• Katsushika, Hokusai, 1760-1849, artist, [between 1804 and 1818] 1 print : woodcut, color ; 23.2 x 17.2 cm.

  • Image Citation
  • Katsushika, Hokusai, 1760-1849, artist, [between 1804 and 1818] 1 print : woodcut, color ; 23.2 x 17.2 cm.
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As Little Design as Possible

Author: Phil Holcombe

This is the second in a series of posts examining the future of STEAM through primary sources. We’ll be looking at a number of works in the Library of Congress and other collections that illustrate key STEAM mindsets.The first post in this series can be found here.

As a rule of thumb in design, less is often more. A contemporary, everyday example of this can be seen in Apple’s work, a company well-known for its simplicity and restraint. But designers have been working to achieve “less” for decades. Contrary to one’s intuition, “less” is often more difficult to achieve because each decision carries greater consequence. In this post, we’ll take a look at two examples of a "less-is-more" approach from the mid-20th century:

Compared to most homes, Philip Johnson’s Glass House is quite unique: its design drapes glass over a minimal steel frame, eschewing privacy. It has no curtains, exposing each room to the outdoors (with the exception of the bathroom, thank goodness). Its open floorplan has no walls, allowing daylight to reach nearly every inch of the interior.

Located on 47 rural acres, Johnson’s design emphasizes the home’s relationship with the landscape, wildlife, and weather. While one can make a compelling argument that the Glass House is not a practical home, its simple use of geometry and respect for the land on which it sits are instructive. The design tells us that nature is what’s most worthy of our attention, and the home respects its site by receding into the background.

To create such a spare, airy aesthetic was a complex challenge at the intersection of art and engineering. For example, the Glass House had no means of concealing ductwork or insulation, so heating occurred through two radiant systems in the floor and ceiling. The home’s ceiling floats above the ground with nearly no support, and while it was replaced in 2017, it survived for 68 years without developing a single crack.

The Glass House is so compelling, in part, because of what we don’t see. Much of contemporary design continues to reference the restraint Johnson exhibits here.

This minimal phonograph and radio was designed by Dieter Rams and produced by Braun in the late 1950s. The majority of record players and radios from the time were ornate, highly-decorated objects, but Rams’ interpretation was just the opposite. Whereas record players often were disguised as furniture, the transparent Perspex lid on the Phonosuper exposes the platter, tonearm, buttons, and dials. The form intentionally and elegantly explained the function.

Rams’ products represented the pinnacle of product design: they were elegant, unobtrusive, honest, and thorough to the last detail. Many of Rams’ ideas about design live on at Apple, where Chief Design Officer Johny Ive often references his work in the creation of their products.

Under Rams, Braun products developed a reputation for exceptional design. In the late 1970s, after decades of work in the design field, Dieter Rams reflected more deeply on what makes a design “good”. He developed his Ten Principles of Good Design, an everlasting reference for all students of design.   

Rams 10 Principles of Good Design:

  1. Good design is innovative.
  2. Good design makes a product useful.
  3. Good design is aesthetic.
  4. Good design makes a product understandable.
  5. Good design is unobtrusive.
  6. Good design is honest.
  7. Good design is long-lasting.
  8. Good design is thorough down to the last detail.
  9. Good design is environmentally friendly.
  10. Good design is as little design as possible.

An exhibition of Rams’ work is on view at the Philadelphia Museum of Art through April 14, 2019.

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