Our Interface exhibition unpacks some strategies employed by designers to simplify the way we use information technology (IT) tools. But surprisingly, the earliest objects in the exhibition are not IT artefacts at all but come from our decorative arts collection. We included a vase by famed British designer Christopher Dresser and a teapot by German designer Peter Behrens to demonstrate an early advanced understanding of design in the age of mass production. Bear in mind, both objects were made around the turn of the 20th century, a time when manufacturing and our consumption of goods was fundamentally changing as part of the Industrial Revolution.
Dresser was a pioneer of what would come to be known as a modern aesthetic. It was radical for its time. His vase has no precedent in Western design traditions. Drawing inspiration from Japanese art and architecture, Dresser took an innovative approach to a traditional object by rejecting previously existing form and ornament. You can see the effect in the images below comparing the vase by Dresser at left with a vase in the style popular at the time by Robert Allen and Louis Bilton on the right:
The restrained form and palette of Dresser’s vase is devoid of decoration. Dresser was a fervent supporter of scientific progress and the new machine age. He associated simplicity with progress and this informed his economic use of materials.
Behrens designed his little kettle for the German electrical equipment company, Allgemeine Elektrizitäts-Gesellschaft (AEG). In 1907, Behrens became an artistic consultant at AEG where he designed factories, the logo and products. He influenced nearly every aspect of AEG’s corporate image. Together, Behrens and AEG helped bridge the gap between developing technologies of mass production and a modern design strategy and vision. AEG’s production of practical, affordable and reliable objects helped to shape a new sensibility in design. By employing a great designer to produce a functional product suitable for all consumers they transcended dated concepts of product design and consumption that divided consumers into class, by their taste and needs (Buddensieg, 1984, 14).
The image at the top of this post is a page from an AEG price list for electric kettles in 1912. It shows a range of permutations for our little octagonal-shaped kettle, including different shapes, finishes and sizes to suit ones needs or personal taste. This was to be known and appreciated later as system design, a concept in which common design criteria or methods are applied across various products by one company to unify their range in the eye of the consumer.
Dresser and Behrens demonstrated an extraordinary understanding of what design in the age of mass production might mean. They understood the product they were designing from the point of view of its manufacture as well as its consumption and appreciation.
Post by Campbell Bickerstaff, assistant curator
T Buddensieg, ‘Industriekultur Peter Behrens and the AEG, 1907 – 1914’, in T. Buddensieg, ed., Industrie-kultur, courtesy Gebr, Mann Verlag, Berlin, 14