All Giz Wants: Gadgets With Character

All Giz Wants: Gadgets With Character

I feel like a castaway in a sea of glossy black plastic, chrome and glowing blue buttons.

Specifically, do we really need every piece of electronics to look the same, all sandwiched in the black that has became the 21st century beige?

Mad Men is helping to accelerate a mid-century revival, and hipster geeks are following suit with furniture-like case mods.

I’m not sure it’s something we want to go back to; the big, bulky and ornate.

But I would like my gadgets to have that much character.

Don’t embarrass me in front of my house guests
I want affordable gadgets and AV equipment that perform great but also look good. By that I mean something that I can put next to my furniture and make it a real part of my house, not a glossy attachment, as if Kal-El dropped a bloody Krypton crystal in my living room, making a shiny plastic appendix grow out of a walnut table. Except the appendix is actually made of some polymer, gets full of fingerprints within a minute of getting out of the box and doesn’t make a holographic Marlon Brando appear in my living room.

Some will suggest some high-end manufacturers that make beautiful products. Products that perform amazingly well and are beautiful. They use materials like natural wood, leather, ceramics and metal. They serve a function. They are very pretty. The problem is that they are also very expensive, because they are usually made in small quantities and cater to the highest end of the market. (See: Geneva Lab)

This wasn’t always the case. In the ’30s, Bauhaus promoted good design for the masses. They achieved that combining good design with mass manufacturing, creating products that still look good today. During the ’60s, companies like Braun re-invented themselves by applying good design to their products and selling them at affordable prices. They were the first who moved from electronics that looked like furniture – which you can see in TV series like Mad Men – to electronics that actually looked like machines. But in that process, they didn’t take the soul out of their products. They kept their character and fit into the surroundings of a nice home.

Going against the current
Today, everything looks like machines, but the character is gone.

However, I’m not proposing that every single product out there should look like a Dieter Rams design or an Apple product. All the contrary. Back when Steve Jobs came to Apple, he and Jon Ive introduced the computer that saved Apple from irrelevance and brought the company back in the spotlight. It was the “Bondi” iMac and it spawned a million clones from computers to gadgets to peripherals to home appliances. Its translucent white-and-turquoise skin became the beige of the late ’90s and early aughts. It worked for Apple, because it was their design code, which they kept evolving. But the rest just looked ridiculous and cheap. The copies had no character. Or they had the character of being cheap knockoffs. They were both made of plastic though. Maybe part of having character is being an original.

Later, the iPhone had a similar effect. But while Apple kept developing their own design language – which peaked with the iPad’s industrial design, the rest of the industry kept copying, introducing those elements in many products, but going for the cheap. There’s little differences out there. Companies like Philips actually try to make some different things – like their high-end Aurea TVs – but their main lines are all the same as everyone’s else.

The temporary solution: retrofit the old
So what can we – the people looking for electronics with some character – do? The only good solution I’ve been able to come up with: Get old stuff in eBay and modernise them with new components. It feels a bit like cheating and bastardising the originals, but it also feel like the only possible solution now that the original cases are considered both rare and gorgeous and are made of lasting and romantic materials like steel and wood. There’s a problem: It can get pretty expensive, like this Braun Atelier Speaker L1:

Still, a lot cheaper than a super high-end AV component. And you can find lower cost gems, like this TS45 radio receiver, which could be a good base for a custom Pandora or Spotify radio:

Or maybe turning the classic Snow White’s Coffin into a multimedia powerhouse – including Blu-ray player and hard-drive storage – connected to a projector via HDMI:

Maybe a company can do the retrofitting and sell the finished products at an affordable price. But they will likely end being a lot more expensive, so I’m afraid we will have to do it ourselves. The other problem with this solution is that design would lose its meaning. The pieces will look good, but they will be bastard hybrids in which buttons and dials lose their original meaning. Which may or may not help a piece’s character.

A dark and glossy future
Why don’t manufacturers push design forward and experiment with other materials and designs? It’s not because it’s significantly more expensive. The answer, I believe, is that being different has a high risk. And very few companies like to take real risks. Manufacturers are quite happy to keep churning out their indigestible sausages and people will keep buying the glossy black plastic, the chrome and the glowing blue buttons.

But maybe there’s another explanation: Maybe this is all caused by the fact that electronics are now all digital and getting simpler, thinner and smaller every day. Perhaps this de-humanisaton of hardware design is obligatory. Perhaps the hardware has to lose the character and soul of analogue designs to become just clear slabs of glass. As the human interface migrates from buttons, dials and knobs to touchscreens and modal software interfaces, this could be the real reason why gadgets are losing their character.

Still, I like to believe that some companies will come up with a solution. I have the feeling that the key is in the materials – wood, leather, metal, glass – which could make these products more human and more durable. Sadly, companies seem to be more interested in producing almost-disposable gadgets, so they can keep selling replacements every two years.