If the history of design—in all its chairs, clocks, lamps, and coffeepots—were to be catalogued and capsuled in an impregnable fortress, Charlotte and Peter Fiell would be its gatekeepers. With an extensive list of publications and years of experience—15 of them spent as editors-in-chief of Taschen's design department—the pair have become de facto authorities on modern design, a category itself bursting with its own typologies, genres, and historical styles.
But beneath every exquisite object that the Fiells consider for inclusion in their books, be it a Tulip Chair or a toothbrush, lies a consistent philosophy: that design is an endless process of improvement, each object often only a momentary solution to an ever-changing set of needs. While their tomes curate lists of chairs, lights, and everyday objects that are exceptional in their beauty and ingenuity, they are lists that inevitably require revision—and the Fiells are happy to revise. In anticipation of their newest release, The Story of Design: From the Paleolithic to the Present, they corresponded about the pleasures of printed matter, the legacy of Knoll, and why design matters.
Publishers and design historians Charlotte and Peter Fiell.
Knoll Inspiration: During your time at Taschen, you wrote the influential 1000 Chairs. What is it about the chair, in particular, that distills a theory of design so thoroughly?
Charlotte Fiell: The thing about chairs is that we all sit on them, and because of this we have a very special physical interaction with them. We connect with chairs in a number of ways that we just don’t with any other designed object. But over and above this, what makes the study of chairs so interesting is that their function has more or less remained the same throughout history—a tool to support the human body. Yet, over the centuries, thousands upon thousands of different models have been designed and made. How a designer designs a chair reveals so clearly his or her approach to design—they might design from a purely functionalist perspective, they might use it as a channel for personal creative expression, or they might use it rhetorically as a way of conveying an idea.
Peter Fiell: Consider this—half of all people employed in developed economies work in offices, at some type of desk, and therefore need a chair. That is a huge market, and a very important one. And that’s just contract office chairs. Then there’s many other types of contract seating, and beyond that, the whole world of domestic seating. So the design of chairs is an absolutely massive area of activity. Being so ubiquitous, the chair is the perfect object to use in the possible definition of a unified theory of design. We attempted this in the introduction of 1000 Chairs by synthesising the idea of connections with an already established theory of design rhetoric.
“Being so ubiquitous, the chair is the perfect object to use in the possible definition of a unified theory of design.”
1000 Chairs, Industrial Design A-Z and Chairs: 1000 Masterpieces of Modern Design, 1800 to Present Day are some of the many books on object history by Charlotte and Peter Fiell. Courtesy of Charlotte and Peter Fiell.
Your work has helped write post-war modern furniture into a larger canon of design and has established the canon of modern furniture itself. What was it like working in then-uncharted territory? How did Knoll factor into it?
CF: We both trained at Sotheby’s Institute—though at different times—and one of the things that was always stressed to us was to find an area of potential scholarship that was ‘virgin’ and then specialise in it. Once that had been achieved and your name had been made in the field as an authority, you could then generalise. And that is more or less what we both did.
Way back in the mid-to-late-1980s, neither of us could believe how little had been written about post-war furniture design. Only a few books existed; one of the best was Knoll Design by Eric Larrabee and Massimo Vignelli, published in 1981, which we poured through time and time again until it fell to pieces and we had to get another copy. For us it was obvious that during the post-war period, the most significant action in furniture design happened in America. This was thanks to not only the forward-looking vision of great companies like Knoll that were committed to the idea of 'good design' but also to the huge pool of design talent that these companies could draw from. And then there were all the new and exciting wartime materials and processes becoming available for peacetime commercial application. It was this area of design innovation that we initially focused on, and then began our long journey as design historians.
Knoll Design by Eric Larrabee and Massimo Vignelli, 1981. Images from the Knoll Archives.
You’ve both worked in book publishing for decades, first at Taschen, then at your own publishing imprint, Fiell. What is gratifying about the illustrated book as a medium of telling design histories?
PF & CF: We've always been book lovers, even as young children. We think the printed page is still a highly valid form of communication because the process of book publishing necessitates layer upon layer of editorial filtering—fact checking, copy-editing, proofreading, etc. You just don’t get that from anything else, especially online. This means you should be able to trust what's on a printed page in a book much more than something that appears in a magazine or an online forum.
We also think that information read from a printed page is actually retained better in one’s memory than when something is read off a screen. We don’t know if this has been scientifically proven yet, but certainly, we both know this to be the case from our own personal experience. And when a story is as long and complex as the one we told in The Story of Design: From the Paleolithic to the Present, then the book format comes into its own, because it allows the building of a narrative that takes the reader on a journey of discovery spanning thousands of years, which hopefully explains clearly and engagingly how our material world came into being.
The Story of Design: From the Paleolithic to the Present by Charlotte and Peter Fiell, 2016. Pictured: The 1984 Apple Mackintosh desktop computer and Mies van der Rohe's MR20 Weissenhof Chair. Courtesy of Charlotte and Peter Fiell and The Monacelli Press.
You’ve expressed that your goal is, above all, to educate the public on good design. Why is a design education vital?
