12 May Can a product last forever?
The Pursuit of Immortal Products: Innovating for Permanence.
Probably the biggest achievement for a designer of products is to see his design last forever. Eames, Castiglioni, Breuer and others did it. Obviously.
But is there a way to hit the goal?
Sorry, no answer for that, but I can share some thoughts to ponder on this issue.
In the fascinating world of design, there lies an ambitious pursuit: the creation of immortal products. Let’s discover the delicate balance between innovation and timeless designs in the pursuit of lasting beauty.
Aesthetic Sustainability: Balancing Beauty and Longevity
Last year I was looking for a book about sustainability and I came across a writing by Kristine H. Harper called “Aesthetic Sustainability”. It is a deep analysis on how beauty can help a product to stand the test of time. With a focus on philosophy, she tries to explain what are the main factors that can help the product perception to tend to the beautiful and longevity.
That book is rich in content and I don’t think this is the right place to talk about that. There are also some thoughts about material which I don’t agree with, but most of the things are very good and precise.
One of the things I loved the most and I’ve been thinking about a lot is the connection between past products and today’s products.
When we design products we tend to innovate, but obviously what we do is the consequence of what we have experienced, so all of us have a personal way to interpret what we saw in the past and how it can be useful to make something new. If this interpretation goes in the right way, we make something that is innovative yet understandable. The natural consequence is the success of the product (yes, it is not the only factor, but it’s to cut and go to the topic).
It is not easy to balance the ingredients, reference and innovation must be well dosed. If we use too much reference we go to the so called “pop product”, easy to understand, but not durable in terms of trends and taste. On the other hand if we go too much in the progress direction we may be in advance on time or simply people do not have the tools to understand what we are proposing.
I don’t think there is a formula for the perfect product, but the timeless pieces have something in common.
I put some examples in the furniture/lighting field because it is where I navigate most and have more examples, but I am sure there are good examples elsewhere.
The Panton Chair: A Design Icon Defying Time
Let’s take the Panton chair, the one-piece plastic chair designed in 1963.
It is considered a timeless piece, but it looks very futuristic, born 60 years ago and still appreciated.
Why is this design piece still cool while most of Luigi Colani’s designs were too innovative at the time and now look old (so they never really find their space in the market)? I don’t have the answer, otherwise I would be bloody rich, but I have an idea to try to understand the Panton combination.
The chair has been done in a period when plastic was at its best and it started to be widely used in furniture. Panton actually did nothing so impressive in terms of idea, but it was the smartest thing to do. He took a classic comfort sitting shell and manufactured it. Other people simply put metal or wooden legs under it, or in plastic too, but with the shape of a standard chair.
He did more, understanding the technology and giving the possibility to use just one shape for the entire chair, but staying but those soft curves that we find in the top part.
As a consequence the overall shape is super soft, functional and sexy. Futuristic in every era.
It shortly became the best way to interpret that chair typology, it became an archetype, because it can’t be done better.
His innovation was not specifically in the shape that he gave, but in the design approach: making a crazy thing in the most rational way.
The emotion that we see looking at it is the mixed feeling of something that still looks so innovative but that we can understand. He preserved a connection to people while doing something new.
It’s not easy, also reading my own words I find that the analysis can be much deeper and I’m losing some parts, but I find some difficulties to make order while explaining these concepts, maybe need more words, and maybe pages.
This is an example of something well done, but now I also want to talk about the other side, a product that has been super successful but that didn’t defeat the aging.
The Lava lamp.
The Lava Lamp: A Vintage Success with Limited Lifespan
It was born in the same period, like 1960 or something, and it sold so many pieces.
Same period, so same contest, but there are many differences.
It is nice to see that if we put those two products together, they are good in the same place, but the Lava lamp has an evident vintage feeling.
As I already said, no perfect answer, but probably there was not the right balance between innovation and reference.
This lamp (that I love, let’s explain it) was a trend follower even if it had this innovative moving colored liquid inside. That enlightened part was there just to decorate and the whole lamp was following all the shape trends of that period for no accurate reason if not to be cool in its times.
Design Approach for Immortal Products: Innovate with Emotional Connection
The main difference then is that Panton did a crazy thing in the most rational way, while Edward Craven Walker (Lava’s designer) did it in the coolest way. There would be 1000 different shapes that we can give to that lamp that will work and give the same feeling, while we can not touch the Panton chair, otherwise it would not work so well.
Tricky argument, but my answer to “can a product be immortal?” is yes.
How? No idea, let’s see if in 50 years one of my products will be still in production.
There are also so many other product typologies, like in tech, that need such an analysis. If anyone has a good example, please share and talk about it.
If you want to read more, have a look at the Journal page.