Four Examples of Quietly Excellent Design
By ALICE RAWSTHORN
Published: May 8, 2011
LONDON — Every so often it seems apt to celebrate the modest, unobtrusive, generally forgotten genre of design that I call “quietly good design.” It probably isn’t a coincidence that I generally feel like doing so at this time of year, a few weeks after the entirely immodest, ultraobtrusive hullabaloo of the Milan Furniture Fair.
To create the covers for the new Penguin Great Food series, the designer Coralie Bickford-Smith drew inspiration from the illustrations of traditional tableware and cooking pots found in old ceramic history books and manufacturers’ catalogs.
Quietly good designs include Wasara's eco-friendly plates, which are biodegradable and chic.
A detail from the new issue of Domus magazine, which accentuates the tactile qualities of print.
A quietly good design project is exactly what the name suggests. It isn’t necessarily innovative or iconoclastic, but it fulfills its function in so subtle and unshowy a manner that it somehow brings us pleasure. Here are four recent examples of design that do just that.
1. Penguin Great Food books When the British publisher Allen Lane founded Penguin in 1935, his objective was to make good writing available to the masses in paperback books costing sixpence each, roughly the same price as a pack of 10 cigarettes. He insisted that the books’ design should reflect the quality of the texts, saying: “I have never been able to understand why cheap books should not also be well-designed, for good design is no more expensive than bad.” Quite.
The new Penguin Great Food series of paperback books makes a honorable addition to Lane’s legacy. Each book contains a plum example of food writing from the last 400 years, including Samuel Pepys’s 1660s observations on “The Joys of Excess,” extracts from Alexandre Dumas’s 1873 “Grand Dictionnaire de Cuisine” and Calvin Trillin’s recent articles in The New Yorker. For the covers, Coralie Bickford-Smith of Penguin’s design team drew inspiration from the illustrations of traditional tableware and cooking pots that she found in old ceramic history books and manufacturers’ catalogs.
She chose one object whose shape reflected the content of each book, and drew a silhouette of it for the jacket. For Alice B. Toklas’s “Murder in the Kitchen” it was a meat cleaver, for Isabella Beeton’s “The Campaign for Domestic Happiness” a tea cup and for Charles Lamb’s “A Dissertation upon Roast Pig” a gravy boat. The same shape determined the choice of typeface and the decorative pattern used on each cover. The finishing touch is a customized version of Penguin’s corporate logo: a jaunty penguin brandishing a knife and fork.
2. Wasara eco-friendly dinnerware While we’re on the subject of eating, the Japanese company Wasara has produced a role model of quietly good design in its new collection of disposable paper plates, bowls, cups and bowls.
How, you may be wondering, could anything that is “disposable” qualify as “good” design, quiet or otherwise, if it is doomed to be used once before being discarded at a time when landfills are already stuffed with unwanted junk? Good point. Except that you can chuck away these disposable dishes with a clear ecological conscience. Designed for Wasara by Shinichiro Ogata, they are made from a specially developed form of tree-free paper composite, which combines bamboo and reed pulp with sugarcane fiber, and took four years to perfect.
All of these materials grow rapidly, far faster than the trees from which paper plates are usually made. The resulting paper composite is biodegradable, so once you have finished using your dish you can dispose of it in a home composting system. The material is also robust, yet supple enough to create unusually delicate shapes thereby pulling off the rare coup of producing eco-responsible products that (shock!) look good.
3. Domus magazine There are currently two stereotypes of magazine design. One is a frenzied, fragmented style of publication, which seems desperate to reassure its readers that it is as newsy and dynamic as the Internet. The second is a magazine, which looks like a book. The message here is that the content is likely to be more thoughtful, authoritative and memorable than anything you’ll find online.
The latest incarnation of Domus, the venerable Italian design and architecture magazine, favors the second approach, but executes it in a particularly imaginative way. Designed by the Milan-based design group Salottobuono in collaboration with Domus’s internal graphics team, the new format, which was introduced last month, accentuates the tactile qualities of print by mixing different types of paper, each with a distinctive scent and texture.
“Domus is over 80 years old and has an incredible tradition of excellence and innovation in graphic design, but has always resisted the temptation to be ‘trendy,”’ explained Joseph Grima, the new editor-in-chief. “We wanted it to feel contemporary but classical at the same time, and focused on the ‘magazineness’ in every respect: the print quality, the different types of paper and so on. The risk is, of course, that a magazine can quickly become boring, so we tried to counterbalance that by putting a huge amount of work into the details — creating ad hoc diagrams and infographics for each article, and creating special layouts that break the rules of the rest of the magazine.”
4. Jaime Hayón’s tableware for Maruwakaya Anyone who is familiar with the work of the Spanish designer Jaime Hayón will know that it is usually anything but “quiet.” He is one of the newish generation of designers who treat design as a medium of self-expression, and are happy to express themselves stylistically, rather than through the cerebral references and political subtexts of the conceptual design camp. The result tends to be bold and flamboyant in shape and color with humorous nods to trashy telenovelas and Pedro Almodóvar movies.
It’s not that the new collection of Japanese tableware Mr. Hayón has designed for Maruwakaya, isn’t bold, flamboyant or humorous — because it is. But it is more subtly so than usual, with a restrained palette, elegant shapes and delicate patterns painted on the sake jugs, sushi bowls and soy sauce pots.
The objects were made by Kamide Choemon-gama, a Japanese pottery company that dates back to 1879. After researching its traditional kutani technique of porcelain production, Mr. Hayón adapted his signature style to suit its ethos. By doing so he has shown that his work can still be playful and spirited even at a lower volume.