Selfridges bag

Shoppers in London, Britain - 20 Jan 2012

This is good design. The bags are serviceable — you get your stuff home without worrying whether the bottom of the bag will collapse and open. The colour, Pantone 109 yellow, stands out on the crowd. You can see someone who been shopping at Selfridges from a block away on a crowded London street. (Either they have been shopping there or they are craftily wanting you to think they have been shopping there and making use of the iconic bag while they do their retailing at lesser stores.) But most of all, they bag is designed to do what a shopping bag should do: announce loudly the name of the store to everyone within eyeshot. The colour does most of the attracting, and the restrained typeface (derived from Franklin Gothic) in contrasting black says that this store is classy and hip.

I cannot say that I go shopping in Selfridges just to get a shopping bag, but if I am equidistant between Selfridges and an equivalent store, I’ll head to where I get a yellow bag.

Linn Sondek LP12


The Linn Sondek LP12 is perhaps the strangest example of a design exemplar. It first appeared in 1972, and looks pretty much the same today as it did then. It is functional, but I cannot really say it is beautiful. But that is not the point. It was at the time, and still is after 42 years, arguably the best sound-reproducing device on the planet. Yes, it plays vinyl records, and if you hear a Linn coupled to a half-decent hi-fi system, you will agree with me that it eclipses CDs and most downloadable forms of music in reproducing the music in the way that the original recording intended.

The Linn philosophy has it that the most important part of the music reproduction chain is that which is closest to the source. Thus it is the turntable — not the stylus, not the cartridge, not the tonearm, not the amplifier and certainly not the speakers — that make the most difference to the final sound. So Linn built a turntable that is very close to perfect.

Now, here’s the thing: if you buy a Linn today, you probably won’t buy a stock-standard Linn. Not because your dealer is cheating you, but because after four decades, other improvisers have come along with their own components for the Linn, and you may well decide that you like the sound of an alternative power supply, or someone else’s sub-chassis. No, I am not making this up; these things actually make a sonic difference.

You can also make aesthetic changes to the Linn. An American woodcrafter, Chris Harbarn, makes stunningly beautiful plinths for the Linn in various exotic woods. Some of these actually enhance the sound quality of the reproduction. No, I am not making this up.

So why do I think the Linn Sondek LP12 is an example of good design? Because the original design is still intact; the original design philosophy survives longer than most devices (do you think you will be using an iPhone in 40 year’s time?) but along the way others have been able to enhance and modify the experience to make, in the opinion of your humble blogger, the best device for reproducing recorded music. If you have never heard a Linn, find a dealer and beg for an audition.

Blue Jeans

blue jeansOne of the most iconic items we have, and an example of wonderful design, are blue jeans. The colour is pleasing, the fabric (denim) is long-lasting enough to make jeans economical, they age gracefully (unlike some of the people who wear them), they are casual enough for many situations. They can be partnered with suitable tops to make them acceptable at times when more formality is required.

Jeans were invented by Jacob Davis and Levi Strauss in 1873. The story is that Davis approached Strauss with a view to making trousers from Strauss’s blue denim; the trousers were to have brass rivets to reinforce the pockets and other points of stress. Their intention was to make trousers for working men that were sturdy enough and hard wearing enough to attract lower-paid factory workers. However, when James Dean wore jeans in the 1950s movie “Rebel Without a Cause”, young people started wearing them in defiance of their parents’ fashions (and sometimes the parent’s wishes).

Today, it is almost impossible to go anywhere and not see people wearing jeans. The chances are that you are wearing jeans as you read this; your humble blogger is wearing Levis as he types this.

Why are jeans so popular? Partly the utility of the garment – long wearing and robust – but mainly this is a garment design that is flexible enough to be acceptable in almost all circumstances. If your jeans are clean, you can wear them anywhere. They have stood the test of time – 140 years – and this makes them a design to be admired.

Waiter’s Corkscrew

waiters-corkscrew-italianI suppose that I should write about the waiter’s corkscrew before the wine cork becomes completely obsolete and these lovely devices disappear from everywhere except the memories of elderly wine enthusiasts and restaurant staff.

The waiter’s corkscrew (sometimes called a wine key, sometimes a sommelier knife, sometimes a waiter’s friend, but I prefer to think of that one as the lovely young lady sipping Riesling at the bar while she waits for her man to finish his shift) is a device aimed at getting the cork out of the bottle as quickly and easily as possible, while being portable enough to be easily carried in the waiter’s trouser pocket or apron pocket.

The device consists of a fold-out screw (or helix or worm) and an arm that braces against the lip of the bottle to provide leverage while pulling the cork. Sometimes the arm has two steps, and sometimes incorporates a hinge in the arm to allow the waiter a little flexibility as to when the start pulling the cork. Some, like my illustration, incorporate a bottle cap opener as the step.

Most waiter’s corkscrews have a short, usually curved blade to cut the protective foil wrapper from neck of the bottle.

