Sunday, 20 September 2009

The Real Thing - Dream on

In the UK we’re spoiled for good home design: from top notch designers in chic city centres to humble high street stores, there’s something for everyone at every price. Years ago good design was only for the rich (we Brits had had a bit of a go at good design in the fifties but had priced it out of most peoples grasp) then along came Habitat. Terence Conran’s shop transformed the homewares design scene.

We went from drab or gaudy, gross or dreary stuff to simple, toning, well-balanced and stylish. Suddenly sofa’s were boxy, tables were cubed, kitchen utensils were coloured and fabrics were crisp. No more curlicues, no more reeded coffee table legs or velvet pouffes. Other shops followed. We were suddenly into ‘good’ affordable design.

But Habitat stuff was not cheap. Much of it came from Europe where design had been an important element in furnishings: in Germany throughout the 1920’s and thirties, along with cool Scandinavian stuff and glitzy Italian gear. British stuff lagged behind.

But after a decade or two of Habitat stagnation set in. The good stuff on offer was expensive, the cheap stuff rubbish. Until Ikea. Be as rude as you like about it – some things are tat but the majority is perfectly fine and excellent value - but Ikea offers decent ‘design’ to the masses.

Some of it is so cheap – who wants it to last – that anyone can afford it. Every student digs and Buy-to-Let flat is furnished from Ikea. There are copycat retailers and superstores now and even the big department stores offer economy ranges to try and tempt the closet Ikea shopper.

But still some are sniffy: the design snobs. I’ve just been reading a piece in The Times by Stephen Bayley decrying Homebase for copying a design classic: the Barcelona chair by Mies van der Rohe. Of course it’s not as good as the original, of course it doesn’t have the same panache.

The materials are inferior, the lines less fine, the proportions not as pleasing. Boy, would I love an original. But then an original Barcelona chair would knock me back £4,350: the Homebase one three hundred quid. And I’ve always drooled over an original Corbusier lounger, but I’ll never have the spare cash to buy one.

At the Museum of Modern Art in New York they had a great display of chairs when I went. The great names of Avante Garde and Modernist chair design - Corbusier, Breuer, Dieckmann, Thomas, Aalto – are in museums all over the world. But in New York there was the Butterfly chair. Years ago I bought one.

Yes, it was a copy of the original design. It was great fun. Everyone who came to our house wondered how to sit in it. No-one wanted to get out of it when they did. No-one could get out of it as it happens. Because I owned it I got to experience what the design was all about. Original Butterfly chairs are worth a lot of money now but they were too expensive for me even then.

But when I saw it lined up there at the MOMA alongside the classics I had a little smug grin. I had recognized a classic. I had bought into good design. Admittedly a rather lowly one compared to the Mies van der Rohe’s chair but nevertheless a classic in its own way. Now Starkey would deny me that.

I think it’s great to experience the real thing (admittedly even better to own one) to appreciate what good design is all about - back to those materials, lines and proportions – but if aspiration is all most of us can afford it’s really quite nice to go home, sit in one’s own humble copy, forget the design snobs and dream.


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