In a landmark 1964 case, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the obscenity conviction of an Ohio theater owner who had screened the French film Les Amants. In his concurring opinion, Justice Potter Stevens concluded that although he was unable to provide a precise definition of pornography, he knew it when he saw it. So it is with great design—we know it when we see it. Trouble is, we see way too little of it.

Here's a case in point. A few weeks ago I traveled 3,000 kilometers in the world's most spectacularly uncomfortable airline seat, aboard a United Airlines flight from Chicago to San Francisco. Though I was sitting in the front of the plane, the seat's ergonomics resembled nothing so much as a canvas campstool. A U–shaped ...

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