Thursday, December 31, 2009

Iconic Celebration

Dom Pérignon. The classic champagne that dates back to Louis XIV times. Created by a Benedictine monk in the 1600s, it's become the de facto standard in celebratory beverages. It comes in a rather humble, dark glass bottle that's a little more bottom heavy and slope-shouldered than a standard champagne bottle. The distinctive shield-shaped label is remarkably understated — one-color printing with sparse typography in a rather friendly, simplistic script on a muted background. It all comes together in a wonderfully monochromatic, unified statement, quietly proclaiming its classic name from one of the most esteemed champagne houses.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Blue Sky Umbrella

When MOMA came out with this umbrella back in the 90s, the concept was just so clever I had to buy one immediately. Designed by Tibor Kalman of the renowned design firm M&Company, it embodies the witty charm all their products were famous for. The cheerful blue sky with happy puffy clouds is silkscreened onto a separate cloth insert attached to a conventional umbrella. It's well made, with a wooden veneer-covered central pole and nicely finished hook handle. Never fails to create a little smile in gloomy weather.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Milky Music

Apple had ignited the MP3 category with their iPod; now they needed a cheaper, simpler model to round out the line. The iPod Shuffle was launched to fulfill that role, its reduced cost evident by its limited storage capacity and lack of any kind of display. They also skimped on materials and design. Maybe they made it intentionally dull and monotonous looking to avoid stealing sales away from their more profitable models, but I still think the design is humdrum and unexciting. It's not offensive — its clean and white, with clear, minimalist controls marked in subtle grey — but it doesn't inspire either. There's an attempt at creating some visual interest by having sharply defined edges in one dimension that contrast with the rounded corners in an other, but that doesn't make up for its general blandness. It's very light, so it serves its purpose as a featherweight jogging accessory, but that also makes it feel cheap. There's a sliding switch on the back that selects shuffle modes, but it's tricky to grip and position accurately.

In one way it's superior to its more expensive brethren: it has its USB plug built right in — no need to look for that iPod connector cord. But as an avid Podcast listener that needs to find a particular show and then hear the episodes in an orderly sequence, I can't adapt to the random shuffling lifestyle.

It's interesting to note that the Apple Remote, included with all their computers for media viewing, has some similarity in form and control layout — although even it has a more pleasing aesthetic than the lowly Shuffle.

Monday, November 9, 2009

It's About Time

Black-faced watches have always looked cool to me. As a teenager, when I bought myself my first watch, I picked out an all-black model with a bright red-orange second hand. I always liked that look. Years later when I first saw the Seiko Sportura line, I was reminded of that design theme. Sportura is Seiko's contemporary-looking line of 'Sport" watches. By the time I had made up my mind that I wanted one in particular — the all-black Seiko Sportura Chronograph snappily designated the SNA595P2 — it had been discontinued. And replaced with a line of very bling watches — all kinds of shiny chrome bits highlighting the dials and bezel, swathed in decorative patterns. Most popular watches have gone in this design direction — a shiny jangly 70s revival available from many manufacturers. I had to do a little searching online for a retailer that still carried it.

Precision timepieces are a staple in most designers' collections of revered objects. I think it's the technological precision of most watches that is so appealing. Even up close the details are sharply rendered, the graphics crisply printed, the quality of manufacture clearly evident. I have to admire a timepiece where the quality is to such a level that even fifths of a second are cleanly marked. I like the simplicity of the brightly contrasting hour designations, visible even in complete darkness. I love the repeating pattern of circular holes across its face (it's actually more subtle than appears in this photograph). I even like the racing stripe orange stitching on its unique leather straps — the inside surface of which carry on the orange color theme. The straps recently wore out; another worldwide internet search tracked down a replacement set from England. It has all the usual chronograph timing functions as well as a built-in alarm function, but I've never been able to figure that part out.

The bezel surface might be a little too shiny black for my taste (the surface of which has gotten pretty well scratched up if you look close). And I do wish the orange highlighted details were more towards the red side of the color spectrum. But the thing that bugs me the most are the product naming graphics — I mean, four different typefaces for four words — really?

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Low, Sleek and Mouse

It's ironic that Apple, the force behind making the computer mouse mainstream, is often a couple of steps behind the competition when it comes to pointing devices. I remember going through half a dozen different Microsoft and Logitech mice before Apple supported anything more than a double click. The Microsoft wheel mouse was a revelation, allowing a whole new level of flexibility in working with bigger files. Scrolling horizontally was added with subsequent tilt wheel models, and then Apple finally joined the fray with the "Mighty Mouse" and its little scroll ball. At last, a Macintosh could be used by a typical graphic designer right out of the box, for the first time since 1988.

