OBJECTS OF DESIRE; By Adrian Forty. Pantheon. 256 pp. $24.95.

DESIGN IS an inescapable reality of modern life, yet one taken so thoroughly for granted that we almost never pause to think about it. We may regard a manufactured object as handsome or ugly, but we rarely pause to consider the way it has been designed or the aims the manufacturer hopes to accomplish by designing it as he has. Yet as Adrian Forty is at pains to demonstrate in this thoughtful, provocative and occasionally wrongheaded book, design is in actuality a complex process that involves much more than presenting an object in the most agreeable light; it also touches on such deeper, more elusive questions as the urge for profit, the transmission of ideas about what kind of people we are -- or wish we were -- and the creation of ideologically supercharged illusions.

Forty is a British scholar specializing in architectural history, and American readers may feel that his book is too heavily weighted toward design in Britain; inasmuch as 20th-century design has been dominated by the United States, this bias throws Forty's perspective somewhat out of whack. But design is design no matter where it is practiced, so the essential arguments that Forty proposes are valid in all capitalist economies. Boiled down to their essence, these arguments are that design is not art but part of the industrial and/or manufacturing process and that "the primary purpose of the manufacture of artifacts . . . has to be to make a profit for the manufacturer."

Art, Forty points out, is "usually both conceived and made by (or under the direction of) one person, the artist." But design is another matter altogether. The designer of, say, wallpaper patterns, is only one among many employes of a firm -- or a free-lancer working for it -- who are joined together not to make beautiful wallpaper but to make a profit. The designer may in the course of his labors produce a beautiful pattern, but its beauty will have less to do with the manufacturer's decision to produce it than will the manufacturer's evaluation of its profit potential. Unlike the artist, the designer usually has no say in the final fate of his work; design is done for profit, not for art, and the decisions about its use are made by businessmen, not by the designers themselves.

Forty traces the history of design back to the 18th century, when Josiah Wedgwood began to manufacture pottery in the neo- classical style then popular in England. Up to then pottery had been made by individual artisans, with each piece marked by the potter's individuality. But Wedgwood began to produce for what was to all intents and purposes a mass market, though a very small one by today's standards, a process that required him to suppress the individuality of his potters and to insist that they assemble his wares according to designs prepared for him by independent designers. Though these designs were in the neoclassical style, they alat style in order to accommodate the manufacturing process Wedgwood had devised:

"The development of forms that both suited the methods of manufacture and satisfied the tastes of the market was the work of design. It would not have been enough for the designs just to have appealed to 18th- century middle and upper-class taste, or just to have been such that the craftsmen could be relied on to repeat them consistently: the achievement of Wedgwood's modellers was to arrive at forms which satisfactorily fused the requirements of both production and consumption. In this, the modellers were occupied in exactly the same task as every subsequent designer."

Design, Forty is at pains to argue, is no invention of the 20th century; its roots are more than two centuries old, and its essential nature has not changed in all that time. Designers may now be working on television sets, vacuum cleaners and computers rather than neoclassical pitchers and plates, but their business is still the same: to devise forms, shapes and styles -- packages, if you will -- that satisfy the manufacturer and please the consumer. Over and again, Forty emphasizes that design is an inherently commercial undertaking involving an inescapable paradox: "On the one hand, design is determined by ideas and material conditions over which designers have no control, yet, on the other hand, designs are the result of designers exercising their creative autonomy and originality."

But it is always the first consideration that wins out. The designer at work on a new vacuum cleaner may hope to come up with a proposal that suits his artistic fancy, but the manufacturer is interested only in whether the design will conceal the machine's inner workings -- which are not, by conventional standards, beautiful -- while at the same time encouraging the potential customer in the belief that the machine is modern, efficient and time-saving. Much design, in fact, exists to disguise the fundamental nature of the object to which it is applied; Forty notes that radios originally were designed to look like cabinets or other familiar pieces of furniture, while typewriters "should not look like machines, but should convey a more respectable and less oppressive image."

THIS CREATION and perpetuation of illusions is a principal business of design. Nowhere is this more true, or more revealingly demonstrated by Forty, than in household and workplace design. Our principal illusion about our places of residence, one that all of us cherish, is that they express our individuality; yet as Forty points out, we express this individuality through the purchase and display of designed and manufactured goods. What we express is not so much our individuality as our taste in manufactured, usually mass-produced, goods; hanging a Steinberg poster on the wall or drinking from Kosta Boda glasses says less about who we are than about how we function in the marketplace of design. "It is the fact that the home is both a factory of private illusions and a catalogue of ready-made tastes, values and ideas," Forty writes, "that makes all design for the home so extraordinarily revealing about the conditions of modern life."

The same is true about design for the workplace. The design of offices, Forty says, is today concerned with creating an illusion of equality, hence office "landscaping" that features open spaces, work stations and other schemes to "contain this apparently insoluble contradiction in office work, between apparent egalitarianism and actual hierarchies." Similarly, the design of office equipment often seeks to promote the illusion that work is not hard, boring or demeaning. Typewriters, duplicating machines, computers: all are designed to make what is actually repetitious, monotonous clerical work -- white-collar factory work -- seem more enjoyable than it really is. Hence the profusion of bright colors, state-of-the-art protechnics and other gimcracks of the electronic age.

Forty's analysis of these and other aspects of design -- in particular what he calls "the aesthetic of cleanliness" -- is penetrating, but his insistence on taking a Marxist reading of every marketplace decision becomes more than a trifle wearying. Over and again he pounds away at the profit motive, sometimes to the point of over-interpretation. He writes, for example, that "railway policy was to provide progressively more uncomfortable accomodation in the lower-class carriages to discourage those who could afford expensive tickets from buying cheaper ones." A more realistic if less ideological reading would be that minimal accomodations were made available for all travelers, and more comfortable ones were provided in hopes of luring those able to afford them. Forty's tendency to see the evil thirst for profit behind every design decision gives Objects of Desire a political cast that the subject under discussion does not, to put it mildly, entirely warrant.

But he has written an exceptionally interesting book, one mark of which is that it leaves one wishing he had written more and addressed more questions. The relationship between art and design raises more issues than Forty gives himself space to consider. Though design is indeed not art, is it possible for a specific design to become art in the judgment of those who observe it? Is it, for that matter, possible for art to become design -- is a reproduction of a painting, mass- produced and mass-marketed, art or design? For that matter, has the age of design permanently altered, and lowered, our expectations of art?

These are fascinating questions, and Forty presumably has opinions about them. Perhaps he will express himself in a sequel; if he writes one, let us hope he also considers the question of automobile design, a startling and disappointing omission in Objects of Desire.