CF: To be frank, design education is one of the very best ways we can save the planet from mindless destruction. It is incredible to us how much appallingly wasteful tat is manufactured, whether it is Chinese-made ‘stocking fillers’ or cheap-and-nasty furniture that will need to be replaced within just a couple of years. Yes, people need to buy new things, but if they understand what the fundamental difference between ‘good design’ and ‘bad design’ is, they might make more informed choices that will ultimately be better for the environment, because they will be more sustainable and at the same time get better value for money.
Tools for Living: A Sourcebook of Iconic Designs for the Home is premised on the idea of anti-obsolescence, an ethos that Knoll shares. But it seems to require a large-scale shift away from our current habits of quick consumption. What needs to happen for this alternative approach to sustainability to take hold?
PF: Yes, the intention behind our book Tools for Living was to get people to think more deeply about their buying choices when it comes to equipping their homes. We all need to change our purchasing habits so that we buy less, and when we do need to get something, we must make sure it is of the highest quality, both in terms of design and manufacture. But that doesn’t necessarily mean vastly more expensive or luxurious! As the great Dieter Rams would say, we need “Less, but Better.”
“Extending the durability of a product is a far better way of achieving sustainability—by doubling a product’s useful life you can halve its net environmental impact.”
Too often, the concept of recyclability is bandied about in such a way that it can be seen to encourage a throwaway culture, as if there were no ultimate limits to levels of consumption. Extending the durability of a product is a far better way of achieving sustainability—by doubling a product’s useful life you can halve its net environmental impact. As a design-led company, Knoll has always stood for these values, which is why its products are so successful and admired around the world. 'Use it today, sling it tomorrow' design, like fast fashion, is a thoroughly wasteful and odious phenomenon that can only be countered with better design education—whether this is through teaching good design values at primary school level, transmitting a better understanding of good design via mainstream media, or gaining firsthand experience with a really well-designed and manufactured product. However it can be communicated, it’s critical that it happens soon and on a meaningful scale.
Tools for Living: A Sourcebook of Iconic Designs for the Home by Charlotte and Peter Fiell, 2010. Courtesy of Charlotte and Peter Fiell.
Your upcoming title, The Story of Design from the Paleolithic to the Present, takes a more macrocosmic perspective on design history than your previous books. Are there some consistent narratives within this immense timeframe? Any persistent human habits?
CF: Absolutely—the human ability to problem solve really well, which is what design is all about, not only sets us apart from other species, but ultimately helped build civilization as we know it. Over and above this, man’s on-going development of new materials and technologies has propelled design ever onwards, with each major leap in materials or technology creating a definable shift within design.
“The human ability to problem solve really well, which is what design is all about, not only sets us apart from other species, but ultimately helped build civilization as we know it.”
PF: Another recurring theme in the story of design is that every generation rejects the solutions of the preceding one and tries to find a better way of doing things. It is the belief that somewhere out there, better, more appropriate, and more efficient solutions to problems exist. This is what ultimately compels designers to design, and has been the main driving force behind the evolution of design.
Do you have a favorite Knoll design?
PF: That’s a bit like asking us to choose which of our two daughters is our favorite child, because Knoll has produced just so many great designs over the decades. That said, I have to say that the design I probably admire the most is Eero Saarinen’s Tulip Chair, which is one of the most elegant seating forms ever designed. While not structurally one piece, it was visually unified and its beautiful sculptural form did, as Saarinen intended, "clean up the slum of legs" around a table.
CF: Yes, the Saarinen Tulip Chair is definitely up there, but I have a real soft spot for Harry Bertoia’s Diamond Chair, too. Again, it’s a truly masterful exercise in sculptural yet functional form, while possessing a remarkable visual lightness. We used to have a couple in our garden for many years, and I always thought they looked amazing, especially when they cast shadows. Our youngest daughter now has them on her balcony, and they still look great!
Left: The elegent stem of Eero Saarinen's 1957 Tulip Chair. Right: The sculptural mesh of Harry Bertoia's 1952 Diamond Chair. Images from the Knoll Archives.
Finally, what motivates you to keep writing?
CF: We both strongly believe that design education is of utmost importance, because when people understand the difference between good and bad design, they can then make informed purchasing choices, which ultimately means less junk will be manufactured. It is, frankly, scandalous how much rubbish is produced and consumed without any thought of the environmental impact it has. Probably, there needs to be some international design standards set, in order to deter the seemingly never-ending stream of product design banality. But until that happens, the best way of curbing bad design is through education—and that’s where our books come in. Throughout our careers as design writers we have set out to explain the principles of good design, and cultivate a wider and deeper appreciation of design issues. Our hope is that our books will give people a better understanding of both the process and role of design in society and therefore become more thoughtful consumers because of it.
“Our hope is that our books will give people a better understanding of both the process and role of design in society and therefore become more thoughtful consumers because of it.”
PF: I absolutely agree with Charlotte on this, but would also like to add that another thing that motivates us to keep on writing is our love of the subject, and let’s face it, what a subject it is. Ultimately, the story of design is the story of how all man-made things came into being, and you don’t get many subjects bigger than that. And as time goes on, the story is constantly evolving. It's just fascinating how humans have harnessed and continue to harness the power of creative thinking in order to come up with innovative, intelligent solutions to all sorts of problems, whether using an evolutionary approach to design, or a revolutionary one.