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The Art Of Reinvention
From Dysons to dildos, beautiful gadgets have changed our ways of thinking and seeing
In the autumn of 2004, a crisis was brewing at London’s Design Museum. It was a design culture war of sorts.
The museum’s then-director, the writer Alice Rawsthorn, was overseeing a program that leaned heavily towards aesthetics and fashion. This was a new direction, and it didn’t sit well with some of Rawsthorn’s colleagues. It was especially disturbing for the chairman of the museum’s board, the vacuum cleaner magnate James Dyson, who caused a scandal by resigning his position in acrimony.
Rawsthorn had arranged exhibitions about shoe designer Manolo Blahnik (of Sex and the City fame), video game consoles, and – the final straw as far as Dyson was concerned – 1950s flower-arranger Constance Spry. Dyson regarded this as far too frivolous: real design was about problem-solving and technical innovation. The museum was becoming “a style showcase,” he claimed, whereas its mission should be “to encourage serious design, of the manufactured object.” Dyson’s own contribution to the program had been a show on Victorian rail and ship engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel.
In hindsight this argument appears significant in all kinds of ways, not least because its two central figures, Dyson and Rawsthorn, would become strident voices on opposite sides of the Brexit divide. Above all though, it stands out as an early symptom of a cultural shift that is still ongoing today.
As many commentators noted at the time, Rawsthorn’s program reflected a growing sensitivity to style and visual communication in the early 21st century, and not just among design aficionados. In consumer culture at large, the importance of styling was spreading beyond clothes and cars into every corner of life. Today we are used to finding a fashionable accent in everything from supermarket ready-meals and stationary to kitchen bins and water bottles.
But this only emphasises the irony in that clash of visions at the Design Museum. An important agent in this expansion of style was none other than James Dyson, who pioneered one of its most characteristic ideas: the reinvented product.
Dyson made him name in the late-1980s by designing a bagless vacuum cleaner. That machine, along with the fans, hairdryers, and numerous other sucking and blowing devices that followed it, testify to his profound love of technology and engineering. If Dyson’s recent autobiography is anything to go by, his inspiration comes from jet engines and hydropneumatic suspension in cars, and definitely not from the world of arts and media, whose influence he continues to resent.
But engineering alone did not make Dyson products a feature of so many affluent homes, let alone every popular book about modern design. That success had as much to do with the slick appearance and attention to detail that made a vacuum cleaner, for the first time, a tool whose design could be admired and enjoyed, as well as coveted for its novelty. Dyson’s first breakthrough came in Japan, with a marshmallow-pink machine that resembled a fashion accessory more than a cleaning device. He reinvented the vacuum cleaner, in part, by turning it into an object of desire.
Dyson’s template of transforming an everyday object into a beautiful gadget has been instrumental in raising the salience of style. And this has not, contra his protests at the Design Museum, distracted us from the virtues of technology. If anything, aesthetic appeal has provided a gateway for the appreciation of functional ingenuity, to the extent that we have come to think of good design as requiring both.
What is now the world’s most valuable company, Apple, started its spectacular run of design successes in 1998 by releasing the first fashionable computer. The curvaceous iMac G3, available in a bouquet of bright colours (or “flavours,” as the marketing had it), was desirable even to people who didn’t grasp the technical brilliance of a computer minus the clunky tower. Aesthetics have been central to the brand’s appeal ever since, with a limited range of highly refined, distinctive products whose styling extends even to the carefully considered packaging.
A similar taste for reinvention can be seen in a whole panoply of conspicuous objects that clutter the middle-class home. These include Brompton folding bikes, Big Green Egg barbecues and fancy juicers, as well as craft beer cans with their quirky branding. And then there are the countless ranges of high-tech kitchen and bathroom fittings, their forms evoking minimalist sculpture.
Obviously designers have always paid attention to how such products look, but these reinventions make a point of their aesthetics in a way that earlier versions did not. Rather than the bland authority of a familiar and reliable object, they present themselves as the more considered, crafted upgrade for the discerning consumer (and naturally that contrast is part of the appeal). It is a formula that marries the idea of better looks with better user experience and performance.
More specifically, what we are seeing here is a revamped version of 20th century modernism, ultimately derived from the ideas of the Bauhaus in the 1920s and 30s. This style is sleek and minimalist, with curves inspired by moulded plastic; it is simultaneously contemporary and retro, often colourful but always maintaining a “chilly neutrality,” to borrow Deyan Sudjic’s phrase. The desired impression is that of a balance between the playful and the sophisticated, an exuberance repressed into the form of understatement but still present like a coiled spring.
This idiom has proved exceptionally successful at bringing considerations of style into personal space, for it has become the language of tasteful domesticity, that perennial loadstar of the aspiring classes. It also happens to be the idiom that James Dyson would have absorbed at the Royal College of Art in the 1960s, which might explain why he is apparently oblivious to the role of style in his own success. Perhaps he imagines that this is just what design should look like.
Yet reinvention is no longer just a matter of combining functionality and aesthetics. Brands are increasingly tapping into narratives of social progress as a way of reimagining products. Consider a British success story that featured in the Channel 4 documentary Naughty and Nice: Sex Toy Britain last Christmas: the online “adult retailer” Lovehoney.
This company has shown that sex toys can be big business: its prodigious sales last year, driven by a lockdown boom in purchases, earned it an accolade from the Her Majesty the Queen. Following acquisition by a private equity firm, and a recent merger with rivals in Germany and Switzerland, the Lovehoney Group is now the largest online retailer of its kind in the world.
The key to this success has been a transformation of sex toys from obscene-looking artefacts associated with Soho alleyways into stylish, functional and socially progressive products. Lovehoney’s aesthetics belong to the same universe as Dysons, iPhones and trendy kitchen appliances. But the company has also managed to rebrand its area of expertise as “sexual wellness,” a combination of lifestyle and healthcare that allows it to sell its goods in Boots pharmacies and harness sex-positive Instagram influencers for its advertising.
This is just one vivid example: environmentalism is another obvious area where the appeal to consumer “values” has allowed designers to redefine products, from Tesla cars to toothbrushes with replaceable heads.
All this reinvention raises the unsettling question of the power of designers and marketing wizards to shape our ways of thinking and seeing. To what extent are our notions of the good and the beautiful actually by-products of commercial strategies for making things appear new, different and desirable?
Design in the context of consumerism is extremely restless: it will never accept that a given need is already catered to well enough, and will seek any angle it can find to stimulate desire. But that search always depends on the tools available at a given time, especially in the realm of media. The growing importance of style reflects a world of constant visual bombardment from screens, where audiences have highly developed aesthetic intuitions, and where most products are encountered for the first time through photography. In the same way, while brands have taken advantage of cultural narratives that emerge from social media, they rarely invent them.
But if the charge is that designers have self-interested reasons for spreading new ideas, then they are hardly alone in this. The value of novelty is in the marrow of modern culture, so that there is always a temptation to reinvent the wheel. Just as designers need new ways to distinguish their products, artists need new movements, intellectuals need new paradigms, and generations need new ways of expressing themselves. And yes: bloggers need new subjects to write about.
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