Design Systems: New Perspectives

Tania Messell


Chair designs by G. P Wood, Conran Associates, 1969. Museum number: E.1127-1979. Image © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Chair designs by G. P Wood, Conran Associates, 1969. Museum number: E.1127-1979. Image © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Design*systems, conceived one year ago as a space where the concepts of design and systems were to be explored, has now come to an end. In this space, contributions have examined design as encounters between designed entities, rather than isolated objects, with case studies covering the fields of architecture, graphic design, and product design, which often intersected. Design*systems has furthermore allowed the examination of a series of key concepts, namely technology, time, space, and identity, and as this column has been dedicated to the idea of encounter, it is fitting to end it by highlighting some of the parallels which emerged between the contributions.



The impact of technology on design systems was examined in Andrea Tam’s article ‘Fitted to a Tea’ deconstructing a 1946 multi-layered tea service, and Tania Messell’s ‘My Name in ‘Letters of Fire’, investigating the development of electric lighting in early 20th century advertising. Precision and flexibility helped shaping these designs, which obeyed to a set of technological constraints while nevertheless be able to adapt to changing needs. The ‘Easi-Nest’, a four-piece set comprising of a teapot, hot water and milk jugs, and a sugar bowl, is indeed composed of asymmetric entities capable to fuse into a single object, while being functional on themselves. Innovation with technology was also to be found in the thousands of meters of electric lights interwoven into the Eiffel Tower’s structure, which allowed designers and technicians to create various motives, by negotiating with the possibilities and limitation of the new medium.



The relationship between past and present was examined by Annabel Sheen in ‘Re-Design, In Design: The Serpentine Sackler Gallery’, in which Zaha Hadid’s sweeping architectural extension to a former storage site for gunpowder, nowadays Serpentine Sackler Gallery, is investigated. For Sheen, this reconversion creating a dialogue between old and new offers an insight into the dynamic laying behind the recycling of historical buildings, ultimately aimed at revitalising an area. The integration of past and present is also treated in Tania Messell’s ‘Provence and Branding Through Craft’, in which a pastoral image of ceramic production has been developed as part of l’Occitane’s marketing, aimed at its increasingly international customers. The article explored today’s popularity for pastoral craft imagery in brand identity, which in the case of L’Occitane is translated into a highly orchestrated imagery of Provencal ceramic production, underlining the ‘otherness’ of craft and its hold on our imagination.



The design of systems and space is treated in Magdalena Miłosz’s ‘Houses, Schools, Hospitals: “Indian” Architecture and the Design of Genocide in Canada’ which thoroughly investigates the designs of Western architectural complexes built to transmit Euro-Canadian cultural norms to Indigenous peoples in early 20th century. Architecture, as Miłosz writes, was implemented as a spatial tool to enhance segregation, as such relying on large-scale systemic architecture. The concept of space was also in Tania Messell’s ‘Airport Terminals: Space & Typeface Intertwined’, albeit on a different level. The article examined 1970s airports, designed to favour an uninterrupted flow of passengers, a in a period in which mass transportation spurred the design of modular architectures and signage systems, which, in contrast with “Indian” architecture, was mostly developed as a functional tool for handling the flow of passengers in-between terminals.



The conception, maintenance or erasure of identity through design systems was on several occasions treated throughout the year. ‘Patterns as Binding Agents’ by Tania Messell examined the power of patterns in 20th century branding through investigating the use of ‘immersive interiors’ by large companies, in which patterned surfaces respond to each other as an act of mimicry, initially inspired by Gesamtkunstwerks (total works of art). The practice has indeed been re-appropriated by firms such as Ikea and Marrimekko, which extensively apply patterns on their heterogeneous production to maintain their goods within the company’s visual rethoric. ‘Subversion or Success: Branding and the Power of Pink’ by Tania Messell, on the other hand explored the cultural connotations attached to the colour pink in today’s society by unravelling the dynamic existing behind its use in the visual communication and the designs of the Norwegian fashion company Moods of Norway. Finally, the concept of cultural identity and local specificities was treated in Adam Hogarth’s ‘:/ Notes frm Anothr Wrld :/’, which offered a dystopian vision of a future society, where local specificities expressed in languages and dialects have been replaced by the sole use of emoticons, a vision condemning the consequences of global communication in the rising need for speed and common expression.


To conclude, many thanks to the contributors who have created a lively space throughout the year by sharing their highly original research. It is, lastly, very much hoped that this platform has produced tangible evidence that design can be thought of in terms of systems, and systems in terms of design.



Tania Messell –

Tania studied graphic design and fine arts in Switzerland before joining the V&A/RCA MA programme. She has since written on the relationship between craft and corporate identities by examining the Wiener Werkstätte’s visual identity and the marketing of Provencal ceramics. Her current research investigates the development of the first corporate identities in France, focusing on the encounter between design, company management and technology between 1950 and 1975.


© Tania Messell 2014. All Rights Reserved. 

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