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STYLE OVER SUBSTANCE

Does the beautiful have to be useless? Does art always trump practicality? Why do some designers become so obsessed with making the mundane marvellous that they forget what its purpose is? Neville Farmer and Ryan Baptiste lash out at the label luvvies.

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STYLE OVER SUBSTANCE

This is a personal gripe, so I will write in the first person, though I suspect I may have many supporters for this cause. I love practical art. I love quality modern architecture, stylish tableware, graceful cars, speakers in fine cabinets, curvaceous furniture, sensual baths. But I am sick, sick, sick of premium-priced products with designer labels that are all form and no function.

So, to add a little colour to this, the Grey Edition of BULLITThd, I am going to speak out against the creeping and subversive influence of style over substance, products that seduce with their elegance, their intrigue, only to torture you with their utter uselessness.

Before I begin, I should own up to a personal bias. I am a sinistral, a southpaw, a left hooker. My right hand most definitely plays second fiddle to my left… if that’s actually possible. So, I am understandably irritated by the self-defeating idiocy that would persuade a tea room proprietor to purchase dozens of quirky little one-person tea pots with handles at jaunty right angles to the spout. We left-handed oddballs might be in the minority, but why would any intelligent business person deliberately make it impossible for 10 to 20 percent of the potential customer base to pour a bloody cuppa? And as I write this, I point the finger at the Sweet Things coffee and cupcake emporium in trendy Primrose Hill, London. Have you considered that for a left-handed person to sup from your triangular cups, he or she must pucker up like Betty Boop?

This is, however, not simply a moan on behalf of those of us blessed with greater creativity than the rest of you wrong-handed ‘ordinaries’. Not at all. For I intend to lay into a number of creatives whose celebrated vision has been tunnelled and foreshortened by vanity.

These plumped-up stars of the design world seem to have forgotten that putting their signature on a kettle does not exempt it from boiling water. They are the deluded fashion victims who think cramming a woman’s mammaries into a pair of silver road cones, or her feet into diamante croissants on ten inch spikes is comfortable, attractive… or even safe. They are the charlie-charged chumps who feel their sculptural superiority trumps the need for their bling-bedazzled customers to get into or out of their cars, let alone drive them, without prolapsing a disc.

We should also remember the architects, possibly the most arrogant trend-setters of them all. Sir Norman Foster’s wobbly bridge joining St Paul’s Cathedral to Tate Modern had innovative horizontal suspension that failed to account for the sideways pressure of pedestrian feet and threw its users to the ground. Or Rafael Viñoly’s hideous Walkie Talkie building at 20 Fenchurch Street, London. Brilliantly designed with a mirrored 37-storey, concave south face, it focuses the sun so well that street temperatures become high enough to fry eggs or blister car paint. The shape also encourages wind production, making it the world’s largest open air fan oven.

Of course, I am not singling out these preening style gurus. The disease of dysfunctionality has infected much lower life forms. Note, for instance, the cowboy fitters of the faux Victorian wash basins in Chiswick’s shi-shi High Road House club, who chose separate hot and cold taps and yet saw no purpose for plugs. Doh! It is a constant embarrassment explaining to American friends that the reason we don’t fit mixer taps is because we’re too bloody stupid!

Are we not all irritated by minimalist shower controls that you cannot decipher? Have we not had enough of artistically tooled bathroom doorknobs that slip in a wet hand? I rail against Apple’s baffling iconography (can anyone use iTunes?), against ergonomically-conceived remote controls with symbols that can only be read by a peregrine falcon, against vague touch-sensitive controls placed millimetres from a searing hotplate, against multi-page menus on car dashboards that read like Biblical text and against fancy-looking clamshell packaging that requires shears and protective gloves to open.

So by example, my colleague and Design Director Ryan Baptiste, a man so stylish he creates BULLITThd from an apartment in Milan, and I, your humble Editor, have cherry-picked a few examples of this spiralling descent into impracticality. We hope that you, dear friends, might wish to post a few of your own targets for ridicule. The more the merrier, please. Just click the comment buttons and join in the fun…

STARCK RAVING

It boiled more blood than it did water. At least Philippe Starck recognised the idiocy of his 1990 kettle design for Alessi. Sadly, they didn’t until they’d spent five years developing it and manufactured lots of them. The cone-shaped shaft pierces the body of the kettle, serving as both its handle and spout. The complex mechanism needed to redirect the steam proved unreliable, leading Alessi to pull it from the market in 1997. CEO Alberto Alessi admitted, “You shouldn’t need an instruction manual to operate a kettle. It was a complete fiasco.”

Starck was honorably contrite, “The Hot Bertaa is one of my first pieces produced by Alessi. Alessi is a star, so it was a real highlight, a heart-stopping moment… So I had to be extraordinary, to show all my talent. But I became somewhat self-deluded and came up with the theory of immobile aerodynamics.