Apple has now upped the ante with the goofily named "Magic Mouse" It's got to be one of the lowest profile mice ever created — It's so slim it's hard to believe that it encloses a couple of AA batteries. Yes, the new mouse only comes as a wireless model, which means it's a tad tougher to slide around because of the extra battery weight. Too bad it doesn't have the option to work with only one battery like the previous model.

The big news with this mouse is its touch-sensitive surface. A wonderful, curving, smooth, glossy surface of clear plastic with its underside colored opaque white, giving the top surface a slightly transparent look. Incorporating some of the technology that went into the touchpads of its notebooks, scrolling is acheived by sliding your finger over its face; flicking through pictures is accomplished by swiping two fingers. It's an improvement on the tiny scrollwheel — your finger doesn't get as cramped as it swipes through a larger swath of motion to scroll. I love the momentum feature — it gives you a wonderful fluid feeling when you're skating around a large photoshop file. Being an old-school Machead I never set up the mouse with the two button mode — pressing the control key with the other hand to get that functionality is fine by me. The hard edge around the perimeter of the mouse was initially weird feeling, but after a couple of days, I didn't really notice it. It seems to help you position the mouse more precisely, and with a more positive grip, or at least it feels like you are. And I don't miss the loss of the side buttons of the previous mouse. I always turned off that functionality — it was way too easy to trigger accidentally.

The bluetooth technology also seems to have improved — the initial pairing with your computer is a level of magnitude faster than previous mice I've used. A simple slide of the tiny switch on the bottom starts the process — that tiny black dot is a piercing green LED that indicates status.

The level of fit and finish of this new mouse is flawless — the feel of the light click as the whole top surface depresses with each click, the crisp clean edge of the curving plastic, the tight tolerances of the mating parts, even the quality of the little sliding switch and silk screened graphics on the bottom. Apple has often been praised for its high level of design, but here the quality in its manufacturing has reached a new high. It looks and feels like something Bang & Olufsen would put out, except they would charge $600 for it.

The high quality carries through to the packaging — the mouse ships in a clear plastic box contoured to its shape, with room for instructions in its platform base.

Friday, November 6, 2009

The Cutting Edge

I have been fighting the blade escalation of razors over the years, stubbornly continuing to use my trusty, 80s-era Gillette Trak II. How can it possibly do the job with only two blades, while all the newer models have three, four, even five blades in a row? It works fine, although the mechanism for holding the blades in is wearing out and becoming less effective. I have to admit though, I prize it mostly for its design.

Absent are the swooping curves and swirls of different colors wrapping around and in between each other in contrasting waves prevalent in current razor design. Here we have a clean, disciplined, structured design — a series of solid, functional, raised grips on a sleek silver handle. Everything is lined up — the handle clearly defined; the neck, appropriately abruptly, bent. A contrasting black metal seam runs down its spine, revealing and highlighting its manufacture.

This sort of restrained design language seems to be out of favor on many products these days. Cars, yachts, even toothbrushes — all seem to have numerous looping, curving intertwined surfaces — a design trend that seems to have evolved from the overdesigned, Nike running-shoe sector. Hopefully, there will be a return to santity, and maybe I'll even find a replacement handle of this model.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

A Blast of Whimsy

The Giotto Rocket is a rarity in product design — an intriguing-looking object injected with fun and whimsy that is actually completely functional. Intended for use by photographers to blow away dust and debris from the nooks and crannies of their equipment, it sucks air from its base and shoots it out the top, preventing the dust you're trying to get rid of from just getting recirculated. The rocket fins make a functional stand. It comes in several different sizes, this being the smallest version — extra cute because its squeezable rubber center is completely spherical.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Splitting Nuts

I first caught sight of this gorgeous, heart-shaped nut splitter (designed by Jim Hannon-Tan in 2008) on the Alessi website. Usually put off by their more unusual and overly "cute" design objects, I thought this would be a great candidate for my very first Alessi purchase. Since I hadn't seen the tool in person, I held off on buying it until a few weeks ago when I happened across it at the Soho MoMA store in Manhattan... and it was on sale. I bought it without hesitation.

