The national characteristics of design

WHAT is it that is so indelibly Russian about a farm-tractor seat? Or so unmistakably Swedish about a plastic-frame bike? So Japanese about a pink pay phone? So American about a hamburger? The question is: Does design of everyday objects betray a country's special characteristics? Or has design -- as is often said today -- become so blandly unvarying that national differences no longer have bearing?

An exhibition (through July 18) in the Victoria and Albert Museum here shows that these are questions worth asking. And it comes up with a witty, sometimes telling, mix of answers, half answers, and more questions.

One Jonathan Glancey is mainly responsible. This needs to be said because, in the final analysis, the whole exhibit is highly personal.

How could it be otherwise? To an internationalist, the preconceptions are outrageously opinionated: The United States is ``big and brash''; Italy expresses itself with ``exuberance and precision,'' but can also be ``anarchic and operatic''; Germany's famous ``efficiency'' is only ``efficiency by implication.'' But too often such opinions come home with surprising truth.

Eight countries are looked at (France, Germany, Britain, Italy, Japan, the Soviet Union, Sweden, and the United States), along corridors entered through archways that are hodgepodges of ``typical'' national design characteristics. Is it all just an exercise in quirky British chauvinism? But Mr. Glancey (himself a young Englishman) is no softer on the British than on the others. The backbone of British design sense, he avers, is the racehorse. The British combine tradition with engineering, making designs that are ``thoroughbred, pedigreed, properly groomed, well-mannered.''

He finds ``gentle curves derived from contemplation of the racehorse. . . . In Georgian houses, pillar-boxes [mailboxes] and London buses.'' But before the laughter has perished on the lips, he remarks, in sharp distaste for a numbingly dull British telephone: ``When it comes to compromise and appeasement no one beats the English.'' NEVERTHELESS, the exhibition itself is English in its use of a jolly wit and whimsy to paint the lily of a serious idea, English in its motion that self-mockery (a thing in which the English excel, Glancey observes) might profitably be adopted by other nations in looking at their sense of design. He makes gloriously funny observations. You wince, but laugh, too.

Of German clothes: ``Terribly disappointing. What on earth makes such a romantic people dress as if from some universal chain store?''

Of Swedish footwear: ``Swedes . . . spend so much time hiking around with those enormous rucksacks that . . . remedial clogs are the only answer.'' Accordingly, he presents remedial clogs as the archetype of Swedish design.

Of the Japanese pink pay phone, he asks, might it not double as a bubble-gum dispenser? Then he describes a Japanese teen-age girl in cheerleader skirt, on roller skates, with hair band, white socks, and Sony Walkman as the perfect pink telephone user.

Of the Soviet male's garb: ``It makes him look . . . like a quieted-down version of the '30s Chicago mobster.'' And of the large, functional, Russian farm-tractor seat: ``This is mythically where those who work to eat sit.''

It is the hamburger that Glancey chooses to epitomize US design, calling it a paradigm of American consumer culture: mass-produced, cheap, efficient, and essentially juvenile.

Does Glancey make his point? And what precisely is his point, anyway? If he wants to prove that national design differences exist, however subtly, in 1985, his choice of objects seems too frequently historical (although within the 20th century) or nostalgic -- radios from the '40s, Bauhaus chairs, steam locomotives.

The most he really proves is that national differences in design used to exist for many objects -- in the dim and distant '70s, '60s, '50s. Most packaging of food items, and graphics on boudoir or bathroom commodities, seem stereotypically lacking in design forethought: little national difference here. But when he looks at what people sit on in his eight chosen countries, not only does he use instances of fine design, but national individuality suddenly shows up vividly as well. Chairs vary.

This exhibition, however, is not just descriptive. It is also thought-provoking. It suggests that the current nostalgia boom hints at a popular desire for variation, individuality, and craftsmanship in today's design. It suggests that, as computer and robot technology progresses and becomes less expensive, smaller product runs may challenge mass manufacture. National design characteristics may re-establish themselves.

Above all, the exhibition suggests that the recognition of national traits (already known to be good selling points) should be used to make the world's homes, shops, and public places less dreary, less characterless, and more delightful.

In the meantime, the Japanese flood the world with clean but eclectic design, meeting a widespread need -- without regard for variety -- for things miniature, efficient, and not too expensive.

In the meantime, the beret is worn on as many heads outside France as in.

In the meantime, the black bowler hat is rarely if ever seen on London's streets.

And in the meantime, New York City's Checker cabs are no longer being made.

The more things change the more they become the same -- unless Jonathan Glancey's prophecies come true.

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