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Design Review: Volume 2, Issue 5 (February-March 1950)

Letters to Editor

page 107

Letters to Editor

Design Review

Sir: My spirits rose when I read “A plea for ornament” in your October-November issue. In fact, since reading this issue, my interest in Design Review has revived. Whereas in the past I got round to reading my copy when there was no other reading matter to hand, now I look forward to the arrival of the next.

I fully appreciate and approve of the high standard of thought which is aimed at, but “for good human reasons” I have constantly to get down to a less rarefied atmosphere to keep my interest alive. The article “The Industrial Fashion Designer” was very refreshing. “Housing in New Zealand” gave one a feeling that it is rather romantic to be a New Zealander and to have been born and brought up in one of those old rambling houses. (They are not so frightful after all.) “A kitchen for New Zealand Mothers” draws attention to the fact that at some stage in every woman's life, the kitchen is the most important room in the house. “The Why and How of Children's Drawings,” well really, aren't children marvellous! “Review of Here & Now,” jolly good, must get a copy and see for myself.

I trust these reactions of one reader of your journal are of interest to you.

Hilary D. M. Bertinshaw

A Matter for Agreement

Sir: Your failure to meet the arguments of my article A Matter for Agreement, prompts me to ask you, once again, whether you believe there is any basis for common values in design. In fact, it leads me to ask whether you believe there is a common basis for values anywhere. For example, I would say that to dismiss an invitation-article as “words and more words,” and not to attempt to refute it logically, is an example of very bad manners. If you agree that such an action was highly indecorous then, by our agreement, we have confirmed a common value, haven't we? But, if you do not agree that yours was a “highly indecorous action” then, if further consultation fails, no doubt we will be, as it were, on two islands. Even in such a position, however, there would cluster on your island all those who agree that, “impoliteness to article writers is a highly defensible value,” and on my island, all those of the contrary view. And in each case values would be established within the respective groups by their agreement on the matter at hand. Thus values would be confirmed, being, as I have said, “A matter for Agreement.” Do you agree?

What Is Design?

Sir: In the August-September issue of Design Review there appears a letter by B. Sutton-Smith criticising your article headed “What is Design?” of a previous issue. Since you devoted a page to this letter I feel that it should not be passed over without further comment than the editor's footnote.

The point made in the original article What is Design? is a sound one. Design does not exist apart from the object. But Mr. Sutton-Smith states that before people can find any “basis of agreement” they must first have “at least some common values with respect to design.” He says that we must agree on certain things about good design before page 108 we can profitably discuss examples of it. He goes further and says, if I understand his letter, that if we don't, there will not be any discussion possible.

This is putting the cart before the horse. How can design possibly exist apart from an object that has been designed? According to his argument one is led to believe that we must work out a sound philosophical theory for good design before we can have it in actuality.

Let us assume that the following rules are agreed upon as a basis for “good design”:


Fitness for purpose.


Suitability of material.


Appropriateness of any decoration.

It is obvious that two people who wholeheartedly agreed upon the foregoing rules could in actual practice produce two objects totally different. (Assuming that they are both making the same object). One could be well designed and the other badly designed. No headway in getting people interested in well designed things could be made that way because any set of rules or definitions can be interpreted to mean either badly or well-designed objects.

It should be clear now that the point I am trying to make is that the values apparent in well-designed things cannot be understood in a purely logical way only, nor can they be conveyed by means of verbal symbols—they must be felt. Perhaps what Mr Sutton-Smith is really trying to get at is that there exists a state of real confusion in the minds of the majority of people as to what the whole business is all about, and like Mr Sutton-Smith also, they make the wrong approach to it. Hence Mr Sutton-Smith's dig “the purely arbitrary and mystical insight of those with the ‘natural gift’ to discern for themselves.”

Can it be that so many other peoples, some of whom we call primitive (Polynesian islanders for example) possess a “mystical insight”? Their feeling for well-designed things of their own making is strong. There is nothing mystical about it, but it is true that we have on the whole been thrown badly into confusion by the process of change over from a hand to a machine age and that millions of people have lost the “feel” for well-designed things. This has been one of the evils of industrialism and has, at least in part, been responsible for horrible areas of slums in big cities. There is no easy way out of this, however, and I feel that the approach made by Design Review is in the right direction.

Alan Howie

page 109