“There are certain objects that don’t need to move, like a kettle placed on a table. If you give such objects movement, or dynamics, as they are unmoving, they might try to instill movement around them. It may be true. It seems to work a little. But with hindsight, I was just trying to get myself noticed, I wanted to make a masterly, sculptural object. In fact, this sculptural object is one of my worst pieces ever. It isn’t very functional, it’s dated, too fashion conscious. It’s one of the things I’m most ashamed of. And to take the story further, this object, which existed for all the wrong reasons, also had a very difficult birth.

“That piece was one of my big regrets. It illustrates the limitations of design, and it was responsible for my gradual loss of interest in stylistic design and masterly design.”

Alberto Alessi told Fast Company magazine in 2010, “Starck’s kettle is famous for not working. Every year, we get some Japanese customers who want us to produce it. We don’t.”

BALLS-UP

For the 2010 FIFA World Cup, the first ever hosted on the African continent, FIFA overlooked not-for-profit African manufacturer, Alive and Kicking. Eyebrows were raised when they chose the giant international sports manufacturer and FIFA sponsor Adidas to design and supply the official match ball for the South African event. But the cynicism was nothing to the bewilderment created when Adidas presented their ultra-hi-tech ball.

This made it almost impossible to keep on target and was accused of causing a ‘goal drought’ in the first round of the competition. Diego Maradona said, “We won’t be seeing any long passes in this World Cup.” Strikers were accused of being too timid to kick it hard in case it disappeared off the pitch.

By the second round, however, Portugal seemed to have struck lucky with a 7-0 score over North Korea, resulting in a backlash from the goalies. Italian keeper Gianluigi Buffon said, “The new model is absolutely inadequate and I think it’s shameful letting us play such an important competition, where a lot of champions take part, with a ball like this.” His Brazilian counterpart, Julio Cesar called it a “supermarket ball” and his teammate, striker Robinho stated, “The guy who designed this ball never played football.”

In July 2010, ex-Liverpool FC footballer Craig Johnston wrote a 12-page open letter to FIFA president Sepp Blatter outlining perceived failings of the Jabulani ball. He compiled feedback from professional players criticising the ball for poor performance and asked that it be abandoned by FIFA. Adidas stuck stubbornly to the company line, “A number of Adidas-sponsored players have responded favourably to the ball.” As an example Spanish international Álvaro Arbeloa commented that, “It’s round, like always.”

NASA, who are pretty interested in aerodynamics and had time on their hands, made their own study of the ball’s behaviour. When a relatively smooth ball with seams flies through the air without much spin, the air close to the surface is affected by the seams, producing an asymmetric flow. This asymmetry creates side forces that can suddenly push the ball in one direction and cause volatile swerves and swoops, and this effect is referred to as ‘knuckling’.

Older designs of the ball have a knuckle speed of around 30 miles per hour (48km/h). NASA scientists at the Fluid Mechanics Laboratory at NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California, concluded that the Jabulani, with its relatively smoother surface, starts to knuckle at a higher speed of 45-50mph (72-80km/h). This coincides with the typical speed of a ball following a free-kick around the goal area making the effect more visible. In other words, where it goes, nobody knows.

COSTA CALAMITY

A large coffee from Costa is a heavy object and is usually served brim-full of boiling liquid to avoid accusations of short-changing the customer. So what artless nonce designed an off-centre, off-balance saucer to put it on? Did anyone not consider the physical laws of cantilevers? If I, as a big-handed brute cannot weave my way round a crowded cafe without spilling it on me or my co-customers, how so a fine-boned feminine coffee-lover? Little wonder my loyalty card is soggy rather than fully stamped.

As stated above, Costa is by no means the only culprit. From cardboard heat shields to plastic lids that leak down the front of your white shirt, the coffee industry is out of control. But some people seem to like Costa’s silly saucers. Blogspot’s Great Cafes says they give more room for a snack without the need for a plate. Nigel Barlow’s business innovation blog even suggests giving the stupid saucer a Rethink Award though I would suggest it merely needs the rethink and not the award.

Other, more sensible people find them perplexing. The Miscellaneous Musings blog calls them ‘daft’. Instagram and Twitter correspondent Helen Reynolds clearly agrees with us and her friends have suggested starting a campaign against them. One refuses to enter Costa any more. As Helen says, “The Costa off-centre saucer ever so slightly does my swede in. @Costa”.

PLUG UGLY

Apple has built its fine reputation on getting things right, for setting the bar very high for its competitors. However, it’s a very arrogant company that doesn’t listen well. Most nations in the world laugh at the clunky design of the British standard electrical plug. Apple clearly thought it could improve upon it. They failed monumentally. The slim-line design of USB Power Adaptor Plug may look pretty but thanks to there being little purchase area on its slippery plastic surface, one needs the grip of a gorilla on steroids to pull it out of the socket.

One review on Apple’s website reads, “The depth of the plug is so shallow that it is very difficult to remove this plug from the wall. If you have limited space (middle of a four-bar) or limited gripping power, then this plug will be of no use. You will need one of the older ones where there is a grip. All Apple products seem to come with this poor low profile design. Form over function… again.”

