Can design ever be ‘timeless’? Can designers ever work outside the constraints of their moment in history to create objects which defy the unpredictable currents of fashion and taste?
Anything that is made reveals the beliefs, fears, hopes and worries of the people who made it.
The designer invests objects with meaning so that they might be interpreted by consumers. It’s a discourse.
Where does Ferrari sit in the history of design?
In one reading, design gives aesthetic value to ordinary objects. At the same time, throughout the last century, designers aimed to democratise luxury.
Of course, there is little ordinary or democratic about Ferrari. And that is how it should be. A Ferrari must be exceptional.
But Ferrari is also the most superlative example of how a car can become an object of enduring beauty.
And beauty must always be rare and exclusive. This is one of the great paradoxes of aesthetics and the quest for beauty: if everything were beautiful, nothing would be.
Design is not one subject, but several. Frank Lloyd Wright thought it was about making the most of contemporary possibilities.
To the architect Le Corbusier, it was “intelligence made visible”. Meanwhile, Apple’s Jony Ive says design is about reaching the “local maximum” where perfection is achieved and you simply cannot make better use of materials.
But design inevitably reflects what philosophers call the spirit-of-the-age.
A Savoia-Marchetti flying boat was a brave aeronautical experiment - on the edge of knowledge - that taught architects a lesson in economy-of-means and functionalism.
Then, during the Reconstruction, Vico Magistretti and Enzo Mari were among the designers who gave artistic value to mere household appliances. Today, the refined minimalism of Apple is a response to our dematerialised culture where intangible data is more valuable than solid objects.
Design is not ‘art’. Or not quite. Our notion of art demands the existence of a single auteur, but the most compelling cultural forms of our age are design, pop music and the cinema.
Each is collaborative : perhaps the greatest film ever made was Michael Curtiz’ ‘Casablanca’ and it had six writers, not an individual author. Meanwhile, the creation of a car involves hundreds of specialists.
But in the way that design expresses collective yearnings, in the way it teaches the public to enjoy meaningful form and to understand the beauty of proportions and details, in the way it demands reading and interpretation…..in the way it creates a visual language, design has usurped the traditional roles of painting and sculpture.
One test for the presence of art is to ask whether an object yields something to contemplation, whether it means more than its surface appearance. Look at any Ferrari …. something has given meaningful life to base materials.
Was it magic ? Perhaps design is supernatural, as Barthes might say. Perhaps real masterpieces of design are truly immortal…..if not necessarily timeless.