Share via Email Deyan Sudjic presents us with a nightmare vision of a world drowning in objects. This is not a new perception. We use design not to supply basic needs but to boost our confidence in a society ruled by fashion and celebrity. We are flattered into thinking that piling up our houses with ostentatious objects will make us better people, more lovable and human. What fools we have become. I sometimes find his writing on design and architecture a little superficial, but here he is less tentative, as if writing from the heart, drawing on his experience as architecture critic of the Observer and editor of Domus in Milan.
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Such relationships, he laments - with a portable typewriter, for example, or a sturdy Nikon camera - used to be for life. This book is ostensibly about things - not any old sort but a particular kind: designer things. Sudjic traces the cult of the designer back at least to the 18th-century furniture of Thomas Chippendale. The novelty was in the clear division between the person who thought of the object - and was famous - and the people who made it.
From that point it is a step - though admittedly a long one - to contemporary designers who lend the lustre of their names to Asian-manufactured jeans by the simple expedient of having it sewn on the back. Were he still living, we might be offered Chippendale luggage and perfume. The ultimate interior, for the person who has everything, may be an almost completely bare, white room. But obviously there is more to design than simply sales, snobbery and conspicuous consumption.
It is, or can be, what used to be called beautiful, and - officially at least - useful as well. There was once a consoling theory among old-fashioned modernists which held that good design was beautiful precisely because it was useful. The more elegantly an object fulfilled its purpose, without disguising the method of its manufacture or the nature of its materials, the better it was.
On this basis, certain bits and pieces - Bauhaus furniture and cutlery, even a helicopter - have made their way into museums of modern art. Chairs, as Sudjic notes, are the item most often used to chart the history of modernist design.
And seating conceived by Marcel Breuer and Mies van der Rohe can often be marvellous - to look at. This is, roughly speaking, a Mondrian painting transformed into three dimensions.
It is a marvellous spectacle, a modernist manifesto in terms of furnishings: all geometric planes and primary colours. But considered as a comfy place to rest it is forbiddingly austere I speak as one who has sat on one.
Generally the author avoids that risk, though there are a few Private Eye moments. On the other hand, objects - whether Gucci handbags or Ikea sofas - do provide a lot of information about the people who made them, as well as those who buy them. Is it art, fashion, a marketing ploy, a shopping addiction - or maybe a combination of all four? This book asks more questions than it answers, but that - given the slipperiness of the subject - is understandable enough.
Review: The Language of Things by Deyan Sudjic
Shallow objects of desire