Diseños para el futuro. Los primeros objetos

Designs for the future: The first objects

Length: 60'


“A plan or protocol for carrying out or accomplishing something”
Merriam-Webster Dictionary

We associate the word “design” with modernity, innovation, fashion, style—yet a quick glance at history will prove that this seemingly contemporary concept has actually been a part of human nature since the birth of our species, because design is inherent in our ability to think. Anthropologically and archaeologically, we know that, since ancient times, human beings have fashioned objects to perform tasks they could not accomplish on their own. That was the beginning of the history of design.

The MAN houses several prime examples of those first objects designed by humans to overcome their physical limitations, put natural resources to good use and adapt to their surroundings, thus improving their quality of life and comfort level. These tools shaped the cultures of the past and have stood the test of time, and today they remain a part of our culture and values.

But every creation starts out as a preliminary design, evidence of human creativity and the value of carefully planned objects, confirming our understanding of “good design”. Many aspects and functions must be considered in design, as we will discover on this tour. As we follow the itinerary, we will learn about the first objects fashioned by early humans that have survived, for one reason or another (their materials, manufacturing and/or decorating techniques, forms, aesthetics, etc.), to the present day, which is actually their future.


“An object has its own beauty whenever its form
is the manifest expression of its function”
P. Souriau

The biface is the one of the first objects designed and fashioned by human hands, the product of a laborious process of transforming stone to obtain, based on a preliminary mental design, a tool with the desired shape that would allow our remote ancestors to meet certain basic needs. The first bifaces were made in Africa 1.5 million years ago and made their way to Europe over half a million years ago.

This biface from Cerro de San Isidro (Madrid), roughly 200,000 years old, was knapped on both sides or faces—hence the term “biface”—to create a tough cutting edge along the entire perimeter. It is considered a multi-purpose tool, useful for chopping wood, skinning or butchering animals, hammering, digging up roots, etc. The perfection of its design is the result of a premeditated balance of matter, form and function that attests the intellectual prowess of Palaeolithic men and women. The biface is therefore a reflection of their considerable creative and innovative abilities, as well as their aesthetic sensibility, expressed in the beauty of its functional form, flawless symmetry and the beauty of the chosen materials. Some have even conjectured that early humans deliberately selected special stones for their tools. In this way, they fashioned an object that was both useful and beautiful in their eyes and still strikes us as lovely today, something that may even have evolved into a symbol with greater significance than its mere utility as a tool.

The idea of a practical cutting edge round the whole circumference of an object, like that of the biface, is still very useful today and has inspired the design of other tools like the pizza cutter. As a multi-purpose instrument, the Swiss Army knife can also be considered a descendant of the biface.


Bifaz achelense

Bifaz achelense
Sala 5. Vitrina 5.4


“If you can design one thing, you can design everything;
if you do it right, it will last forever ”
Massimo Vignelli

The needle is an object whose perfect design has hardly changed since it was first invented in the Upper Palaeolithic (40,000–10,000 BP ). Despite its simple form, it was considered one of the most complex tools of its day, as it could do two jobs at once, piercing the material being sewn while pulling the thread through. As there are no signs of wear on the upper part, this needle was presumably used on animal hides and leather in which holes had already been made with a punch. Needles were fashioned from different materials—bone, antler or ivory—by means of a simple process: a small piece of the material was broken off, shaped by abrasion, and pierced at the top using a stone punch to make the eye in which the thread would later be inserted. Finally, the entire surface was polished.

This object is a prime example of good design because it has endured, virtually unaltered in both form and function, for thousands of years. In addition to incredible staying power, the needle boasts a simplicity of form that is the key to its success, as the definition of good design is finding the simplest way to perform a task with as few elements as possible.

Today, needles are basic functional objects found in every home, and their image even appears in contemporary artistic creations, serving as a source of inspiration and channel of communication. This modern composition by Chema Madoz is a good example.

Aguja magdaleniense

Aguja magdaleniense
Sala 5. Vitrina 5.7


“A good model can advance fashion by ten years ”
Yves Saint Laurent

Sandals were part of the basic apparel worn by Neolithic farmers and herders. These sandals, found in the Cave of Los Murciélagos (Albuñol, Granada), are over 6,000 years old and have survived despite the fragility of the plant fibres used to fashion them: sparto grass treated to make it more pliable.

