Design for Innovative Technology: From disruption to acceptance

Many gadgets are marketed as being “design,” which is meant to convince the customer more than anything else. This does not make the job any easier for designers, who consider their contributions to be at the heart of the innovation process and social change. Without attempting to compete with leading design historians and thinkers, it nonetheless seems necessary to begin with a look at this discipline, its role and its context, before diving into the adventure of disruptive innovation.

This form of innovation breaks with the existing, and is inextricably linked to the emergence of new technologies. The history of design is very much aligned with the major societal shifts of the last three centuries. More interestingly, design has played a very specific role in these shifts, as an expression of the underlying desires of a society.

As with other areas of the art world, it acts as a sensor, a mirror, an actor of societal movements, albeit with one peculiarity : it can affect a very wide audience by its influence on mass production. This chapter is not an attempt to chronicle or catalogue iconic objects, but rather to contextualize their emergence, development, use and even application, through a few select movements from the 19th century to the present. It also aims to link these movements to the innovations of each era. This historical evocation focuses

on the idea that this discipline is actually rooted in innovation – that it develops solutions to meet new demands, new market needs or the desires of a given society, but is also able to anticipate them. This legitimizes its role alongside technology laboratories. Design has been a catalyst for innovation since its emergence as a discipline in the mid-19th century. This role has constantly changed and adapted throughout its history. The following chapters will discuss its role in years to come.


In 1946, in London, the “Britain Can Make It” exhibition displayed a gutted bomber. Its “organs” were connected with wires to every- day objects, from a tractor to a pan. Here is the perfect metaphorical illustration of the role the war played in the birth of mass industrial design. The field experienced a boom just after World War II, and 1946 remains etched in the collective imagination as being a key year of development in the daily life of mass industrial design. This aftermath period indeed crystallizes reconstructive, even curative energies, thanks in particular to the support the United States provided to Europe for its rebuilding in the form of the Marshall Plan (formally known as the European Recovery Program, ERP). Through a well-designed mechanism, this plan allocated funds to European states to allow them to make investments, among other things. Some companies thus were able to call upon artists, architects and designers to “rendre belle la casserole” – to quote sociologist Michel Maffesoli – in order to boost sales of their products. Design, however, was not simply born by spontaneous generation following the war; it is rooted in the history of our Western, even Eastern (and Japan in particular) societies, currents of thought and changes.

Theoreticians agree that design was, in fact, born with the Industrial Revolution. In her book Design, Introduction à l’histoire d’une discipline, Alexandra Midal writes, “It was in the organizational streamlining of the kitchen, conceived in the United States in 1841, that design has its origins.” She goes on, but this time on the other side of the Atlantic : “But it was the Universal Exhibition in London in 1850 that launched design as a discipline in its own right. In the mid-19th century, the European Industrial Revolution pushed the British to consider the consequences of technical progress.” In his book Histoire du design de 1940 à nos jours, design historian Raymond Guidot says, “The history of design is indissociable from that of the Industrial Revolution. With mechanized production began a new chapter of the human environment, written by industry and no longer just artisans and artists. From the infancy of the steam engine to the first skyscrapers, it develops by building on technological innovation.” In Design since 1945, Peter Dorner also sheds light on this question : “Every technological revolution, every advance in the field of manufacturing seems to reserve a place for the designer.” The Industrial Revolution is therefore the veritable starting point of this discipline.

This transformation would, for a long time, have a profound impact on agriculture, the economy, politics and the environment : in short, the whole of society. Hence, it is obvious that technical and technological progress and innovation are driving forces of design. Moreover, they were more or less welcomed by everyone, and had both critics and aficionados. These feelings were captured and reflected in the arts, especially by that which was called ‘design’ in France since the 1960s. Different movements thus have punctuated history with different currents, at times appropriating new technologies, at times criticizing them. But it is at the heart of this relationship and this tension that many innovations have emerged. It all began with the nascent industrial world. All-powerful with its novelty, it did not burden itself with aesthetic creation. As Gilles Lipovetsky and Jean Serroy see it, “faced with the aesthetic damage caused by the reign of modern machinery, two major currents of thought clashed.” The Arts & Crafts movement, born in England in the 1860s, positioned itself against unbridled industrialization. John Ruskin, one of its pioneers, decried modern progress and its excessive mechanization (which would lead to the decline of society) in his book The Stones of Venice (1853).

