Why is there a growing trend for furniture we can see right through? Are we just being ironic, or is this clearly a design revolution? It’s crystal clear: ‘transparency’ is becoming a loaded word in our brave new world. Spurred on by Don Watson, author of two books on the demise of public language, many are lamenting its loss to a new lexicon of business jargon and ‘Polispeak’. The more we perceive its misuse by politicians and company executives, the more obvious it becomes that its true meaning is really the antithesis of their modus operandi.
Thankfully, for those of us who don’t subscribe to the above, transparency, both on a physical and metaphysical level, brings enlightenment. Transparency in architecture and design has regularly heralded innovation and revelation. Rather than mocking, in this context, transparency is usually the earnest pursuit of honesty in material and form. It reveals the inner workings of things, an openness and a new approach to storytelling.
Yes, there is something strangely seductive and curious in watching the goings- on inside a transparent object; the wonder of coffee brewing inside Bodum’s new glass coffee percolator; the humming of an imac, the rhythmic movement of a Swatch watch; or even the satisfaction of seeing domestic debris swirling around in a Dyson vacuum cleaner.
Transparency in design can also humanise. Welsh-born industrial designer Ross Lovegrove’s futuristic vision for a fully sustainable transparent car is partly to remind us there is a human body inside. And in 1998 a British industrial designer named Jonathan Ive rocked our world with the iMac. It not only transformed product design by introducing colour and light to the bland world of computing, but also opened-up the internal workings of a technology that was relatively new and mysterious to many, making it seem more friendly.
It goes without saying that each new development in transparent design is firmly rooted in materiality and new technology. No longer the poor cousin of glass – and looking equally clean and precious – transparent plastic is being favoured by leading designers. Now it’s design’s turn to disappear.
Philippe Starck’s range of clear polycarbonate furniture for Kartell – ‘Charles Ghost’, ‘Henry Ghost’, ‘Eduard Ghost’, ‘Marie Antoinette’ – are all perhaps ironic ghosts of the past; Christophe Pillet’s gridded ‘Meridiana’ chair for Driade, is also in transparent polycarbonate; and Tokujin Yoshioko’s squeaky clear ‘Kiss Me Goodbye’ chair for Driade, or the more recent 'Invisibles collection' (pictured) for Kartell.
Transparency is the great revealer of truth: strip away all of the trimmings and what you are left with is pure form. If a design gets this far with success – because simplicity is infinitely more difficult than it appears – then the benefits are enormous. Whether it is a piece of furniture, an architectural structure or a perfectly formed piece of blown glass, the ensuing relationship with everything in and around it takes a new turn and effect; all pretence is gone and playfulness steps in.
20th century Modern architecture is dominated by transparency, its essence a blend of light, new materials and techniques. Memorable examples are iconic images of their time: a glass box cantilevered high above the city lights of Los Angeles, in Pierre Koenig’s Stahl House (1960), now reportedly the single most published architectural photograph in the world; Mies Van der Rohe’s celebrated Farnsworth House, an envelope of glass and steel floating over the Illinois Fox River Flood Plain; and Philip Johnson’s Glass House, not so much a place to live as a stage. But the obsession didn’t end with Modernism. More recently, Herzog de Meuron’s magnificent Prada Aoyama, a 5-sided polyhedral whose façade is a diamond-shaped grid filled with hundreds of glass panels; Toyo Ito’s fêted Sendai Mediateque, where steel tubular lattice structures visibly penetrate the entire building; Jean Nouvel’s gallery for the Cartier Foundation in Paris, a complete exercise in transparency, with sheet-glass façades extending beyond its structure and blurring boundaries. And the list goes on.
The modernist dictum ‘less is more’, coined by Mies van der Rohe and the Bauhaus in reference to decoration, might also translate perfectly to transparency – less is more honesty, more to see, more experimentation and ultimately more space. Ever resourceful and adaptive, perhaps we are also just simply finding new ways to modify the shrinking scale of our domestic spaces.