Photograph © Republic of Fritz Hansen
Words by Gerard McGuickin
Mid Century design vs. Modern architecture: an issue of access
In my opinion, there is an excessive divide between access to good design and access to good architecture. For example, I can attend London Design Festival and talk directly with designers about their products or I can buy an iconic Mid Century design piece. I can touch, feel and experience design in my home, in shops, studios, galleries and museums. I find this much more difficult to achieve with architecture. Certainly I appreciate images of good architecture; I enjoy reading about architecture and I can view a building up close, if not on the inside. Yet I don’t always experience a genuine connection with either the building or the architect.
Modern architecture: a challenge to connect
Much of today’s architectural design is bland, innocuous and commercial. Those buildings that stand out are usually the few that have a large element of prestige, prominence, capital investment and in many cases, the involvement of a renowned architectural practice. They’re also, in the main, far removed from most people’s reality. For example, The Shard, like it or loathe it, is a fortified tower of glass. In reality it’s a domain of the wealthy. The observation deck offers an unbeatable view of London, but is unlikely to provide the visitor with a genuine connection to The Shard itself. Iconic design, in contrast to iconic buildings, can be experienced by and is more accessible to, the majority of people.
Modernist design meets Modern architecture
Where architecture meets design, I believe, is when we see some amazing results. Work being produced by studios such as NORM, nendo and John Pawson, is exciting, creative, inspiring, meaningful and non-conformist. These studios offer more than just buildings, providing people with a sense of possibility and connectedness across the sphere of design. Mid Century examples include the work of architect-designers Alvar Aalto, Mies van der Rohe, Eero Saarinen and Arne Jacobsen. With design, unlike architecture, it is possible to have and enjoy a sense of exclusivity and pleasure. The work of Danish ‘furniture architect’ Poul Kjærholm for example, is crafted with the intention of being functional, unobtrusive and long-lasting. Its modern minimal aesthetic is timeless, enduring and classic. In a general sense, Kjærholm’s work is less well known than many of his contemporaries, but for design aficionados and collectors, this makes it all the more attractive and covetable. Notably of his work, Kjærholm said: “I would rather express the character of the materials than my own character” (Poul Kjærholm essentials, 2007, Republic of Fritz Hansen).
Modern architecture: building bridges for the future
I do believe that if architects want to be acknowledged, applauded and recognised in the same way as many designers, they need to make more of a concerted effort to identify with and understand people. Architecture has a strong foundation on which to build a better relationship with those of us who love and want to use great buildings. However, it will need to lose some of that unnecessary aloofness and sense of detachment from reality. In doing so, I believe architects will then receive much more deserved acknowledgement.