In May, I ditched my iPhone for a shiny new Android flagship device. Within two days, I was back to the Apple fold with terrible withdrawal symptoms that mostly revolved around the keyboard. It’s not something users talk about like a great camera or a gorgeous display; it’s something we take for granted. Simplicity and friendliness have been among the hallmarks of Apple’s approach to design. Among the many Steve Jobs legend is one of a weekend he spent at Macy’s studying household appliances and then exhorting his designers to take cues from these in a bid to make the company’s products look more friendly and approachable. It set the stage for the launch of the iMac G3 that broke the clutter in a world full of drab looking PCs in the late 1990s.
Industrial design refers to mass-produced designer products (different from custom-made designs) separated from manufacture. Sir Jonathen Ive, Apple legendary design head probably understands this distinction better; his father was a silversmith while his grandfather was an engineer. France’s King Louis XIV laid the foundation for modern industrial design with the Gobelins Manufactory in 1667. Hundreds of craftsmen produced tapestries and furniture with detailed drawings and templates. It was the same royal patronage that saw the rise of the Meissen porcelain workshops in the early 18th century, which used patterns from goldsmiths and sculptors to produce crockery and figurines in large numbers.
It was the industrial revolution in England in the 18th century that truly set the ball rolling. A growing middle class fuelled mass consumption and rapid urbanisation. It set the precedent for 20th century industrial design and production—from Henry Ford’s Model T to the Apple iPod. Sir Ive, as well as brands like Audi, borrowed heavily from the Bauhaus design credos—“form should follow function” and “less is more”.
Industrial design and product design have been used interchangeably over the years given that most industrial design principles are ultimately applied in the design of products for daily use. From furniture and kitchen appliances to smartphones and automobiles, industrial design is omnipresent and many modern designers lean heavily on Dieter Rams’s ten-point design credo, emphasising innovation and how products need to satisfy functional and psychological needs and stay unobtrusive. Above all, he believed in as little design as possible—“less but better”—so that products are not burdened with non-essentials.
People do judge a book by its cover. You can have the best product, but if it’s presented to consumers in a slipshod manner, it is likely to fail. - Mike Markkula, Apple
Mike Markkula, one of the first investors in Apple, wrote a one-page memo—the Apple Marketing Philosophy—that probably shaped the company’s DNA. “People do judge a book by its cover”. You can have the best product, but if it’s presented to consumers in a slipshod manner, it is likely to fail. One of three buyers of Apple’s iMac had never owned a personal computer, but were lured by the product’s revolutionary design. It prompted Steve Jobs to quip, “You almost want to lick ‘em.”
When you look back at some of the finest examples of 20th century industrial design, like the VW Beetle or the Moka Pot—the stove top espresso maker, (read our list of the finest examples of industrial design on Page 21) you will realise that they appeal to our design sensibilities decades after they were first launched. Oddly enough, they didn’t do it with excessive design, but with aesthetics that never lost sight of functionality. It’s why we never tire of products that we use repeatedly. They’ve been designed to keep us engaged even today, when consumer loyalties and preferences can be fickle.
Best examples of design since the 20th century
Industrial design truly took wing in the 20th century. We put the spotlight on products that have stood the test of time and continue to inspire budding designers. Of course, this list is by no means exhaustive, but offers a perspective on how the design of everyday objects evolved through the years.
The classic Vespa
“Sembra una vespa” (resembles a wasp). Enrico Piaggio’s reaction, when he saw the first prototype of the MP6 designed by aeronautical engineer Corradino D’Ascanio, is the stuff of legends. One of the most iconic objects of Italian design, the Vespa was made popular by the Gregory Peck-Audrey Hepburn blockbuster Roman Holiday. The classic Vespa ditched the drive chain, oil and dirt associated with a motorcycle, opting for an engine mounted beside the rear wheel and pastel colours.
Western Electric Model 302 telephone
The brainchild of legendary industrial designer Henry Dreyfuss, this phone appeared within a couple of years (in 1937) after his other path-breaking product—the Hoover Model 150 vacuum cleaner. He brought the same philosophy to the phone; to conceal sometimes ugly mechanical motors behind a pretty looking metal façade. It brought some much-needed changes to the telephone—the ringer was housed in the phone (not in a separate box) with a horizontal cradle (you could listen and speak into same unit). It’s often referred to as the Lucy phone (after the popular I love Lucy show) and is probably the precursor to the modern telephone as we know it.
In 1999, this two-door car finished second in the Car of the (20th) Century awards, behind the Ford Model T. The Mini is immortalised in popular culture after the Michael Caine-starrer Italian Job (1969) and relevant even in 2017 as a niche luxury car thanks to the brand’s takeover by BMW. It was the global fuel shortage sparked by the Suez Crisis in 1956 that prompted Sir Alec Issigonis’s (he also designed the Morris Minor) design for BMC (British Motor Corporation). Many future automotive designs took the cue from the car’s space-saving transverse engine front-wheel drive layout (allowing more passenger and luggage room).
