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November 20, 2008

Drawing circles in square peg times.

I stayed at a hotel recently that had porthole-shaped windows – 11 floors of them. It was the Swiss cheese of building facades. But looking at the view of New York City from my private bubble of a hotel room got me thinking about how times of “roundness” come and go in design, creating a dotted line, so to speak, from one design period to the next.

The theory of psycho-geometrics uses shapes to identify different personality types, and people defined as “circles” are those who others bring their problems to. You may have heard of these theories if you’ve ever taken a
Myers-Briggs test (if you feel like you’re the last to know about this, you’re probably a “rectangle” personality), and I wonder if designers are drawn to round shapes – the “personalities” we bring our problems to – at times of uncertainty or stress.

And while uncertain times inevitably pass, there are examples of round designs that endure, even through times when we think being round is square. An example of this is a logo that Paul Rand designed for the American Broadcasting Company in 1962, which is still in use today. “In order to understand the aesthetic in its ultimate and approved forms,” wrote Rand in Design, Form and Chaos, “one must begin with it in the raw; in the events and scenes that hold the attentive eye and ear of man.”

It is suggested that the typeface Rand used was based on the simplified shapes of the Bauhaus, the German school that emerged in 1919, also a time of global uncertainty. It was in 1920 that another example of enduring round design was created: Eileen Gray’s concentric glass table, which she designed for her sister who loved to eat breakfast in bed. It’s a table that uses a shape associated with comfort to fulfill a need for providing comfort.

Round shapes are symbols of unity and, while no one would call New York’s Guggenheim Museum cozy, its top-to-bottom experience does elicit a feeling of togetherness. There is something comforting in how its spiral architecture clarifies the path you should take, especially when compared to museums that send visitors wandering and retracing steps through a maze of interconnected rooms. Designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, the museum opened in 1959, amid a country struggling for integration and civil rights.

Returning to my earlier mention of portholes, the comfort provided by these round shapes in ships is quite literal, in that portholes bring light and air to a ship’s lower quarters. Plus, a round window is stronger than a square one since corners are stress points that can weaken and crack under the force of waves. Another function of being round, such as the design of a manhole cover, is that it is impossible for a round cover to fall into a round hole. “As far as I know,” wrote
George Nelson in How to See, “the design [of round manhole covers] is used all over the world. The reason is simply that no one has ever come up with anything better.”

It remains to be seen how much “roundness” (or desire to be at sea, or hiding in a manhole) will come out of the current conditions of uncertainty, but if you’re lucky enough to own a front-loading washer with porthole opening, don’t be surprised if you start to find comfort in doing laundry.

Click here to see more photos.

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