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. Slide Show: The Seeds of Inspiration




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Inspiration: Where Does It Come From?


Published: November 30, 2003

Raymond Loewy, the industrial designer, once said that ''simplicity is the deciding factor in the aesthetic equation.'' So, in the spirit of good design, let's begin with a radical simplification. Artists are influenced primarily by other artists, which means that standard art history can sound like a baseball broadcast of an infield play: Velazquez to Goya to Picasso. And designers? To be sure, they are aware of the products of other designers, but their attention is not so narrowly focused. When, near the end of his life, Isamu Noguchi, who straddled the boundary between art and design, created a sculpture garden in Costa Mesa, Calif., he was unquestionably recalling the manipulations of space and perspective in the Zen gardens of Kyoto and the geometric sculptures in the observatory in Jaipur. At the same time, he was thinking of the ways in which the sets he designed as a young man for theatrical stages had, through clever lighting and placement, made a constricted space seem vast. And he was acutely conscious of the function of this sculpture garden in Orange County as the centerpiece of a commercial real-estate development.


Ever since the Romantics, we have thought of artists as following their muses and of designers as chasing the market. An artist preoccupied with sales will risk being written off as a mercenary, while a designer neglectful of his audience will soon be out of work. In reality, designers and artists aren't separated by so sharp a line. When a designer sets out to improve an existing product, or to create a product that fills a newly perceived (or fabricated) need, she does not usually call in a focus group. She thinks, she tinkers, she reassesses -- much like an artist. Indeed, rather than thinking of a designer as a kind of artist, it might be better to regard the artist as a designer manque. For, as Loewy said, the designer ''ought to have a background in both engineering and art history'' and ''to be open to an extraordinarily broad range of influences.'' The designer ought to be an artist, and more. The greatest artists of the Italian Renaissance -- Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael, Piero della Francesca -- were also engineers, architects, mathematicians, inventors. In short, they were designers.

Maybe it comes down to a difference in ideals. While art aspires to be pure, design is a cheerful mongrel. Asked to name his creative influences, Loewy listed Seurat, Nureyev, Conan Doyle, Picasso, Escoffier. . . . The honor roll went on and on; yet, strangely, few on it would have called himself or herself a ''designer.'' The common link? Whether depicting a sunlit landscape in a painting or suspending a balletic leap in midair, each of Loewy's heroes confronted a problem by methodically constructing a beautiful and new solution.

How inspiration comes to the designer is the theme of this issue. Because design stands at the intersection of artistry, engineering and commerce, ideas can blow in from many directions. In the pages immediately following, the design firm KarlssonWilker maps out the impure conception of seven very different products. The New Zealand businessman who designed the Aquada car-boat was annoyed by the inconvenience of dragging his boat to the harbor by tractor and trailer. He developed an amphibious vehicle that moved easily enough through the water but lumbered on land -- until he stumbled upon an ingenious form of retractable wheels. The creators of the dripless popsicle were faced with a more widespread but equally irritating problem: what happens to clothing when you combine children and ice cream? In each case, the designer searched for an engineering fix to a functional impasse.

Very often, the designer is required simply to come up with a beautiful form. Or not so simply. The directors of Selfridges, an upmarket British department store, commissioned the firm Future Systems to concoct a visually arresting building for its branch in a new shopping center in the heart of Birmingham, England. The silver-scaled behemoth that the architects constructed looms like a dragon over the otherwise unremarkable development. This is design that calls attention to itself and signals a break with the past. ''We wanted to do something that had an incredible impact and made a big statement,'' the marketing director of Selfridges told The Daily Telegraph. With its sinuous, billowing shape and its 15,000 aluminum discs mounted on a background of Yves Klein blue, the department store is intended to evoke the cry ''What in the world is that?''

The creators of the new $20 bill, on the other hand, hoped to reassure, not bewilder or astonish. The designers aimed to give the bill a more modern look and, even more important, to thwart counterfeiters. So they freed Andrew Jackson's portrait from its musty oval frame and introduced hard-to-duplicate color-shifting inks. But they had to work within parameters that conserved a continuity with the past. ''Recognizability in the new design is key,'' says Tom Ferguson, director of the United States Bureau of Printing and Engraving. If people said, ''What in the world is that?'' the new banknote would be a failure. The difference between the challenges set for the design teams at Selfridges and the U.S. Treasury is one that marketers know well: whether to create something brand-new or to clean up a familiar brand.

Either way, struck forte or pianissimo, novelty is the designer's main note. The most impressive designs are those that seem naturally right, unimprovable, inevitable. Using Loewy's criterion, you would be hard pressed to find a product more simple than the carrot. At least to an American, orangeness and carrotness seem inextricably linked. Not so. Two thousand years ago in Egypt, the carrot, it seems, was purple. In Rome, back when Rome ruled the world, the carrot was an imperial purple or a chaste white. By the 16th century, carrots had been grown in purple, white, yellow, green, red, black -- in almost every hue but orange. This appears to have rankled the patriotic and clever Dutch, who, seeking to glorify their reigning House of Orange, crossbred yellow and red carrots to produce a root that -- thanks to alpha and beta carotenes -- came up pigmented as desired. As a fringe benefit, the carotenes are converted by the body to essential vitamin A, which made the new carrot not only beautiful to its creators but also healthful to consumers. Through the vagaries of fashion, the orange carrot conquered the West.

In a world where designers never sleep, flash forward a few centuries. At the Texas A&M Vegetable and Fruit Improvement Center, one Leonard M. Pike, a horticulturist with a longstanding interest in carrots, came up with the notion of designing a variety that would display his school's colors -- maroon and white. When a visiting cancer researcher happened to observe that the compound that made the carrot purple, anthocyanin, appeared to be a powerful anticancer agent, Pike's emphasis shifted. For seven years, he refined his version of the ancient carrot to approximate what a contemporary customer would want. In order for his vegetable to remain recognizably a carrot, he retained an orange core beneath the maroon surface. Because boiling drains the purple color, he reworked the carrot's texture until it was as crisp as an apple and could be savored raw. To maximize the health benefits, he beefed up the beta carotene to half again what is found in a standard carrot. In 1998, the new carrot was released as seed. After an encouraging trial, the purple carrot is now in 150 Sainsbury stores in Britain. The marketplace will make the final judgment, but as a product inspired by collegiate chromatic fervor, and then engineered for a wider, health-conscious audience, Pike's hybrid carrot admirably illustrates the way inspiration functions in the hybrid world of design.

Arthur Lubow is a contributing writer for the magazine.

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