Sunday, January 31, 2010

Sleek Drive

Portable hard drives have become quite the designer objects in recent years. As the drive mechanisms themselves have become a commodity, the only real point of differentiation has turned out to be the external case design. Even a few big designer names have been lured into the category. It's surprising to me how much inventiveness and imagination has been poured into what is essentially a basic rectangular brick.

Pininfarina is a revered name in the annuals of automotive design. Car companies as varied as Ferrari, Peugeot, Hyundai and Cadillac have all hired the the Italian coachbuilder at some point to put their styling touches on everthing from sportscars to minivans. Known for their evocative flair, Pininfarina's styling themes are usually more fluid and curvaceous — dare I say feminine — than their competitors. Their designs stand apart from the more demonstratively masculine Bertone and the overt functionalism of Giugiaro. Occasionally Pininfarina has strayed beyond their traditional realm into the more mundane consumer product sector — and nothing is more static and prosaic than an external hard drive.

I love these little 2.5 inch hard drives. Their big benefit is not just the smaller size but the fact that you don't need a separate power cord and AC adapter brick like their full-size brethren — just the one data cable does it all. This drive connects via USB only (I prefer Firewire but the availability of those drives are getting rarer all the time) but still, it's 500 GB capacity performs well.

You may question the need for its streamlined shape in a product whose primary function is to remain stationary, but its sleek shape actually works nicely when sliding it cleanly into the internal pocket in my computer bag. It has a wonderful matte, black rubber coating on its sloping horizontal surfaces, which contrast well with the piano black inserts on each side. And to top it off, it sports the same distinctive script "Pininfarina" logotype on it's flanks as the legendary Ferarri Daytona!

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Apple Tablet

Today was the big day — With great fanfare Apple announced their new tablet computer — the iPad. It was pretty much what all the pundits were expecting — maybe even a little less. I was reminded of a similar level of hype around the launch of the Apple Newton back in the early nineties. The product was positioned as a game changer — a whole new paradigm of computing. I bought into the hype and splurged on the first generation Newton. It had wonderfully snappy performance as long as you had nothing on it, but it really bogged down when you loaded it up with, say, your full address book. I bought a few accessories including the monstrous 2 MB card (I believe it was something like $175.00). It was a little big — too wide to comfortably hold in one hand. But It did have a wonderfully grippy surface — one of the first products to have a rubbery coating on its plastic shell. Created in a dark grey-green color, it was released without its ultra cool batman hinged screen cover (that had been revealed in prototype photos) — a real shame. Its much vaulted handwriting recognition was a little ahead of its time and proved to be its Achilles heel. After a couple of generations the product was quietly withdrawn.

The diminutive Palm Pilot walked away with resounding success a short time later and the category was eventually ceded to Palm, Compaq and HP for the next decade. Eventually the Smart phones took over this functionality. I recently found my old Newton — alas, the battery holder is lost so I can't fire it up and see the old monochrome, pen-interface.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Slim Suits

These elongated, capsule-shaped playing cards from Umbra initially appear to be brilliantly functional — the slimness of the design should allow you to hold many more cards in your hand at once. However in practice, they're really not much more accommodating than a conventional deck. A fanned hand only needs to reveal the slender sliver on the left with the card designation — the rest of each card is overlapped, so the overall benefits are pretty minor. And the the downsides are kind of annoying — they're difficult to shuffle and challenging to keep stacked in a pile. And of course, you're not going to pull these out for the guys on Poker night — you'd be laughed off the table. Still, they have a friendly, curving form, their oversized (5-inches) length charmingly playful. Umbra is a familiar name in housewares — mostly kitchen and bath stuff — so it's nice to see them branching out. All their products have a strong design focus — although the manufacturing quality could be a little better.

The cards even come in a cool, translucent capsule case, a shape that complements the cards wonderfully.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Minimalist Flatware

Designed by Sori Yanagi, this set of silverware from MOMA has an aesthetic that gracefully straddles the line between being beautifully elegant and cleanly modern. It's curvaceous, organic shapes stand out from other contemporary flatware designs, combining minimalist form with a certain rich sophistication. Made of 18/8 stainless steel with a wonderful brushed satin finish, the set is elegant and completely functional — the spoon's flatter-curved bottoms feel great and stir well; the knife's bulbuous, tulip shape works like a charm. And yes, unlike my silverware from Dansk, this set can be used easly in the English manner — fork upside down in left hand and knife in right. I ordered a single place setting from MOMA initially, just to to make sure I really likes them, and then happily ordered a full set a short time later.

