Even then, designers simply can’t help designing and re-designing in a perpetual quest for the equivalent of the perfect chair. Because, though, we are all shaped slightly differently and look at the world through slightly different eyes (and designer glasses), the “perfect” chair will remain an elusive if tantalising goal. But because we have become a society hungry for novelty, we expect everything from sofas and shaving razors to change.
While it is easy to imagine radical designers like Flaminio Bertoni - the stylist behind the sensational 1950s Citroen DS – or Philippe Starck with his famous Juicy Salif lemon squeezer from 1990, shaking their heads in disagreement, most design, from the commonplace to the very particular, is a constant and fascinating reworking of what has gone before.
Put your hand in your purse, or your pocket, and look at the mix of coins there. Coins might seem unchanging things, yet they too go through redesigns. The thing is, these redesigns have to be gradual, as any change in the proportion and weight of coins has a huge effect on countless coin-operated machines and in the way people with visual disabilities handle them.
Take another example: the Harrier jump jet. Designed by Ralph Hooper and John Fozard of Hawker Aircraft, this highly sophisticated 50-year old aircraft has been modified and updated throughout its life not just to give it greater power and performance, but to bring it into line with the world of computers, fly-by-wire and digital technology. The AV-8B Harrier flying with US Marine Corps today is a very different machine from the first of its kind, yet designers have worked progressively to keep it up-to-date. Superficially, it might seem to be the same aircraft that first hovered in 1960, yet redesign has transformed it, just as light bulbs, the quarter in your pocket or even the mobile phone have been reworked and will continue to change.
Think of Apple and its iPhone. Since it was launched in 2007, the company has sold over 250 million of the handsets worldwide. In 2011, this tiny, hand-held device accounted for 43% of Apple’s sales and 70% cent of profits: it is easy to understand just how critical a redesign of the iPhone is to the Californian-based company.
To keep pace with breathless developments in software while keeping the hardware – the casing – of the iPhone up to date, Apple’s design team (led by British-born Sir Jonathan Ive) has produced six incarnations of this sleek mobile phone in as many years. Most of the changes have involved updating software, yet the look of the phone has changed subtly, too, with a shifting balance between the use of aluminium, glass, plastic, stainless steel and colour. In 2012, the iPhone 5 was given a bigger screen, and sales rocketed anew. Expect further annual changes as Apple competes in a hard-fought and crowded global market; the look of the phone affects sales as much as what it can do. Much rests on Ive’s shoulders.
Like designs for a better toaster, lemon squeezer or London taxi, it seems safe to assume that a new iPhone with a tweaked and evolved design will appear soon. Sadly, I am less confident that my steam-hauled 21st Century Limited will be anything but a dream.