Ruskin also condemned the need for the individualization of production and expressed his concern about the rapid changes of societies under the impulse of the Industrial Revolution, which created a new social organization. His book had a tremendous impact, particularly through the idea of linking Art, Nature and … Man. By no means limited to England, this movement spread throughout the world, going by different names different countries (“Tiffany” in the United States, “Jugendstil” in Austria and Germany, “Nieuwe Kunst” in the Netherlands, “Modernismo” in Italy and even “Sapin Style” in Switzerland). In France, this movement came to be known as “Art Nouveau,” and was characterized mainly by ornamentation inspired by trees, flowers, insects and animals, bringing sensitivity to everyday décor. It also rehabilitated the value of hand craftsmanship, creating a private realm considered favorable to personal development at the beginning of the 20th century. In France, its critics called it style nouille because of its characteristic arabesque forms. This movement was clearly a manifesto against development, innovation and progress, emphasizing and promoting Nature as a bulwark against the encroaching Machine, using the style as a shield. The Art Deco movement was in much the same vein. Born in the 1910s, it reached its peak during the 20s before its decline in the 1930s. It too was inspired by nature, but in a much more stylized, geometrical way. Everything happened as though the rationalization of progress was just doing its job, intimating order in the figurative in order to rid itself of it. This movement was very much alive in architecture, in fashion and, of course, in “design.”

In contrast to this anti-progress revolt, another major current of thought likewise has its roots in the 1850s, “inaugurated by Henry Cole, who gathered around him a group of reformist thinkers and artists.” The novelty here, however, was not to reject progress and the machine, but rather to integrate them into a creative process “to invent a new language suited to the Industrial Revolution.” In his book, Cole thus advocates for an “alliance between fine art and beauty and mechanized production.” It was precisely this current that served as a base for the functionalist conceptions that endured up until the era of the Ulm School, and even later. “It already contains the seeds of what we will call industrial aesthetics or design to which the Bauhaus devoted itself in the 1920s.” After training as a sculptor-engraver, Charles Édouard Jeanneret (a.k.a Le Corbusier) traveled the world as a journeyman in search of a culture of architecture. In 1910, he served an apprenticeship in the studio of architect Peter Behrens in Berlin, where he met Walter Gropius and Mies Van der Rohe (also an apprentice). These encounters sealed intentions for the Modern Movement, which took shape during the 20s. “The first salon of the Union of Modern Artists in 1930, at the Marsan pavilion, responded to the presentation of an important cross-section of distinguished guests – the Deutscher Werkbund, the founders of the Bauhaus (Gropius, Breuer, Bayer, Moholy-Nagy) – and at the Grand Palais, in the artist-decorator salon that same year.

These two events reflected the vitality of the Modern Movement, which presented itself as the only one capable of fulfilling the aspirations of industrial civilization.” Among those involved in this movement – also called Modernist – was Le Corbusier. The approach, stripped of all ornamentation and with clean, geometrical lines, emphasized rationality, thanks to new techniques and such materials as steel, glass and concrete. After the proclamation of the Weimar Republic in November 1918, Gropius proposed uniting the school of decorative arts and the academy of fine arts of Weimar to the provisional government. On April 12, 1919, he was appointed director of the school, then called Staatliches Bauhaus zu Weimar. In the manifesto of the Bauhaus, Gropius describes the school’s mission as follows : “The ultimate aim of all artistic activity is building! … Architects, sculptors, painters, we must all get back to craft, because there is no professional art! … There is no fundamental difference between the artist and craftsman … Let us together create the new building of the future which will be all in one : architecture and sculpture and painting.” While Gropius originally wanted to introduce the idea of a return to craftsmanship, he did a 180° turn starting in 1922, foreshadowing the manner in which the arts would be taught and practiced throughout the 20th century.

