Phaidon, publisher of the best-looking books on the planet, just released Pioneers, Mass Production and New Technologies, three volumes each containing 333 of the most impressively designed objects of the last century. Here are 12 gadgets that made the cut.
The books move loosely through the 20th century - though they also contain some objects that were devised in the 19th century, and others that a certain Mr Ive and Mr Jobs cooked up since the year 2000. We skipped over all the Apple stuff, and much of the classic Braun and Bang & Olufsen objets de tech that you commonly encounter in gadget retrospectives. We looked deeper into the list, to find unexpectedly wondrous objects of great design. (We also skipped about a million different chairs - according to these books, designers spend more time thinking about where to park their keisters than any other dilemma in human history.)
Needless to say, the books are unbelievably gorgeous and informative, and the juxtaposition of so many varied products gives you new insight into what designers think about.
Swiss Army Knife. Designed in 1891 by Karl Elsener. Made by Victorinox, 1891 to present. Here's the evolution of the world's most recognisable multitool, from 1891 to 1968.
"Ur-Leica" Camera. Designed by Oskar Barnack in 1913. Led to Leica I, 1925 to 1932. Notable for being among the first cameras to take single shots using cinematic film.
Western Electric Model 300 Telephone. Designed in 1937 by Henry Dreyfuss, and sold by WE from 1937 to 1950. Dreyfuss invented what we now regard as the quintessential telephone by planning "from the inside out".
Disco Ball. Designed around 1942 by unknown genius. Made in various forms by assorted companies to the present day. To quote our own Jesus Diaz: "That motorised mirror ball is one of the most iconic designs in history."
Hallicrafters T-54 7-inch (18cm) television. Designed in 1948 by Richard Latham (from Raymond Loewy's firm). Manufactured only that year. A radical new concept for TV design that ended up commercially successful, this was built inside a ham radio case and finished in metal instead of wood.
Etch-A-Sketch. Designed in the 1950s by Arthur Granjean, and sold by Ohio Art Company from 1960 to the present. A great example of a highly complex machine gracefully encased in a super-simplistic frame, this was the hit of the 1960 Christmas season, and never really stopped mesmerising kids.
IBM Selectric Typewriter. Designed in 1959 by Eliot Noyes, and manufactured from 1959 through the 1980s. The first typewriter to include a "golfball" head for improved speed and accuracy, it wasn't just the best looking typewriter ever, it was also the best behaved.
Lockheed SR-71 "Blackbird" Aircraft. Designed by the Lockheed Design Team in 1964 and manufactured through 1990. Visually the most stunning aircraft ever made, it was a marvel of supersonic speed and stealthy manoeuvring that actually looked like a marvel of supersonic speed and stealthy manoeuvring. "Blackbird" was, alas, just a nickname.
Polaroid SX-70 Folding Camera. Designed by Henry Dreyfuss in 1972 and manufactured by Polaroid from 1972 to 1977. This pocket-sized SLR camera was assigned to Dreyfuss - possibly the most influential American designer of the 20th century - because "he didn't know what couldn't be done," said Polaroid's founder.
Technics SL-1200 Turntable. Designed by Panasonic's Technics R&D team in 1972 and still manufactured today. The genius of the SL-1200 was that a purely technical solution - shifting from belt drive to direct drive and (later) adding a quartz-regulated motor - ended up enabling a musical breakthrough, hip-hop turntable scratching.
Braun AB 314 Alarm Clock. Designed by Dietrich Lubs in 1987, manufactured through 2004. "The definitive alarm clock," says Phaidon.
Nintendo Game Boy. Designed by Gunpei Yokoi in 1989 and sold in various evolutions to this day. A perfect example of a criticised product that blew past all modest expectations, the Game Boy had a tiny monochrome screen and came bundled with Tetris. To this day, it's the dominant player in mobile gaming.
All three books are published this year by Phaidon as a series. They list for $US40 each, but thankfully Amazon is selling them for a lot less (see below). While it makes sense to maybe buy just one, it's tough to pick just one, and not just because the products are numbered from 1 to 999, with each volume covering one third. To simplify things perhaps too much, Pioneers covers archetypal designs we now take for granted, Mass Production includes all of the smartly conceived products we grew up with, and New Technologies brings design up to date with contributions from the consumer electronics and computer businesses. As much as the third volume best fits our readership, it's almost more exciting to see how the legacies of the earlier product design movements informed the new tech.
• Pioneers on Amazon for $US26.37
• Mass Production on Amazon for $US26.37
• New Technologies on Amazon for $US29.16