The Futuristic Glamour Of Centralized Control...And Radios That Won't Become Obsolete

Brunswick Radio of the Future Is Here Today

"It's easy to imagine better cars and homes and aircraft of the future--but it's hard to imagine a finer radio than the new Brunswick for 1931!"

In the fall of 1930, Brunswick Radio ran a striking series of ads for its new Futura radio. (Click each image to see a larger version.) The ads explicitly promised customers easy tuning and a radio that wouldn't soon be obsolete either stylistically or technically. But what they were really selling was the future, portrayed in brightly colored, highly stylized illustrations, against which the supposedly up-to-date radio cabinet looks, at least to 21st-century eyes, rather stodgy and old-fashioned.

Brunswick Radio For Lasting Enjoyment In this Changing World

At the same time that they built excitement about great things to come, the ads promised a sense of stability: "lasting enjoyment in this changing world" and a chance to experience the orderliness and predictability of a future of "simplified and centralized control." In the early 20th century, many Americans longed for what the historian John M. Jordan in his book Machine-Age Ideology: Social Engineering and American Liberalism, 1911-1939 called "kinetic change made stable." Social and political theorists offered their own glamorous visions of how that paradoxical state could be achieved. And so did advertisers pushing consumer products.

Brunswick Radio Under the Control of One Hand Highways of the Future

In the Brunswick ads, this ideal of technocratic control becomes a metaphor for a new-fangled radio dial.

"When a hundred thousand automobiles speed along the elevated highways of the City of the Future, engineers predict that the whole traffic system will operate as a single unit--under the control of one man's hand. The future of mechanism, they say, lies inevitably along the path of simplified and centralized control....

Experience the ease of centralized control by asking your Brunswick dealer to let you try the Uni-Selector."

What Makes The IPad "Magical"?

When Apple introduced the iPad last year, it added a new buzzword to technology marketing. The device, it declared, was not just "revolutionary," a tech-hype cliché, but "magical." Skeptics rolled their eyes, and one Apple fan even started an online petition against such superstitious language.

But the company stuck with the term. When Steve Jobs appeared on stage last week to unveil the iPad 2, which hit stores Friday, he said, "People laughed at us for using the word 'magical,' but, you know what, it's turned out to be magical."

Apple has long had an aura of trend-setting cool, but magic is a bolder—and more provocative— claim. In a promotional video, Jonathan Ive, the company's design chief, explains it this way: "When something exceeds your ability to understand how it works, it sort of becomes magical, and that's exactly what the iPad is." Mr. Ive is paraphrasing the famous pronouncement by Arthur C. Clarke, the science-fiction author and futurist, that "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."

So in celebrating the iPad as magical, Apple is bragging that its customers haven't the foggiest idea how the machine works. The iPad is completely opaque. It is a sealed box. You can't see the circuitry or read the software code. You can't even change the battery.

Apple has long had an aura of trend-setting cool, but magic is a bolder—and more provocative— claim. In a promotional video, Jonathan Ive, the company's design chief, explains it this way: "When something exceeds your ability to understand how it works, it sort of becomes magical, and that's exactly what the iPad is." Mr. Ive is paraphrasing the famous pronouncement by Arthur C. Clarke, the science-fiction author and futurist, that "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."

So in celebrating the iPad as magical, Apple is bragging that its customers haven't the foggiest idea how the machine works. The iPad is completely opaque. It is a sealed box. You can't see the circuitry or read the software code. You can't even change the battery.

Read the rest here.

Learning From Our Homes

Instahot In How Buildings Learn author Stewart Brand quotes Winston Churchill, “We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us.” While remodeling the home we purchased in Colorado, my wife and I had bookshelves built into one room, and had swing-arm lamps attached to the walls near two easy chairs. During construction we called this room our “library,” and now when we want to read and relax, this room has become a haven that beckons to us.

One small appliance in the remodeled kitchen has also reshaped my daily life. The graceful device shown in the photograph is an InstaHot, which, through a small electrical heater located under the counter, delivers filtered, near-boiling water with the touch of a lever. This small convenience has transformed me into a tea drinker.

My wife starts her day with coffee, then moves on to dark teas, and then herbal teas. But coffee bothers my stomach and makes me nervous. So I have never been able to enjoy coffee.

And I had never become a tea drinker. I realize that many people find putting on a pot of water for tea a special pleasure, but to me it always seemed a bother. But now I had access to a beautiful object that magically delivered super-hot water when you pulled it’s red-tipped lever. It cried out to be used, and I began to try various green teas, and then herbal teas. Soon we filled two cabinet drawers with a wide variety of black, green, and herbal teas.

Now each morning, afternoon, and evening I hear the seductive call of the InstaHot, urging me to enjoy the pleasure of some fragrant tea. And, especially as the weather cools, I have learned that sitting in the library with a good book and a cup of hot tea can create a feeling of priceless luxury and relaxation. When the house was being remodeled, neither of us realized just how much we would learn to enjoy this quiet retreat, or that I would learn to love tea.

