The death of Kenji Ekuan, a Japanese monk-turned-industrial designer, last week is reason to recall his most iconic design — the ubiquitous red-capped Kikkoman soy sauce bottle. Omnipresent in Japanese restaurants and in most Japanese homes worldwide since it was introduced in 1961, the soy sauce dispenser is as much a dining table fixture as salt-and-pepper shakers. Globally, more than 300 million bottles have been sold to date. The teardrop-shaped bottle with a red plastic cap is synonymous with soy sauce. Ekuan reported that it took him three years and more than 100 prototypes to come up with the smooth contoured glass form that could be held firmly between two fingers and had a screw-on cap that integrated into its design a double-sided dripless spout. The choice of clear glass, too, made it possible to see how much soy sauce was still inside without unscrewing the cap. As with so many commonplace objects that we take for granted, Ekuan’s dispenser design deserves to be considered more closely and appreciated for its simple elegance and intuitive functionality.
In September, Playscape, a children’s playground created in 1976 by Isamu Noguchi in Atlanta’s Piedmont Park, reopened after a restoration funded by Herman Miller Cares via Park Pride, and coordinated by the City of Atlanta’s Office of Cultural Affairs and Office of Parks. Playscape is the only playground designed by Noguchi in the U.S., despite his effort to develop more.
One of the 20th century’s most important and acclaimed sculptors and artists, Isamu Noguchi had a lifelong interest in designing children’s playground. “I think of playgrounds as a primer of shape and functions; simple, mysterious, and evocative; thus educational,” he said.
Noguchi’s approach to playgrounds was consistent with his design of furniture and lamps, theater sets, stone sculptures, and landscaped gardens. He brought an organic and geometric sculptural sensibility to all. “Sculpture can be a vital force in our everyday life if projected into communal usefulness,” he believed. His goal was to create art that the public could use in a social space. That included children’s playgrounds.
Noguchi pursued his quest to create playgrounds throughout his career. He designed his first landscape for children in 1933. Calling it Play Mountain, he proposed building it in New York City and envisioned a contoured terrain with many elements that would find their way into his other landscape designs. New York rejected his proposal. He tried again in the 1950s and 1960s, and was rejected each time.
For Playscape in Atlanta, Noguchi created colorful sculptural forms that invited children to explore this landscape, using their imagination to invent their own play. Dakin Hart, senior curator of the Noguchi Museum, described Noguchi’s belief “that playgrounds should not be designed like military exercise equipment for a cheaply executed boot camp…He thought kids should experience the environment the way man first experienced the earth, as a spectacular and complex place.” This is a vision that applied to all of Noguchi’s work.
It’s no surprise that a bus shelter constructed entirely from Lego bricks recently emerged in front of a toy store in the UK to celebrate London’s Year of the Bus. Anyone who has ever visited Legoland knows that these colorful interlocking plastic bricks can be built into anything, of any size by people (or maybe primates in general) of any age. Like an atom, the Lego is the basic unit of playful construction. This bus shelter was made from 100,000 Lego bricks by Duncan Titmarsh, the UK’s only certified Lego professional.
On Comedy Central’s Colbert Report last week, Stephen Colbert questioned the marketing strategy behind the new Vessyl Smart Cup produced by San Francisco-based startup Mark One. Designed by Yves Behar of fuseproject, the Vessyl is a digital cup with molecular analysis sensors that display the exact content and calorie count of the beverage within. In terms of attractive design and ingenious technology, the Vessyl is spot on. But to Colbert’s point: is there really a mass market need for it, especially at a cost of $199 per cup? Market research is a critical pillar of product development; without it, what you end up with is a geeky “parlor trick” that draws ooohs and aaahs, but few sales.
Two things to learn from this video: 1) No matter how fascinating the subject, nearly all videos benefit from a voiceover narrative and an appropriate soundtrack, both lacking here. 2) Although the term “industrial design” did not emerge until the 20th century, the design and engineering skills to produce incredible objects that utilized the principles of applied science and engineering existed long before then. Centuries before CAD systems and 3-D modeling devices, Abraham Roentgen (1711-1793) and his son, David (1743-1807), made ingeniously engineered and mechanically complex cabinetry that incorporated drawers that opened automatically at the touch of a button, hidden compartments, and drop-down writing surfaces – all behind elegantly decorated panels. This walnut-veneered masterpiece was commissioned by King Frederick William II of Prussia in the late 18th century and is housed today in the Kunstgewerbe museum in Berlin.