The Eames chair
In 2008, the US Postal department released a set of 16 postage stamps that celebrated the work of Charles and Ray Eames, the husband and wife design duo who were among America’s most influential 20th century designers. The Eames chair designed (in 1956) for Herman Miller is now a permanent exhibit at New York’s MOMA (Museum of Modern Art) and has been part of ‘supporting cast’ in popular shows like Frasier and House. The duo sought inspiration from the quintessential English club chair and yet wanted the chair to exude the warm, receptive look of a well-used first baseman’s mitt. The chair features three curved plywood shells—the headrest, backrest and the seat.
Launched at the beginning of the new millennium. Just like the iMac, this product wasn’t just a game changer for Apple, but laid the foundation for the iPhone. It wasn’t the first MP3 music player, but it shook things up because it epitomised Apple’s design philosophy of putting consumer experience first and then working backwards to the technology. Considered one of the finest examples of industrial design, the original iPod features five buttons on its face, housed under a 160x128 monochrome display. The scroll wheel that eventually paved the way for Apple’s signature click wheel, allowed users to flip through songs and control the volume.
A product necessitated by the Great Depression of the early 1930s, this product was designed to help Italians curb trips to nearby cafés and brew high quality coffee at home. Today 9 out of 10 Italian homes are estimated to own this product originally marketed as the ‘Moka Express’ by Bialetti. It’s also commonly referred to as a macchinetta del caffe (small coffee machine) and is a stove-top coffee maker that produces coffee by passing boiling water pressurised by steam through finely ground coffee. The product’s designer Luigi De Ponti borrowed the idea from the workings of a primitive washing machine that pushed vaporised soapy water through a tube.
Saleem Sinai, a lead character in Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children (1980) makes numerous references to this lamp that he uses to write. George Cawardine was an automobile designer specialising in vehicle suspension systems when he applied for this patent in 1932. The successor to the original Anglepoise (the 1227) was aggressively promoted during World War II as the ideal ‘blackout’ lamp. The lamp stood out with its unique joints and spring tension that allowed it to move into a wide range of positions without being clamped.
In 1915, the trustees of the Coca-Cola Bottling Association committed $500 to design a distinctive bottle for the brand that would stand the test of time. Leading glass companies across the US were challenged to develop a unique bottle that would be recognised in the dark or even if it was lying broken on the ground. Designer Earl R. Dean was one of the designers who picked up the gauntlet and designed the Coke bottle as we know it today. He used an illustration of a cocoa bean from an encyclopaedia as a reference point to craft the curvy, ribbed bottle. It’s not just one of the finest examples of industrial design, but is also one of the most instantly recognisable brand symbols.
French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson’s obsession with the ‘decisive moment’ was way ahead of his time. He is considered a pioneer in candid and street photography and his ‘go-to’ camera eventually became Leica’s M3, considered by many photography enthusiasts as the finest 35mm camera ever. The M3 introduced numerous features to the Leica, that included the combination of the viewfinder and rangefinder in one bright window and a bayonet lens mount.
When Apple’s Sir Jonathan Ive speaks of Dieter Rams designing surfaces that were without apology, bold, pure, perfectly-proportioned, coherent and effortless, he could have referred to Rams’s first product for Braun and equally the iPod. German designer Rams has been a source of inspiration for a whole generation of designers including Sir Ive. Rams collaborated with designer Hans Gugelot for the SK4, a record player that reimagined an entire category. The duo ditched the traditional wooden cabinet, opting instead for a cleaner, modern, industrial design that placed the controls on top of the player, making them easier to access.
Made in India
Noted architect Ashiesh Shah’s pick of the best designed buildings of post-independence India
Palace of Assembly in Chandigarh is a legislative assembly designed by noted architect Le Corbusier. It is part of The Capitol Complex and consists of three buildings—the Legislative Assembly, the Secretariat and the High Court.
IIM Ahmedabad Established in 1961, the institute’s main building was designed by American architect Louis Kahn.
Centre for Environment Planning & Technology (CEPT), Ahmedabad Established in 1962, the campus was designed by B.V. Doshi.
Kanchenjunga Apartments, Mumbai (1983) Today, one of the top luxury apartment blocks in India, the minimalist Kanchenjunga was used by Charles Correa to allow in the sea breeze. Kanchenjunga uses balconies to model the old-style verandas of sea-facing bungalows as a mode of protection from sun and rain.
Vidhana Soudha in Bengaluru The seat of the legislature. Pandit Nehru laid the foundation stone in 1951 and it was completed in 1956. It was built in a style known as Mysore Neo-Dravidian.