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The Experts Weigh In: What Makes Something Well Designed?

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Welcome back to Thinking Big, wherein journalist Bridget Moriarity (whose work has been published in Travel + Leisure, Art + Auction, and Time Out New York, among others) joins Curbed to explore large-scale trends and topics within the design and architecture community. Have a pressing issue worth discussing? Drop a note to the tipline.

What makes a product, no matter what style, time period, or function, well designed? Design legend Dieter Rams, who turned 80 last year, famously articulated his 10 principles for good design in the early 1980s when he was a design director for Braun. Today, those "commandments," as they've been nicknamed, live on, and first tenet is plain: "Good design is innovative."

Though prolific NYC-based designer Karim Rashid has built a brand on his signature mod psychedelia—which he's swept across lighting, tabletop goods, food courts, hotels, and, of course, his own home—he concurs with Rams' pared-down philosophy: "For me, innovation and design are inseparable and performance and function are inseparable from a design." "Design," continues the ever-enlightening designer, "is not really about decorating or the revivalism of the past, it's about making something—whether a space, or a spoon, or a watch, or a mobile phone—that elevates the human experience." How does Rashid define good design? "You could argue it's about having a great human experience. And human experience covers many things—notions of how something performs, how well produced it is, how beautiful it is, how emotional it is."

Rashid does not, however, believe that "timeless" is synonymous with "well-designed." "I think we're living in an age where there's so much information, so much commodity, there's kind of a saturation, that almost nothing is really lasting," he says. "I would say there are a few ideas and many variations. So I'm not really sure right now if one can do any timeless work any more. I don't think that should be the agenda." He cites the scene at the annual Salone Internazionale del Mobile, the Milan furniture fair, as proof of a surfeit of design. "Every year, when I go there are about 20,000 new pieces of furniture, so the odds of anything having longevity are questionable. Things are all of a sudden hot for a much shorter time than ever before. We may see a chair around for two years, and it's really important, and then in five years it's out of production."

One chair that has stuck around is the Klismos model, designed by the ancient Greeks. "Now that's a great design," says renowned interior designer Bunny Williams. "A Klismos chair (?) is elegant, comfortable, it just transcends fads, and it's been copied in every period of furniture up to today." Williams believes that design is cyclical: "Everything comes back. I've seen this craze for mid-century. Well, 10 years ago, you couldn't give away mid-century." And good design, she says, boils down to function: "You can have the most beautiful design in the whole world, but, if it doesn't function, it kind of loses something."

Christiane Lemieux, the founder of the home furnishings and accessories brand DwellStudio, is in agreement. "I always say that art is all about freedom of expression, and design is all about problem-solving," she says. "So I think something that's well designed is the best possible combination of form and function." On the path to good design, she says, failure is inevitable: "If out of 10 designs, three are great, you're in good shape." And she observes that timelessness matters. "I'm writing a book on design [due out in 2014 from Clarkson Potter], and I've been in all kinds of archives and looking through magazines of the last 100 years, and the people we think are amazing were amazing when they did it, too. You see the work of David Hicks in the '60s, and it was just so iconic and forward-thinking. It leaps off the page. If things stand the test of time, obviously there is something to them."

Anna Karlin, a New York City-based art director who has recently ventured into furniture design and received a nod on Architectural Digest's 2013 "Ones to Watch" list, believes good design is all about proportion. "You can put a square and a circle together, and if you place them in an interesting manner and the proportions are right, it's going to look interesting." But Karlin doesn't agree that this idea of "timelessness" is central to a well-designed product. "Something can be totally of a time period and it's brilliant for right then." She credits the British furniture manufacturer Another Country in this category: "So simple, and nice."

Sebastian Herkner's Salut table for La Chance

For Monica Khemsurov, founder of the online magazine Sight Unseen and a pioneer of NYC's Noho Design District, context reigns supreme. "The objects that become classics or that end up having a long life in some ways they are timeless because they last a long time, but I think there also needs to be an element of they were designed in their time for their time. And you can look back on them, and they make sense in the context in which they were designed," she says, adding that simplicity and ease-of-use are also high on her list. When's the last time she recognized something as well designed? "I was in Milan in April, and there were these tables designed by Sebastian Herkner for the brand La Chance (?). They were just sort of stone columns with little copper trays sticking out of them. Do I think that's the most important design in the world? No, but I loved it."

Gabriel Hendifar and Jeremy Anderson founded Apparatus, their Manhattan-based lighting firm, about two years ago when the offerings on the market disappointed them. "We found things that had the shape we liked but were too pristine or powder-coated or didn't have any soul in the materials, and the things whose materials we liked tended to be too decorative," says Hendifar. For Hendifar when a product is well designed it is reduced to its essential elements. "There isn't any particular thing that I would want to take away," he continues. "Maybe that's a minimalist sort of bent, but I don't see it that way in my head, because I'm also very attracted to products and objects that aren't considered minimal, that are actually very decorative, but there's something about the elements and the way they're mixed that strike some balance that's essential." Hendifar draws a comparison to the realm of fashion: "I keep coming back to a simple white shirt that is perfectly cut and does exactly what you want it to do."

Yves Behar, the founder of Fuseproject, who is hard at work on next-generation products for Herman Miller and Jawbone, as well as a new tablet computer for the One Laptop per Child campaign, shared his take on good design: "The first part is obviously a product needs to deliver a service, needs to deliver an experience." The second part? "In many ways, it needs to say something about the world that we live in, so it needs to be of its time, and a little bit ahead of its time as well. But it needs to take the consumer to a new place that makes them feel more intelligent, and more attuned to the world around them. I think those are the products that we remember." One such product he cites as memorable is the Eames chair (?): "It expressed a more casual type of living." And what of timelessness? "I do believe that good products last. That said, not all products can last 50 years, not all products are furniture that live in a domestic environment that tends to last longer. But, yeah, I think a certain amount of longevity and for the experience to deliver something of meaning, something important to people, over time is key."

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