Anniina Koivu, writing for Vitra magazine, explores contemporary design from a figurative perspective. Reviewing the works of Charles and Ray Eames, Louis Kahn and Antonio Citterio, amongst others, to assess if their designs are more 'elephant' or 'mosquito'. When the overall form of an object determines its final design, we can think of it as Elephant design – in contrast to Mosquito design, where each separate part is exposed. It sounds like a riddle: How do an elephant and a mosquito describe contemporary design? But when American architect Louis Kahn distinguished between two basic schools of thought in contemporary design, he was not riddling. His theory, which can be adapted to both architectural as well as industrial design, was that there are two basic ways of approaching design: like a mosquito or like an elephant.

The mosquito, as an animal, is a kind of collage. An eye is an eye, a leg is a leg. Like a mosquito, many practical, everyday furniture pieces are assemblages of separate parts. The structure, each component, its function, and the connections are exposed. If this is true, then Charles und Ray Eames are mosquito designers par exellence. By interchanging the separate parts in their designs, they created new variations, even systems. Designers like Antonio Citterio or Alberto Meda can also be found in this category.

Elephant designers, on the other hand, are interested in overall form. All individual elements are brought together into one defining outline. Variations are precluded, as the slightest change can disturb the whole. The Panton Chair is a typical example of elephant design. Made from one material, all the elements – from the backrest to the seat to the legs – are moulded without interruption into one fluid overall form. Often, iconic designs like those by Verner Panton or Ron Arad can be counted among the elephants.

 

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