Spiral Scissors

These diminutive nail and cuticle scissors look pretty conventional at first glance. But then you notice the unusual split all the way down its length — a twirling, twisting break, that when opened, reveal the the full curvature of the form. Made in Switzerland by Rubis and finished exquisitely in satin-finished stainless steel, these scissors are a marvel of finely crafted detail — a design that's directly derived from its function. I really appreciate the extra effort someone went through to make something special out of an ordinary a pair of scissors.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Scissors-Action Stapling

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Matte Black Sound

There is a certain honesty and appeal in balls-out, straightforward, functional product design. I bought these speakers in the late 80s — Yamaha prodced these as Keyboard Monitor Speakers for professional touring musicians but I used them as computer speakers (on my then, state-of-the-art Mac II). I'll admit they're not the best sounding speakers — for the audio generated from a computer.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

USB flash drives (or thumb drives, or USB keys, or flash thingies — can we standardize on a name of these things already? are a fool-proof way of transferring files from one computer to another — they've become the new floppy disk. Corporate and Government IT departments hate these — they undermine their carefully restricted, high-security networks. And yet they remain a convenient way to exchange data on the fly.

Sony has always charged a premium for their products, adding a little style and design quality as the added value. This line of USB flash drives certainly ups the ante — a cleaver sliding sleeve reveals the USB plug. The 2GB capacity seemed huge when I bought this in early 2009, but now is common place — storage technology never stands still.

Friday, January 8, 2010


It's rather a pain to pull out the big vaccum cleaner every time I notice a piece of lint floating across my hardwood floor. So I make good use of the Oxo dustpan with inclusive form-fitting brush I bought last week.

Oxo is a company that puts a lot of effort in making its products ergonomically comfortable and with wonderfully expressive style, striking form, and crisp design in the details. Molded in blindingly white plastic, the smooth rounded curves have been styled with voluptuos charm. I would have to say though, that the bristles are not quite stiff enough so you end up flexing the bristles and hitting the hard plastic portion of the brush on whatever you're dusting. But otherwise it works flawlessly. Note the serrated edges of the dustpan that you can use to cleannoff the bristles.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Translucent Whiteness

This was my very first iPod — it's commonly referred to as the Third Generation model. (Don't get me started on Apple's bewilderingly vague product naming system). It was given to me as a gift and housed a massive 40GB spinning hard drive.

This was back in the day when Apple offered you iPods in any color you could want, as long as it was white. I remember being at the Apple Store in Palo Alto where they had a large poster with a night shot of this iPod showing how the buttons light up in the dark and several different groups of people came in asking about the black one in the poster. Apple finally saw the light a year later, cautiously adding a black model at first and then eventually releasing a range of iPods covering the entire color spectrum.

This model differed from the first generation in that it had a row of touch-sentive buttons for playback controls. They were a little too sensitive for most folks — it was easy to inadvertently skip ahead with the slightest brush. But they were still preferable to the previous models that had long thin buttons arranged around the circumference of the click wheel. I appreciated the translucent white case — the clear plastic housing was coated with opaque white on the inside surface, giving a lustrous feeling of depth to the finish. I was never that excited about the brick-like form though, with its uniform radii on every edge. It had all the excitement of a squared-off bar of soap, a necessary accommodation for the electrical components, I suppose.

