Defeat by design

An acquaintance of mine once said: “when I hear the word ‘culture’ I reach for the bottle opener”. Did this make me mark him down as a philistine? Well, yes, but it also made me think … about bottle openers. When you consider the number of firms that give out free bottle-opening, key-ring attachments with their logo on them every year (to help you with that drink-drive problem: after all, why let it be more of a problem than necessary?) and the number of other food and beverage-related products that include something intended to open bottles, it’s amazing how they all vanish when you actually need one. So you end up either breaking your teeth, trying to use one of those keys intended for stripping the lids off sardine tins (leftover from the days before aluminium ring-pulls, back when sardines were as plentiful as fish in the sea), getting a friend to do the plastic cigarette-lighter trick … or you give up.

But where do they all go to? For the writer who suggested a whole planet populated by lost ball-point pens (I think it was Vonnegut being Kilgore Trout) I would like to add the planet populated by bottle-openers, can-openers and cork screws. Assuming this place exists, and assuming all that hardware didn’t just emigrate of its own accord, we must infer a certain escape velocity. By this I mean the furiousness with which the aforementioned opener has been hurled in frustration: a speed reckless enough to “slip the surly bonds of earth” like John Magee, but insufficient to “touch the face of God” (after all you’re just an opener, right, like George Thorogood for the Stones in ’81). After this sudden and stunning trajectory, floopdiwoop … through a black hole you fall and find yourself, humble piece of bent metal that you are, in a strange world where you are expected to kowtow to every multi-functional, beverage ex-capsulation device and chrome-plated, patent corkscrew appliance as ever wrecked a perfectly good set of fingernails.

After having said that the classic Porsche shape “looks like a hamburger” (so, what’s wrong with that?  It works for hamburgers!) Luigi Colani went ahead and designed a Porsche nobody wanted because it looked like something you’d pour over your dessert, or like chewing gum stuck under a desk. It looked like everything else except a Porsche. Why do we like the Porsche?  Because it seems like a thing you could hold comfortably in your hand and go “Vroom, vroom, vroom” with, that’s why. It looks like distilled essence of every small boy’s love-object; it looks like a car, good grief!  Ditto the coke-bottle, the Swiss railway-station clock, the MacDonald’s hinged cardboard box, the Harley and the ’59 Philishave Cordless.

Time for an extra circle of hell

Thus I arrive at the kernel of this rant: designer hell. By this I do not mean a hell designed by designers (though that would probably fit the bill nicely) I mean a hell for designers. If Dante did not envisage a special circle of his Inferno, one in which designers would be condemned for all eternity to use the fruits of their extreme coolness, that’s only because he was living in the wrong century. From the matt-black stereo with its matt-black controls so despised by Douglas Adams, to the hyper-reflecting phone whose facia is only clearly visible either in the dark, or in the kind of suffused omni-directional luminosity, such as major movie stars enjoy in their dressing rooms and the people of Essex most of the year, from the cute-looking gizmo that falls apart before you’ve even worked out what it’s for, to the leading-edge product in its leading-edge packaging that defies access to anyone not armed with a chain-saw; defeat by design is an all-too common human experience.

So the next time your fingers struggle to grip that slinky designer plug you are trying to pry out of a wall socket before your toast goes carbon, the next time you slide gradually, irresistibly (and stone-cold sober) off a sofa or suffer backache by design in some trendy restaurant, the next time you fail to navigate your way through a GPS menu so cunningly user-friendly it could have been written in Byzantine, the next time a water bottle slips from your grasp out of sheer curviness or a fork manages to jab through the palm of your hand even though you’re holding it the right way round (yes, some genius made the handle pointed because it looks more streamlined: like the whole world is waiting for the supersonic fork, right?), or the next time your olive-oily fingers glide swiftly down the designer handle onto the designer blade of your super-expensive designer ceramic knife, yes, the very next time you are cut by something cutting edge … think of Dante and break into song: “there’s a place for them, a time and space for them: far away in designer hell, making use of the stuff they sell for some time, a long time, an extremely long time!”

Design and the ‘stratocastered’ girl

Here at home I have three things I like to show people when talking about design. The first is a Fender Stratocaster: it’s mass-produced and bolted together to save timber and money, its curves “work” – they hug your body so it feels right, it sounds good and it does what it says on the tin: separates girls from their underwear faster than anything else in the known world. Of course, I personally have never attempted to put this to the test, not being able to play the darn thing, but from the lurid evidence of hearsay I believe it to be true. The second object is from the eighteenth or early nineteenth century, like me. It’s the brass door handle to one of the bedrooms: it perfectly fits your hand, it doesn’t catch in your clothing, you can easily move it with your elbow if your arms are full of ‘stratocastered’ girl and it does the job with the door. The last thing is … a bottle opener: it’s made from a small, single piece of thin, cheap, pressed metal and it opens bottles … every time. Unlike the Shell logo, it has yet to make it into MOMA, but I’ve had it for over a quarter of a century and it hasn’t once tried to emigrate.

Edwin Drood

No Comments

Leave a Reply

Your email is never shared.Required fields are marked *