Whether it’s the bestselling Michael Graves Tea Kettle (with its singing bird notifying users the water has boiled), Coco Chanel’s Little Black Dress (now a staple in almost every woman’s wardrobe) or the one piece, plastic Panton Chair (still enduringly popular and endlessly copied), when we see good design, it’s hard to accept anything less.
But to understand how we’re at a point where ‘good design’ is expected in objects as ubiquitous as phones and forks, it’s useful to remember that things haven’t always been that way.
It was less than 200 years ago, pre-Industrial Revolution, that craftsmen dominated the design scene: then, everything was done by hand, and slowly.
The invention of the steam engine changed all that. Factories emerged, the boom in construction of canals and railways made travel more accessible, and suddenly, manufacturers had a ‘leisure class’ to design for and sell to: tennis outfits, now easily produced on the era’s new sewing machines, were one such money spinner.
But at first, not everything consumers demanded was able to be produced at scale. Sure, it was possible to churn out thousands of ceramic plates, but the designs still had to be hand painted, meaning that when it came to the bottom line manufacturers cared about, functionality trumped a design aesthetic.
Things changed around 1851, when London held its International Exhibition “Great Exhibition” at Crystal Palace. Now, not only could the organisers showcase fabrics from around the globe in amongst inventions like cameras and newfangled rubber products, but six million people could actually get there to see it all in person, finding inspiration that spread to artistic industries across the globe.
Some say we have never looked back. Today, design is valued in everything from socks and sunglasses to lounges and light fittings. When it comes to capturing the attention of the zeitgeist, we now appreciate a well-designed building in same way we’ve long fawned over the latest catwalk fashions.
Interior architect for both the high profile and the highly fashionable, Blainey North, finds the intersection of architecture and fashion intriguing:
“When the world is thinking in a certain way about something, that starts to influence artistic movement [of the time], and at the same time, architecture and fashion start to move in the same way. It’s really how culture changes,” she says.
But where is the crossover? Does fashion influence design, or is it the other way around? The answer seems to be: either, or both.
When it comes to textiles, North believes that interior fabrics are often the jumping off point:
“In the same way Prada, Gucci or Louis Vuitton bring out new collections every season, our suppliers for interior fabrics bring out new collections each season. I often find trends [show up via] fabrics in interiors, then a few seasons later [the same trend] comes out in fashion,” she says.
Of course, some designs – and design movements – have such staying power that they become reference points in and of themselves. Consider one of North’s current projects, a restaurant design inspired by the Section D’Or collective of the early 1900s (1911-1914).
The painters, poets and sculptors of this movement changed the world’s idea of Cubism. They also promoted a mathematical take on proportions known as the golden ratio (the artists used it to assign proportions within an artwork). The design concept has fascinated creatives across industries for centuries. North is no exception; she’s using it in the abovementioned restaurant design:
“[We are using the golden ratio] in the way we plan out bays, and how the relationship of the wall panelling works in other parts of the room,” she says.
North says fashion designers often like to work on one ‘big idea’, and the same is true for architects and interiors specialists.
“It keeps the whole concept tight. You have one idea that, if you’re able to thread through all the different components of a project provides really good continuity. If you do it well, people notice,” she says.
Today, many in the creative industries believe the intersection of fashion and interiors is becoming increasingly close knit. Social media is one reason: the print on a pair of paints worm by a New Yorker and posted on an Instagram feed about urban street style can easily – and instantly – inspire an interior designer from the other side of the globe.
And then there’s Pinterest – a virtual brainstorming board for almost anything visual, where fashion and interiors ‘pins’ both feature prominently. Here, prints on floral dresses in one pin find themselves replicated on chairs in another; stripes move with ease from pins about cushions to tapered pants and back again; and tribal designs find their way from jumpers to jute rugs.
Perhaps it’s because in today’s design-focussed world, the medium is less important than ever before. After all, with design now appreciated in fashion to forks to fridges, those who are creatively inclined need to worry less than ever before about whether they are an artist, a fashion designer or an architect: today, their different takes on similar problems mean that many are actively collaborating.
“Although the creative leap isn’t something we’ve been able to map, when you talk to artists and designers, the process of getting to the creative leap is quite a rigorous one,” says North.
“Usually, people have been working through a whole series of thought to get to [their end product] – and that’s something you can pick out if you spend time looking and thinking about it,” she says.
It’s something she’s been thinking a lot about with one of her recent projects:
“I’ve just done a collaboration with a fashion designer [and] launched a lounge inspired by her fashion line,” says North.
“For me, that feels very exciting.”