HOW THE LURE OF WELL-DESIGNED PRODUCTS CAN EMPTY YOUR WALLET

It was just a toaster. Its electronics finally failed and we needed a replacement. I headed off to the closest Bed, Bath, and Beyond and figured they would have a good selection so I could just pick one up. Little did I know that of the twenty-five different toasters they had on display, all of them seemed cheaply built and of dubious design. They ranged in price from around $30 to $90. I was surprised I could not find anything even at the top end of the price range. Braun, usually a go-to brand for product design, was somehow missing from the inventory.

Thinking that if I shopped a higher-level store like Williams Sonoma I would surely find some European toaster that was nicely designed, I headed to the mall. Zeroing in on one with mill finish aluminum and a gently curved shape without a handle, I pulled it off the shelf. It felt substantial and nicely weighted. All electronic, but interestingly it had just a few buttons. The price: $199.99. Not interested! A $200 toaster? I left the store empty handed, believing that somewhere there was a nicely designed toaster at a reasonable price. Next stop: online.

Who knew that “retro” was the movement sweeping through toaster design. Googling “nicely designed toasters” brought up Michael Graves toaster for Target with the goofy blue handle and something by SMEG in pale green that looked like a ‘57 Buick. Scrolling through page after page on Amazon and having breakfast without toast was taking its toll. I decided to just take a break from looking to rethink my dilemma.

Christmas would come and Santa would rescue me since he doesn’t seem to have a budget and is focused on granting wishes. Under the tree, just beyond the Frozen pillow was the French Breville beauty from William Sonoma. I was pleased, but not totally guilt free since somehow Santa’s purchases always show up on my credit card a month later. But by then, I am once again enjoying toast in the morning and the charge is lumped together with some other stuff and somehow the pain isn’t so great.

Left: The toaster at home. Right: Great design that assists in pulling the plug.

As I contemplated my inability to buy just any toaster without getting hung up on the design, I began to think of other cases where the same behavior revealed itself. The Skagen watch, OXO kitchen utensils, the nest thermostat, and the extra money for the nicer bezel on the flat screen television, and I mean just the bezel no more features. Is this a syndrome, affliction, or disease?

I settled on calling my problem “Design Disease.”I hadn’t really ever heard of anyone talk about the syndrome in this way, so I decided to Google it before writing this post and lo and behold other people have it too. There is even a website with the name. It appears to be written mostly by graphic designers and their strain of the disease skews to a slightly different strain of obsessions with typeface and signage.

Left: Skagen Watch. Center: Nest Thermostat. Right: OXO Utensils.

I don’t really know if you are born with it, learn it, or acquire it. Looking back, I first noticed it in high school when I tried to talk my dad into buying a BMW 2002. He was a Chrysler guy all the way. That is, until the AC buttons on his New Yorker fell into the dash a week before the same thing happened in our neighbors’ rebadged Dodge. He railed against built-in obsolescence and was suddenly open to change. I succeeded in getting him in a 1975 Volvo 164 with the cool open headrests and Scandinavian simplicity.

From there the disease progressed gradually until I was in college studying design and I did a semester abroad in Denmark. I showed up to live with a family and they actually knew the designers who had created their furniture, Hans Wegner, and their light fixtures, Poul Henningsen for Louis Poulsen. It occurred to me that I have found my people and maybe one can live with this disease. There was another thing in Denmark at the time that functioned as a kind of drug for design disease and that was a curated store that was a collection of the best designs for daily life. It was over near the train station in Copenhagen, I can’t recall its name. It had jewelry, furniture, lighting, kitchen wares, watches, ceramics etc. Suddenly, the ordinary accoutrements of life no longer made it for me. I was exposed to the availability of all these beautiful things. Mind you these things of beauty cost a little more and that is the biggest consequence of living with the disease I have found so far. It has also been known to improve your rationalization skills.

Left: Louis Poulsen PH5. Center: iittala ‘Arne’ glassware. Right: Georg Jensen- New York Stainless.

I came home with a PH5 lamp from Louis Poulsen that airport security on my New York to Boston leg would not believe was a lamp and made me check it. Scandinavian Airlines let me carry it on. The “Arne” line by iittala glass of Finland is my glassware designed by Goran Hongell in 1948 and just as modern today as it was then. “New York” stainless by Henning Koppel for Georg Jensen was designed in 1965 and just as timeless. While the disease has separated me from my money more times than I can count, I have enjoyed every day with each purchase giving me joy through their design. I believe that their inherent quality, honest materials, and beautiful shapes in long run will be less expensive because they last and stand the test of time.

Now we are shopping for a fence and I came across these guys, Prowell Woodworking (http://www.prowellwoodworks.com), who really understand wood, joinery, and how to make a fence last. I found them in an article in Fine Homebuilding on how to build a durable gate. They have some beautiful designs inspired by the craftsman style. I told my wife about it and she said “I thought we were just going to order a fence, ….nothing is ever easy with you.” At least they ship from California… Do you recognize “design disease?” Do you have it? Share your story in comments.