Niek Pulles from the Netherlands and Sebastian Herkner from Germany, were invited to assess or reinterpret 10 specific design pieces from Denmark that cover a wide range of styles and dates from the Safari Chair designed by Kaare Klint in 1933 to the Fiber Chair from Muuto that first went into production last year. What linked all the pieces - apart from being Danish - is that they are all still in production.

Both designers are already well established in their own studios and have a rapidly growing international reputaion - so they have clear, professional opinions about design - they have, presumably, views on how new design can and should move forward but also, as they come from neighbouring countries, they have an appropriate detachment from the Danish design tradition and from Danish design training.

The ten pieces were selected by the organisers of the exhibition and sent to their design studios. 

Pulles decided to adapt the pieces by recovering them in challenging colours or interesting textures and his part of the exhibition attracted a lot of attention because these transformations seemed irreverent and possibly, for some, shocking and compounded a view that Danish design, compared to work from other countries, can appear to be too safe, too boring and lacking in humour. Pulles rectified that. The works he produced were lots of things but not boring.

Herkner, on the other hand, took a more subtle and analytical approach and for me that was actually more interesting. He worked with the pieces around in his studio and, as they became familiar, he identified specific qualities in each design and tried to appreciate what gave a sense of meaning to the designs. By sharing that process with us, through the exhibition, he also revealed something more general about how we analyse design and about how we decide which qualities and characteristics can make designs good or great or try to see which qualities explain why some designs retain their popularity.  

Several of these Danish pieces are very well-known - particularly the Series 7 Chair by Arne Jacobsen - and most are widely acknowledged as good design - they have had a place in many Danish homes for many years and they are still purchased in large enough quantities to ensure their place in a current catalogue.  

Clearly that in itself raises interesting questions. Do some pieces continue in production because they are acknowledged to be well designed? Is it simply because they have never been bettered? Is it because they acquire a sort of stamp of general approval or, possibly, is it just because they are familiar, they are a safe choice for the buyer? 

Although it was not discussed in the exhibition, there is also an interesting insight here into a commercial aspect of design and manufacture: designers and manufacturers have to be able to distinguish which qualities in a design might generally be described as good by a professional designer but might not be appreciated widely enough to make the piece viable in commercial terms.

By placing a magnifying glass in a frame or stand with a fixed relationship to the pieces, Herkner made the viewer look at a point or area that he wanted to emphasise so each white frame holding the magnifying glass was different and each was specific to its piece and the position and the angle of the magnifying glass was fixed. A large magnifying glass could have been left free beside the object with the implication that the viewer had to look closely at the details of the materials and the construction techniques of the design but this was much more controlled than that.  

In a wider context Herkner was, in effect, saying don’t take these designs for granted. Don’t just shrug and say I bought this because I like it or I bought this because my parents had one when I was little or I bought it because the design book said it was a classic. He was inviting visitors to the exhibition to really look and look carefully to see why both the design and the way each piece is manufactured is so good.

But this assessment was not just about looking at detail and appreciating quality. 

Herkner produced a set of A5 prompt cards. On one side is the framework and magnifying glass in white silhouette against a strong purple/blue and on the reverse there is a simple outline drawing of the piece and a brief summary of his reaction to the object and a single word that sums up this response and the cards were held together with a broad white rubber band. Simple but very very stylish.

There are eleven cards in the pack with the first one having a short introduction under the heading ‘Increasing details’. Then the ten specific cards are:

  •      simplicity        The Caravaggio Lamp by Cecilie Manz
  •     craftsmanship    J39 Chair by Børge Mogensen
  •     sustainability        Fiber Chair from Muuto by Iksos Berlin
  •     functionality       A Series 7 Chair from Fritz Hansen by Arne Jacobsen
  •     modularity        The Montana System by Peter J Lassen
  •     self-explanatory    Plateau Side Table by Søren Rose
  •     mobility        Tray Table by Hans Bølling
  •     poetry            Safari Chair from Carl Hansen by Kaare Klint
  •     transfer        Nordic Antique Wallpaper by Heidi Zilmer
  •     irony            Tongue Chair from Howe by Arne Jacobsen



Through the magnifying glass, the viewer was directed to a specific feature and in some cases that explained the characteristic or definition given to the piece but in some it focused on an aspect of the piece that was actually unrelated to the word or the text. To take the Safari Chair as one example, the chair was not assembled in the exhibition and the magnifying glass focused on the brass locking nut that holds the chair together when it is in use … so a crucial but normally overlooked technical feature of the design rather than something ‘poetic’ and for the chair by Borge Mogensen the magnifying glass was focused on the woven seat and that appears to comment on texture or the use of materials but, in fact, the card explains that several years ago Sebastian had visited a paper mill near Barcelona where paper cord for seating is made and this formed, for him, a personal connection with the work.



