Made for each other

2nd June 2006 at 01:00
A three-book set provides evidence of cutting-edge technology achieving perfection of form in design classics from around the world, says Phil Thane

Phaidon Design Classics

Various authors

Phaidon Press pound;100 list price, pound;66 from Amazon

ny teacher working in any design discipline who doesn't covet this set of books is in the wrong job. Whether they are suitable for school use is another matter, but I've never wanted to retain a review copy of anything as much as I do these.

What strikes you about this three-book set is the size and weight of it: each book is 245 x 210mm; the set has more than 3,000 images and 500 drawings on 2,808 pages, and weighs 12kg. Each book features 333 design classics from around the world, chosen by Phaidon's editors, succinctly described by experts and beautifully photographed.

The books themselves are candidates for classic status. They are printed on quality paper, sturdily bound and presented in a carrying frame. On the covers, design classics as redefined as industrially manufactured objects of aesthetic value and timeless quality; definitive models of lasting influence and enduring significance; objects that are innovative in their use of materials and unite technological advances with beautiful design; objects characterised by their simplicity, balance and purity of form, and objects that are perfectly formed and remain unchanged since their creation. Working within those definitions, the publishers have put together a fascinating and eclectic mix ranging from a 17th-century pair of scissors to the 2004 iMac, via the Acme Thunderer (1884).

The objects are truly international - the scissors are the Zhang Xiaoquan brand, still produced in China, the iMac is designed by British-born Jonathan Ive and made in the US. The UK classics, in addition to the Thunderer, include the Morris Minor, the milk bottle and the Dyson vacuum cleaner.

The 999 classics are featured chronologically, but the indexes let you search for a designer and find an object by name or category. Phaidon's selection criteria rules out anything that smacks of fashion and the late 20th century habit of affixing the word "designer" to an object to boost sales or justify a higher price.

Nowhere in these books do you see pick-and-mix motifs decorating objects; classic designs do not refer knowingly, ironically or amusingly to earlier traditions, they reject them. The essential lesson for students is that classics are of their time and use the best technology available at that time to produce an object that is functional and beautiful.

Quotes from reviews by designers, such as Starck and Conran, feature prominently on the publisher's website, adding to the impression that these books are primarily for designers, design teachers and lecturers, and design students in further and higher education. It is open to question how suitable they are for secondary schools, as the text makes no concessions to the reading abilities of teenagers, many of whom would struggle.

However, for older and more able students I doubt you will find a better explanation of why design and technology belong together.

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