The Genius of Design

Today I introduced an old five-episode documentary series named The Genius of Design which is also from BBC. The series examines the history of design, focusing on inventions – such as the ring pull and the fitted kitchen – that have transformed modern life. It tells the story of design from the Industrial Revolution through 20’s modernism, the swinging 60’s, the designer 80’s and up to the present day. It is a wonderful look at the real nature of design and also good listening practise materials full of pastoral British English.

Episode 1: Ghosts in the Machine; it tells the fascinating story of the birth of industrial design. Alongside the celebrated names, from Wedgwood to William Morris, it also explores the work of the anonymous designers responsible for prosaic but classic designs for cast-iron cooking pots to sheep shears – harbingers of a breed of industrially produced objects culminating in the Model T Ford. Includes interviews with legendary designer Dieter Rams and J Mays, Ford Motors’ global head of design.

Episode 2: Designs for Living; in the crisis-stricken decades of the 1920’s and 1930’s, with the world at the tipping point between two global wars, design suggested dramatically different ideas about the shape of things to come, from the radical futurism of the Bauhaus to the British love affair with mock-Tudor architecture and the three-piece suite. In Europe, the ‘modern movement’ promoted the virtues of the machine and the machine-made with theories and products like open-plan living, the fitted kitchen and tubular steel furniture which have become absorbed into the mainstream of the designed world. In the USA, designers like Raymond Loewy and Henry Dreyfuss explored and exploited the dreams and desires of American consumers to develop a market-based approach to design which has become one of the bedrocks of the modern consumer society.

Episode 3: Blueprints for War; the Genius of Design examines the Second World War through the prism of the rival war machines designed and built in Germany, Britain, the USSR and the USA, with each casting a fascinating sidelight on the ideological priorities of the nations and regimes which produced them. From the desperate improvisation of the Sten gun, turned out in huge numbers by British toy-makers, to the deadly elegance of the all-wood Mosquito fighter-bomber, described as ‘the finest piece of furniture ever made’, the stories behind these products reveal how definitions of good design shift dramatically when national survival is at stake.

Episode 4: Better Living through Chemistry; the story of design enters the 50’s and 60’s, when a revolutionary new material called plastic combined with the miracles of electronic miniaturisation to allow designers to offer post-war consumers something new: liberation. Designer Verner Panton pursued the seemingly impossible dream of a chair made from a seamless piece of plastic while Joe Colombo proposed the Austin Powers-style ‘cabriolet bed’, complete with built-in cigarette lighter and stereo. Meanwhile in Japan, designers at Sony were shrinking radios from pocket-size to palm-size, paving the way for the ultimate in portable lifestyle-the Walkman. But the optimism of the era came to an abrupt end when concerns about the environmental impact of plastic came to the fore.

Episode 5: Objects of Desire; picking up the story of design from the drab days of the late 70’s, the final episode tracks the explosion of wild creativity that defined the ‘designer decades’ of the 80’s and early 90’s. By addressing wants rather than needs and allying themselves to the blatant consumerism of ‘retail culture’ designers emerged from the backrooms to claim a starring role in the shaping of modern life. Designers also played a decisive role in making the world-changing power of computer and digital technology available to the masses through the design of keyboards, the mouse and the ‘desktop’. And now, with concerns growing daily about our insatiable appetite for ‘stuff’, designers are also offering new ideas about sustainable consumption for the future.

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