The built environment all around you is an object of intricate design. From the desk you sit at to work, to the door knob you turn to exit or enter a room, there was someone who believed they could make it better. They did and others continue to do so.
Our built environments impact the way that we engage, socialize and even relax. Think about your office space for a moment. Some office spaces are built up entirely of windowless cubicles, void of connection.
This type of design keeps people from talking to each other and getting distracted by things happening outside. The theory is that it works at keeping people busy and productive, but this built environment also makes people unhappy — and studies suggest that it does little to boost productivity, perhaps quite the opposite. Psychology Today summarizes that “locations offering prospect and refuge are inherently pleasing, while areas that deny us shelter or a view tend to generate discomfort.” It stands to reason why companies that offer freedom of movement produce a more productive and creative atmosphere.
It is the innovative designer who can change the status quo and influence society in such a way as that society cannot believe they did not know any other way before. The designers that make up this list did just that: they opened our eyes and showed us a better way of living.
Won: AIA's Gold Medal
Known for: Wassily Chair
An early student (and later a teacher) of the Bauhaus, Marcel Breuer specialized in industrial design. Creating sculptural effects out of tubular steel, Breuer designed masterful furniture pieces and architecture that were streamlined, functional and beautiful. Breuer's Wassily Chair was in part inspired by curved bicycle handlebars, as can be seen in the frame of the chair.
Breuer subtracted elements from the traditional club chair to make a sinuous, minimalist design that did exactly what it was supposed to do: support the sitter. In designing a sort of bare bones piece of furniture, Breuer inspired modern and contemporary designers (modern and contemporary design is not one and the same) to make form the central focus of product and furniture design. If the form of the object is lacking, the piece will not work. Breuer understood this and his work reflects it.
Charles & Ray Eames
Won: Museum of Modern Art, Organic Furniture Competition, First prize and other awards
Known for: The Eames Chair
Okay, I might be cheating here as this is supposed to be a list of three influential furniture designers, but you can't have Charles without Ray or Ray without Charles, the Eameses were a team! Okay, enough fangirling. Charles and Ray hit the ground running soon after they married, revolutionizing splints and stretchers during World War II with their specially molded plywood. This led them to create molded plywood furniture. The molded plywood Eames Chair was called “the chair of the century,” and it was soon mass-produced by Herman Miller Inc.
With a strong belief in democratic design, Charles and Ray set out to design furniture that was affordable, made well and easily mass-produced.
You can find their design aesthetic in museums, airports and offices. Stores like Ikea and Target even sell knock offs of their original designs. The Eames brand of modernism is found in contemporary furniture today.
Won: Museum of Modern Art, Good Design Awards
Known for: Cobra Lamp
A Swedish furniture designer, Greta Grossman was one of a few female designers in the mid-twentieth century who was able to break the “design glass ceiling” and prove herself just as good (if not better) than the boys.
After completing a woodworking apprenticeship, she won a scholarship to the distinguished Stockholm arts institution Konstfack. There, Greta learned technical drawing and found her passion in furniture design. By the late 1940s Greta created the Cobra Lamp. A tripod made of tubular steel with a conical metal shade, the lamp used industrial materials and made minimalism beautiful.
The Cobra Lamp can still be purchased today, and there are a lot of copy cats, or rather, designers who have built on Grossman's design.
Design is a powerful instrument in positive change. The materials, the direct and indirect impacts of the design, and so much more. You simply have to open your eyes to recognize it.