The village of Catuera in Paraguay is literally built on a garbage dump that grows by more than 1,500 tons of solid waste each day. The people, including children, who live around this trash heap survive by sorting and recycling the garbage.
Several years ago, Favio Chavez, an ecological technician who worked at the landfill, befriended the poor scavenger families and became acutely aware that the children who worked on the trash pile yearned for something uplifting in their lives. He decided to share his love of playing music by teaching the children to play instruments. At first, Chavez used his own musical instruments to teach them, but so many children wanted to learn that he tried cobbling violins and cellos out of oil cans, jars, scrap wood, forks and other junk to give them something to play, After about four years of experimenting, Chavez and his team began discovering which materials created the best sound. The result is a youth orchestra, now 30 members strong, that produces the sweetest sounds from their recycled instruments. Recently their story has been turned into a documentary, directed by Graham Townsley. It’s an inspiration on many levels.
VW’s Phaeton transparent factory in the heart of downtown Dresden runs counter to the traditional impressions of a car assembly plant. Instead of blue-collar workers, there are white-gloved technicians. Instead of deafening noises, there is the hushed atmosphere of a research lab. The floors are lovely Canadian maple, and the walls are clear glass, which is why a loudspeaker outside imitates territorial bird sounds to keep birds from flying into the glass. There are no smokestacks, shrill sounds or noxious fumes. The grungier stamping, welding and painting of steel bodies take place elsewhere. VW’s transparent factory, designed by architect Gunter Henn and opened in 2002, showcases the final assembly of the luxury Phaeton sedan. Futuristic, exacting, open, and pristine, the Dresden facility is as much a marketing device as a working production plant, drawing thousands of visitors for tours each year. This video is from Megaworld Germany.
If this thermostat looks like something that Apple would have designed had it been interested in home heating, there’s a reason. Tony Fadell, who conceived of the iPod and then went on to work on the iPhone while at Apple (he left in 2008), came up with this household device through his own company, Nest Labs. The clean Apple aesthetic and intuitive ease-of-use are evident in the Nest Learning Thermostat. The temperature is displayed in bright, clear numerals, and the rim ring acts as the dial. The LCD-lit center turns red if you are raising the temperature and shows blue if you are lowering it. A green leaf appears under the number to indicate a setting for optimal energy savings. Not only that, the Nest programs itself, using software to analyze and track your usage patterns over time. Once it learns your preferences, it adjusts itself automatically, and even turns itself down to the “Away” mode, if it doesn’t sense any movement in the house. The Nest also comes with a mobile app that lets you change the temperature and schedule remotely by laptop, smartphone or pad.
Programmable thermostats, even ones that can be controlled remotely, are not new to the marketplace. What makes Nest exceptional is that it is designed for the user. You don’t have to squint to read the temperature gauge or gnash your teeth when trying to figure out the instructions to get it to do all the things that the ads promise it can do. It doesn’t try to impress consumers by displaying the complex engineering of the product. That’s more intimidating than impressive. What good design does best is create an interface with the user that makes the complex simple. Given the large number of consumers (including me) who don’t know how to program their existing thermostats, a device that is pleasing to view and as easy to use as an iPod is a welcome advance.
What better way to showcase the newly released Eames Century Modern font collection than to print each letterform on a Mid-Century Modern LTR (Low Table Rod) table designed by Charles Eames? A collaboration between type designer House Industries and Herman Miller Japan, the Eames alphabet table is a limited edition series of 80 tables adorned with A to Z letters, numbers and ornaments from the Eames Century Modern font. House hand-printed each tabletop at its Grand Rapids, Michigan, factory and then returned the tops to Herman Miller for attachment onto the metal rod base and packaging in a special House-designed wooden crate. House owner Andy Cruz says, “As with most House Industries projects, I tried my best to make the packaging for this limited edition something you wouldn’t throw away once the table was removed. Who doesn’t like a printed wooden crate that can do double duty as a storage container?” Good point.
