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Essays

Stephen Todd on The Value of Design
05.07.21

Essays is a compilation of musings that examine the broad yet impactful role design plays in contemporary life. Leading design writers, commentators and thinkers are invited to contribute an individual perspective – accepting or challenging the notion that design does or should embody greater “value” by drawing on personal experience, expertise and knowledge. Contributors are encouraged to explore design’s influence and application in domestic and commercial settings, across history, culture, politics, and its power to impact all aspects of life from small gestures of the everyday, to the future and sustainability of our planet.⁠

We’re thrilled to share the introspections of our first contributor, Stephen Todd – Design Editor of the Australian Financial Review and Creative Director of Sydney Design Week.

Portrait by Anthony Amos.

The Value of Design by Stephen Todd

I’ve spent the better part of three decades thinking and writing about design. Not just the aesthetic of things, although there is that. But mostly I’m intrigued by the way inanimate objects incarnate certain moments in time. The way Viennese cabinet-maker Michael Thonet’s sinuous, steamed and bent wood ‘Nº 14’ chair of 1859 – the first example of assembly line furniture production – still epitomises European café culture some 160 years on.

How Charlotte Perriand, having been initially dismissed by Le Corbusier with “We don’t embroider cushions here, mademoiselle,” went on to design some of the 20th century’s most iconic tubular steel furniture – including the nickel and black LC2 Chaise à Grand Confort – initially for Corbu’s interiors. In her own apartment on the Rue Montalembert, Charlotte had the same chair but with pistachio tubing and fleshy pink upholstery; it always seemed to me a sensuous bird-flip to the cranky Swiss architect’s machismo.

Perriand’s iconic tubular steel furniture in ‘Dining Room 28’ exhibited at the Salon des Artistes Dècorateurs in Paris, 1928. Photo courtesy of The New York Times.

Joe Colombo developed his Spider lamp of 1967 in direct response to innovations in incandescent lightbulbs, in particular the ‘hammerhead’ style which he accommodated in an incised section of the Spider’s metal shade. A problem, as it turns out, since the advent of LEDs have made this bulb particularly scarce. (I currently have a novelty ‘flame’ bulb in mine. Sorry, Joe.)

Spider Table Lamp, Joe Colombo for Oluce.
Photography courtesy of Design Market.

Designer Joe Colombo pictured in his Elda fibreglass armchair.
Photography courtesy of Sodezign.

“I’ve spent the better part of three decades thinking and writing about design. Not just the aesthetic of things, although there is that. But mostly I’m intrigued by the way inanimate objects incarnate certain moments in time.” – Stephen Todd

I especially love the work of Gaetano Pesce which I have been collecting since the mid-1990s when his multi-coloured, melted poly-resin furniture and lighting was categorically déclassé. I admire the Italian designer’s robust critique of the apparent perfection of modernist mass production; the way he encouraged his fabricators to make haphazard alterations throughout the process – to introduce rogue pigments, allow spontaneous drips, bubbles and oozes, to never repeat a gesture. He termed the process ‘diversified series production’; what we might now call ‘disruption’. I am particularly heartened by the revival of interest in Pesce, especially among a new breed of New York creatives – Katie Stout, Brecht Wright Gander, Rich Aybar – who, too, are intent on tackling the problematic domination of the modernist credo of standardisation.

Pesce Pratt Chair (no. 3) by Gaetano Pesce.
Photography courtesy of MoMA.

Vanity by Katie Stout.
Photography courtesy of Katie Stout.

When I posted a picture of inside my house to Instagram a while back, one of Australia’s finest interior designers quipped “nice pieces”. The dripping innuendo: but what the hell are they doing together?

And he was right; there is ostensibly nothing that bonds a Philippe Starck dimpled stainless steel and rosewood gueridon for Paris’ Café Costes (1982) to a pair of white leather and pony hide Dezza armchairs designed by Gio Ponti in 1965 to a set of hand-hammered copper candlesticks from an atelier of the Weiner Werkstäte (c.1910). Except that, perhaps, in the first I recognize the renewed exuberance of a decidedly French take on postmodernism; in the second, the glamour of the mid-century Mediterranean seaside (the Dezze was originally designed for Hotel del Principe on the clifftops of Sorrento); the third, the humility of the artisan’s studio infusing British Arts & Crafts technique with a distinctly Mitteleuropa allure.

Gio Ponti Dezza Armchair and Setee for Poltrona Frau.
Photography courtesy of Mobilia.

I’ve since added a Hairy Wild Man from Botany Bay bowl by Trent Jansen to my weird mob of objets. Conjured up from supple leather trimmed with wiry Icelandic sheep skin, it embodies a creature myth bandied about by English convicts ahead of transportation to the colony. It holds pride of place in my living room overlooking the Grose Valley in the Blue Mountains: a romantically eerie landscape that may well have struck terror into the hearts of those same émigrés. (Today I recognise it as the unceded land of the Gundungurra and Darug people #alwayswasalwayswillbe.)

Grose Valley, Blue Mountains.
Image courtesy of Kwame Antwi-darkwah.

I don’t know where this fascination with material culture comes from. My degree is in Sociology and Political Theory, so perhaps there’s something in the understanding of the way society works and the machinations of power that manifests in the objects with which we choose to surround ourselves. (Lou Weis, creative director of Broached Commissions which produces Jansen’s ‘Hairy Man’ bowl, reckons design is all about giving form to power, creating a “veil of desirability” to drive consumption – and I wish I’d said that.)

Or perhaps it’s the fact that as the fifth and last child of working-class parents who were just clambering onto the lower rung of the bourgeoisie by the time I was born, material possessions were showered upon me as a sign our family had ‘arrived’. In a black-and-white photo of a four-year-old me I have been made to pose in front of the Holden station wagon surrounded by carefully arrayed toys. I recall that straight after the snap was taken, I kicked the kit aside. (Brat!) Even then I didn’t enjoy the idea of accumulating objects as ‘stuff’, as signs of prestige or material success.

“I don’t know where this fascination with material culture comes from. My degree is in Sociology and Political Theory, so perhaps there’s something in the understanding of the way society works and the machinations of power that manifests in the objects with which we choose to surround ourselves.” – Stephen Todd

After 20 years living in Paris where I edited magazines in which design was presented on a par with literature, art, music, fashion (which as a €150 billion/year business in France is taken very seriously indeed) I returned to Australia in 2010 and took up the role of design editor of The Australian Financial Review. My AFR editorial remit is wide: guide the reader to appreciate design across sectors and scales, from macro urban planning to the minutiae of AI; skyscraper to toothpick. My personal mission is to encourage an understanding that design is neither hermetic nor neutral; to enable a nuanced reading of the objects with which some of the country’s wealthiest consumers might be considering to surround themselves.

As Pesce told me in an interview a few years ago: “The goal of designing something is to represent our own time, not just to make things that are nice or interesting to look at. Objects have to say something about the world into which they are born.”

In that sense: me, I’m just the translator.