Mark Lamster | Essays

Dishing on Design Research


As a kid in 70s-era New York, I wasn’t especially attuned to home decor. But there was one thing I did notice: virtually all of my friends’ parents had the same tableware. The dishes were a heavy, gray stoneware, rimmed by a pair of concentric navy bands. Cups and serving bowls had an abstracted floral pattern in the same navy shade. A handsome modern design and utilitarian — my parents used them for everything: a formal dinner party, a quick meal. They were essentially indestructible, which is why, to this day, my parents still use those same plates. As do my best friend’s parents. Etc. 

This wonderful tableware was made by the Finish firm Arabia and designed by Ulla Procopé. I discovered this only recently, which shows just how blind even a design writer can be to design, but is also a testament to the new book on D/R by Jane Thompson and Alexandra Lange, which inspired me to look. I knew Design Research primarily through the brilliant concrete and glass building Ben Thompson designed as its Cambridge flagship and hadn’t quite understood its critical position in the dissemination of modern design in the American home. Certainly I had no idea about the close connection between D/R and Julia Child. That section alone is worth the price of admission, but really the whole thing is terrific and looks great too, thanks to design by Michael Bierut.

As it is, my parents did not purchase their Arabiaware at D/R. They bought it at Pottery Barn, back when Pottery Barn was still a discount shack and the means of display was simply to leave the goods out in boxes overflowing with shaved-wood packing. More serious kitchen items were purchased at Bridge and there was Zabar’s to fill the pantry. D/R was not in their repertoire, but we spent many hours at Conran’s in CitiCorp Center.

It’s sad that today we have nothing analogous to D/R (or Conran’s in its original, low-price incarnation), retailers that offered modern design at modest prices. We have Ikea on one pole and DWR (or Moss?) on the other. Wouldn’t it be nice if there were something in between?

Posted in: Product Design

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