BAUHAUS EDUCATIVE SCHEME Walter Gropius, 1922. © Bauhaus-Archiv Berlin (BHA)

This shift is important because it marks the beginning of detachment from the idea of Nature in favor of the idea of Machine and Innovation. Ultimately, the Bauhaus’ main idea was to bring art closer to the machine – which was forever more fascinating – following the precepts introduced in the 1890s by Louis H. Sullivan, who coined the famous phrase “Form follows function,” and adopting the precepts of Adolf Loos, decreed in Ornement et Crime. Artist-designers like Marianne Brandt, Mies van der Rohe and Hin Bredendieck used materials from the industrial world, as did Marcel Breuer with his tubular steel furniture, the most well-known of which is the Wassily chair (or Model B3 chair). The Bauhaus was closed by the Nazis in 1933; its dissolution pronounced by Bauhaus leaders who found refuge in the United States. Ideas can be bullied and silenced but not die, and can resurface in a later era. Founded in 1955, the Hochschule für Gestaltung, or Ulm school, not only took up the aspirations of the teachings of the Bauhaus, but surpassed them in its ambition to go even further in rationalism, industrial production and the use of technological innovations.

This ambition went hand in hand with the German post-war economic miracle. A good example of the school’s application is without a doubt the collaboration of designers Hans Gugelot and Dieter Rams 6 with the firm Braun, which brought the company international recognition. Rams described his design approach as “Weniger, aber besser,” which loosely translates as “Less, but better.” Rams and his team created memorable products for Braun, including the famous SK-4 record player and the high-quality D-series record players (D45 and D46). However, the Ulm School’s plan – as much political as functionalist– failed in some ways, as did the radical functionalism that it advocated, for the simple reason that it created objects that were too unrelated to life, resulting in a lack of appeal to the public. In short, these objects were too focused on function from which aesthetics had been entirely removed, and hence the emotional charge.

The Beginning of the Conjunction

We have just addressed – quite simply – the relationship between design and innovation, notably with the work of the firm Braun. Meanwhile in France, Roger Tallon, another great designer, was interested in the Ulm School. “Ulm is the school of thought where I discovered Gestalt Theory … In the 50s, Ulm was the only place where anything was happening in terms of design, and I still think that what happened there overwhelmed everything else. But outrageous militancy hastened its decline … If Ulm had continued, it would probably have resulted in unequivocal formalization along the lines of the ‘non-object,’ with a complete absence of visibility,” stated this designer who did so much for heavy industry (the TGV, the spiral staircase, Lip watches, and the Montmartre funicular in Paris) in the book that Chloé Braunstein-Kriegel and Gilles de Bure devoted to his work.

ROGER TALLON - Table, Module 400, 1965 © Photo : Marc Domage, courtesy of Jousse entreprise

Roger Tallon is a major figure in the relationship between design and innovation. After studying engineering (1944–1950), he joined Technès, a revolutionary technical and aesthetics consulting firm founded by Jacques Viénot, whose goal was to reinvent the relationship between engineering and design. Tallon, who was already teaching at the Ecole des Arts Appliqués in Paris, put Jacques Viénot’s initiative in place : the first ever design course in France, under the name of Industrial Aesthetics Course. From this course was born the first generation of French industrial designers. The approach was decidedly in keeping with ambient modernism, but with a less dogmatic vision than the German approach. In 1963, he created the design department at the Ecole Nationale Superieure des Arts Décoratifs in Paris.

A New Rupture

In contrast to what could have been perceived as “functionalist dehumanization,” the Italians meanwhile started their own little mass industrial design revolution. Italy was never completely industrialized, remaining largely agricultural. But starting in the 1950s, a shift took place – the “Italian miracle,” to use Raymond Guidot’s expression. Through a growing demand for amenities, coupled with cheap labor, Italian industry began to boom. It was at this point in time that partnerships between architect-designers and industrial designers were forged, resulting in iconic pieces like the Achille and Pier Giacomo Castiglioni ‘Mezzadro’ stool, for Nova Milanese in 1957. Its principle? A tractor seat (painted orange) screwed onto an L-shaped steel stem, stabilized by a piece of carved wood – a symbolic piece that combined strong and obvious cultural biases : the tractor seat (agriculture), the metal stem (industry) and carved wood (nature and craftwork) with a cheery, playful touch. Here we find the essence of Italian design heralding the beginnings of postmodernism. The advertising for the Lettera, a type-writer designed by Marcello Nizzoli for Olivetti in 1950, likewise exemplifies this new approach by drawing the device with a bouquet of flowers. Designer Ettore Sottsass created the Valentine typewriter for Olivetti in 1969, which also became an icon of design with its red cover.

