The Design Museum’s newest exhibition, Extraordinary Stories about Ordinary Things, is not lying about that ‘ordinary’ part. On display in the expansive Shad Thames space are old televisions and table lamps, post boxes and cutlery, the stuff of the everyday. The stories of individual items are sometimes less than extraordinary—a stool that pivots to allow early phone-users to move about their desk spaces, a thermos from the ‘60s to, you know, transport hot drinks—but together they present a picture of the extraordinary influence of design in more or less every aspect of our lives.
The exhibit is broken into six ‘key stories,’ told through the items on display. The section on modernism is basically just a cruel joke for pinterest users who happen to also be new home owners (amazing midcentury furniture AHOY), while a compelling section on national identity takes visitors through the history of two classic British rectangles, the phone box and the post box. This section also delves into road signage and the truly heinous logo for last year’s Olympic and Paralympic Games. (Did you know it was created to be a ‘design for everybody’? Oops, right?) An area full of plastic illustrates the remarkable rise to prominence of a building material that has only been widely used for a hundred years or so, and provides a “YOU’RE OLD” slap directly to the face of anyone born in the 80s—a colourful iMac G3 sits in amongst the midcentury picnic sets and tubular televisions. Time flies when you’re using organic polymers of a high molecular mass, I guess.
Extraordinary Stories stands as a reminder that design permeates all elements of our lives, from disposable coffee cup lids to haircuts to those ergonomic work chairs that only the Big Deal employees at my office get to use. The influence of design was made all the more visible at the press visit: a quick glance at someone’s shoes, jacket or iPhone case could establish with shocking accuracy who was there representing a well-known newspaper, who was part of the art world, and whose alarm had gone off half an hour later than expected on their first assignment for a new website (hi).
The objects in this diverse and interesting collection illustrate the ubiquity of design but leaves unanswered questions about its meaning—is it a community-building group effort, each generation forming and reforming the boundaries of taste and fashion, or is the concept of ‘good taste’ inherently exclusive, one of many ways the upper classes differentiate themselves from the plebs, moving on as soon as the masses have caught up? You can decide for yourself from now until 2015.*
*But don’t wait til then. It’s a very good exhibit and also the gift shop is having a killer sale