After years of ‘pretty things’, the pandemic has put "usefulness" under the spotlight. Which is great. But will we reach the point of considering a user’s manual for a blender more important than an anthology of poems by Montale?

* Giulio Iacchetti, industrial designer based in Milan

Do you remember the splendid idea of altering a diving mask for use in intensive care units treating coronavirus patients? Reading comments on this project in the social media I came across a smug, definitive remark – “finally, a useful work of design.”

The same was said of one of my projects, a do-it-yourself visor: an acetate sheet shaped to attach to eyeglasses for a personal protective shield. Like all ideas to combat COVID-19, this too is open source, meaning that the drawings needed to make it can be downloaded and utilized by all. So once again, that attitude crept out: “finally, design that is good for something.”

Useful vs frivolous design

Such comments are demoralizing. The idea that useful design exists has a way of returning, in cycles. Design that is functional, high-performance, concrete, pragmatic. A design of doing and making (of “working,” as a prime minister once said), as opposed to frivolous, carefree and perhaps redundant design, the type of design lots of us cheerfully indulge in, constantly, perhaps – heaven forbid – by designing yet another chair in a world full of chairs.

These champions of utility, in order to underscore the value of an idea that saves lives, find it useful (!) to stigmatize the design they consider “useless.” And, unmissable, appears the phrase attributed to Munari about the fact that there are more chairs than derrieres.

So? A moratorium on the design of chairs? “Wunderbar,” the essentialists exclaim, “enough chairs… there are already far too many!” After having eliminated the projects for new seating, let’s attack the tables, flatware, bedside units, ceramic vases and bidets. Because again in this case, we might say there are more bidets than butts in need of rinsing. Though in this case, maybe there are still many foreign markets to explore… so we can let it pass.

Useful is what makes us better

What is certain is that in order to enjoy design – useless or useful – you have to be alive. So three cheers for the diver’s mask Decathlon sagaciously modified (by the way: I wish I’d thought of that!). But as a designer, and a human being, I am convinced that “useful means everything that makes us better.” This lovely dictum – which isn’t mine, but comes from Nuccio Ordine (in the book The Usefulness of the Useless) – is what permits us to be proud of the few and/or humble things we imagine and design, from Sottsass to the last in the ranks, like the undersigned.

How can we find a compromise?

Let’s try applying the same tolerance and openness to design that we apply to literature. Again in this case, one might object that there are more books than heads and eyes to read them. But no one would ever suggest that we place a moratorium on the writing of books. And no one can claim that the user’s manual of a blender is more useful than an anthology of poems by Montale.

I suggest introducing the definition of “differently useful” when we talk about functionality in design. Who knows, maybe one day – amidst the comments on a new design object – we may yet have the chance to read: “finally a design that has no usefulness!”


Cover Photo, Ossi/Ossimori, design Giulio Iacchetti with Emmanuel ZontaGalleria Luisa Delle Piane, Milano Design Week 2018. Ph. Dimitri Dall’Agnol.