The sandal design was eminently practical at the time, and today sandals are considered both serviceable—as human feet still have the same needs—and fashionable. We would not be surprised to find similar sandals in the shop windows of any modern city: their timeless beauty and utility are an unmistakeable hallmark of good design. However, it is surprising to realise that one of the oldest models of footwear had already achieved such ideal material, formal and technical qualities: more useful than most objects, it respects and adapts to the foot’s shape; its elements are proportionate to each other and to the wearer; it makes walking easier and protects the foot; and the materials blend in perfectly with the natural world from which they came.

These shoes are obviously eco-friendly. In fact, growing environmental awareness among modern-day designers has given rise to a trend known as ecodesign, which pays special attention to the materials used, energy consumed and waste generated during the production, useful life and death of objects.

Manolo Blahnik heads one of today's most successful designer footwear firms, and among his many models we find a sandal with the same sparto grass sole that has come down to us from the Neolithic, proving once again that an ancient design can endure for millennia and still be considered the height of fashion.

Sandalia neolítica

Sandalia neolítica
Sala 7. vitrina 7.3


“Abstract design rejects the imitation of any external model,
reflecting only the consciousness of its creator”
L. Bellassai

This sheet of slate, cut out and engraved with geometric motifs, is called a “plaque idol” and comes from Granja de Céspedes (Badajoz). It belongs to a category of small objects of varying forms made from assorted materials—bone, ivory, stone, clay, etc.—during the Chalcolithic or Copper Age. These objects are known as idols (plaque idols, stone eye idols, phalange idols, etc.), although we cannot be certain that their purpose was related to a belief system. However, these images do tell us more about our ancestors in those remote times, as their graphic creations tended to be based on the human figure.

Different plaque idols present abstract anthropomorphic features (shoulders, head, bulging eyes) and various articles of clothing, decorated with incised geometric motifs that are all quite similar but with minor variations, suggesting that they were probably symbolic elements used to distinguish one individual or group from another.

From a design perspective, the person who made this idol achieved a remarkable synthesis and abstraction of the human figure, reducing it to the most basic geometric form. The decorative details on what may be the figure’s attire are also quite striking. As mentioned, the decoration features geometric shapes that serve as a unit of repetition, creating a grid reminiscent of the patterns or prints used in the contemporary fashion industry. It is a very harmonious design that carefully balances such important compositional factors as proportion, repetition, rhythm and symmetry, but it does not let us see inside the author’s mind, as we lack the code for its correct interpretation. These design units, tending strongly towards abstraction, are frequently found in modern fashion.


Idolo placa calcolítico

Idolo placa calcolítico
Sala 7. Vitrina 7.6


“Simplicity, carried to an extreme, becomes elegance ”
Jon Franklin

A large number of gold objects, mostly female ornaments, from the Late Bronze Age have been discovered. The majority were found in buried caches or hoards believed to be offerings, perhaps interred with the intention of retrieving them at a later date.

Among these objects are several remarkable pieces of solid gold jewellery: the bracelet of Estremoz, made using the sophisticated lost-wax casting technique, and the torcs of Berzocana and double torc of Sagrajas, decorated with simple incised geometric shapes. The bowls of Axtroki, possibly ceremonial helmets or caps with decorative repoussé work, feature the same simple elegance as the jewellery.

The material from which these objects were made, gold, is a soft, malleable, easily worked metal with a bright, lustrous colour. It has been and is still used today to create a wide variety of simple, original designs whose natural elegance and loveliness need no embellishment. Thanks to these intrinsic properties, since ancient times gold has been a symbol of wealth and power, highly prized as an indicator of prestige and social status.

Moreover, all of these pieces (torcs, arm rings, bracelets, etc.) prove that prehistoric goldsmiths used many of the same manufacturing and decorative techniques, applied to the creation of more or less intricate designs and patterns, that exist today and are employed by modern-day jewellers, as illustrated by the modern choker with incised geometric decoration. Later, the arrival of the Phoenicians expanded the technical possibilities of goldsmithing applied to jewellery and luxury items, increasing the variety of gold designs, as we will discover in the following text.

Bronce de Berzocana

Orfebrería del bronce final. Bronce de Berzocana
Sala 9. Vitrina 9.10


“Design is where science and art break even ”
Robin Mathew

These fascinating gold jewellery pieces from the seventh century BC are part of a valuable hoard associated with the Tartessian culture and named after the town in Cáceres where it was found. They are personal ornaments, mostly for women (rings, bracelets, diadems, earrings), made at a local workshop using techniques (soldering, filigree and granulation) inspired by oriental cultures that have endured to the present day, as well as indigenous methods such as plating and repoussé. The finest craftsmanship is found on the diadem and the belt. The former features a pattern of lacy motifs rendered in gold filigree, where the blank space is just as important as the decorated areas. On the belt, gold granules were used to cover predetermined areas. The different decorative motifs on these precious objects are also of eastern origin: palmettes, rosettes, lotus flowers, a hero (Melqart) fighting a lion...

