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.