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A Sleek Look Doesn’t Mean It Works

The German design exhibit at the Pacific Design Center in West Hollywood now through June 23 raises issues that go beyond that engaging display to the continuing debate of how we shape the world around us.

The objects displayed--a coffee maker, door handles, electrical connections and lighting systems, as well as a train compartment, airplane models and a Mercedes-Benz car--remind us of the distinguishing German design characteristic of a commitment to making things functional.

To be sure, there is style, such as the simple lines and detailing of the Rowenta coffee maker, the FSB door handle grips or the Mercedes hood. But the style evolved from the object’s function. It is not decoration prompted by some current fad, fashion or consumer profile survey.

We are talking here of design in its broadest definition, beyond just a particular plan or a rational form to satisfy a function, but an expression of that function.

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Simply put, design is concerned with how things work and look, with the look, or more precisely the styling, a secondary consideration.

This reaffirmation of the historical concept of design comes at a critical and controversial time for the profession, which includes architects and furniture makers as well as interior, industrial, graphic and environmental designers, among others.

Increasingly over the last decade, design considerations have yielded more and more to market considerations and the pressure to be trendy, with how things look too often taking precedent over how things work.

The result has been pricey tea kettles that make bold stylistic statements but are awkward to handle; graphics that catch your eye but which you can’t decipher, and restaurants where, because the wall and ceiling materials were selected for their visual not acoustical qualities, you can’t hear the person sitting across from you.

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And then there are the buildings that imaginatively juxtapose shapes, but as a result create contorted interior spaces and roofs that leak; furniture that is an engaging riot of colors and materials but nearly unusable, and subdivisions that behind their lushly landscaped and ornamented gateways are an insensitively planned clutter of ticky-tacky houses.

While design demands constant experimentation, be it intuitive, cognitive or whatever, the ultimate use and user of the resulting object must remain paramount. Otherwise, the object becomes a personal expression, and should be considered art, and be valued and judged as such.

Certainly, there is nothing wrong with placing the label of art on a stylized tea kettle or a deconstructive cluster of spaces forming a house, or an office tower tattooed with historical architectural allegories.

Such a label may lend the objects value, however transitory, while promoting the architect, attracting tourists, reassuring the client and feeding the scholars, editors and critics forever in search of new design waves to ride.

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But this does not necessarily make the designs great or good.

No matter how many times a building might appear on the cover of a magazine or how many awards it may win, if it is poorly designed it will continue to frustrate its users.

That the building might have involved some innovative use of materials or construction methods offers little solace when the roof leaks every time it rains, you can’t reach the windows to open them or you hear every sound a guest makes down a hall.

The same can be said for a designer tea kettle that, despite its honors and sales, continues to drip hot water down the outside of the spout onto the table or someone’s hand every time you try to pour its contents into a cup.

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Ironically, an example of the distortion of the purpose of a design to create a look is the PDC’s own Murray Feldman Gallery, where some elements of the German Design exhibit are on display. The bulk of the exhibit happily is in the wide lower hallway of the center’s so-called Green Building.

The two-story gallery, designed by Cesar Pelli & Associates, sits like a bloated mausoleum on the western edge of a bland, 2-acre plaza formed by the glistening cobalt-blue, glass-clad center and its emerald-green glass addition.

The problem is not the unprepossessing style of the gallery, but the spaces within it. There is no sense of entry, the stairs are awkward, the lighting poor, the ground floor nearly useless and the upper floor poorly shaped and scaled to display any variety of art and design objects other than perhaps a single towering sculptural work.

The contrast between the functional German designs and the inefficient gallery is striking. For a gallery that is used primarily for design exhibits in conjunction with a design center that is the focus of a prominent design community one would have expected more.

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Still, in this city, where design is not a priority, you take what you can get and hope that eventually things will improve. I like to think they will.

After all, we are the sum of our designs.

Be it a wine glass, a coffee maker, a car, a living room, a restaurant, a building, a streetscape, a park or a city, the designs we construct, covet or choose to experience tend to reflect our values and those of our society.

In sum, design is the mark of civilization, and as such demands our attention.

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