The centuries have not detracted from the precision and beauty of their craftsmanship. The production methods, also used for decoration, are entirely manual and still used by goldsmiths today, as this trade has largely avoided the standardisation brought on by the Industrial Revolution. Another highly significant aspect of these pieces is the raw material chosen to make them, gold; its use not only determined the production method and aesthetic, but also defined the social status of the future wearer. This is a reminder that objects often serve a symbolic purpose. Prestigious firms such as Tiffany & Co. or Dolce & Gabbana still use these techniques in their jewellery collections, knowing that artisanal methods yield a design of exquisite beauty and precision with the cachet of exclusivity.

Joyas del Tesoro de Aliseda

Joyas del Tesoro de Aliseda
Sala 10. Vitrina 10.11


“To create, one must first question everything ”
Eileen Gray

This falcata from Almedinilla (Córdoba) is a double-edged iron sword dated to between the fourth and third centuries BC, a typical weapon of the Iberian people. It was made by welding three strips of metal together. The middle strip is longer and serves as the metal core of the hilt, usually shaped like a guardian animal. Until the Late Bronze Age, swords were only used for thrusting, but thanks to its sharp-edged blade the falcata could also slash and cut. It has ornamental damascening on the hilt and at the end of the blade. This decorative technique involves inlaying a thin band of precious metal—silver, in this case—hammered into a less valuable metal surface, like the iron on this sword. In addition to being a complex, practical weapon, the falcata also had symbolic value: it indicated the wealth and social status of its bearer, as other objects do today.

A closer examination of the details of this object reveals that it is a product of careful thought and experience. A complete design process preceded and defined its materialisation, suited to the needs of the warrior who wielded it. The details are consistent, leaving nothing to chance in the effort to make it as effective a weapon as possible—for in order to create, one must first question everything. The result is a robust design that serves its intended purpose: warfare. The curved, asymmetrical shape distributes the weight to increase the momentum of the warrior’s movements, and the blade/tang joint, traditionally a weak point, is reinforced; the double-edged blade makes it versatile; and the fullers along the blade, in addition to adding aesthetic value, made it lighter without sacrificing strength. The modern weapons that most closely resemble the sharp double-edged falcatas are probably large military combat knives designed specifically for war and survival.

Falcata ibérica

Falcata ibérica
Sala 11. Vitrina 11.5


“Design ... is a way of life”
Alan Fletcher

The front side of this Attic red-figure bell krater represents a banquet (symposium) scene, with three pairs of men reclining on couches and, in the centre, a woman playing the double flute or aulos. In Ancient Greece, where this piece was made in the fourth century BC, it was used to serve wine mixed with water at banquets, where drinking together was a privilege reserved solely for upper-class Greek males as well as a sacred ritual honouring the god Dionysus. Functionality took precedence over other considerations, and this is precisely what makes the formal, ergonomic and structural aspects that define its organic integrity so remarkable. Far from arbitrary, the krater’s form was designed for a specific purpose. The deep body is ideal for mixing wine and water; the wide mouth makes the blend easy to serve; and the handles are adapted to human hands for a comfortable grip. Of a size proportionate to its human users, the krater was made from clay to ensure proper conservation and temperature conditions for the liquid inside. The carefully planned design, based on curving organic forms, is both dynamic and harmonious, balanced along an axis of symmetry.

However, this krater was found in Grave 43 at the Iberian necropolis of Baza, very far from where it made, among the grave goods of three individuals whose cremated bones were placed inside it and two other Attic kraters. For the Iberians, kraters denoted the personal prestige of their owner. This explains why they used them as cinerary urns, serving a very different purpose from the one for which they were intended. This dual use lives on in the popular modern trend of recycling or giving objects a “second life”, in which the new purpose depends on the recycling society and its habits or lifestyles. In this case, old wine barrels have been turned into a drum set.


