Simplicity as a Design Principle: Exhibition in the Red Dot Design Museum

Aesthetics, Design

The Red Dot Design Museum in Essen currently has a special exhibition on Simplicity as a Design Principle (until 06.03.2020). In this article I summarize the main messages of this exhibition.

The Red Dot Design Museum’s ongoing permanent exhibition shows products that have been awarded the prestigious Red Dot Design Award. Appointed jurors gather once a year to grant this award to submitted products. The recognition tends to be given to simple elegant designs. But outward aethetics are not the only considered criteria. The considered four qualities of good design are the qualities of function, seduction, use, and responsibility.

The current small special exhibition puts a spotlight on simplicity in product design. The exhibition is structured into several sections each of which is titled with a statement in the form of „Simplicity is ….“. A short text elaborates on each such aspect. Each aspect is demonstrated with one specific simple product, usually presented together with an older elaborate product. Several similar simple products of the same type are also exhibited.

Here a summary of the main points, restructured from my point of view:

The introductory text of the exhibition brochure sees simplicity in design as a result of the industrialisation. In the 18th century the upper and middle classes favored heavily ornamented products in Baroque and Rococo style, imitating the lifestyle of the artistocracy. Such products could not be industrially mass produced, however. So when mass production took off in the late 18th and early 19th century, much simpler and cheaper products were produced and became popular (note: influencing the popular taste to prefer simpler products was an agenda of the Deutscher Werkbund). Major figures that played a role in this transitional period were the industrial designer Peter Behrens, and the architect Walter Gropius, who founded the Bauhaus school in 1919.

The exhibition makes the following key statements:

Simplicity is modern: the contemporary aesthetic of simplicity was developed in the art epoch of modernism. This aspect is demonstrated by the Red and Blue chair, designed by Gerrit Rietveld in the 1920s (Photo source: Wikimedia commons: Ellywa). Rietveld was an adherent of the dutch De Stijl movement which strongly influenced the German Bauhaus.

Simplicity is puristic: the aesthetic of simplicity omits ornaments. This point is demonstrated with the Mono A cutlery, designed by Peter Raacke in 1959 (photo source: Mono).

Simplicity is based on geometry: simple products are often designed in geometric shapes. This principle is exemplified by three stools in a circle shape (Stool 60 by Alvar Aalto, 1933), triangular shape (Tibalt by Matthias Scherzinger, 2017), and rectangular shape (Ulm Stool by Max Bill, 1954).

Simplicity is democratic: simple products tend to be low priced and thus afforable for everyone. The Fiat Nova 500 is shown as an example of this principle. The very compact car with a length of 2,97 m and a width of 1,32 m had only the most basic technical features. With its low purchase price it was possible for many people to fulfill their dream of their own car.

Simplicity is the right balance: simple products achieve the right balance between too many and not enough features. The historic draisine is shown to demonstrate this point. Without gears, brakes, or lighting it is simpler than today’s bicycle. But it is too uncomfortable, too unsafe, too simple. On the other extreme today’s bicycles can be technically highly complex. A good balance is achieved by contemporay simple bicyle designs that reduce the technical complexity (example shown below: Schindelhauer Bike by Stephan Zehren and Jörg Schindelhauer).

Simplicity is easy to use: simple products are self-explanatory and need no instructions for use. This aspect is demonstrated with contemporary coffee machines ( photo below on the right: Lumero by Ernst Köhler for WMF, 2019, a more complex machine on the left: Europiccola, inhouse design for La Pavioni, 1950). These allow the user to easily make coffee of constant high quality with the press of a button.

Simplicity is innovative: the development of simple products can drive innovation. This aspects is demonstrated with the Thonet No. 4 chair, designed by Michael Thonet in 1859. Thonet perfected the technique of bending solid wood. This allowed to produce stable chairs with muss less material. Each Thonet No. 4 chair was dissassembled into six parts which were shipped all over to world in a space-saving manner.

Simplicity is driven by new technologies: technological advancements allow to design simpler products. LED table lights demonstrated this. Because LED lights emit no heat, lamps do not need big lampshades for ventilation and heat isolation any more. Also, because LED lights are much lighter and smaller, table lamps don’t need heavy pedestals any more.

Simplicity is not simple: simple products can hide complexity under a simple exterior. This point is demonstrated with multifunctional flatscreen TVs. Though they are much slimmer and outwardly simpler than the older cathode ray tube TVs, they contain many more functionalities.

The exhibition provides some interesting perspectives on simplicity in design. As someone who has read and thought a lot about this topic, I have a few objections, however. The exhibition focuses on simplicity as a product aesthetic for the German / European upper and middle class. No mention is made that Asian, notably Japanese, art and design had developed an aesthetic of simplicity centuries before western modernism. A point that would also deserve some attention is how simplicity and the principle of „form follows function“ has always been present in western peasant and craftsman culture, as can for example be seen in farming and handicraft tools.

For further information on the exhibition, you can download the nicely designed brochure, containing both the German and English text. The exhibit contained little text beyond that given in the brochure.