I was dying to try the splitter on some whole, unshelled walnuts, but there were none to be found at any of the nearby supermarkets. It was two weeks later that I finally discovered some in the produce section at Whole Foods. Beautiful and sensuous as the splitter is in appearance, its utility as a nutcracker is somewhat limited. While it will almost always split the walnut open in some fashion, it is all too easy to mangle the shell in the process and end up with too small an opening. Now we know why walnuts are usually sold pre-shelled!

Stylish Xylish

During a short trip to Japan this spring, I ate many delicious meals – the flavors of which would sometimes linger for hours after. In a search to remedy the problem, I came across this packet of gum, which looks pretty ordinary on the convenience store shelf. But peel off the outer wrapper and you're in for a treat: a stylishly embossed silver box forms a frame for a tiny "drawer" cradling individually wrapped, hard-coated pieces of gum (with a nice, mild grapefruit flavor). The foil wrappers are soft and flexible in texture, folded perfectly to hold each piece. This level of attention to detail was typical of packaging design in Japan, where they lavish creative ideas on even the most inexpensive and disposable of products. I only wish the outer wrapper were sleek enough to match its contents!

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Winging it

This wonderfully whimsical fly squatter comes from the Dutch design label InvotisOrange. They make some interesting stuff — I haven't seen any of their product line in America. I picked this up in a stylish little store in downtown Athens and was struck by the cleverness of the concept. Called the Flyflap, this rather playful solution to the problem is approximately the same size and weight as a standard flyswatter, and looks to be just as effective — although the generous size of some of the openings may allow some smaller flies to survive unscathed. Designed by Ramon Middelkoop, this elegant weapon achieves a perfect balance of function and artistry, with an ironic sense of humor. I have yet to put it into use — I haven't seen any flies in the house lately.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Spiral Eraser

A friend recently gave me this very unusual looking black rubber eraser after returning from her trip to Tokyo. Looking like a tiny collapsable bellows, this barely 2-inch long flexible rubber spiral from Metaphys Stationary is not just cool looking but purposefully functional. The sharp ridges perform extremely well in erasing specific points of your pencil drawing or writing. The dramatic helical shape, designed by Chiaki Murata, quickly wears down though, blunting the crisp coiled ridges. I guess you have to have two of these then — one to put out on your desk for its iconic looks, and the one you really use tucked away in your pencil drawer.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Saucy Japanese

This little pouring dish — barely 3 inches across — forms a simple perfect shape for its purpose. It's pouring end looks like the front of a ship. I bought it at a Japanese pottery store and I assume it's for teriyaki sauce, or something similar that you would dip into or pour from. It's surface is a wonderful matte charcoal color speckled with rich glossy black spots. This rough surface texture is wonderfully grippy to hold, although I haven't actually used this for anything yet — the only time I eat Japanese is at a restaurant.

Absolute Zero

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

A Light Pounding

For heavy duty construction projects you'll need the real tool - say a milled-head, hatchet-handled, 24-oz. framing hammer. But most of the routine household chores we do everyday calls for something with a lot less impact. All we need from a hammer is to nail up a picture-hanger, lightly knock open a stuck window frame, or pound a stubborn IKEA bookshelf together.

I've had this little hammer for maybe 20 years, and if I remember correctly, purchased from a designer/gizmo store called InGear (now long gone) in the Stanford shopping Mall, Palo Alto. Cleanly styled and perfectly balanced in the hand, this diminutive hammer is barely 10 inches long - ideally sized for everyday pounding. Its smooth face doesn't mar surfaces, its solid metal construction allows a powerful blow when needed, and its compact size lets it fit snugly in the slimmest drawers. Its most striking feature is it's bright warm red color and the very linear-styled, black rubber handle. This was a time when I bought just about anything that was cool looking and came in black and red - a color combination that was all the product design rage in the early eighties.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Fluted Glass Dessert Bowls

I picked up a couple of these little tapered glass bowls from Crate & Barrel last month. They call
them Jive Cocktail Glasses but are rather large and cumbersome to drink out of. They're perfect as elegant little dessert bowls however, sparkling with a style that harks back to an earlier era of grandeur — deco maybe? Two very unusual features of this glassware — the light-scattering flanks are fluted on the inside rather than the more usual exterior — making it smooth and pleasant to hold in your hand; it doesn't seem to have an adverse impact the contents either. Even more interestingly, when viewed from above these bowls aren't circular, but have a subtle oval rim — how cool is that?

