They used to make things that didn’t cut, cripple or confuse when you used them.
Now they’ve “improved” them. And this cut, crippled, confused and Angry Man has had enough. Stop it, he says
EVERY NOW AND THEN I come across an ad showing an engineer in a business suit and safety helmet, smiling at me over some heading like: “Meet Bill Williams. He’s designing your world of tomorrow,” and I wish he’d just take a long coffee break — say for 30, 40 years. He has already horsed around with all the common house-hold objects — doorknobs, taps, electric plugs — until none of them work as well as they did during the reign of Queen Victoria. I don’t think he represents progress or anything but what a confused mind can do with a slide rule, and some of his creations are hard to believe — fluorescent restaurant lights that make the food and all the women look green; doorknobs big enough for drawbridges, that twist your hand as they open; motel plumbing devised so that no matter what you do, taking a shower is like playing Russian roulette. His ideas are inexhaustible, and all bad.
There’s a type of tap now that has just one handle for both hot and cold and which you pull, push and turn as if you were flying a 1 927 Tiger Moth. Nobody can figure out how to work it without instructions. A friend of mine, who spent three months’ salary on a completely modern bathroom, told me that his sister-in-law, who was visiting from Winnipeg, spent 20 minutes in the bathroom the first morning, singing and whistling, before she finally gave up and came out and admitted that she couldn’t get any water out of the tap, which is just 19 minutes longer
than it used to take to prime a pump.
Genghis Khan wasn’t more arbitrary than modern plumbing innovators. The designer of the taps in my kitchen sink completely eliminated anything resembling a handle. You close them as if you’re tightening a nut by getting your fingers between little stumps that protrude from it like old broken fingertips. The bathtub taps don’t even give you that much encouragement. They’re slippery hemispheres the size of golf balls, and you can like them or lump them. But if you sit on the edge of the tub to sulk about it you’ll get up mighty fast, because this same designer has laid two shower-door tracks along the edge of the bathtub that are as sharp as bologna slicers, and they work on you when you’re fresh from the tub and soft and easily wounded.
Some of the people who are creating today’s hardware must have sat reading Playboy right through design classes in which it is taught that objects should conform to the human body. The knobs on the kitchen-cupboard doors in my apartment have been replaced by sharp, concave, steel discs, set so close to the doors that if you carelessly leave your fingers wrapped around them while the doors open, they leave welts. The bathroom doorknob is the shape of a doorknob but half standard size, an innocent-looking change that lures you into trying to wrap your fingers around it, which brings your knuckles up against two sharp set screws that work on them like cheese graters.
A new kind of doorknob found everywhere now isn’t a knob at all and has very little to do with doors, it’s shaped like a two-and-a-half-inch section of a baseball bat. It has no neck to grip and it’s made of some lathe-turned metal with a coefficient of friction lower than steel on ice. You can’t get your fingers around it. You can just barely turn it, and the only reason you can open a door by it is that your fingers don’t slip quite as fast as the door opens. My branch library has this kind of knob. The other day I noticed a woman holding three mystery novels in one hand and trying to turn one of these knobs with the other to get into a corridor. When she saw me looking at her she said, “I think it’s to try to discourage children from using the washroom.”
This obsession for changing things that already work is spreading so fast that I spoke to a man I know who works for a steel-products company and asked him if he could explain why the spout had been eliminated from my tea kettle, so that when I tilt it to pour the water out of it the steam escapes right under my knuckles and scalds me. He looked at me coldly
and said that the designer’s biggest problem, after he had mastered the new materials and production techniques, was people like me. He said I was hidebound about what I wanted and fought change, and he couldn’t be more right. I’ll fight this kind of change until the day I die, and if I find out who a few of the designers are who changed all the things that work for me, I’ll try to come back. My new aluminum deck chair is designed as if I had arms that extended only six inches past my elbows, and the only reason that it sells is that it’s no longer possible to find the old wooden ones. It just barely fits my hips, cuts into my thighs, won’t hold a cup of coffee on the arms, and gives me a nasty feeling that I’m sitting there in a pair of pants that need letting out.