There are many inventions in the corkscrew field, many of them useless, many of them designed purely to be given as gifts and never used again. Many of them are more expensive, many of them cheaper, but no other corkscrew is as reliable and downright handy as the waiter’s. That, and they make you look like you know what you’re doing when you open a bottle of wine for your special friend. Particularly when it’s the lady that we met earlier and she has given up waiting for her waiter and decided to come home with you.

The Chair JH503

JH503It seems that every architect and every furniture designer designs at least one chair. This has given us a bewildering choice of styles when it comes to seating, but unfortunately not a lot of comfort, nor an abundance of good design.

For this reason, I select the Hans J. Wegner’s ‘The Chair JH503’ as my exemplar. Designed in 1950 (originally with a rattan seat and originally known as ‘The Round Chair’) JH503 is a wonderful example of the furniture designer’s craft. It combines style and high quality craftsmanship, yet was still able to be produced industrially.

JH503 uses no more materials than are needed, and yet the chair does not appear mean. The arms are attached to the extended front leg, meaning that there is no gap and no overhanging end of the arm to catch on clothing. (I know one man who had three jackets torn away at the side pockets from malevolent chair arms.) The back is high enough and curved enough to provide comfortable support. The legs are slanted outward to both visually suggest, and provide, stability.

In 1960, CBS screened the first live televised presidential debate between Senator John F. Kennedy and Vice President Richard Nixon. Kennedy had requested the Round Chair because he wanted a comfortable chair for his well-documented aching back. The chair was mentioned frequently in reports of the debate, and so much media interest was generated that commentators simply called it ‘The Chair’.

Louise Fili

bedford postThis entry is not about a design exemplar, but about a designer. Louise Fili is a designer responsible for many of the logos and packages and books that you have probably seen, and I hope, admired. As designers go, she is both prolific and versatile. Importantly, she is very sensitive to the environment that her design has to fit into — the neighbourhood of the restaurant, other books that her clients has to compete with, the history of the product and so on.

This is what a real designer does: not just add a pretty or sleek face to the product, but make the appearance of the product correct for the occasion and the surroundings.

The example on the left is the sign for a restored cafe and restaurant on Post Road in Bedford NY. The use of a postage stamp is a salute to the (probable) original reason for the road, and the name of the establishment. The traditional design of the stamp gives you a good idea that this is an establishment with traditional values, and the use of wheat on the stamp suggests food. If I were driving by, I would want to stop and eat at the Bedford Post.

Thanks to Carlotta Duncan and Danny Annan for showing me the work of Louise Fili.

Wooden Clothes Pegs

This is probably the most prosaic entry I will ever have in my blog; the humble clothes peg. The best ones are wooden, these being more robust than the plastic variation, and simple in construction. They are made of two pieces of wood, and a single-wire spring that both holds the pieces together, and snaps them shut when the handling ends are released.

Those of my readers who are urban dwellers and rely on the local Chinese laundry to wash and dry their clothing, or those apartment dwellers who use an electric clothes dryer, may never have seen a clothes peg. Their basic purpose is to hold newly-washed clothing onto a line strung across some open space. The small groove on the inside of the peg grasps the line, holding the clothing securely to it.

These pegs have also found other uses. Most notably on movie sets where they are known as “C47″s, where the grips and gaffers use them for holding coloured acetate over spotlights – the wooden peg does not get hot. Musicians use use these pegs to clip music sheets to music stands to prevent the wind from turning the page, or the music sheet from blowing away when playing outside. You also see them on notice boards to hold multiple pages together.

Prosaic, yes. Useful, yes.

Richard Sapper Espresso Maker

I must admit to a little personal involvement here; I own one of these. I bought it because it worked, and it looked good. Since then I have come to appreciate how the parts lock together with a satisfying ‘clunk’, how it is easy to load with coffee and water, and how easy it is to wash the thing after the coffee.

Oh, it makes great coffee too.

This coffee maker was designed by Richard Sapper for Alessi, and is on display in the Permanent Design Collection at the MOMA in New York.

Swiss Railway Clock

It is sometimes hard to believe that elegant and restrained designs have been around for so long. The clock designed for the Swiss Federal Railways came about in 1944, the same year I did. I wish I looked as modern as the clock.

It was designed by a Swiss engineer, Hans Hilfiker and clock manufacturer Mobatime for use as a station clock throughout the network.

Later Hilfiker added a red second hand in the shape of a railway guard’s signalling disc. The second hand is powered by an independent electric motor, and completes a circuit of the clock face in a little under a minute. It then waits at the 12 o’clock position until the clock receives a signal from the central master clock. The minute hand, which until now has been stationary pointing to a full minute, jumps ahead one minute, and the second hand begins a new revolution of the face. Swiss trains leave the station right on the full minute.

Almost as a tribute, the clock face design has recently been licensed by Apple for use in some of their devices.

Olympic Tattoos

This is a blog about good design; which normally would exclude tattoos. However, when an Olympic athlete shows his or her achievement by having the Olympic rings tattooed on themselves, somehow it seems like iconic deign.

But to be attractive, the rings have to be in black only. The colored version does not work very well with skin tones.

This is the only reason that I can think of for having a tattoo.