In his new book from W. W. Norton, The Language of Things: Understanding the World of Desirable Objects, Design Museum director Deyan Sudjic occasionally seems like a man having an argument with himself regarding the historic nature and function of design. Associated in modernity with function and utility made attractive—the aesthetics were not an add-on in modernist design, but also weren't allowed to get in the way of efficiency and elegance of operation, about which Sudjic also has a great many useful observations—design has become increasingly preoccupied with creating the "desirable objects"of his subtitle. And that means manufacturing consumer desire in a mode previously associated with the fashion industry, using superfluous surface characteristics to present newness itself as a gotta-have-it quality in which the sense of obsolescence is not necessarily related to the onward march of technology. (This is the kind of novelty that leads inevitably to the feeling of "What were we thinking?" when surveying the once-fashionable design disasters of only yesterday.)
Like everything else, design is bound up with larger cultural forces that are easier to discern than to analyze. Some design one-offs of recent years have called attention to this fact, most notably Marc Newson's prototype Ford designed for an alternate present in which "the Soviet Sputnik was the last word in modernity"—a plausible evolutionary track that did not happen—and by Newson's famous Lockheed Lounge, an edition of ten thoroughly elegant but dysfunctional chaises fabricated of aluminum aircraft skin studded with rivets in homage to the impulses of Streamline Moderne's love affair with flight, here incorporated in an ironically metallic, near-unusable object. Made by a surfboard fabricator, it bridges decades of institutional fetishes.
Modernist design, of course, was often more about sculptural quality than functional comfort, but the quality of function puts it in a market category far inferior to sculpture. Sudjic makes much of the disparity in auction prices between a one-of-a-kind version of the Rietveld Chair and a contemporaneous canvas by Mondrian. The singular painting, one in a familiar series, was valued at one hundred times the sales price of the designer's unique object.
This is one of several points at which Sudjic engages in dialectical pirouettes. Design still suffers price-wise from the taint of being good for something—a Rietveld original may be rare, but the design it embodies was meant to be mass-produced, and once one has left the world of unique prototypes it is challenging to set values on early versus late production runs of the object. (However, as any collector of first editions also knows, values are set—in the case of books, this is in spite of the fact that most second printings are indistinguishable from the first). A Rietveld Chair done to specs today isn't appreciably different from the earliest commercially produced examples. The whole point is to eliminate the hand of the maker as a significant variable—a realization pioneered some years before Rietveld in the factories for Thonet bentwood furniture that were scattered along "the edges of the Austro-Hungarian Empire," as Sudjic elegantly puts it.
The prototype of Newson's Lockheed Lounge has sold for prices closer to Mondrian than to Rietveld, or at least at prices closer to contemporary art. This is enough to set Sudjic to musing about Andy Warhol's effortless-looking effort to blur the lines between art and design, between the reproduction and the unique object, between art and outright commerce. The boundaries between art and design have always blurred on the design end of the spectrum—Sudjic cites the Baroque suits of armor never meant to be used for more than public display, and might have cited many more instances where fashion trumped functionality.
In the final stages of writing this book, Sudjic was in the thick of condemning contemporary design's prostitution to ever fluffier tides of fashion and dysfunction when the global financial collapse brought design, for the moment, closer to stripped-down basics. How long it will remain there before market forces resume their normal distortions depends on the response to the bullet that global capitalism appears (appears) to have dodged. Just as with the literal lethal object that gave rise to this commonplace metaphor, it seems unlikely that the close call will result in the financial equivalent of gun control. The forces of excess will doubtless be back in both finance and design, albeit perhaps less forcefully. And it will be time for Sudjic to continue his campaign to ponder what exactly it is that ought to make desirable objects desirable. (His historical reflections on the concept of "luxury" alone are worth the price of the book.)