Image Style Design | High-Quality Design, Zero Personal Style - Design Bureau

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Image Style Design | High-Quality Design, Zero Personal Style

Thursday, March 21st, 2013

Will the democratization of good design lead to its demise?

by Steven Fischer 

In the early 1970s, my second cousin, a well-established photographer in New York City, bought a set of chairs by Charles and Ray Eames for his kitchen. They were an unusual find and reflected his good taste and unique eye. 

But today? Classic design reissues delivered by mid-century heavyweights, including Noguchi, Knoll, and the Eames, have become commonplace in many American homes. And just like stainless steel appliances and granite countertops, this very select number of pieces has become the marker of good taste. It’s the era of the Design Within Reach house.

I am all for design being widely adopted. This idea was a primary aim of the Eames—to spread good design to as many people as possible. Problems arise, however, because only a handful of designs are (usually) purchased. It’s true that DWR sells many different contemporary designers; these just aren’t the pieces that most people ultimately take home. The retailer is known for its staunch support of mid-century modern design, and it’s these designers that they feature prominently on their showroom floors and within their catalog pages. DWR is also one of the few go-to retailers that sell high-quality design furniture directly to consumers. It’s no surprise, then, that many chic living rooms look strikingly similar. Individual taste seems to have fallen by the wayside in an era when most consumers know only a precious few designers and suppliers.

Has the Eames’ desired democratization of design left little room for new designers? When the famous couple issued their edict to put good design in the hands of the masses, they didn’t specify that good design equaled limited options.

This is the challenge for companies like DWR: to introduce the mass consumer market to a wider range of good design talent, both contemporary and otherwise. Take for example Irish furniture designer Joseph Walsh, who is redefining what can be done with bent wood, a staple modern furniture technique that dates back to Thonet’s 1859 chair. Companies that embrace the Eames’ philosophy have the power to bring fresh designers to a wide public audience. And doing so would allow the everyday consumer to develop a more customized, personal style without having to sacrifice high quality standards. It’s possible to have both. And as the Eames knew, it’s not too much to ask. 

Steven Fischer is Director of Image, Style & Design Studio and Lecturer at Northwestern University. For more information go to