iPhone’s magic touch becomes design’s gold standard for 2007


The year began with frenzied blogging about the imminent launch of Apple’s long awaited smart phone, and how soon it would sell-out. And it is ending with iPhoners blogging about the problem they’ve wrestled with ever since – what’s the best way to work that temperamental touch screen keyboard? The iPhone is the digital equivalent of a fabulously sexy stiletto shoe. It does its job, but not without a little suffering. Laborious typing for one, aching feet for the other. Do we care? No, because they’re so gorgeous.

Given Apple’s glorious reign as the gold standard of corporate design, it would have been more surprising if the iPhone had flopped. What’s less predictable – and much more interesting – is why it has been so very successful. In ye olden pre-digital days, we judged whether something was well designed mostly in terms of a) how it looked, and b) what it did. We now take those things for granted, especially from Apple, which has spoilt us with so many luscious products over the years.

The iPhone’s secret weapon was something that, unlike the conventional components of “good design,” we can’t see or feel. It’s touch technology, the invisible, intangible user interface software (U. I. in geek-speak) with which we use the phone. Nintendo pulled off a U. I. coup last year with the aim-it-like-a-gun Wii games console, and Apple did it this year. The experience of operating the iPhone by stroking or poking its glossy screen seems so intimate that it instantly feels like yours, not just something you’ve bought.

While Apple’s rivals play catch-up, they’d do well to reflect on the other new component of “good design” where Apple fares less well – sustainability. With a few honorable exceptions, the story of sustainable, ethical or guilt-free (call it what you will) design has been embarrassingly flimsy. That’s why 90 percent of design is destined for the 10 percent of the global population that needs it least (the privileged minority) and why so much of that stuff is designed, made, sold and discarded with little or no thought for the environmental consequences.

 But sustainability moved from the margins to the mainstream in 2007. Designing a sustainable future is an exciting challenge for designers, and now they’re been given the chance to tackle it. There is corporate pressure on them to do so from companies like Marks & Spencer, the bastion of British retailing, which unveiled a five-year plan to transform itself into an ethically responsible company. There’s political pressure from the flurry of legislation to introduce energy-efficient lighting. And there’s peer pressure from inspired projects like the eco-pavilion with which Finland’s Artek stole the Milan Furniture Fair. Made from recycled material, it housed one collection of new furniture made from super-sustainable bamboo, and another of old Artek pieces dating back to the 1930s, all scratched and stained after years of use.

Equally inspiring was the progress of One Laptop per Child, the nonprofit initiative to design an inexpensive educational laptop for use by children in developing countries. It passed a milestone by starting mass-production in November, but the relish with which its critics in the tech and development lobbies jumped on any setback to OLPC’s plans illustrated the vulnerability of any organization brave enough to attempt an ambitious ethical design project.

Most designers continued to focus on the privileged few, the richest 10 percent, which at times lent a “fiddling while Rome burns” ethos to design in 2007. The “design-art” market for limited edition furniture flourished, despite fierce criticism from those who deride it as an over-priced commodity devoid of cultural value. Jean Prouvé reinforced his status as the market’s favorite mid-century modernist, when the hotelier, André Balazs, bought one of his prefabricated houses for nearly $5 million. Marc Newson became the market’s reigning superstar by staging a $40 million exhibition at Gagosian Gallery in New York, and setting a contemporary design record when one of his late 1980s Lockheed Lounge chaises longues sold for $1.5 million at Christie’s in London.

The rising stars of “design-art” embraced the neo-surrealist trend for super-sized, richly symbolic objects that evoked the post-modernist furniture of the early 1908s Milan design group, Memphis, and the cacophonous aesthetic of London’s “New Rave” club scene. The Dutch design duo, Studio Job, conceived the Robber Baron furniture collection as bronze casts of factories belching out pollution and bomb-scarred, 17th-century cabinets. Latterday robber barons cheerfully paid tens of thousands of dollars for them.

Roman fiddling notwithstanding, there were some great design projects in 2007, and here is an unapologetically subjective selection. The chair of the year is Konstantin Grcic’s sleek MYTO plastic cantilever chair. The interior is Jaime Hayon’s elegantly subversive La Terraza del Casino restaurant in Madrid. And the vehicle is a toss-up between the cheekily nostalgic Fiat 500, and Marc Newson’s futuristic space plane.

The visual identity is Stefan Sagmeister’s dynamic logo for Casa da Música in Oporto, and Gary Hustwit’s affectionate tribute to Helvetica wins best design movie. The magazine is Berlin’s 032C for adopting Mike Meiré’s flagrantly controversial “New Ugly” style. The digital design project is the hyper-realistic (though plot-lite) video game, Mass Effect, developed by Bioware in Canada. As for the book of the year, judged on looks, it would be David Pearson’s beautiful Great Loves paperbacks for Penguin; and on content, Casey Reas and Ben Fry’s account of their Processing software.

The saddest casualties are Philippe Starck’s once dazzling, now demolished lobby of the Royalton Hotel in New York, and the jaunty Holiday Inn sign, which is to be axed in a corporate rebranding strategy. As for the design debacle of 2007, what else could it be but the London 2012 Olympic Games logo? Like the iPhone, it’s the only serious contender in its category, but for all the wrong reasons.


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