Now for the bad news. The custom Eames LTR tables are probably sold out by now, since only 80 tables were made in total. Forty were offered at the Herman Miller Reach Exhibition in Hong Kong in September and the other 40 at the HM Tokyo Showroom in October. If there are any leftover crates, I’d be willing to settle for one of them.
Elegant. Simple. Intuitive. Graphic. These are descriptions not applied to technology until Steve Jobs dazzled the world with the Macintosh, the iMac, the iPod, iPhone, iPad and more. He understood the purpose of design on a visceral level and not only transformed the way designers work, but elevated public awareness that design is not merely an aesthetic marketing device, but the heartbeat of innovation. Thank you, Steve. Well done. Rest in peace.
Designed and built by Ethan Frier and Jonathan Ota, two industrial design students at Carnegie Mellon University, Project Aura is an ingenious solution for making bicyclists more visible at night. That’s the time of day when most bicycle fatalities occur. Thirty-six percent of these accidents happen at intersections. One reason is that while many bikes are equipped with headlights, taillights and reflectors, they aren’t very visible from the side – which means they can be clobbered at intersections or nicked from cars changing lanes without seeing them. Frier and Ota addressed that by installing RGB LEDs inside the rim of the wheels, and made them powered by a wheel dynamo that worked through pedaling. Not only are the lights visible from all sides, they respond to speed of motion, making the wheel lights change from white when at cruising speed to red when slowing down. The rim-mounted LEDs are self-powered (no batteries, motor or switches required), and can be seen from passing vehicles – a great safety idea for cyclists and a relief to motorists – plus they looked really sci-fi cool.
Clocks have come in analog, digital, sundial, atomic, round face with hands that point to hours and minutes, and numbers that flip forward with each advancing minute. The Qlocktwo Touch, made by German design company Biegert & Funk, is the only clock that I can think of to declare the time typographically in a complete sentence. It’s perfect for dyslexics.
Reflect on this: the English-language QWERTY keyboard layout was designed by Christopher Latham Sholes in 1873 not to make typists faster, but to slow them down – and we have been living with that ever since.
As with so many inventions, the design was driven by available materials and technology.
Sholes was the fifty-second known person to try inventing a mechanical writing machine, but the first to call it a “type-writer.” He worked out the basic design of the type-writer readily — each key was attached to a metal typebar that had the corresponding letter, molded in reverse, to the striking head. The problem was that when multiple keys were hit too fast or simultaneously, the typebars became entangled and would have to be unjammed by hand.
Urban transportation planners everywhere are grappling with the question of how to move traffic faster, cleaner, greener and cheaper. They have urged people to ride bikes, telecommute, buy hybrid vehicles and mini-cars, but here’s a concept from China that is truly original – a super gigantic bus taller than an overpass that straddles the road creating a moving tunnel that regular cars can drive through. Bus passengers board on the upper level from elevated platforms, while smaller vehicles drive under and through the bus. Ultrasonic waves alert trucks too tall to fit to go around the bus on another lane. A stop light activates to stop cars in the tunnel when the bus needs to make a turn.
The “straddling bus” was exhibited at the 13th Beijing International High-Tech Expo in May and a pilot model is being built in Beijing’s Mentougou District by its developer Shenzhen Hashi Future Parking Equipment Co. Powered by electricity and solar energy, the straddling bus can carry between 1,200 and 1,400 passengers at a time and travel at speeds of up to 60 km per hour. Developers claim that it will reduce traffic jams by up to 30% on main roads and can be built in a fraction of the time that would be required to construct a new subway. The bus is also projected to save up to 860 tons of fuel annually, reducing carbon emissions by 2,640 tons. There is also no need to build a parking lot to house buses out of service; they can be left straddling the road.
Hospitals are notorious for making people sick. In the U.S. alone, the government estimate says that one in ten hospital patients catches a hospital-borne infection, and such infections contribute to about 90,000 deaths in the nation annually. What’s particularly disturbing is that studies have shown that one-third of these infections are considered preventable. Thorough sanitizing of surfaces, for instance, has been effective against staph infections and gastroenteritis.
Sir James Dyson continues to innovate with his bladeless fan, “The Air Multiplier.” Using the same technology from his “Airblade” hand dryer to create an addition to his long list of unique products. Although not available in stores until next year, you can get into the queue at Dyson.co.uk.