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A Reason to Wax Lyrical About Doorknobs and Clothespins

Each year, the Conran Foundation inducts well-crafted items into its collection

There is no doubt that Alice Rawsthorn is enthusiastic about clothespins. And mailboxes. And doorknobs. But not just any version of these products.

Ms. Rawsthorn is a writer for the Financial Times in London, author of a biography of fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent due out in the fall, and a trustee of London's Design Museum. She was given the opportunity to choose well-designed everyday items for the Conran Foundation Collection.

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For her, only Japanese-made polypropylene Muji clothespins, American manufactured mailboxes by Veeder's, and aluminum doorknobs designed by Jasper Morrison in 1987 will do.

Rawsthorn is also appreciative of a red lace slip from Comme des Garcons, designed in 1995 by Rei Kawakubo. And of Wedgwood's white "Leigh" cups and saucers in bone china, and the Swedish company IKEA's "Mammut" child's chair.

Rawsthorn chose all these objects and a great many more as part of her commission from the Conran Foundation. (Sir Terence Conran, an arbiter of good design since the 1960s when he founded the inexpensive homewares stores called Habitat, is no longer connected with the foundation. He currently runs several high-end design stores in Britain.)

The collection was launched in 1993 and is intended to be a cumulative archive of design objects. Annually, different individuals are given in the neighborhood of 25,000 ($38,280) to buy for the collection. Rawsthorn actually had 27,000 ($41,340) to put together her personal selection of items in current production that illustrate changes in design, taste, and technology.

Her choices, on view at the Design Museum by the Thames River, amount to a stimulatingly varied array of objects. They are accompanied by labels sporting her insightful, witty, and enthusiastic comments and explanations. The whole affair is an education in good design.

Here she waxes lyrical about the Muji clothespins, known in Britain as pegs, calling them "so sleek and spacey that any other peg seems hopelessly outdated." Then she points out that these pegs, for all their modernity, are in fact based on traditional Japanese designs.

The requirement for products to be in current production by no means rules out objects designed many years ago. The plain Wedgwood china Rawsthorn included in her lineup was first produced in the early 1800s. Her label sums up what it means for a design to become a classic: It "seems absurd to think of a cup and saucer ever being designed differently."

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Most of the classics she has purchased, however, have a shorter history. They include such established icons of the design world as an Eames chaise of 1948, a Breuer plywood nesting table of 1936, and Danish stainless-steel cutlery by Arne Jacobsen first made for Georg Jensen in 1957. These articles are still going strong.

The Veeder's mailbox is a 1978 adaptation of the classic, designed by Jonathan Magro. According to Rawsthorn, it "combines the charm of the original design with a structure so tough that it even survived Magro's tests of exploding two M-80 bombs inside and driving a bulldozer over the top." Are we to assume from this that such eventualities are the kind of treatment a US mailbox is likely to receive? Presumably not; but the box stands there boldly, an example of brawny American design which, by contrast, makes European fine design look too contrived and elegant.

The designer who made the Conran Foundation Collection selection the year before Rawsthorn was Jasper Morrison, one of the most sought-after British designers of the late 1980s and '90s. He was self-confident enough to choose a number of his own designs, and Rawsthorn shows that she agrees with him. She includes a chair Morrison designed for a Swiss manufacturer in 1988, and observes: "The form is so perfectly plain that there are no distractions from the serious issues of comfort and durability."

But it is about Morrison's doorknobs that she really lets herself go: "These ... are lovely, lovely objects. They manage to look like absolutely ordinary doorknobs, even though they were actually modeled on old-fashioned light bulbs....

"The handles nestle lightly in the palm of the hand and it's impossible to open or close a door without succumbing to the temptation of stroking them."

If the visitor does not feel tempted to caress doorknobs, there is a temptation to go out and buy half the items on display. Their current price is given on the labels, just as a reminder that they are all on the market. Prices vary greatly. The Muji pegs cost 1.95 ($3) for a pack of 20. The Clipper CS-1 mobile workstation made by New Space of Texas - an imaginative solution to the need to work in privacy in an open-plan environment - costs 3,870 ($5,926).

Of course there are some things you may not personally want: the delightful wood, fiberboard, and polypropylene "Mammut" children's chair marketed by IKEA is small for most adults. But it is sturdy, and, at a mere 13 ($19.90), "cheap but cheerful" in Rawsthorn's assessment.

And the red lace slip in nylon tulle and lace at 900 ($1,378)?

About this extravagant instance of superb designer-wear Rawsthorn is as expressively original as ever: "An impeccably constructed piece of clothing," she muses, "And while red lace would look tarty in the hands of most fabric designers, Comme des Garcons makes it seem cerebral."

Hmm, well, perhaps not entirely cerebral in the eyes of some male beholders.

The Conran Foundation Collection is on exhibit at London's Design Museum through April 14.

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