I confess that I was slightly confused when Herkner, in his introduction, emphasises that these ‘ten characteristics are interchangeable.’ Although I can appreciate that, for instance, the Safari Chair, if seen on a theatre or film set for Out of Africa is merely using a period piece in a poetic way but on an urban balcony in Copenhagen might be ironic but it could never be described as simple or six Muuto chairs around a dining table become modules and are functional but have nothing to do with mobility.

What is important is that Herkner is recommending careful observation and careful analysis of the object in reference to our normal criteria for assessing a design - its function, its aesthetics, its use of materials, the technical details and so on - but he also wants the viewer or user to analyse their own reaction and interact with the piece.

So what at first appears to be clinical … what could be more clinical than a magnifying glass? … rapidly becomes an analysis of our emotional reaction to the design and our connection with a piece. So this then becomes a very personal interpretation of the term reframing for both Herkner and for the visitor to the exhibition.

My only real criticism is that this might be seen as an academic exercise by a designer for designers. He excludes any form of judgement or opinion - which you might expect if design works are given art gallery status under a spotlight - and there is no context if these are to be seen as readily available product pieces that anyone can buy. I’m not complaining about that but it was interesting that no attempt was made to assess how these pieces are used either individually or together so where and how does the buyer fit in? 

Someone could move into the Silo - in the space above the exhibition - when the new apartments are finished and purchase all these design pieces. It’s possible. So, how would they work together? Would they show the buyer had a clear appreciation of good design? Would it be tasteful or slightly odd to have a Safari Chair alongside a Montana shelf system? Well it all depends on the colours chosen and if the Safari Chair was used as a focus/discussion piece or if, maybe, it had been inherited from the family and was clearly well used and well loved. Or would putting these objects together, even theoretically, be seen as a cautious approach to design, buying only what is recognised or generally accepted as good design?

Sebastian Herkner raises some incredibly important questions and ideas about design in general but specifically about how we respond to good design and how important it is that we analyse and try to understand that reaction.


Next month, there will be another opportunity to see the exhibition at Northmodern at the Bella Center in Copenhagen from the 13th through to the 15th August.

3daysofdesign: graphics and publications

use of detailed graphics in the show room of Arper in Nordhavn


3daysofdesign was a major event that included many of the most well-established design companies in Denmark so, perhaps, it might seem odd to talk about the graphic design of publications and posters seen at the various venues … of course everyone expects well-designed graphics and beautiful catalogues from furniture companies … surely it goes without saying? … surely it would only be worth a comment if catalogues or lettering in the showroom or information leaflets were badly designed or badly printed?

Well no. Just because everyone assumes it will be good and just because the graphics were actually good throughout, it is even more important to make a few points about this aspect of the work of the furniture industry. 

In general, people outside the professional design world … so obviously the majority of customers … assume that graphics with high-quality photographs, eye-catching layout and high quality paper are all simply what should be expected. They take it for granted. After all, computers with a huge number of fonts and any template you could wish for for a layout, high definition images, even from a mobile phone, and high quality printing are all available from personal systems in most homes … what can possibly be so hard in producing a nice (free) catalogue? And of course we are all greedy - voracious - for images, gloss, entertainment, facts, information and commentary with little time spent on thinking about how much it has actually cost to produce in terms of professional skill, mental stress, time and money. And last years catalogue or last years campaign are not good enough. We want, need and expect something new.

What was clear across the board at 3daysofdesign is that companies do and do have to invest a huge amount of time, thought and money in the right style of advertising and the best possible publications with information about and for their products.

Catalogues, advertisements, information booklets, online sites and so on have to tell the story of the company; explain the development of the design; introduce the designer, if they are young or new to the company; explain the way the design evolved - everyone loves a good story - give information about the manufacturing process, promote green credentials, of course, and, often, give after-sales care advice as well. And good graphics, as everyone knows, can create a brand image and customer awareness of, recognition of and loyalty to a company or even to a specific design. Chair 7 by Arne Jacobsen, Stool 60 from Artek and the PH5 light are all the obvious examples of the ongoing commercial value of recognition and loyalty.

The Series 7 chair is actually a very good example. It will be the subject of a separate post but it is of relevance in this post just because it is still the best-selling piece in the Fritz Hansen catalogue but it has just reached a milestone anniversary - the chair was designed in 1955 - and Fritz Hansen are in the middle of a major campaign to ‘relaunch’ the chair in new colours to ensure that it remains a design that has a place in the homes of young and future generations of buyers. So publicity material, and advertising and the way the chair is shown in displays now, are crucial to its future success. The strap line of the present campaign is Colours in Perfect Shape.

