“We drive into the future using only our rearview mirror.”

Marshall McLuhan

The art of Timeless industrial Design

I love Apple products. One of the main reasons why is that I'm a big fan of minimalist, functional industrial design. In my opinion, good design is clean, classic, and, most of all, unobtrusive - qualities that perfectly describe not only Apple's design philosophy, but also that of the German consumer products company, Braun.

For background, German industrial designer Dieter Rams led the design of most of Braun's products during his 40-year career (1955–1995) at the company, while Jonathan Ive has led the design of Apple's products from 1997 (with the development of the iMac G3) to today. Both approach their design using the principles created by the Bauhaus school, founded by Walter Gropius in Weimar, Germany in 1919.

The Bauhaus approach focuses on a) distinct geometric forms, b) balanced composition, and c) the use of very few, primary materials, most notably metal and glass. It encourages a functional approach to design - mechanical aspects of products are not covered up (in fact, they're showcased), which creates a look both futuristic and timeless. It's also a design approach that allows for the creation of highly designed products for the real world, ones that can be mass-produced and made available to the general public at reasonable prices - again, qualities that perfectly describe both Braun and Apple products.

You'll read a lot on the Web about the surface similarities between many of Apple's and Braun's most iconic pieces (mostly accusing Ive of flat-out stealing Rams' ideas), but I think the parallels speak to something deeper - namely that an effective, considered approach applied to like needs produces like products. I've included a few examples here.

But what exactly is effective design? When attempting to answer that question, Rams developed his ten principles, often referred to in industrial design circles as "the ten commandments." For Rams (and Ive), effective design:

  • Is innovative - Imaginative design always develops in tandem with improving technology, and can never be an end in itself.
  • Makes a product useful - A product has to satisfy not only functional, but also psychological and aesthetic criteria. Good design emphasizes the usefulness of a product whilst disregarding anything that could detract from it.
  • Is aesthetic - The aesthetic quality of a product is integral to its usefulness because products are used every day and have an effect on people and their well-being. Only well-executed objects can be beautiful.
  • Makes a product understandable - It clarifies the product’s structure. Better still, it can make the product clearly express its function by making use of the user's intuition. At best, it is self-explanatory.
  • Is unobtrusive - Products fulfilling a purpose are like tools. They are neither decorative objects nor works of art. Their design should therefore be both neutral and restrained, to leave room for the user's self-expression.
  • Is honest - It does not make a product appear more innovative, powerful or valuable than it really is. It does not attempt to manipulate the consumer with promises that cannot be kept.
  • Is long-lasting - It avoids being fashionable and therefore never appears antiquated. Unlike fashionable design, it lasts many years – even in today's throwaway society.
  • Is thorough down to the last detail - Nothing must be arbitrary or left to chance. Care and accuracy in the design process show respect towards the consumer.
  • Is environmentally friendly - Design makes an important contribution to the preservation of the environment. It conserves resources and minimizes physical and visual pollution throughout the lifecycle of the product.
  • Is as little design as possible - Less, but better – because it concentrates on the essential aspects, and the products are not burdened with non-essentials. Back to purity, back to simplicity.

These are the rules I always try to keep in mind when undertaking any creative project, whether that be photography, writing, or developing this site. (I'm certainly not always successful, but I do keep them in mind.) Beyond that, I think these principles have a lot to say about living a simpler, less cluttered and more thoughtful life. (And I'm not the only one who thinks so!)

At the very least, they can provide a good foundation for considering why you find (or don't find) a product useful, why some buildings seem like they belong in their surroundings or look completely out of place, or why a particular piece of signage is either easy to read or difficult to understand.

Timeless industrial Design, Part 2

Anyone who has talked with me about industrial design or technology knows that I love Andrew Kim, a former senior designer at Microsoft and (in my opinion) the heir apparent to both Rams and Ive. Below is the Xbox One S, the first major item designed by Kim while at Microsoft.

I'm not sure if it was directly inspired by Rams, but I immediately felt a similarity between this piece and the Braun SK 55 Phonosuper, a 1963 record player designed by Dieter Rams and Hans Gugelot. Kim even has a page on his former Web site devoted to the SK 55, which he purchased in 2014.

The approach is even extended to the Xbox's top vent, which is reminiscent of a record sitting on top of a record player.

It's another example of considered, thoughtful design that reappears in different forms as technology advances but user's needs and expectations stay consistent. Kim had been working on future designs for Microsoft's augmented reality headset, HoloLens, but recently left the company to become a lead designer at Tesla. I can't wait to see where he takes his vision next.

Those items you rarely consider

This may be a giant assumption on my part, but I don't know if many people give much consideration to the design of their silverware (I don't, at least), even though forks, spoons, and knives are some of the most personal items we touch every day. I think most of us just accept that a fork is a fork, buy what looks sort of nice at Williams-Sonoma, and move on with our lives.

But I recently ran across some articles on two industrial designers famous for their silverware designs. (Yes, I know how weird that sounds, but it's true.) The first, David Mellor, is one of the most famous British designers of the 20th century, particularly for his cutlery, which began with his "Symbol" line in 1961. Mellor would continue to refine his designs over the next 40 years, producing such lines as "Hoffmann" (below left), "London" (below middle), and "Minimal" (below right), continually pairing down his design into ever simpler and more elegant forms, while remaining completely familiar and functional. 

The same is true for Japanese industrial designer Sori Yanagi, whose Yanagi Flatware (see below) is sold in New York's Museum of Modern Art. I find it fascinating that Yanagi and Mellor have similar aims (simplicity, elegance, functionality), but that their end results are so distinct, with Mellor creating something strikingly industrial and Yanagi producing something almost organic, the end of each piece blooming out as though it were a flower. Everything is instantly recognizable for what it is, but each approach evokes completely different reactions.

Yanagi Flatware (5-piece set)

Yanagi Flatware (5-piece set)

You can browse all of David Mellor's cutlery on his Website, and can read more about his design studio in this Telegraph article. You can buy Yanagi's products at a range of online stores, including his famous stainless steel tea kettle and his butterfly stool.

Something to consider the next time you decide to replace those old, tired utensils in your kitchen drawer! 

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Venus

You know you're a pretty good designer when someone who has the services of Jonathan Ive at his disposal turns to you to design him a superyacht. That person would be Philippe Starck, a French designer known for industrial, interior, product, and architectural design—basically everything from furniture to clothing to electronics, cars, and...well, superyachts.

Jobs asked Starck to build him a minimalist (of course) yacht back in 2007 based largely on the design aesthetics of Apple products. Four years and $140 million dollars ($60 million below budget) later, Starck completed "Venus," a 256-foot superyacht constructed of aluminium (making it much lighter than other yachts of its kind), with teak decks and large panes of ceiling-to-floor glass throughout.

The Venus superyacht (yes, those are lighted steps going into the back of the ship)

Starck completed the superyacht shortly after Jobs' death in October 2011, but unfortunately it's currently locked up in Amsterdam because Starck claims that he's still owned $4 million for his work. (His commission was reportedly equal to 6% of the cost of the ship, but he and Jobs never had a written agreement.)

You can visit Starck's website to see his other works, which range from silly to breathtaking to just plain head-scratching, but each one of his pieces is almost always interesting enough to make you stop and think for a moment. Here are a few of my favorites. (Especially the modular, stackable fireplace cubes, because seriously, that's just plain awesome.)