The Aesthetics of the Everyday

We shouldn’t be satisfied with solidly utilitarian coins, stamps and the dreaded “street furniture”. Good design can be incredibly heartening

Art Culture & Anarchy
Pretty penny: Charles Heath's classic stamp design of 1840

Perhaps it is true that when we have plastic banknotes in a couple of years’ time we shall not really notice the difference, other than that they become less tatty than the paper ones we know and love. I hope so. Our banknotes are one of those rare everyday objects that are actually rather pleasant to look at: they have something of an aesthetic about them, not least because it has always been believed that, whatever other anti-forgery devices banknotes have, a complicated and elaborate design also makes life more difficult for the crooks. In this age of digitisation I doubt that is true, but the idea is appealing, and it allows us to see the Queen in her majesty on our notes, and Britannia in hers, not to mention all sorts of other historical figures.

Some modern design is not to everyone’s taste, but a few everyday objects do seem to convey some degree of style. The iPhone, and indeed most of Apple’s products, are certainly in that league. The new Routemaster bus in London appears to be the one triumph no one can deny Boris Johnson, with its dark red upholstery and retrogressive rear entrance making it for all the world seem like something built with love and care in the 1950s. Some modern cars, after a grim time from the early 1960s to the late 1980s, now remind one that getting from A to B can give pleasure to the pedestrian as much as to the driver or passenger, as it did when a Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud or an MG TD swept past. I can even see the sleek, sharp appeal of a wafer-thin plasma-screen television. But I have an overwhelming sense that a consideration of aesthetics comes rarely into the minds of those who make or commission everyday objects, which is all our loss. After all, even today’s reasonably attractive bank notes cannot hold a candle to the magnificent white fiver of old.

Perhaps the most obvious showcase of these horrors is the average high street, where garish and horrid shop-fronts yell at shoppers and passers-by. Of course many of these are part of chains; and many of those that aren’t cannot be sure they will be in business for very long, so even if it were in vogue to splash out on a finely wrought handmade shop sign it might prove to be a poor investment. There are many complaints about so-called “street furniture”, but few things could be worse than ordinary signposts, which proliferate and are simply ugly. One doesn’t have to travel too far into rural Britain to see old black-and-white metal signposts with raised lettering; and many towns still retain original street-signs on Georgian and Victorian terraces that are redolent not just of age, but of an age when trouble was taken to make things beautiful as well as useful. Oddly enough, the age of utilitarianism — the 19th century — was the least utilitarian in this respect, for it saw that items that had a utility also needed to have an aesthetic.

When Rowland Hill invented the postage stamp in 1840 the Post Office ensured that the stamp — the first in the world — also represented the institution in as grand a way as possible. His designer, Charles Heath, used a head of the Queen designed by William Wyon — who also engraved the head on the contemporary coinage — but set it on a white lattice-like design on black to try to ward off forgers, with Maltese crosses in the two upper corners of the stamp and letters of the alphabet in the lower. 

The stamp is the most famous in the world, not just because it was the first adhesive postage stamp but because of the beauty of its design. The black may have been chic,  but it also turned out to be problematical: the red ink used to postmark the stamp was not always easy to see against it, and so the combination was changed to a red stamp with a black cancellation after only a year.

Our own stamps have for 46 years borne Arnold Machin’s head of the Queen against a multitude of coloured backgrounds. The design is regularly feted as a “classic”, but to some it reflects only the blandness and dullness of late 1960s minimalism. Machin’s design succeeded the more ornate, charming and beautiful stamps that featured the Queen’s head from a photograph by Dorothy Wilding and that had pertained since late 1952. Such fussiness was very much out of vogue by the late 1960s; also the photographic image of the Queen was with each year becoming less and less like her, and having a more symbolic representation by Machin solved that problem. But it removed the charm from the stamps, and removed the charm of using them. The same happened to the coinage with the advent of decimalisation; the problem was not so much the Machin head on the obverse as the bland, minimal designs on the reverse. Before then the 20th century coinage had not just exuded charm, but had compelled affection; and although nothing matched George William de Saulles’s magnificent designs for the coinage of Edward VII, the art nouveau and art deco coinages that circulated until 1971 gave great pleasure. Now, they simply reflect the devalued nature of the currency.

The coinage was redesigned a few years ago, with heraldic elements on the reverses. The effect is to combine a sense of history with a sense of radicalism; they are a great improvement on their predecessors. But today’s coins are all so small — there is nothing to compare with the old penny, or half-crown, or florin for sheer size, and the scope they allowed for a designer to run riot. Our stamps are supposedly saved by the frequent special issues. They used to be called commemoratives, but they commemorate nothing other than Royal Mail’s success in leeching off stamp collectors.  Most of them are tawdry and rarely used by letter-posting members of the public.

I wonder whether the government understands how much it would cheer people up if they insisted on an aesthetic being brought back into the everyday objects they have some power over — not just banknotes, coins and stamps, but passports, driving licences and so on. This column tries to avoid politics, but since we have a Department of Culture, isn’t this something it should be doing?