While still in great shape cosmetically, this iPod is completely dead, unable to be resuscitated with any amount of recharging.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Stainless Stapling

I purchased this stapler from MOMA so long ago I can't even remember when. Made of polished stainless steel, the Folle 26 Stapler has a wonderfully restrained appearance and the solid heft of a real, functional machine. Its straightforward linear form is designed in the modern tradition and yet because of its rich materials and quality construction, hints at earlier era — something stylish you'd find in a desk drawer of your Parisian atelier. I love its monolithic metallic appearance and spare, structured form — a straightforward linear block with a circular head emphasizing the business end. A clearly etched arrow points to a sliding button on it's side that allows it to be opened up and loaded; while a spring-loaded button on the bottom lets you rotate the striking plate so that the staples can be splayed out rather than bend in on themselves for certain applications (which I have never really needed). It works flawlessly although I'll admit I only staple an handful of times a year — mostly around tax time. The Folle 26 Stapler is in the Design Collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Door Stop Man

Picked up this whimsical little guy the other weekend — a fully rubberized reclining figure that stops doors from swinging in the wind. I have this problem with my upstairs study so I put him to work right away. Made with a hard rubber coating over a metal armature, he can be bent (with a bit of effort) to contort his shape subtly and prop open any door. I like the fact that it's the shape of the international icon of a human figure you typically see on signage rather than something more literal.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Extruded Time

Some of the more iconic styles of the 80s haven't aged very well — specifically the cutting edge Memphis design style, championed by the ledgendary Ettore Sottsass. A break from the modernist design themes of the 70s, the style combined kitsch elements from the 50s with busy leopard skin patterns and exuberant ziggurats and wave forms. The shapes, ornamentation and colors influenced graphic design with the California/Florida New Wave style utilizing busy patterns in teals and pinks, but made its biggest impact in furniture design. Memphis strived to shock, polarizing the opinions of many designers and challenged the time-honored, traditional notion that good design should be timeless. The Museum of Modern Art in New York famously refused to mount a Memphis design show. If you're unfamiliar with Memphis design watch, the film Ruthless People — you'll have no trouble spotting the furniture.

This Canetti desk clock by ArtTime (bought in the late 80s) is one of the more restrained examples of the style, and still keeps time, more or less. The hour is indicated with a perforated disc with a yellow arrow, the minute hand is a blocky red extention, and a ticking yellow orb with an embedded blue block denotes the seconds. The deep cylindrical design makes the form unusual for a standard clock, although it can still be easily hung on a wall or placed on a desk. I like the red, deep blue and yellow color accents — reminds me of Rietveld's De Stijl color palette. Now a quarter century on, the clock is, ironically, stuck in time — a dated moment in a design trend of the 80s.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Sticky Green

I bought this Alessi tape dispenser about a decade ago. Made out of green translucent plastic, its smooth, rounded edges really invite you to pick it up and use it. The stubby "Y" shaped arms, while appearing as a bit of design whimsy are actually perfectly functional: they extend the tape out for you to easily grasp. And the rounded body makes it very comfortable to hold. But this is not one of those weighted desk tape dispensers where you can pull off a piece of tape with a couple of fingers. This does require both hands — you must pick it up to use it — which is completely fine for casual home use. And the roll is nicely sealed completely within the plastic housing, so you can just toss it in a drawer and not risk the grimy, gluey edge sticking to other things, like the standard Scotch® tape dispensers do. And yet it's easy enough to pop one edge off to replace the roll when you need to.

Friday, January 1, 2010

New Year!

The year "Twenty-Ten" has a crisp, solid ring to it. We're finally out of the "Ohhhs" decade (or the "naughts" as the English would say) and none too soon. And nothing rings in the new year like a well-designed calendar/datebook. Maybe this is the year I'll actually have the discipline to use one rather than just tossing it in a drawer. This one caught my eye online — the Munken Agenda called Everynow 2010. I ordered a couple of these from England — they're produced as a paper sample from the manufacturer, Artic Paper.

Sporting an intriguing "timewheel" design theme, the cover design is wonderfully technical — concentric circles of numbers that depict the month, days in the month, weeks, day of the year, hours in the month etc. — all deliciously de-bossed (letterpressed) into its thick cover. The interior is equally well designed, with each spread displaying a full week, and the weekend days at the far right. (I can't for the life of me understand the standard American practice of splitting up the two weekend days, putting one day at the beginning and the other at the end of the week. In day-to-day living, Americans still have the mental model of the week starting on Monday and ending on Sunday, so I'm baffled by the proliferation of calendars and datebooks available in this country with the split-up weekends — makes them all unusable in my book.)