Timeless Design

It would be wrong of me to leave yesterday’s post on the ills of planned obsolescence without identifying what the opposite sort of design – that is, timeless design – looks like. I use the word timeless here but what I really mean is not design which will never perish, but design which will last until the end of the product’s life, when the forces of environment deliver the fatal blow that breaks it past the point of repair; but all the while, up until that point, the product will remain serviceable and wanted, not merely because it is badly needed or is irreplaceable, but because its existence makes our world richer in some way, be it large or small.

The most obvious field in which to look for timeless design is architecture. Buildings by their nature are built to last since a building that collapses to the ground after a few years of use is in no way desired or wanted. Planned obsolescence has no place here but this doesn’t mean all buildings will last a long time, or that all buildings are timeless. Buildings themselves are never timeless, but works of architecture are. A building is merely that, a place of shelter or assembly, but a work of architecture is a building transformed into a place that we desire to live in, a construction that works to influence and elevate our feelings and mood, and express ideas important to our civilization and our cause. A modern warehouse built to house goods is just a building, but a cathedral, however excellent or poor its design, is a timeless work of architecture.

Book publishing is another example. A paperback is a means of transporting words from one place to another, and as such, it is made with economy in mind – it has to be cheap and light. A good hardback (most modern hardbacks are sadly just paperbacks in a hard cover, so here I mean an old hardback or one by the few publishers today who actually care about their craft) is different in that it is crafted to be something higher than a communication channel. The cover designer, the typographer, the illustrator, they all labor to create a complete work of art that elevates the words within it to another level. The words are the same, but they are raised on a pedestal that reflects their worth, and by having done so, the mind of the reader is in like elevated to their level. Just like the warehouse, a paperback is a convenient (and essential) means of distributing written works, but it is not timeless design. A good hardback on the other hand is designed to last until the binding falls apart and the pages begin to crumble. It is timeless.

Another example: Thomas Chippendale, the most famous eighteenth century furniture designer. He created some of the most excellent cabinets of his time, well built, intricately crafted and still highly sought after today, over two hundred years after his death. Chippendale didn’t just make furniture, he made furniture specifically for a chosen house so that it would be an inseparable part of the building itself. On contrast, today we live in a world of utilitarian furniture, made from cheap materials, shoddily constructed, and oftentimes pretending to be more than it is, i.e. fake wood textures to simulate real wood. A hundred years ago they painted wood to fake marble, now we have to fake the wood itself. While such furniture itself may be fine for its primary purpose, it contributes little else and so we don’t think twice about getting rid of it when the time comes.

Most design isn’t timeless, and some is even designed to perish as in the case of products that follow a planned obsolescence strategy. Average design does its job, but no more, and even if we don’t plan to replace it any time soon with new iterations (e.g. we don’t keep buying new desks), we will not think twice about getting rid of it when the circumstances ask it (e.g. throwing out cheap old furniture when we move). What separates timeless design from the rest are the intentions, zeal and devotion of its creators. Unlike perishable works, timeless design is created with the intention to last. Those who create something merely as part of their job may very well create serviceable goods, but they can never achieve timeless design because to do this they have to pour into their work all of their creative energies and all of their love for their craft – a task that steps far beyond the requirements of their paycheck or their comfort level. As a result, they are sacrificing a part of themselves, or perhaps giving a part of themselves as a gift to this world, with the intention of making this world richer in some small way. The artist makes his mark upon the world not with fragile paint that will dry and fade from the sun and be swept away by the wind, but by carving it in stone so that it lasts till the stone itself crumble to the ground. We take the artist’s gift and become richer for it, and we will never want to get rid of it or see it perish because it has become one of the things that makes our lives worth living.

June 2012