Title: Comment, Function and the aesthetic free for all

Pages: 27


Author: John E. Blake

Text: Comment
Function and the aesthetic free for all
How much does appearance count in the choice of a product ? According to surveys carried out by the Consumer Council, it varies quite a bit. As far as furniture is concerned, over 90 per cent of the people interviewed gave appearance as the predominant factor governing their choice. With washing machines, appearance didn't seem to matter so much, though even here looks probably play a much bigger part than consumers themselves realise.
The results, perhaps, are not so suprising. But they raise issues which are specially relevant at this time because some of our established ideas about what makes a product look good have been going through a rough passage in recent years, and are now beginning to appear decidedly middle-aged and middle class.
For a start, the distinctions between good and bad, old and new, progressive and reactionary are being broken down on all sides. What was once thought of as a vaguely irritating irreverence among teenagers has become big business and a talking point that spans the Atlantic. Appearance may be important, but what kind of appearance are we talking about ?
A glance at the evolution, since the war, of style in design, may help to put these current problems into perspective. At Festival of Britain time (the first comprehensive look at Britain's post-war achievements) the battle was essentially between modern and old fashioned. Over the next decade it fanned out to take in distinctions between good modern and bad modern. And just as good modern was winning the day, a whole crop of new influences began to emerge. Ergonomics carried a flag against styling, and later Shopper's Guide and Which ? entered the fray with a whole lot of criteria that ignored aesthetics altogether. The old contention that all else being equal the good looking product would sell best came a cropper when it was realised that all else never is equal. And then 'pop' began to sweep through nearly every field susceptible to rapid change, and the philosophy of 'form follows function' came to rest among the dust of the museum shelves. We have come to understand that what is happening today is not just a passing fad, but a whole succession of passing fads in which the one constant element is the fact that anything goes.
What this potted history shows is a dramatic broadening of attitudes to the aesthetics of design, rather like a funnel used the wrong way round, and the inevitability that entrenched support for any one style will quickly end up as a permanently buried corpse. It shows too that the priorities are getting desperately out of hand.
The danger is that more than ever before - appearance is becoming a substitute for substance, the look more important that the purpose, the image a cloak for reality. In a period of aesthetic free for all, it is even more necessary that function should be the overriding discipline. Where originality of style matters so much to both designers and users, then personal taste can enjoy full rein, without the need for sidelong glances at what the magazines and taste makers say is the right or wrong thing to do. But first the product must be made to work.
The one thing that swinging London has done for design is to release it from an authoritarian and, to many eyes, a sterile aesthetic. The one thing it has failed to do is to recognise the underlying discipline of function. If we could get these two working together, then who knows what richness, variety and human satisfaction the future would hold in store. J. E. B.



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