By Angela Wilkes, Senior Editor
Everyone loves design, but many people are not sure exactly what it is. What is the difference between art and design, and what makes something a good design? Is it just something that looks great? In Design: The Definitive Visual History, we answer these questions by tracing how design has evolved over the last 150 years to become an integral part of our everyday lives— from early chairs, pottery, and homeware to cars, computers, and graphics. The book introduces key objects, designers, and manufacturers, and provides fascinating insight into the different design styles and movements.
The word design comes from the Italian word disegno, meaning drawing. The concept of design came to mean translating an idea into a drawn plan for something that could be made—and, unlike a work of art, used. Until the 18th century, objects were usually handmade by craftsmen in workshops, but industrialization and the growth of towns and cities created a huge demand for products and for designers to draw up plans for these products. Design as we know it is therefore essentially a modern phenomenon—“an art that works”—aiming to create something that is aesthetically pleasing, useful, and innovative.
The Platner coffee table, designed by the American architect Warren Platner in collaboration with Knoll in 1966, is an iconic piece that encapsulates good design. The table is part of a range of furniture that quickly established itself as an outstanding example of 1960s Modernism, combining graceful, sculptural forms with an innovative use of structural steel. The design of the table may look simple, but it was meticulously constructed from slender, steel rods. Several hundred welds attach the many curving rods to four reinforcing hoops. The steel is plated with nickel to create a shiny finish, and the glass top is immaculately polished.
The result was a design that was absolutely of its time, but which also harked back to the purity of early Modernism and the groundbreaking tubular steel chairs of Marcel Breuer and Mies van der Rohe. In keeping with the clean, simple lines favored by the Modernists, the table is geometric in form and the materials are hard, but the curved, radiating steel rods soften the design, and are reminiscent of natural forms such as the sun and dandelion clocks.
Platner himself paid tribute to historical influences. “As a designer,” he said, “I felt there was room for the kind of decorative, gentle, graceful design that appeared in period styles like Louis XV.”
Like many classic pieces of design, the Platner table captured the spirit of its age while being influenced by what had preceded it. It celebrated the qualities of essentially industrial materials by giving them a beautiful form, bringing modernity to the contemporary home. And like all the finest pieces of design, it has endured and is still manufactured and sold today. The best designs, like the Platner table, manage to still look simple, fresh, and modern many years after they were originally created.