13 Brilliant But Quotidian Design Classics

Does a €1 coin contain as much good design as, say, a $600k table? For curators at London’s Design Museum, the answer is yes.

A mailbox. A Euro coin. A vacuum cleaner.


The latest exhibit at Design Museum London, Extraordinary Stories About Ordinary Things, is full of objects that are utterly familiar to most of us. But does their ubiquity negate their quality as pieces of design? Not according to museum director Deyan Sudjic. “Design matters at every level,” Sudjic says. “It’s what makes daily life a little better; it’s about the big economic changes that the world is going through.”

The last time we wrote about the Design Museum, it was to point out the $160,000 table the curators nominated for their Design of the Year Award. Extraordinary Objects has a similar goal, but a completely different approach. The exhibition is celebrating design, but of the sort that’s found everywhere and costs very little–or no–money to use. For example, three massive road signs have been hung in the museum’s galleries, pointing out directions to Nottingham and Scarborough. There are a zillion others like them across England; they were designed by Jock Kinneir and Margaret Calvert in 1964 and haven’t changed since. A year later, David Mellor overhauled the U.K.’s traffic signals with his iconic stoplight, which is also on view at the museum. “Design,” Sudjic says, “is a unique way of making sense of the world around us.”

The show is organized into six “stories,” with a special focus on consumer goods and, in particular, objects made of plastic. These range from the obvious–the Eames’ plastic molded chairs–to the inventive, like Issey Miyake’s use of recycled PET. Jonathan Ive’s iMac from 1998 makes an appearance, which might surprise some. The iMac wasn’t Ive’s most singularly beautiful piece of design for Apple, but it was a paradigm-shifting object for the company that helped them pivot toward a broader consumer market. The same goes for one of James Dyson’s first G-Force vacuum cleaners, which appears not in its sleek 2013 form but in its queasy 1986 incarnation, a mishmash of pastel and beige plastic. Both are perfect examples of Sudjic’s no-nonsense curatorial approach, which he frankly sums up by saying, “it’s about the designers and the manufacturers, but it’s also about the users.”

Extraordinary Stories will be on view for two years, functioning as an ever-changing mechanism for highlighting the Design Museum’s new permanent collection of “everyday design.” Of course, that can mean wildly different things to different people. Some might agree that an AK-47 qualifies as “everyday” (the museum recently acquired one), while more of us will probably relate to the Kenneth Grange-designed bus shelter found in droves around London. That’s the magical and fascinating thing about design, and by extension Extraordinary Stories. After all, as Bruce Mau once said, “For most of us, design is invisible until it fails.”

More on the exhibition is here.

About the author

Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan is Co.Design's deputy editor.