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Fit for purpose: The Design Museum celebrates global style of the past 150 years

A Le Corbusier villa, David Chipperfield coffee cups, 1931 Citroën 2CV... in writing, the best works of design are just names and numbers. But assemble the objects in a room, and allow people to walk around them, and their timeless resonance can be felt immediately.

That was the reasoning, anyway, behind Design Cities 1851-2008. Curated by Deyan Sudjic, director of London's Design Museum, it is set to open there on Friday – an array of design and architecture assembled from across Europe, categorised by the city and year of their creation. "The idea is to see design in the focus of the city," says Sudjic. "We put something on at Istanbul's Design Museum, and after the success of the show we decided it was too strong to leave in one place, so we brought it over."

While the 120 or so exhibits might seem obvious selections to design experts, the average punter will find much to mull over. It proved difficult just to get all the work in one place. "We were negotiating with five major museums within Europe," says the show's project manager, Aravec Clarke. "We also received pieces from independent designers. So, logistically, it was quite complex – though happily we managed to get 80 per cent of what we wanted."

The show begins with London in 1851, the year of the city's Great Exhibition, a celebration of industrial technology and design. "You have to start with London," says Sudjic. "In the 19th century, London was the world's biggest city. It was the capital that produced the Crystal Palace, and the whole idea of design, really."

One of the exhibits centres on that Crystal Palace, the huge glass and iron structure built in Hyde Park that was the venue for the fair (and has since burned down). Sudjic and Clarke have secured from the V&A one of the early sketches for the building by its designer, Joseph Paxton – a rare treat. Sparkling alongside this is a claret jug by Christopher Dresser, regarded as one of the world's first industrial designers. During his career, he acted as a consultant for companies creating swathes of mass-produced products, including textiles, wall coverings, ceramics, glassware and metalware. According to Sudjic, his combination of simple geometric forms and organic patterns gives his work a modern relevance.

Then comes 1908 Vienna, where Otto Wagner's table for the headquarters of the Die Zeit newspaper exemplifies the creative atmosphere in the city at the time, as do the designs of Adolf Loos. Loos had participated in the competition to create a new headquarters building for the Chicago Tribune. Though his proposal, a huge Doric column 20 floors high, did not win, Loos declared that its "beauty would be a beacon for the architecture of the future" – and he was right.

Dessau, in 1928, is included as the birthplace of Bauhaus, one of architecture's most influential strands of modernism, whose Marcel Breuer popularised the use of tubular steel for furniture. Breuer designed the first chair to have a resilient structural frame of continuous bent steel tubing, the B3, dedicated to his fellow Bauhaus master Wassily Kandinsky. "One reason Dessau was included is that it is a city of some 80,000 people, and the fact that this city could tip the way the world looked, then, well it is hard to imagine that now," Sudjic says. "The show does suggest that it has become harder for small cities to be powerful. Movement is so much more viable now. Globalisation means there are fewer places where the gifted go."

Paris 1931 features Le Corbusier's delicate sketches for his seminal chaise longue, as well as the lines of the Citroë*2CV and the work of Robert Mallet-Stevens, particularly his stacking chair and armchair. Los Angeles 1949 is represented by the furniture of Charles Eames, best know for his Eames House, made that year. The Milan of 1957 finds no better calling card than the Vespa 125, still stylish today.

The exhibition does not really come into its own, though, until 1987 Tokyo, where chunky products by Sony (for example, its classic Walkman and Trinitron television) show off a playfulness of chunky keys and steep curves, now seen as retro. "I spent a lot time in Japan during the 1980s and Tokyo is the most distinctively un-European city," says Sudjic.

The show comes full circle with London, 2008. Paul Smith and the tableware of David Chipperfield are given centre stage, alongside the architecture of Future Systems. "I suppose you can value the show by the fact that if there was a fire, so many treasures would be lost," says Sudjic. "It is great to see how we are influenced by things that have the resonance of time, and to see the stories of the people that made these changes possible to the way the world thinks."

Design Cities 1858-2008, Design Museum, London SE1 (020-7403 6933), 5 September to 4 January