London’s Design Museum currently has a pop-up exhibition to mark the 150th anniversary of the founding of John Lewis in Oxford Street, a company which has now grown to be one of the most successful retailers in Britain. JL’s approach is to combine style with practicality, giving its customers what they want at a fair price. The museum has displayed a wealth of everyday objects sold by the JL Partnership in order to make us think about the relationship between design and public demand and the way people relate to the objects they use and how they buy them.
More than a hundred objects are displayed in the exhibition which is split into four sections, the first being Design Archetypes. Some products are so well designed – and have been ever since their inception- that it is difficult or impossible to improve on them. They do the job perfectly. Design archetypes also provide the customer with a sense of reassurance and confidence in their purchase.
There are obvious examples such as a sewing machine, hair-dryer and even the humble corkscrew. Each one has been worked on and re-designed hundreds of times, but the basic design stays much the same.
As the show points out, design archetypes transmit a sense of immediate recognition and time-tested reliability. Even the humble toaster is here, exemplified by the famous Dualit. Originally marketed only to the catering trade when first designed in 1952, they were put on sale to the public later that decade and proved a steady seller. But an updated re-design in the 1980s raised Dualit’s international profile and the toaster is now sold in 54 countries.
More than 2,000 toasters are made each week at the company’s Crawley factory in Sussex, with only one assembler allocated to each individual toaster, so providing continuity of quality. For the popular four-slice machine that means 168 components, although an experienced worker can make around five an hour. As a recent article on the company said, it ‘is a classic: built to last, nice to look at, simple to use and effective.’
The average person spends more time in the home than anywhere else and Keeping House shows how the necessary but tedious tasks of washing, cooking and cleaning have been aided by design. As the introductory label to this section says, ‘by understanding our needs and providing products that respond to them, retailers like John Lewis play a vital role in this process. And what may seem like trivial incremental changes in the products we use around the house, can make lives easier and eventually lead to profound changes in society.’
This last is a moot point as the section displaying washing machines highlights the controversial claim that the advent of the automatic washing machine did more for women’s liberation than abortion or the pill. Whether men or women do the weekly wash, however, there is no doubt that the step change from what was often a task which took a whole day to complete, involving as it did numerous processes and pieces of equipment, can now be done in a fraction of the time by an electronically-controlled device.
An early example in the exhibition features one of the first machines to have wash, spin and dry cycles. The Hoover Keymatic of 1961 was controlled not by a rotating dial as in other models but by an indented plastic disc which was placed into a slot. Different ridge patterns controlled different operations. I can personally remember this machine coming on to the market, looking like something from a science fiction film compared to the more functional models of the day.
Choice by Design is about giving the customer what they want. Consumers display design preferences by their choice of colour or style in addition to ease of use. John Lewis’s consumer experience over the years has given it a high success rate in judging public opinion as regards consumer goods but there are no guarantees and this section poses the chicken-and-egg question: in constantly offering new products and ideas, do retailers shape our desire for choice or reflect it?
Here there is, for example, a bewildering array of coffee-makers from a humble one-cupper to a machine costing more than £2,000. For many, the morning coffee before leaving has become a ritualised start to the working day and John Lewis, picking up on this, provides multiple consumer choice for lovers of the fruit of the evergreen shrub Coffea.
There is also a display of a multitude of different kitchen utensils. As with the vast choice of coffee-makers, John Lewis recognises that these have to be both practical and stylish. The wide range may seem off-putting at first for a consumer, but by offering a multiplicity of choice, John Lewis is aware of the importance of cooking as a vital function of everyday existence and the many ways this task can be performed.
Whereas most of these utensils can be traced back to individual designers, there is such a thing as anonymous design, as exemplified by the Tala Lancashire potato peeler. This humble object is an archetype in itself in that it does the job perfectly and is still on sale after many decades. It is cheap and functional and although the contemporary designs can be traced back to the 1950s, the Tala origins are lost in time. But as the exhibition points out, ‘the traditional handcrafted wooden handle and grip made from wound orange string is almost certainly based on an older design. While this is often referred to as anonymous design, no piece of design is truly anonymous. The Tala did have a designer, but this is a design without a signature.’
The final section – Evolution of a product Type – uses home audio equipment to show how technological advances have translated to consumer goods to alter their size, shape and performance over the years. Audio and hi-fi equipment is deemed a distinct product type in its own right and this typology needs careful tweaking and upgrading in order to satisfy the consumer while not overwhelming them with too much complexity at any one time. This form of graduated advance helps all but the dedicated aficionado to make a considered purchase choice, rather than making no choice at all due to over-engineering.
So we move from huge radio sets and bulky television units – a necessity of their time due to the non-miniaturisation of valves and tubes – to today’s chip-based technology and its ever-increasing innovations.
The exhibition succeeds in imparting a great deal of fascinating information in a short and succinct form and is genuinely stimulating in that it makes you reflect on consumer attitudes and thereby the human psyche in terms of needs and desire. But best be quick. As a pop-up it finishes on September 21 and if you do visit the Design Museum be sure to take in the current Designers in Residence show which gives four young designers their own space to fill with what the museum describes as ‘their most disruptive ideas’.