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Millefiori from Murano

I picked up this small dish on a trip to Murano Italy, "the Glass-Making Island," back in 1999. Millefiori — literally a "thousand flowers" — is a glass making technique that involves layering and rolling different colored glass and extruding long glass "canes" that are then bundled together and sliced across the section like a log cake. A shallow dish can be formed. This piece is only about three inches across but the level of vibrant detail is quite remarkable. Held up to the light the colors change as parts that are translucent shift to a more intense color.

Although painstakingly created with expertise honed through centuries of tradition, from a design standpoint I would have to admit this is purely decorative — it falls pretty heavily on the "Art" side of the scale.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

The Straight Scoop

As a little girl, I eagerly anticipated the occasional after-school stops we would make to the local Baskin-Robbins. I would put in my usual order: a scoop of Daquiri Ice (or Rainbow Sherbert) on a sugar cone, and then stand transfixed by the boy behind the counter — not because he was so cute, but because he managed to form a beautifully round scoop of ice cream each and every time.

I wanted my scoops at home to be that perfect, too, so I watched very carefully. I noticed that he dipped the scoop in water in between scoops. Aha, I thought. All I needed to do was to dip the scoop in water before starting to scoop!

At home, I tried this “dip and scoop” approach with both regular tablespoons and actual ice cream scoops. When that didn’t work so well, I even tried again with hot water — without luck. I was not going to give up on this quest: I just had to find out the secret to effortlessly creating a consistently perfect scoop of ice cream.

The shape of the scoop seemed like it might be the ticket. I had tried a few scoops that looked very similar to the one at Baskin-Robbins, with varying results. After going through a few duds, I finally came across one that works. Since it was a hand-me-down from my aunt, I have no idea who makes it. It forms very nice, ball-shaped ice cream, but the skinnier handle isn’t all that comfortable to hold. I usually prefer purity of materials in products for cleaner aesthetics, and this is no exception. With its wood handle and skinny neck, this ice cream scoop just isn’t very pretty – and that makes it less enjoyable both to own and to use.

There was one scoop that I’d had my eye on for years. It comes in different sizes, with a color-coded end cap. I wanted one with a white, black or red cap but had not seen them anywhere… until I saw one with a white end cap at Crate and Barrel. I bought it. (Zeroll makes this white-capped version specially for C&B; the only clue is a discreet, clear Zeroll sticker on the back side of the handle.)

I don’t know why I waited so long. I enjoy using the scoop more than I enjoy eating ice cream. In fact, I’m sometimes tempted to buy ice cream just so I can use my Zeroll to form sphere after perfect sphere!

Not only does the Zeroll look cool, with its retro form (originally designed in 1935) and dull metal finish, its wide handle is ergonomic and feels great in the hand. The embossed Crate and Barrel logo doubles as a finger grip to prevent slippage. The shape of the scoop lets you roll ball after ball of perfectly spherical ice cream, but the secret is the heat-conducting liquid in the handle — and that’s what helps the ice cream release cleanly from the scoop. Made of durable cast aluminum and ABS plastic, I expect to be scooping thousands more perfect scoops of ice cream with this superbly designed kitchen tool in years to come.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Pentax Optio S

Barely bigger than a business card, the diminutive Pentax Optio S was introduced back in 2003. I bought mine as a backup to my main digital camera and very quickly appreciated the high level design detail. Its shiny silver exterior has a surface composed of fine ribs radiating in a concentric pattern from the lens — a subtle, grippable surface that is surprisingly effective. In addition, a vertical capsule-shaped indentation on the back is a perfect thumb grip. A great little pocketable camera, it served me well on a vaction to England that Christmas as well as the following year as an ideal walk-around camera. It's tiny rear playback screen and meager three megapixel resolution very quickly became obsolete though — this was the era of rapidly advancing camera capabilities in the early "Oughts". Lately it seems like digital camera feature sets have plateaued, at least for now.

One of the few design flaws is the close proximity of the two buttons on the top surface — I sometimes got confused and ended up turning off the camera with the on/off button rather than taking a picture with the shutter release button. The shutter release button is actually bigger and falls more readily under your trigger finger than the tiny on/off button, so most of the time it worked as designed. A full, more technical review of this camera can be found here.

Friday, February 27, 2009

This site is still under construction

Please excuse the inconsistencies and limited scope. We're still adding multiple reviews, honing the "gauge" and tweaking the site design.