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Genius TV

Covering everything from Bauhaus to bubble chairs, iPods to Panzer tanks, The Genius of Design is brilliant, insightful television. Even better: Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen is nowhere to be seen

Think design on TV – at least during the past decade – and you think of the reality home-makeover show, a format so perniciously popular that it colonised daytime programming with a battalion of frilly-cuffed pre-Raphaelites and Cockney handymen armed with stippling sponges and MDF. The message was admirable: you too can transform your environment, and with it your quality of life. The reality, however, was a traumatic combination of headache-inducing colour schemes and botched jobs. On TV, the only people with an eye for design were creating sets for period dramas. Poirot was a catalogue raisonné of art deco ashtrays; Mad Men an obsessive-compulsive facsimile of mid-century modern; while Wallander resembled a shoot from a late-1990s Wallpaper magazine, all recherche Scandinavian fetishism. But this was design as background. Even with experts in front of the camera, just as with Philippe Starck's version of The Apprentice last year, I could only watch through my fingers, groaning.

So, it was with limited expectations that I sat down in front of the new BBC series, The Genius of Design, which has been running for the past few weeks. I was anticipating a by-the-numbers trudge through "problem-solving" with a predictable star cast of designers and rent-a-pundits (my phone must have been out of juice the day the producers called). And, initially at least, things didn't look promising. The first episode opened at the Ideal Home Show with a voiceover asking: "Where does design come from?" Uh-oh. We cut to a talking head, the author of Where Stuff Comes From. Oh no, this was going to be Design for Dummies.

How wrong I was. This turned out to be the most intelligent programme about design I've seen. Gary Hustwit's feature film Objectified, released last year, was a welcome study of the subject (if constrained by trying to tackle the whole of industrial design in an hour and a half), but with these five one-hour episodes the BBC gave itself room for detail and nuance – something that, let's face it, good design needs.

The programme tells the story of this 20th-century art form from its beginnings in the industrial revolution to its more volatile status in the modern age. The material is textbook stuff: Bauhaus and a dogmatic Swiss bloke called Le Corbusier, Braun and a "young idealist" called Dieter Rams, Charles and Ray Eames, right up to Apple and personalised computing. It treads where you would expect; and fair enough. But what really lifts it beyond the ordinary is the writing, which has a wonderful feel for the contradictions of design history.

In the first episode, we see Henry Ford change the world by inventing mass production, only to become a victim of his own success. With Ford resting on his "one colour as long as it's black" laurels, it took companies such as Chrysler to come along and realise that a true consumer society requires choice. In episode two, we visit the ideologues of European modernism only to see their radical ideas failing to take root – it was American product designers such as Raymond Loewy and Henry Dreyfuss who turned modernist styling into hard cash. The war years offer, perhaps, the best paradox of all. The Nazis may have shut down the Bauhaus, but they believed in good design – so much so that in the Panzer IV, designed in 1936 and deployed in many of the war's major land battles, they created a vehicle so fearsomely well-crafted that it caused Allied tanks to piddle liquid fear from their exhaust pipes. The only problem was that they were extremely expensive – and labour-intensive – to make, so the Americans and Russians simply churned out cheaper tanks by the tens of thousands. Hey presto, bad design wins the war. Forget "less is more" – in the case of second-world-war tanks, more turned out to be, well, more.

In the postwar years, America's economic dominance gave rise to Tupperware, a solution for a society with too much food. In starving Europe, however, we had to wait a few more years before experiencing the plastic fantastic of Joe Cesare Colombo and Verner Panton, a weird Barbarella world of bubble furniture. The paradox? That once, plastic was sexy and symbolised our aspirations; then it became toxic and synonymous with poor quality. The final episode is this Friday, so I won't spoil the ending for you. Suffice it to say, the principle of standardisation gives way to the dream of customisation. Individuality is to the fore, championed by the likes of Ettore Sottsass, Michael Graves with his 1,700,000-unit-selling kettle ("a mass-produced object that felt unique"), and of course Philippe Starck, who describes himself as "a post-Freudian functionalist".

Though brilliant on the history side of things, the programme rather balks at the idea of tackling our own design era. The iPod is there – eulogised, as ever, by Apple's out-of-house spokesman Stephen Fry – and the sustainable design guru William McDonough is seen dismantling a fully recyclable office chair. Maybe, in the end, that's enough, because from these two objects – a gizmo destined for rapid obsolescence and a guilt-free consumer purchase – you can surmise everything you need to know about design today. Once an optimistic discipline that improved our lives, design has become trapped between a fickle marketplace and a sick planet. And here The Genius of Design leaves us with two competing visions of the future. One, expounded by the science-fiction writer Bruce Sterling, is a world with fewer and fewer objects, as everything gets sucked into our personal electronic devices; the other is McDonough's, in which we can continue to consume indefinitely – as long as everything is recycled according to his "cradle to cradle" mantra. Both views are mind-boggling to contemplate, and that's why it would be wonderful to see the BBC make a programme about contemporary design. (I'll make sure my phone is charged for that one.) © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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