Space-Age Product Design of the 20th Century and Beyond
Ever since humans first looked up towards the heavens, we’ve wondered what is up there. From 1923 when Edwin Hubble first discovered galaxies beyond our own, our hunger and obsession for knowledge of the cosmos has grown almost as quickly as the universe itself.
As our technology advanced throughout the 20th century, we realized that ‘space’ is, in fact, filled with a huge array of ever more colorful galaxies, gasses, and stars. And the world’s leading product designers were taking note.
The space race and its influence on design
After the USSR surprised the rest of the world by successfully sending the first object into orbit (Sputnik 1) in 1957, not to be outdone, US President John F. Kennedy famously chose ‘to go to the moon’ within the decade. The race to explore space had begun and, in doing so, offered fuel to the fire of our obsession.
‘Since the dawn of humankind, the visual arts, architecture and other spheres have found wonder and inspiration in celestial bodies and in the physical laws that structure them. Design is no exception’ explains Marie Pok, curator of the Cosmos: Design from Here and Beyond exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Design and Applied Arts in Lausanne, Switzerland.
In 1965, for example, a year when the USSR and USA’s competitive space programs traded exploration records and press releases, Vico Magistretti created the Eclisse lamp, using the simple arrangement of a solar eclipse to control the intensity of light.
Storytelling with rocket shapes in product design
Once the ‘giant leap for mankind’ had been taken, the competitive element of the space race was all but over. And yet in another, more influential way, it had only just begun. From the dual targets of getting into space and onto the moon, humanity adjusted its focus on staying there. In 1972, NASA began the Space Shuttle programme to develop a rocket that was powerful enough to escape Earth, while being sturdy enough to not only make it back but also go again.
Magistretti’s Atollo lamp for Oluce, for example, created in 1977, tells the story of a rocket on its way to a spherical body, possibly the moon or a more distant planet. ‘The geometric shapes that compose the lamp – cylinder, cone and hemisphere,’ as the lamp’s manufacturer Oluce explains, ‘have resulted in a product that is decorative and essential.’ And since its release, Atollo has continued its journey to become an icon of design, breaking from the historical period and fashions of the moment.
Astrophysics and the laws of the universe in design
It isn’t just the physical forms we use to get to space or the visual souvenirs we bring back that inspire our creatives down here on Earth, of course. But also the knowledge and understanding we have about the world around us, too. ‘The modern image of the cosmos is embodied in design projects that lead us far beyond its scientific roots and reflect its mysteries and beauty’ enthuses Marie Pok.
Whether from the projected orbit of celestial bodies, Earth’s own magnetic field or the mathematical beauty of the gravitational forces surrounding a black hole, space is full of curves. Although the curving form of the iconic Panton chair, for example, was enabled by advancements in material and manufacturing technology throughout the second half of the 20th century, the popularity of the chair owes a gratitude to our continued obsession with the curves of space-age interiors.
Alien life-forms represented in product design
Once able to regularly travel to space, humanity’s focus turned towards how long we were able to stay there – learning to live away from Earth for longer periods on the International Space Station, and ultimately, how far out we could go. Our attention down here on Earth, meanwhile, jumped forward to what we might find while there.
Strangely, when designers combine the simplicity of a curved shape with at least one human-like ability – such as to walk or to see, for example, it’s precisely this human-like ability that makes the object seem so alien. Take Philippe Starck’s iconic Juicy Salif, for example. The egg-shaped juicer sits atop three pointed legs, seemingly poised to walk across the worktop, and it’s this balanced design hinting at movement that makes the alien-shaped object seem so alive.
The contemporary space race and re-emergence of space-age design
Although many can argue that it never went away, the boom in the commercial interest in space flight for tourism, material mining and even our urgency to become a ‘multi-planet species’, is rocketing space-age design back into contemporary designers’ works.
The Superloon floor lamp designed by Jasper Morrison, for example, rotates a large light-giving object 360 degrees, emitting different intensities of light high in a room, the Origin table from Babled ignores the flatness usually asked of a tabletop and imitates gravitational forces by sinking part of its surface in the centre, Please Wait to be Seated’s Planet lamp moves discs of varying material and colour on a wall like a two-dimensional orrery and the Entler Table lights from Jonathan Entler are a series of alien-like lightforms.