VALENTINE - Olivetti typewriter by Ettore Sottsass, 1969 © Associazione Archivio Storico Olivetti, Ivrea, Italy

Italy also has a tradition of design thinkers – designer-architects who, despite working for famous firms, came together to distance themselves from their work and initiate strong manifestos, like Archizoom 10, which was created in 1964 by Andrea Branzi, Gilberto Corretti, Paulo Deganello and Massimo Morozzi. In 1967, Archizoom bisected a foam block to obtain pieces with random waves, thus creating the Superonda sofa. Randomness, gesture, bisecting symmetrical, parallel shapes are emblematic of the rational – a historic and symbolic attack on modernism. The wave design allows the user to utilize the object to sit in unconventional positions. Another example of this Italian revolution is Studio Alchimia, created in 1976 by Alessandro Guerrierro and Alessandro Mendini, who became its principal facilitator. For Mendini, inspiration came from shape. His research led him to undertake “redesign” operations (design procedures on existing, mundane objects such as the Redesigned Thonet Chair, 1978). In 1981, the Memphis group, launched by Ettore Sottsass, reacted to the post-Bauhaus designs of the 1970s, advocating for a sense of humor and derision, and investing objects with emotion. With the Italian approach, pop-culture references and dimensions of playfulness and empathy combined to renew the link with the user by making the latter its focus. This expression of postmodernism – a major current in design – corresponds to the emergence of postmodernity in society.

Beyond Divisions

The rationalization of society by the Industrial Revolution thus brought about movements against this march toward progress, while leading others to surpass it through the expression of rationality itself, and ultimately turning it into dogma. Design therefore reveals both the hidden desires and anxieties of a society – consciously or unconsciously. It also maintains a strong link with the technological advances it then appropriates, lauds or refuses. Processed steel tubes allowed Marcel Breuer to make furniture. Later, plastic and even foam, led to the creation of such everyday items as ABS thermoforming displays (plastic) for Ettore Sottsass’ Valentine (Olivetti 1969). The Industrial Revolution and technical innovation – these two dynamics are still at work today, and now include the digital world and its many revolutions, leading to new patterns of attraction and repulsion.

Given these amazing and inspiring movements that have made design what it is today, we would like, in this book, to go beyond the rational approach inherent to the emergence of technologies and to think outside of the box – no longer to choose sides but to couple, build bridges, and strive for transversality. Ettore Sottsass is a reference in this respect : a graduate of Politecnico di Torino (1939), he was nonetheless heavily influenced by his friend, painter Luigi Spazzapan, who offered him training different from that lavished upon him at school. Sottsass was able to reconnect with his initial desire to become a painter, and was particularly interested in color in his daily work. He said, “[for] me, design is a way to discuss life, society, politics, eroticism, food and even design itself. Ultimately, it is a way of building a potential figurative or metaphorical utopia of life. In any case, I don’t think design should settle for giving form to more or less stupid products for an industry that is more or less sophisticated.”

andrea branzi,bauhaus,design,disruption,ecal,epfl,henchoz,innovation,innovative technology,jasper morrison,michel maffesoli,mirande,nicolas henchoz,parsons,roger tallon,ruptures fertiles,tallon,technology,valentine,yves béhar,yves mirandeThe EPFL+ECAL Lab ultimately has no other mission than to explore ways of discussing life and finding ways of integrating new technologies within it. For that is how invention becomes innovation. Other famous designers, like Philippe Starck and Yves Béhar, have tackled the subject. Several schools, like MIT’s MediaLab, the Interaction Design Institute Ivrea in Italy and the d.school at Stanford, have launched initiatives. The EPFL+ECAL Lab is capitalizing on these past experiences, and the history of design itself, to propose a new model – rooted in innovation that appropriates technologies as they emerge from the laboratory, a model that calls for freedom of exploration and academic research, but with the aim of bringing it to fruition, and finally, a model that couples differences rather than reducing actors to the lowest common denominator. This is the thought revolution that will be discussed in this book.

Extract from Design for Innovative Technology 
By Nicolas Henchoz and Yves Mirande 
Published by the Presses Polytechniques et universitaires romandes

Les commentaires sont fermés.