Spectator celebrates good design

Leslie wishes she was a minimalist

One of my unfulfilled ambitions is to be a minimalist. Those who know me will realise that I will never get there. I like ‘stuff’ too much. How many minimalists own a life-size Chinese wooden deer and a pair of blown-glass courgettes?

But where I do qualify is that I believe design should be simple. It should look good, it should feel good and it should work. Some of the best design around is hardly noticed which is the whole idea. For example, the Route-master double-decker was the perfect bus for London. You could jump on and off, the staircase was easy to climb and the seats were plain and comfortable. When it was phased out, Londoners sincerely mourned its passing.

And what about the ordinary postage stamp with the profile of a younger Queen Elizabeth? It was designed by the sculptor Arnold Machin, whom I once met. A charming and modest man, he should have been given more praise, if not a knighthood, as this stamp has everything needed. Forget the portraits of great British worthies, sporting heroes or Suffragettes that are des-igned for stamp collections. You need only the attractive head of the head of state.

One of my own heroes is John Pawson, Mr Minimalist himself. I could never manage his pared-down interiors. I like pictures on walls, carpets underfoot and tablescapes like the late David Hicks pioneered, but, when it comes to eating, I agree that there is no fork to beat the Georgian Old English silver one he says is ‘the ultimately restrained fork’. I once knew a silver dealer who, hating all later designs, had to take his own Georgian silver cutlery to use in hotels and restaurants.

At the same time, Mr Pawson pours scorn on fish knives and forks, ‘the epitome of superfluous cutlery’, before which, apparently, fish was eaten with two forks: ‘The Victorians are largely to blame for… creating a fork, spoon and knife for every conceivable function.’ So, include butter knives, sugar nippers and, of course, napkin rings. Past grandees simply threw their once-used napkins on the table and a servant washed them.

Under the same banner of usefulness and simplicity comes the much-reviled ‘brown furniture’. Why should these pared-down chests of drawers, tallboys and side tables be so unfashionable? As an interior designer once explained to me, put these unassuming bits of furniture in the right setting and their excellence is obvious. If I had a large warehouse, I would buy the best examples I could find and wait for the day when people realised their value.

Design didn’t end in the 18th century, although, in the case of cutlery by 20th-century designers, I wish it had. Most is uncomfortable to use and hardly does the job. I could say the same for those incredibly expensive watches that are designed only to show how much they cost. The best wristwatch, in my view, is the 1917 Cartier Tank, an exercise in minimalism and good sense, inspired by the real tanks on the Western Front.

One of my favourite objects at home is a silver salver by the designer David Mellor, whom Sir Terence Conran called ‘Britain’s greatest post-war product designer’. The salver was a wedding present we commissioned from him and the end result was
a consciously plain design with a heavy rim and large hallmark.

After the Second World War, Britain was pioneering good design. This was thanks to the Design Council, which sharpened the work of our world-beating art schools. We’re still up there thanks to the likes of Sir Jonathan Ive, who’s responsible for most of the delightful Apple machines. Apparently, he was worried (like many of us) that he was ‘technically inept’, which encouraged him to make his designs unthreatening.

I’m writing this on my Mac-Book Air, simplicity itself and a pleasure to use. Now, that’s what good design is.

First published in Country Life magazine on September 3 2014