With a completely new range or a novel design it may even be necessary to give advice about how the piece might best be set in the context of it’s new home. It is actually quite difficult to explain to a customer, who is dissatisfied because, maybe, their new purchase doesn’t look quite as good in their home as it did in the show room or in the catalogue, that in fact they have bought the wrong thing for their existing house and existing life style. The new piece itself is amazing … it’s just that really their room/your room should possibly/could maybe/definitely ought to be a different colour and much of the rest of the furniture should be replaced. But the shop can’t say that. Better to start a bit of gentle advice - sow the seeds of a few ideas and suggestions in the catalogue or in the display in the shop.

The good small catalogue for the event itself and the graphic material for Re-Framing Danish Design were well designed and distinct … presumably they were aware of the added problem of having to avoid any resemblance to the brand styles of any of the companies taking part. 

Arper and Muuto had elaborate graphics on the walls of their show rooms to explain or identify their designs and several companies including Fritz Hansen, OneCollection and Gubi include in their catalogues extensive articles on major designers from the classic period of Danish design to put designs, that might be 50 or more years old, into their wider historic context. The Gubi catalogue is called a design booklet and is, significantly, titled ‘Icons, Memories and Stories.’ It is necessary to explain to a new generation of buyers when and why the pieces were designed; state why they were important designs or why they were admired when they were first manufactured, and why they have relevance now and and why they should still be in production. Basically why a design was amazing then and why it is amazing now.

It is also necessary to explain to a new buyer why an old design might not be exactly like the earliest examples of a design that they have seen in a museum. Designs can evolve in terms of the materials used, for instance in upholstery, and manufacturing techniques change or some aspects of machine manufacturing have improved since the original pieces were made. Again managing expectations and nurturing customers who might have admired a design long ago but are, only now, getting around to buying it.

Innovations for new designs, particularly new materials or new methods of production, have to be explained to potential customers and can become what are called unique selling points to distinguish the designs from one company from the works from their rivals. Muuto have launched a new shell chair that is moulded from a recyclable material that includes wood fibre … deliberately described as ‘pinewood fibers.’ This material has a softer and matt look and a slight texture which has to be explained to the customer and work with the material has also led to interesting developments in producing an optional upholstered interior to the shell. New material often require changes to fixings and supports or an appropriate rethink and here, with Muuto, this means that the shell of this chair can have four different supports: thin, elegant, metal legs; a ’sled’ like metal frame; a wooden base with a frame below the seat and a metal swivel base. These distinguish the chair from rivals but the developments and the differences have to be pointed out to the customer and this has to be done through advertising and through catalogues and brochures … not least because this choice of base and choice of upholstery along with choices of colour, in the case of the new Muuto chair, gives 41 different permutations … a potential problem for the customer in making that choice and potential problems with manufacture and the supply system that can be made easier by appropriate publications for information. I believe this is called managing expectations.

Frama and Please Wait to be Seated both produced information that unfolded to poster size and several companies, including Frama, used reproductions of hand-drawn line work, rather than digital computer-generated drawings, to show something of the various early stages of the design process as designers play with a number of ideas and take a particular form forward.


Personally, I really like the small, folded and stapled A4, cloth-bound catalogue from Flos for their String Lights and IC Lights by Michael Anastassiades with quotes from the designer, talking about inspiration for the design, but with studio photographs combined with hand-drawn sketches to explain how that arrangement of the lights were set up along with a surprising amount of technical information. 

The small catalogue for Parentesit from Arper has an interesting look that somehow hints at the 1930s and Bauhaus style. Good graphic design can hint at sources of inspiration.

For its ‘case study’ series, Frama uses thick board that is coated on one side but unbleached on the back and with a single brass screw link at one corner - so playing a very clever game with period and style - hard-tech mechanics contrasted with soft-tech almost retro style that you see in their furniture as well with incredibly sharp, clean industrial-character designs presented in the elaborate and dramatic interior of their show room - formerly a chemist shop with amazing fittings that date back to about 1900.

Graphics from MA/U Studio were as thin and as elegant and as distinctive as their furniture with the clever use of simple outline human figures to give drawings of shelving easily-understood scale.


3 days of design in Copenhagen

Coming up over the next 3 days in Copenhagen - a major design event with special events at pakhus 48 and in the Silo in the new development area of Nordhavn; open house at major design stores in the city; special events at the the Design Museum and the Danish Architecture Centre; lectures by designers and product launches. 

Design companies involved include &Tradition, Carl Hansen, Frama, Fredericia, Fritz Hansen, Getama, Gubi, Kvadrat, Montana, Muuto, OneCollection, Paustian and Rud Rasmussen among many others.

The only problem will be working out how to be in the right place at the right time but there will be a free bus link and a free ferry up and down the harbour.

On the official site there is a list of events day by day and it is easy to download a pdf guide with a brief introduction to the companies and designers taking part.