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Design
Timelessness in Design

Timelessness in Design

By Von Chua


Image of the timeless Musée de l'Orangerie housing Monet's Water Lilies. By Von Chua.


Design trends come and go. This year, the Pantone Color of the Year is the classic blue 19-4052, but its popularity will be overshadowed when the next colour of the year is announced. In fashion, design trends happen even more rapidly as fashion designers prepare for five to six collections each year, battling the short time frame to produce garments from each collection's concept stage. Some designs will be the "it" item for a moment but they will quickly feel dated within a short span of time. The design becomes highly recognisable and ingrained in the design-conscious crowd of who designed it, when it was made and may also in some ways attach a design to a particular time in history. 

On the other hand, timelessness in design is those that always seem relevant. As an architect and a design enthusiast,  my appreciation of craftsmanship spans widely into a range of designs from architecture, art, furniture, fashion, product design, and even materials of artistic craftsmanship including movies, music and flower arrangements. Through my appreciation of craftsmanship, timelessness in design is an element that I repeatedly find myself drawn to. Building once and building well, producing once and producing well. Those approach when designing is in line with my aspiration to work sustainably, to use the limited resources we have on this planet well and invest in the craftsmanship that will last for decades or even generations. 

"Things of quality have no fear of time." 

The author of this quote is unknown, however, strongly resonates with my approach in design. 

What makes a design timeless? There are no formulas to reach timelessness in design, and frankly speaking, it is extremely difficult to achieve and happens in the rare exception. Some of the common themes in timeless designs I respect are as follows:

1. REFINED SIMPLICITY

From studying iconic architecture to product design, as well as classic furniture to fashion, timeless designs have an overarching idea of simplicity. However, this simplicity comes with a refinement that demonstrates either a true intention for function, balanced proportions, understanding of how a material performs and at times being a pioneer in innovatively utilising materials or construction techniques. This response to time and technological availability is unique and is a result that is only possible through a particular time in history. 

A true synergy of style, function, shapes, materials, colour and production method are some of the key ingredients, I believe, in delivering a timelessness in design. 


2. AGE WITH BEAUTY

Timeless designs change and age over time. Surviving that ageing with beauty is a quality that plays an important role to elevate an ordinarily beautiful design into a timeless design. Whether it is a patina that continues to develop on a building's facade or a piece of wooden furniture, the ability to withstand usage or even weathering adds a character that layers in a story to a design. The recent boom in vintage furniture, vintage jewellery, vintage womenswear and menswear celebrates this idea of ageing with beauty.    

Some of my favourite buildings are clad in corten steel, also known as weathering steel. The steel's surface oxidises and develops its protective film instead of corroding. In appearance, the oxidisation looks like rust but its corrosion is actually forming a corrective layer rather than a damaging the material. To plan for this sort of finish requires precision, a true understanding of how a material behaves and embraces the changes over time. And timeless work must be capable of surviving change. 

3. A TEAM PLAYER

In addition to having the quality of refined simplicity and age with beauty, a timeless design is a team player that can work with many different teams. Although it is common to have timeless pieces in a neutral palette, it is not always the case. Whether it is a piece of furniture or a garment, a well-made timeless piece interacts with other pieces in harmony. For example, a 1950s vintage chair may sit well in a house that was built in the 50s, on the other hand, the same vintage chair may inject warmth and nostalgia into the show apartment of a new built residential development. Pierre Jeanneret's Chandigarh chair comes to mind as it appears frequently in prime residential projects in London, UK. 

Regardless of era, a piece that celebrates timelessness tends to have the ability to complement and / or blend in with pieces that cross eras. Timeless pieces are team players; every piece has its place and its history to make it stand in harmony within a versatile set of settings. 

4. FUNDAMENTALS REDEFINED 

One clear thing is that timelessness is not the result of aiming to make something timeless. A common thread that runs through timeless designs is the in-depth understanding of the fundamentals. But simply replicating a piece is not enough, there tends to be something more to it through its redefined approach and refinement. Look at better ways to improve what is already out there without forgetting the fundamentals may be one way to design for timelessness to introduce a fresh perspective to its user. 

One of the pioneers of electric cars is Tesla Motors. In 2014, Tesla's founder Elon Musk announced that Tesla Motors will not initiate patent lawsuits against anyone who, in good faith, wants to use their technology (https://www.tesla.com/en_GB/blog/all-our-patent-are-belong-you). By developing technology to advance electric vehicle technology, Tesla Motors has played a key role in sustainable transport. With that announcement, Tesla Motors signal to the industry to work together to accelerate the advent of sustainable transport. The technological limitations of creating electric vehicles are somewhat lifted, so now the fundamentals of how private and public transport can be redefined too. Working together towards a majority use of electric vehicles needs to happen sooner to combat climate change, and Tesla Motors is leading the redefining of our mode of transport. 

With refined simplicity, ability to age with beauty, being a team player, and fundamentals redefined, these are some of the key qualities of timelessness in design observed over the years. From time and time again, this appears to be true and is the reason why people invest in and collect certain pieces. When design and craftsmanship are of quality, a designed piece will stand the test of time. And when this is coupled with redefining the fundamentals, the ability of timelessness in design can even make a change on an industry level. 

First published on ADF Web Magazine 19/01/2021. If you have any questions or simply to share your favourite timeless design, please do not hesitate to contact me via email at von@vonxarchitects.com


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