Cratera de la Tumba 43 de Baza

Cratera de la Tumba 43 de Baza (Granada)
Sala 11. Vitrina 11.12


“Fashion fades, style is eternal ”
Yves Saint Laurent

This stone sculpture is an icon of Iberian culture and one of the most important treasures in the National Archaeological Museum. Made by a sculptor who was either Greek or trained in Greek workshops in the late fifth/early fourth century BC, it was discovered by chance at the archaeological site of La Alcudia (Elche, Alicante) in 1897. It depicts a lavishly dressed and bejewelled lady with idealised facial features. The statue originally had polychrome decoration and the eyes were filled with vitreous paste. The combination of these aspects lends the lady a distinguished air that endures to this day, even though the polychrome has been lost. There is a hollow in the back whose purpose is uncertain: it may have been used to house cremains, as a reliquary or niche for depositing offerings, or perhaps to secure a hanging element.

The lady’s distinctive headdress is characterised by two large coils, no doubt made of metal in real life and used to wind the hair in spirals. A pointed cap is perched on the crown of her head, and over it she wears a scarf with a headband. She is dressed in a tunic, toga and open cloak that shows off her lavish jewellery. This attire and the precious metalwork, reflecting Iberian fashions, have parallels in the Mediterranean world, where jewellery had both aesthetic and symbolic value.

Attention to detail and the careful composition and proportions produced an elegant, visually attractive statue with a lovely face whose vertical symmetry reinforces the impression of balance. For all these reasons, the Lady of Elche is considered an icon of beauty and inspiration that has endured through the ages: the spirit of her features and elegant coils lives on in the traditional hairdo worn by Valencian women during the annual Fallas festival.

Dama de elche

Dama de elche
Sala 13. Vitrina 13.1


“The function of design is letting design function ”
M. Commeren

This group of objects (a sword, two spears and an iron knife) was found inside the same sheath or case, fitted with several adjustable side rings and rod-pins that allowed it to be carried at an angle, hanging from a baldric.

These weapons were part of a warrior’s grave goods, found in a tomb at the necropolis of Val (Apanseque, Soria) dated to the fifth/fourth century BC. These offensive weapons, along with other defensive arms (a shield and remnants of a helmet) and a horse bit also found in that grave, tell us that the occupant was a rider and warrior, probably a member of the Celtiberian social elite.

Celtiberian weapons and their metallurgical technology were highly praised by classical authors. In fact, Rome adopted or copied many of them. This set is the first design of a portable gear pack for carrying multiple weapons from one place to another. The Celtiberians undoubtedly sought to make life easier for themselves by coming up with practical, convenient solutions based on the pillars of good problem-solving design: economy of means, time, effort and space. Finding the essence of a concept that seems quite modern to us in an ancient warrior’s gear may come as a surprise. But it really shouldn’t, since the value of a good design, regardless of its technological sophistication, is determined by the underlying idea. In this case, a clever idea produced what we might call the first “gear to go” or “travel pack”. The same concept is tremendously useful in the fast-paced, on-the-go society of today’s world, as illustrated by the existence of travel sewing kits and similar handy inventions.

Equipo de guerrero

Equipo de guerrero
Sala 14. Vitrina 14.8


“The ability to simplify means to eliminate the unnecessary
so that the necessary may speak ”
Hans Hofmann

The cast bronze sculptures known as the Bulls of Costitx were found at the Mallorcan shrine of San Corró (Costitx, Mallorca). They belong to the post-Talayotic culture of the Balearic Islands and are dated to between the fifth and third centuries BC. They were presumably meant to be hung on the wall of the shrine, where specific rituals were most likely held. Their presence indicates the worship of a bull deity, a cult that originated in Near Eastern and Mediterranean cultures. His union with the great mother-goddess, venerated throughout the Mediterranean Basin in Antiquity, ensured the regeneration of plant life, abundant crops, fertile livestock and, consequently, the survival of these post-Talayotic communities, whose economy relied primarily on animal husbandry.

On a formal level, these objects are remarkable for their size, exquisite craftsmanship and great realism. The hollow forms were cast using the lost-wax technique, while the details were carved with a burin. The striking lyre-shaped horns and the ears were cast separately.

This design is marked by the stylisation, elegance, purity and simplicity of its form, achieved by eliminating the unnecessary. The object, stripped of all superficial elements, is still perfectly recognisable. The design is intuitive and easy to understand, understated and consistent in its details. Beauty is expressed through the simplicity of forms, colours and textures, denoting a wise choice of materials and finishes. Its constituent parts were assembled with a keen eye for symmetry and composition, and its curves recall organic forms. As an eminently aesthetic design, it possesses the intrinsic power to captivate the beholder.

There is a striking resemblance between this neutral, sober representation and the 20th-century bull’s head that Picasso fashioned from a bicycle seat and handlebars.


But this is not the end ... the history of design is still being written.

Toros de costix

Toros de costix
Sala 15. frente a vitrina 15.12