As someone chronically on the lookout for great design, like a sailor scanning the sea for shore, I sometimes need to check my compass to remind myself what great design is. It’s easy to get swept up by high-design and think a Lamborghini, a gown at the Oscar’s, a Cartier watch, or a French chateau define design at its best.
But they don’t.
Great design is not some hoity-toity, fancy-pants status symbol reserved for those who can afford it. It’s the opposite. We experience great design every day without thinking about it when we touch a paper clip, a zipper, a light switch, an egg carton, a door knob, a tin can, or bubble wrap.
An exhibition opening at the Museum of Design Atlanta next week is helping to remind us. Hidden Heroes: The Genius of Everyday Things opens Feb. 23 and runs through May 11.
The traveling exhibit pays tribute to 36 ordinary -- yet ingenious -- objects that have become indispensable fixtures of daily life: the light bulb, the adhesive bandage, the cork screw, the rubber band. Items so ubiquitous because of their usefulness billions of them have been made.
The exhibit, developed by the Vitra Design Museum, in Germany, hit MODA’s sweet spot, says Laura Flusche (pronounced flu-shee), the museum’s executive director, because the 25-year-old museum is devoted exclusively to design. It displays no fine art, or sculpture, or painting or photography.
“We think of design not so much as decoration, but as a creative force that can be used to solve problems,” says Flusche, who defines design as “the convergence of creativity and function.”
“I’m thinking chocolate fountain,” I spout, before I can stop myself.
“Design starts with identifying a problem,” she continues.
“Just one? I have so many,” I say.
“Then you harness creativity as a tool to solve that problem.”
“Even better, you harness someone else’s” I say.
“The design process doesn’t have to be about creating an object,” she says. “It can be about making your home more efficient.”
She’s exactly right. Viewed her way, we are all designers.
We’re designers every time we solve a home improvement challenge: When we arrange the kitchen so we can feed the cat and make tuna sandwiches without confusing the cans. When we set up the closet so getting dressed becomes as efficient as a pit stop and we can get out the door with matching socks. And when we arrange the cabinet under the bathroom sink, so we can pull out the blow-dryer without knocking hair and hygiene products over like bowling pins.
My mind has wandered with possibilities, but when it returns Flusche is sharing her favorite Hidden Heroes. “I like the pencil,” she’s saying.
She tells me how its invention came about in late 18th Century Britain. “It actually democratized writing. Until then, the masses didn’t have access to writing utensils, so the written word was reserved for the elite.”
She also likes the origin of the lowly tin can: General Napoleon Bonaparte wanted containers more practical than glass jars to transport food long distances for his soldiers, she tells me. So he held a contest with prize money for the best idea.
“Design isn’t a luxury,” she says, helping me reset my design compass. “Good design is extraordinary, but it’s not rarified. It’s all around us. If nothing else, I want visitors to go away thinking that great design is part of every minute of their lives.”
So we can better recognize great design when we see it and be more astute designers ourselves, I asked Flusche to share the hallmarks of great design:
• Great design gets the job done with an economy of expression. A well-designed object has no wasted movement, and no extraneous parts or lines. Think of a paper clip or a poem.
• Great design is forgettable. We don’t notice it because it blends so beautifully and seamlessly, so intuitively and usefully into our every day that we take it for granted.
• Great design is invisible because it works. Well-designed objects aren’t causing problems; they’re doing their jobs. We only think about the marvel of a zipper when it breaks.
• Great design doesn’t call attention to itself. It’s humble, subtle, elegant, and doesn’t scream.
• Great design looks simple. Therein lies its genius.
• Great design is classic. A well-designed item, like the clothes hanger, has proven to be so well conceived that it hasn’t been improved upon for decades.
Syndicated columnist and speaker Marni Jameson is the author of “House of Havoc” and “The House Always Wins” (Da Capo Press). Contact her through marnijameson.com.
CAPTION: Pay your respects: An Atlanta design museum is celebrating these everyday objects for the genius of their design. Photos courtesy of Vitra Design Museum.