10 April 2020
by Marco Romanelli
A small book, labelled a story for children, was published in 1941. It had the most amazing success and was translated into at least 120 languages. Its author was an aviator who, several years later in 1944, would go down with his plane. His name was Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. The book is called The Little Prince. I read it as a child and read it to a child, then to another, and then another, but over twenty years ago, I found out that it wasn’t just a terribly sad, exciting and unforgettable story, but also an actual design manual.
Amongst all the theoretical and methodological confusion surrounding us today, the words of the Little Prince and his travel companions (the flower, the fox, the merchant and the snake) can be taken as a guide to design, split into bite-sized pieces. Here is a breakdown of why:
1) Architects and context:
“The little prince crossed the desert and met with only one flower …”Good morning” said the little prince. “Good morning” said the flower. “Where are the men?” the little prince asked politely … “The men? … One never knows where to find them. The wind blows them away. They have no roots, and that makes their life very difficult.”
If you want to design you have to dig deep into your own territory (and your own heart) to find those roots, those marks that will channel a humble originality, a powerful one-ness with the environment. Let us then dismiss many of today’s architecture and design stars: egocentrics indifferent to territory or company identity.
2) Architects (and clients especially) and value:
“… grown-ups love figures” If you tell grown-ups: “I saw a beautiful red brick house with geraniums at the windows and doves on the roof,” they won’t be able to imagine such a house. You have to say: “I saw a house worth a hundred thousand francs,” and then they will exclaim: “what a pretty house!”
Poetry isn’t rated very highly these days, it’s not easily monetised. This generates a great conformity of design materials – “beauty” now seems only to have one voice.
3) The secret voice of interiors:
“When I was a little boy, I lived in a very old house, and there was a legend that there was a buried treasure there. Naturally no-one has ever been able to find it, perhaps they’d never looked for it. But it cast an enchantment over everything. My home was hiding a secret in the depths of its heart …”.
Houses without secrets don’t last forever. Every single house, be it small or large, has to have a slight difference, a specificity. It has to resemble us. Anybody entering our house will try to work out the secret: the light? A colour? A flower?
4) Fast design?
“Good morning” said the little prince. “Good morning” said the merchant. This was a merchant who sold pills to quench thirst … “Why are you selling those?” asked the little prince. “Because they save a tremendous amount of time” said the merchant. “Computations have been made by experts. With these pills you save 53 minutes a week.” ”And what do I do with those 53 minutes?” “Anything you like …” “If I had 53 minutes to spend as I like, I should walk at my leisure towards a spring of fresh water.”
This is what should be the build-up to a design: walking at your leisure towards a spring of fresh water so that by the time you get there you’re ready to drink spring water. That way, thousands of imitations and pleonastic ideas will be washed away. Should any manufacturer ask you in the meantime: “Can you make me a sofa like this and like that, with legs like that one, the arm like this and the cushions like that?” you can simply reply: “I’m sorry, but I’m walking at my leisure towards a spring of fresh water.”
So here’s the exercise for the times we’re living in: read a book you’ve loved, cast moralism aside, and turn it into an opportunity for design-centred reflection. If you’re stuck for ideas, might I suggest the Odyssey?