The drama: from simple to simplistic

from simply to simplicistic

The drama: from simple to simplistic

Today, I wish to discuss a topic that plays a dramatic role in my life as a minimal industrial designer. The unceasing quest for minimalism and the constant need to synthesize my designs further sometimes lead to tedium or a sense of déjà vu.

Yes, because when it comes to your coffee table, opting for the finest option, such as a box crafted from phenolic ash plywood, might trigger the thought, “Perhaps a designer isn’t needed for such a straightforward task.” Yet, this notion is far from accurate. The mere consideration that provokes such a conclusion is sufficient to justify payment for the work.

The challenge then lies in creating something too easy to replicate. In doing so, you might discover your creation everywhere, possibly because someone else already conceived the idea. Furthermore, unethical companies might flood the market with replicas. Complicating matters, intellectual property safeguards might not apply due to the perceived simplicity of the design.

Is there a solution? Yes.

Let me clarify that this isn’t a tutorial on becoming a proficient designer. Instead, it’s a contemplation of potential solutions from my perspective. Imagine us sitting together on a Friday evening at a pub, engaged in a design conversation. Here’s what I’d share, though my viewpoint might evolve after the second beer. I firmly believe that open discussions and considering diverse viewpoints are the way forward. If you have insights to complement or counter my reasoning, feel free to share them in the comments or through private messages.

Why do I emphasize this? Because I consider design an art, not a rigid science. There are no set rules.

So, let’s embark on this journey.

Growing up as a designer under the influence of figures like MariMorrison, and Castiglioni, I naturally derive immense satisfaction from observing well-executed minimalistic designs. No extravagant shapes, reasonable pricing, and natural materials – these are my guiding principles.

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The Crate – Jasper Morrison


These principles undoubtedly hold their ground and are relevant to various objects, especially those that design hasn’t fully explored or those that are entirely novel. However, can we strictly adhere to these principles for established objects like furniture, lamps, automobiles, and tech products? The answer isn’t straightforward. It often depends on the specific case, but generally, I lean towards diversifying our approach.

During my student days, some peers suggested I should transition to design engineering due to my hyper-rational approach to design. I wouldn’t incorporate decorative elements or unnecessary curves unless they served a functional purpose, cost reduction, or another rational motive. This mindset echoes an engineering perspective. My inclination stemmed from a simple fact: no one had explained to me the underlying reasons driving the creation of new shapes in design.

Enrolling in a design school inherently implies engaging in novel, innovative forms from the outset. It’s akin to attending culinary school with the tacit understanding that the dishes we create should not only taste good but also be nutritionally sound. However, the realm of design isn’t as straightforward; we aren’t culturally preconditioned to grasp the significance of shaping our surroundings for both function and emotion.

Historically, decoration or the use of sinuous forms often served to mask manufacturing imperfections. Consider the bathroom sink, for instance. Back in the ’90s, it was common for sinks to be large, rounded, and bold. This design approach emerged because the ceramic basin tended to warp during the firing process, similar to a deflated sponge cake. To counter this, expansive rounded shapes were employed to minimize deformation and reduce production waste.

The pivotal moment arrived with the Acquagrande collection by designers Roberto Palomba and Giulio Cappellini for Ceramica Flaminia in 1997. They ventured into straight lines, compelling the company to innovate and engineer a new shape. This wasn’t just a box; it carried meaning. It symbolized technological progress and uncharted avenues in design. While this shape is now commonplace due to its success, it was a turning point then.

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Acquagrande – Palomba & Cappellini

Does it still warrant replication today? No. It’s been done, established, and doesn’t necessitate imitation devoid of added value.

Now, the crux of the issue is that we’re taught to perceive this as a starting point, whereas reality dictates that mastering such simplicity requires exceptional skill.

Picasso, for instance, ventured into Cubism (technically “easier”) after honing classical painting skills to a point where he needed to explore new avenues to express himself fully. The reverse approach, initiating with Cubism and then attempting to paint conventionally, is inherently flawed.

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Early work by Pablo Picasso

Understanding why historical designs were heavily ornamented can shed light on the evolution toward minimalism. This comprehension leads to an informed choice between the two approaches (not necessarily mutually exclusive).

Design is not just a business; it’s steeped in culture. Hence, it’s imperative to respect and apply it judiciously to prevent mediocrity.

Thomas Heatherwick, an eminent designer-turned-architect, presents a captivating video titled The Case for Radically Human Buildings.

[This is a pertinent resource, though I apologize for frequently relying on architectural examples; unfortunately, designers rarely delve into such discussions online.]

Embracing minimalism in a superficial manner stands as our contemporary crisis, as Heatherwick points out, lacking a pivotal element: emotion, the ability of structures to resonate with us. Applying minimalism simplistically yields designs devoid of meaning in our era. Everything appears homogeneous, and the design community may commend a skillfully rendered cylindrical vase, but consumer interest remains low.

Minimalism, when wielded appropriately, possesses profound significance and can be a potent tool. Otherwise, it succumbs to tedium.

Could the Acquagrande have sported faceted facets instead of a plain façade? Not likely. It represented progress and exploration, necessitating simplicity to convey its message powerfully. Multiple surfaces would have diluted its impact.

Thus, simple forms must possess meaning; otherwise, they are simply simplistic. This isn’t just about manufacturing efficiency; it can also encompass emotions without a tangible production rationale. A case in point is Nendo‘s Deepsea for Glass Italia. Comprising multiple layers of glass, it imparts the illusion of darkening, though it’s merely an optical effect.

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Deepsea – Nendo

No curves, just plain rectangular surfaces. Why? The focus is on color, not form. This exemplifies meaningful minimalism with uncomplicated shapes. There’s a tangible concept behind it, and expressing this concept in such a straightforward manner is a testament to sensitivity and the capacity to convey ideas without distraction.

I view minimalism as a destination, attainable once one comprehends function, decoration, and emotion. This is why I share my musings here – to refine my thoughts and chart a creative trajectory.

This is my perspective, and I’m eager to hear yours. Please, share your thoughts!

In my next piece, I’ll delve into pioneering design firms that dare to take risks.