Sunday, 7 December 2014

Design, not just shape!

A timely publication to celebrate Max Bill's travelling 1949 Die gute Form exhibition.  It's important enough to be mentioned in histories of twentieth century design even though it was made up of just eighty display panels with 240 black and white photos.  Claude Lichtenstein in his front of book essay says that Bill had just a few weeks to organise the display and choose the photos to illustrate his view of good design.  There were four sections: Design demonstrating function; Design in architecture; Design in the home; Design in daily life.  The last section was probably easy to apply in neutral Switzerland but in war-torn Europe, even in 1949, good design in daily life was in short supply.

I thought the way the book reveals the exhibition was quite clever.  The panels have been reduced to fit exactly the page size and a light coloured panel added underneath for the English translation.  The arrangement of photos and text on each panel was incredibly simple, usually one top left, one bottom left and one middle right. Each photo had twenty words or so as a caption.  Bill's floor design was to always have the panels in a curving line and there are some plans in the book to show the way he achieved this in various locations.

The photos to illustrate the four sections are quite broad in scope.  In the architectural section there's the Rockefeller Center and Frank Lloyd Wright's Johnson Building in Racine, Wisconsin.  Design demonstrating function features, rather oddly, four electricity pylons.  The home section is full of furniture, tableware, appliances, kitchen and bathroom fittings, clothing and footwear. 

Bill took the view that an object should be judged on more than just its appearance but also in how well it functioned in practical use.  He was critical of Swiss Werkbund (the exhibition organisers) members who didn't share his views, they in return were annoyed that he didn't have more Swiss design included.  This is probably the reason why the exhibition has achieved its status over the decades, the 240 photos displayed well designed objects that had a timeless quality about them.

The book is a first-class production, the upright shape (created by the exhibition panel dimensions) works well.  There are seven essays, Chronology, Biography, photos and plans in the 160 pages.  I'm not quite sure of the relevance of having the essays after the exhibition panel pages all in lower-case but Bill seemed to favour this style with his name and work.

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