It’s an old saying, usually coming straight from the lips of the slightly insecure or self confident: ‘I do quality, not quantity!’. It’s a very appealing idea, the concept that skill and ability can mark one out from pure brawn and throwing vast amounts of resources at a problem. But sometimes quality is not the answer. Sometimes quantity is the way forward: and to illustrate this, I’m going to tell a story.
The Industrial Revolution was the biggest, most tumultuous and most difficult period of transition that the western world has ever been put through, and design was no exception. Objects once made individually and by hand, the work of skilled craftsmen, were now produced using vast steam-powered machinery owned and directed by rich businessmen. And being businessmen is the key here; they wanted their products to sell to the general public, and the only real way they knew how to do that back then was to make the things cheap. This generally manifested itself in making products as simple to produce as possible using the machinery of the day, and the idea of ingratiating design elements into these processes didn’t register on their conciousness; perhaps rightly, since the majority of the populace being sold to were rather poor and may not have been able to afford the prettier, more expensive item. What this did mean was that the products ordinary people filled their homes with were usually large, since Victorian machinery couldn’t handle high tolerances too well, decorated in a rather gaudy, ‘tacked on’ fashion rather than having beauty as part of the design, and were often of a very poor quality as manufacturers skimped on materials and good processing. We must remember that this was the golden age of deregulated industry, companies having no responsibility to either adhere to standards or treat their low-paid, overworked and awfully treated workers with any degree of respect.
This state of affairs was deplored by John Ruskin, an art critic and thinker of the time. He argued for a return to the old ways of doing things, with small-scale industry taking the place of big business and simple, good-quality, hand-crafted products replacing the mass-produced goods of the Victorian age. Since he actually had other things to do with his time, he didn’t expand on this plan to any great degree; but a man named William Morris did. Morris was a designer whose textiles designs would make him rich and whose poetry would make him famous, but he latched on to Ruskin’s ideas whilst at university, and they turned him into an early socialist. Indeed, he spent a decent chunk of time in later life standing on street corners distributing socialist pamphlets, but that’s another story. Morris took Ruskin’s ideas and, with a group of like-minded friends, founded a new design movement based on Ruskin’s philosophy. They wanted a return to craftsmanship, to put skill back into design and for workers to ’empower’ themselves through the making of good-quality, appropriately sized, simply designed products, putting them in charge of their own lives rather than acting as slaves to the corporation. More than that, they wanted to reinstate the role of design as a fine art, putting beauty into everyday products for everyday people, and to advance the art of design in general. This movement would later become known as the Arts and Crafts movement.
This movement was around between around 1860 and 1900, and enjoyed some success in revitalising design as an art form. Various universities and other intellectual establishments began founding schools of design, and as the Industrial Revolution wore on even the capitalists began to take notice of these new ideas, realising that the common people could be persuaded to buy their products because they were designed well rather than just because they were cheap. And what about the Arts & Crafts philosophy? Well, a few organisations were set up promoting just that idea, trying to bring together skilled craftspeople into a setup styled as a medieval guild. And they totally bombed; the production of individual, hand crafted items took so many more man-hours than the industrial mass-production process that simple economics (then a rather under-developed field) dictated its price was far beyond the price point of the ordinary people Morris’ philosophy aimed to serve. Whilst the products they produced were undoubtedly beautiful, and advanced the art of design considerably through their use of unusual materials and craft techniques, producing such quality products was simply not a viable solution to providing for the common man.
Indeed, it wasn’t until the 1920s that a design movement finally managed to make itself felt among the common people. In Germany, the Bauhaus school was set up in Weimar (home of the titular new republic that would be replaced by the Nazis in 1933) and began educating designers in all aspects of craftsmanship and fine arts, something that William Morris would doubtless have agreed with. However, the reason that the Bauhaus style proved so internationally successful, and continues to be relevant today, is for its acceptance of the machine age, and for experimenting with techniques from an industrial, rather than crafts, background. A good example is tubular steel; in the 1920s, extruded tubular steel (without joints in it) was a new innovation that was much stronger than previous efforts. Bauhaus designers immediately began experimenting with it, and when Marcel Breuer designed his Model B3 chair (later known as the Wassily chair) based around a tubular steel frame it put the material, and the chair, on the map. Here was a style whose products could be produced on a large scale, making them globally famous, and the style flourished because of it. Even today, products can be bought based on Bauhaus designs or in the Bauhaus style, and whilst many of William Morris’ wallpaper prints are still available, they are all now mass-printed in factories. He must be turning in his grave.
This is just an example, but it successfully illustrates a point; that, on a large scale, going too far into the quality side of things simply isn’t sustainable if it comes at the expense of quantity. It just comes down to the economics of the problem; the consumer culture gets blamed for a lot of things, but the extent to which mass-production has made ‘luxury’ goods affordable to the common people and made all our lives more comfortable is frequently neglected. Quality at the expense of quantity is rarely the answer; best, of course, is trying to find a way to do both.