The other occasional complaint is that it gets extremely hot, thus exacerbating the problem. And at an outrageous £15 for what is essentially a plug, you’d expect better from Apple. And as for iTunes, the RSI-inducing ‘puck’ mouse, the non-standard new mini-jack… Don’t get me started!

TIME WARPED

The website description goes like this: “Experiment ZR012 by C3H5N3O9 features Wankel engine inspired hour and minute indications in an asymmetrical zirconium case with articulated and compound lugs.

“At first glance the time appears to be indicated by centrally rotating triangular rotors; however, the triangles are actually Reuleaux polygons; they rotate eccentrically rather than centrally and track complex epitrochoid curves rather than circles. The system was inspired by the Wankel engine, which features orbital Reuleaux polygon rotors rather than the reciprocating pistons that power the majority of our cars and machines today…”

Just one problem… It’s a bloody watch and it’s almost impossible to tell the time on it! And that’s if you can even see the damned thing after shelling-out an eye-watering £88k for the privilege. There is one readable dial on it, however… but it’s on the back!

HEAD CASE

Don’t you hate seeing ageing pensioners in chauffeur-driven buggies overtaking stressed pedestrian travellers in crowded airport corridors? Don’t you wish you could speed your way to your gate instead of standing in a people-jam on the travellators? Imagine if you could just flip down a third wheel and footplate on your carry-on luggage and scoot through the traffic.

Well, for around £250 you can. With the Italian-designed Race-Case. Just pull up the soft leather handle, step on the plate and hurtle down the endless corridors of Hong Kong International or Palma Mallorca airports in moments. And of course, being Italian, you need not think for a second about the ankles of other passengers you rupture, the small children you mow down or the speed limits which will undoubtedly be installed by any airport manager wishing to avoid expensive injury insurance claims.

BACTERIBLASTERS

At first glance, the stylish Airblade hand dryer was such a leap from the standard asthmatic pub toilet blower it seemed a revelation. The idea of compressing the warm air through narrow slots so it blew the water from your hands was ingenious, as one might expect from Sir James D. For a start, it dries hands more than twice as fast as a normal warm air wafter for a fraction of the energy costs. The top down access meant a sensible drainage system instead of a growing stalagmite of gunge on the washroom floor. But there were unexpected pitfalls.

First, the high speed air has a habit of blowing water straight back up your sleeve. Second, the narrow access slot means anyone with shaky hands is likely to touch the sides where previous, less hygienic toilet users may have left their grubby mark. Third, small children and people in wheelchairs can’t reach in without being lifted and, according to numerous studies on bacterial dispersal, jet dryers blow all manner of bugs from poorly cleaned hands into the air around the room and leave far more nasties on your hands than traditional paper towels. As infectious viruses are more easily spread by wet hands, blasting the water off them and around the room is questionable.

Dyson, however, points out that paper towels mean dead trees, huge quantities of carbon-dioxide production and transport pollution. They have a point… but!

HIGH-HEELED SNEAKERS

Designer obsessions with hybridising things is often very irritating. Flying cars make poor planes from bad cars. Putting wheels in your heels probably invalidates most life insurance policies.

We’ve decided to isolate one particularly silly example, the high-heeled sneaker. The fashion accessory that the trainer/sneaker/sports shoe has become was a blinding example of the crass-stupidity of the fashion conscious. Trainers are made to be cushioned, breathable, flexible and very comfortable for active feet. High heels are meant to turn an ankle to make a woman feel taller, more elegant, sexier. They are both shoes but combining the two is as stupid as making steel-capped flip flops.

There are many fashion items out there that fly in the face of good taste: low-slung, bugger-me-bro pants, cheese-cutter G strings, the mankini, to name but a few, but trainers are not elegant and heels are not comfortable. If you want to look taller in comfortable shoes, grow up!

WHYSIE?

The adult romper suit, otherwise known as a onesie is quite probably one of the most idiotic garments ever designed for the human form. On a baby, I understand it. Babies poop in their nappies, they don’t panic about how to relieve themselves in a public place. But adults aren’t allowed such luxuries. Sure, they’re comfortable around the house, snuggled up in front of the TV, though don’t expect much success in the hanky-panky department while wearing one.

It’s claimed that Winston Churchill invented the onesie and set the trend, though his was more of a well-pressed boiler suit with ample pockets and escape hatches. The name comes from a Gerber-manufactured baby grow but was adopted as the generic title for the idiotic adult version. Churchill aside, they were created by a musician called Steve Pandi as a silly costume for his band. He then started manufacturing under the name JumpinJammerz, as he clearly saw them solely as sleepwear or stage gear.

Giving them away to stars at the Oscars and their appearance on Saturday Night Live drew the rich and the tasteless to them. Brad Pitt has been seen in public wearing a onesie and Nick Clegg admitted to having a ‘big green one’. It is a great leveller, I suppose. A onesie makes even the most sublime human form look like a sack of King Edwards… just like the king after which the spuds were named. Still, each to their own, eh?

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