There’s no grip on the plug on my electric-razor cord. I have to work it out of the outlet as if I’m working a nail out of a wall. (“I wrapped mine with elastic bands,” an old gent in a ski cap told me the other day, pleased that he had outwitted the latest advance of science.) The horn button that used to be in the middle of my car’s steering wheel has been replaced with a thin metal semicircle that turns with the wheel, so that I never know where it is. I approach every emergency looking as if I’m swatting flies. The old top of my glue bottle, which
had a little brush attached to a cap that screwed off, has been changed to something called a new free-flow finger-tip nozzle, which becomes cemented solid with the same wonder glue that was recently shown on TV commercials holding up the Baltimore Colts, and I keep a pair of pliers in my desk drawer for the sole purpose of prying the nozzle loose.
But, as a matter of fact, these things have nothing to do with industrial design. They’re what courses in industrial design are trying to eliminate. Good design does not necessarily mean change. In Switzerland, which is conceded to be light years ahead of us in this field, anything that has been worked out by generations and does the job is left alone. There’s one kind of tap, for instance, throughout the country: a cross shape with smooth edges, angled toward the user, with a blue dot to indicate “cold” and a red one for “hot.” Even these markings are an improvement on the ones on my tub, which are engraved like a wedding invitation so that you have to put your head down into the tub to read them. But the point is, the awful gimmicks that we have to cope with are not designed by industrial designers but by engineers, patternmakers, lathe operators, salesmen and the boss who built his business up with his bare hands and still designs kettles, plugs, chairs, everything but airplanes, on the
back of business envelopes. They originate with phone calls. “That one with the chrome spokes is selling like pot in Pine Ridges, Harry. Punch me out another carload.” The only reason for their existence is that they can be turned out by machine like pie plates.
Back in the early 1900s, manufacturers decorated their products with extra knobs, curlicues, overstuffed arms, spindles, cast - iron eagles and fretwork, which is called Victorian and now considered funny but it’s hard to see why. They were at least put there by someone trying to do something extra for his customers, something that’s now as rare as Upper Canada bed warmers. Toronto’s new City Hall, a monument to self-absorption in design that incorporates many of the very latest ideas in architecture, has one entrance, so that if you come at it from the north you have to walk around half the circumference of the building, one of the coldest walks in winter south of the Precambrian Shield. The Maclean-Hunter Building, which is new enough to have the right spirit, has a kind of portico that looks like a roof but lets the rain come in on you. The new escalators at Simpson’s in Toronto have a shiny metal base angled precisely so that it shows every woman rider’s underpants, and in the Arcadian Court gents’ room the urinals are made of a polished material that acts as a mirror. It’s hor-
rible. Nobody knows where to look.
A lot of the very latest innovations find their way, for some reason, into restaurant design. The restaurant where I usually have lunch has been completely renovated so that you can’t see out the windows. All the new chairs have thin metal legs that take up half again the area of the seat but are hard to see and they get tangled in other renovated chairs and in people’s feet. One of the commonest sights during a busy lunch hour is businessmen falling. Every now and then someone squeezes one of the new soft creamers with the hole pointed toward him so that sometimes you see a businessman covered with cream falling. The same restaurant has a new wall clock of wooden balls and invisible hands that you can’t tell the time by until you’re standing at the cash counter, when you’re leaving anyway. The men’s and women’s restrooms are distinguished by a hen and a rooster. This trick of leaving the whole thing up to your knowledge of birds let me down recently when I looked too casually at a hen and found myself chatting and winking at a woman at the sink, trying to put her at her ease, figuring she’d got into the men’s washroom by mistake, then finding out that it was my mistake. But it wasn’t really. The mistake started with modern designers who couldn’t leave well enough alone. I think it’s time they did. □
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