The Form and Function Side of Design

By Nora Krug
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, July 30, 2009

When Ellen Lupton was recovering after the birth of her daughter, her husband's eyes strayed from the beatific scene of mother and child to something less palatable: the poor design of the hospital room. Unable to stand it, he decided to reconfigure, fashioning a new seating area near the window beside Lupton's bed rather than at her feet.

"Daddy has a furniture problem," Lupton later explained to her children. But if it's a problem, it's one he shares with his wife, a curator of contemporary design at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York and director of the graphic design master of fine arts program at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, where she lives. She's also the co-author of the new book "Design Your Life: The Pleasures and Perils of Everyday Things" (St. Martin's Griffin, $23.95) and a blog ( with her twin sister, Julia Lupton, a professor of English at the University of California at Irvine.

Ellen, 45, explains that for her family, "moving the furniture has become a way of pulling happiness and sociability . . . out of ordinary situations."

The book, a glossy paperback punctuated with colorful, painterly illustrations by Ellen, examines the highs and lows of everyday design, such as the pitfalls of the modern toaster, why porches are making a comeback and what's wrong with rolling luggage. It also offers tips on how design can make your life not only more visually appealing but also more efficient, even happier.

If this sounds like self-help hooey, never fear. "Design Your Life" is brainy and irreverent: "Design has psychological as well as mechanical functions," Ellen writes. Even "an ordinary toilet paper holder can instill feelings of security, freedom, and restraint in addition to keeping the clean roll off the dirty floor." In a phone interview, we asked the authors to elaborate.

How do you define good design?

Ellen: We think design is not just objects but what you do with them, and that if you can arrange them in your life so they work for you, that's good design. Good design gives you pleasure and efficiency. When you start to become aware and pay attention to the details and habits of your day, then you start thinking like a designer.

How can you spot poor design?

Ellen: One way to know an object is badly designed is when cleaning and taking care of it outweigh the pleasure and value of using it. The chocolate fountain is an example of this. . . . Another example is the toilet paper dispenser in America. Most are spring-loaded, and they require two hands and multiple arm motions to remove the core and put new paper on them. Therefore, in households around the land, you see people not putting new paper on them. This can make people angry, but it's a design problem.

Can you explain how, as you put it, you can "control the actions of those around you by placing objects carefully"?

Ellen: Flat surfaces invite people to pile things: keys, paper, coffee cups, etc. We all want to keep these surfaces clean, but when you clean them off, it entices people put things on them. So when you want to deter that, put a beautiful object on it, like a vase or a bowl of sea shells. You should then have places where you allow people to put stuff, where you create a space and an opportunity so the clutter doesn't go everywhere else.

Among the rooms you analyze is the living room. Is there something fundamentally wrong with the living room? Do we really need it?

Julia: The living room keeps coming under attack as wasted space. Yet it keeps reappearing. . . . We seem to need a space that is largely uncluttered and somewhat formal as a breathing space. . . . Even as we want to use every inch of the house productively, these more formal spaces keep getting taken back to be what they are: beautiful, empty places where activity is not -- a visual moment of rest in the house.

What is the most recent gadget you bought?

Ellen: A Kindle. It's my love object. I bought it because I travel a lot and love to read. I have thousands of books in my house, but I don't want to have to own everything I read. . . . I love the experience of the Kindle. It is truly a different experience of reading and not just a poor substitute for print.

Julia: A Flip video camera. . . . It's become an extension of our household: a light, easy-to-use, personalized tool for documenting and for creativity.

In a few words, how can good design help make you happier?

Ellen: So much of our experience every day is affected by light, temperature, the comfort of our furniture and by what we can see when we're sitting in it. Making those things pleasurable, beautiful and functional instead of ugly and dirty and oppressive really does, for me, create happiness.

How can a toilet paper holder make you feel happy or secure -- or not?

Ellen: The reason that most people have spring-loaded toilet paper holders is because it feels secure, that the paper's not going to fall off the wall. The open-ended holder makes you feel like you won't have the paper when you most need it. People should ask themselves which is more important: the security of a spring-loaded design that traps paper in a space or the ease of use of an open-ended design -- or no toilet paper holder at all.

What kind of toilet paper holder do you have?

Julia: We both have open-ended holders. . . . Other people notice flowers; we notice the toilet paper.

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