Suits And Knives

Paul-smith A young corporate lawyer that I know was thrilled that he found a $4,000 Paul Smith suit in his size on sale for $800. He snatched it up and took it to his tailor to be fine tuned in fit. (The photo at right shows one of Smith’s suits.)

A friend of mine whose work never requires that he dress up could not understand why anyone would pay thousands of dollars for a suit. This friend likes to cook, and, while looking around a kitchenware store with our wives, I pointed out a Victorinox chef's knife which Cook’s Illustrated had praised as a inexpensive, yet favorite tool in their test kitchen. He then showed me the knife that he wanted, a Shun chef’s knife. It was incredibly beautiful, but given that it was priced at about five times as much, I wondered if it could possibly function five times as well?

I suppose that depends on what “function” means. If you love to cook and love to work with beautiful tools, then owning the Shun knife might be a daily source of pleasure. And if your work involves frequently dealing with clients who wear suits worth thousands of dollars, then wearing a suit in which you feel just as well-dressed could be both valuable to your business and personally pleasurable. Value in both cases depends on just how much the suit or knife means to the self-image of the buyer.

Watches As Markers: An Eye For Style And Design

Radocerix In previous posts I’ve discussed watches as erotic glamour and as symbols of status and power. But men may sometimes wish to wear a watch that reveals their eye for exceptional design, and this is especially true of architects, designers, artists, and men who simply love good visual design. Traditional watch design, while intriguing to watch collectors, can seem rather boring to someone wanting to make a strong statement about design itself. To that end, a watch with a unique shape and distinctly modern look (like the Rado Cervix shown here) makes a bold statement.

In the realm of watches as design, the cost of the watch is relatively unimportant. This Rado is moderately expensive, but this is partly because this Swiss company's design philosophy emphasizes “incomparable surfaces,” and they use expensive, extremely hard materials such as ceramics and space age metals to make their watches both beautiful and difficult to scratch. With design-oriented watches, the materials used are integral to the design, and, just as some of the most beautifully designed objects in my music studio are colorful plastic containers and waste baskets, some design-oriented watches make use of plastic in vibrant colors (I’ll give an example later).

With high-design watches the designer is crucial, and many of the most stylish watches are produced by companies that also market jewelry, clothing, and accessories. The Italian design company Alessi is typical of this. When you go to their watch design site and click on “designers and models” you are shown photos of the 18 designers and architects who have designed watches for them. By clicking on the designer, the watches they designed are revealed, and they are wonderful in their variety. (The watch shown below is one of them.) 

Alessi Other interesting companies emphasizing design include the Danish firms include Skagen and Danish Design and the Italian firm Movado. The Swiss company Mondaine has designed watches based on the modern clocks used in Swiss railroad stations.

As one would expect, Japan is producing interesting watch designs. Seiko sponsors a yearly project for new designs. Issey Miyake is a Japanese fashion firm that produces watches, and their site is another that features the designers themselves (hovering the mouse over the gray rectangles reveals the watches). They use watch movements produced by Seiko, and it is not uncommon for companies whose emphasis is design to use movements produced outside the firm, often using Japanese quartz movements. 

This is the case with two interesting American companies. One is the San Francisco/Tokyo company TOKYObay and the other is the Encinitas, Calfornia company Nixon. While TOYKObay’s orientation is more toward the traditional  fashion world, Nixon’s orientation is to the world of surfers, snow boarders, skate boarders. By paying serious attention to this market, Nixon has become a successful, worldwide company.

Here’s part of the Nixon company statement, which is both irreverent, and deeply committed:

We make the little shit better. The stuff you have that isn't noticed first, but can't be ignored. We pay attention to it. We argue about it. We work day and night to make the little shit as good as it can be, so when you wear it, you feel like you've got a leg up on the rest of the world. We believe that you deserve a lot of respect. When you choose to wear a watch, deserve to have something that reflects your entire package....Dammit brothers and sisters, you can't slap on an off-the-shelf piece and consider yourself you. Can you?

Nixon_outsider  The model shown at left is the Nixon Outsider. This is not a watch you would wear to a board room meeting, and that is precisely the point. Although the name “Outsider” likely refers to the integrated electronic compass, it also seems to symbolize the outsider attitude of a culture that focuses more on riding on recreational boards than sitting on company boards. (Many Nixon watch models are hard to come by. Some are made in limited editions, and boarders quickly snap them up.)

Such markers of style work remarkably well, and not just with watches. I recently purchased a stylish pair of Bevel eyeglasses, designed in the U.S.A. and manufactured of titanium in Japan. While wearing these I sat down with my wife at a pub bar to grab a quick meal. The man next to me asked if I was an architect. When I said, “no,” he said, “You’re wearing architect glasses.” He told me that he designed software for architects, and from years of experience he knew how much attention they paid to the little details of visual design (the “little shit,” as Nixon watches put it).

