You'll have to forgive me for returning to furniture in yet another blog post, but serendipity led me back to it. So far I have discussed quality in the same way that Ray Eames talks about at the right -- quality that makes an object work well and last. However, there's another possible definition for quality. The New Oxford dictionary gives the second definition of quality as "a distinctive attribute or characteristic possessed by someone or something." I think both are important to consider when examining quality in the social sphere.
In the first sense of the word, I think most of us would place a high importance on quality. One of my professors, synthesizing statements made by Charles Eames in an interview, defined design as "an expression of a need." I think both of ideas make very profound claims concerning the relationship between design and quality in the social sphere. Perhaps some people today would consider the Eames couple to be excessively dogmatic concerning their opinions on the role of design, but their assertions convey very clearly a sense that they believed work should be done for the benefit of society and individuals. They wanted their work to be high-quality. This type of quality is important because it means the designed object serves a purpose, functions well, and is lasting. I think many designers would be in agreement with working for the benefit of society, but equally as many would have serious reservations about Ray's claim to the superiority of practicality over beauty.
The second definition of quality seems to fall in opposition to Ray's statement. Rather than asking, "how good is it?" it asks, "what is it like?" Even though it's the same word, suddenly the focus is no longer on the object's integrity, but instead the object's style. Style plays a significant role in the social agenda as well. It's important because "style is so compelling ... [and] can tell us a lot about which values and concerns have the most powerful emotional significance. Style tells more about people's attitudes towards things than about the things themselves" (Cranz, 1998, p. 68-69). Like it or not, style is important in commerce because it offers individuals an opportunity to define themselves. The simple act of purchasing a Coke instead of Pepsi is, in a way, identifying with a certain group.
However, these two aspects of quality can sometimes seem at odds. The realm of furniture can be used as an example. Over the past several years, furniture manufacturers have gone through great trouble to try and create chairs, desks and other work furnishings that are high-quality (in the first sense of the word). They have tried to design objects that improve both individuals' health and productivity. This helps the worker as well as the company they work for, so in a sense it benefits society as a whole. However, in the home, furnishings seem to have very little thought given to how they impact our bodies when sitting. Instead, there has been greater energy invested in the stylistic differentiation between one couch and another, this chair and that one.
When it comes to personal objects, it appears that "style eclipses physiology -- as paper covers rock" (Cranz, 1998, p. 67). However, I don't think this has to be the case. The Roman architect Vitruvius separated the essential qualities of objects into "'firmness, commodity, and delight,' that is, construction, social purpose, and aesthetics" (Cranz, 1998, p. 71-72). I think that this is a helpful way for designers to approach a problem or a need. Objects can be both lasting and socially beneficial, although the intersection of those two may not be the most apparent solution at first. I think by keeping in mind both definitions of quality and Vitruvius' elements, designers can reach more holistic solutions to design problems. That said, there might be some limitations. I would be hard-pressed to design a supercar that is affordable, efficient, and fantastical.
Cranz, G. (1998). The chair: Rethinking culture, body, and design. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.