Some design companies seem to have said to designers, “You design it and we’ll figure out how to make it.” No wonder many architects and designers have welcomed the chance to design watches that they themselves would like to wear--watches that reveal how deeply they care about style and distinctive visual design.

[In the market for a watch? Check out the broad selection at the Amazon Watch Store.]

Small Daily Pleasures

Colter_mug Twice in my life I have been invited into homes that contained no objects designed to provide visual pleasure. No artwork, no family heirlooms, no knickknacks, plain  furniture, and plain food served on the plainest plates imaginable. In both cases the husbands were tenured university professors, so poverty was not the cause. One family was Quaker, but lacked the love of beautifully made, simply-designed furniture that many Quakers have. The other family was Jewish and had escaped Europe during World War II. Despite the husband’s success in America, their outlook on life remained as bleak as their home.

In both cases I went home needing to look at some of the visual “treasures” my wife and I have collected for our home. Their cost, whatever that was, is not what makes them treasures to us--what makes them valuable is the pleasure we have in using and looking at them.

The mug shown in the photo is a contemporary version of one designed by architect Mary Colter (1869-1958) for the Santa Fe railroad as part of her Super Chief china. The quail motif is a stylized version of one found on ancient pottery from the Mimbres culture , long vanished from the American Southwest. Coulter was one of the first women architects, and she designed several important buildings for Fred Harvey and the National Park Service. Her buildings remain stylish even today.

I love having morning tea in this mug. It’s beautifully shaped, sturdy, and feels good both in your hand and on your lips. Like most of the objects any of us collect, this one brings back memories and associations, including where we were when we purchased it.

Unfortunately, with familiarity we often take for granted the beauty and pleasure that our collected objects provide us on a daily basis. Sometimes it’s good to remember, to stop and look at them. In an important sense, they help define who we are. I had taken a seminar with one of the professors mentioned above, and I learned more about him as a person in one quick glance around his living room than I had in a whole semester of discussions.

The Sheer Look: Appliance Glamour?

In this strange cultural artifact, a man and woman in evening dress dance to show off Frigidaire's new Sheer Look appliances, introduced in 1957. Two years later, an IIT poll of 100 top design experts put the appliance line on the Top Ten list of "best-designed products of modern times," along with such icons as the Barcelona chair and Olivetti Lettera 22 typewriter.

In The American Design Adventure 1940-1975, Arthur J. Pulos explains what made the appliances so new and appealing:

By the late 1950s it was evident that the trend in the design of major appliances was away from the softer shapes of the streamline era and toward sharp rectilinear forms. Where once the use of high-temperature glass enamels had necessitated rounded corners for proper flow and fusion, ow the introduction of thinner insulation made it ossible to use lighter-gauge, prepainted sheet metal, which could be formed into sharp rectangular boxes on new continuous roller machines without stamping and crowning. Moreover, rectangular boxes were in harmony with the International Style of architecture and suitable as "built-ins."


Frigidaire captured the public's attention with an inspired advertising campaign (conceived by the Kudner agency) that promoted the "Sheer Look" of its new appliances. Other companies had taken slow, hesitant steps toward the new look, but Frigidaire boldly redesigned its entire line in the style of the 1956 Kitchen of Tomorrow. No one seemed to regret the elimination of the armorial escutcheons and chrome hardware that had characterized appliance design for a decade. The Kudner agency's advertisements for the new line in magazines and newspapers showed models in Oleg Cassini "Sheer Look" gowns performing the "Sheer Look" gesture with elbow-length gloves. In a further effort to fix the line's association with high style in the public mind, Frigidaire staged a well-publicized fashion show to which other prominent fashion designers were invited to contribute costumes inspired by the "Sheer Look." Thus one word, sheer, was used to identify a line of products with high fashion, and with runway success.

There was, in fact, nothing sheer about the appliances and, remarks Pulos, "the new look was actually generated by technological advances rather than fashion--it was associated with fashion in order to make it more palatable to the public."

The appliances were acclaimed by designers and widely adopted. But were they glamorous? Did they represent something more than a new-and-improved way to keep food cold or wash dishes? Despite the dancing and the ladies in gloves, I find it hard to believe that the Sheer Look creating the kind of yearning essential to the experience of glamour. At best, they represented the idea of being up to date. But then I wasn't alive in 1957, and the historical record is sketchy. Does anyone remember appliance glamour?

We have a winner: Congratulations to Melissa Palmer, who was first to identify Frigidaire's Sheer Look appliances as the answer to our contest question. Melissa will receive a copy of Forgotten Fashion signed by Kate Hahn and Andraé Gonzalo. Thanks to all who entered the contest. And don't forget to order your copies of the book from Amazon.