Bourbon, Burgers, Nylon and Beansprouts

April 20th, 2010 § 0

chairlessEven at the time it de­b­uted dur­ing my os­tens­ible un­der­age years I re­mem­ber be­ing im­pressed by the bril­liance of Jim Beam’s ‘You al­ways come back to ba­sics’ ad cam­paign. The ori­gin­al, which ran in the Oc­to­ber 1989 is­sue of 16 na­tion­al magazines, de­pic­ted a pro­gres­sion of Amer­ica’s pre­ferred food­stuff over 5 dec­ades. A series of 7 pho­tos in­cluded 1955’s ham­burger, then a hero sand­wich in 1975 and bean sprouts in pita bread for 1983 be­fore re­turn­ing to the ham­burger as the go-to of 1990. Sub­sequent vari­ations played the same trick with box­er shorts, re­cord al­bums, salt and pep­per shakers…

When the Fast Com­pany feed de­pos­ited a story on the ‘The Most Min­im­al Chair in the World’ in my RSS ag­greg­at­or yes­ter­day, I clicked. I’ve de­signed and de­veloped in four gen­er­a­tions of IE browsers, have lived through the gloss of Web 2.0, and these days find my­self in some­what of a re­ac­tion­ary phase where in­stead of chas­ing glass but­ton ef­fects I try to shed the su­per­flu­ous as if my apps were fuel-starved bombers par­tak­ing in Doolittle’s raid. Min­im­al ap­peals to me. What I took from the Fast Com­pany story is that it ap­peals to oth­ers too.

What is Chair­less? Chair­less is one of the latest of­fer­ings of Vitra, a Swiss fur­niture firm that de­vel­ops its products by "ap­ply­ing a design pro­cess that brings to­geth­er the com­pany’s en­gin­eer­ing ex­cel­lence with the cre­at­ive geni­us of lead­ing in­ter­na­tion­al de­sign­ers" (from their About page). It’s a pro­cess that reg­u­larly res­ults in chairs priced at $3,000 and up, but which this time around has coughed up a $25 nylon strap. The Vitra web­site of­fers the fol­low­ing back­ground on Chair­less De­sign­er Ale­jandro Ara­vena’s in­spir­a­tion:

Ara­vena saw a pic­ture of an Ayoreo In­di­an sit­ting on the ground with a tight strap around his knees and back. This sim­pli­fic­a­tion of what he knew as a chair – a re­duc­tion to "ir­re­du­cib­il­ity" – fas­cin­ated Ara­vena, who went on to cap­ture the po­ten­tial of this seat­ing device.

chairlessThe sharp-tongued wag might com­ment on Vitra hav­ing ef­fect­ively mar­keted a rope. But with so much stripped away is there any chance for the product to stand on any­thing ex­cept its mer­it? The ver­dict is per­haps still out. What’s in­ter­est­ing to me is the con­sumers’ in­terest in this ex­er­cise of re­duc­tion to ir­re­du­cib­il­ity. Without know­ing how many Chair­less(es?) were pro­duced in the first pro­duc­tion run, it seems at least safe to say that Vitra un­der­es­tim­ated the con­sumer ap­peal of the product. It’s not com­plex­ity that people crave, it’s sim­pli­city. While ‘Design’ is in­creas­ingly equated to tool and tech­nique fa­mili­ar­ity (see Smash­ing Magazine’s The Dy­ing Art of Design) the truly kick­ass de­sign­er is the one who can shut out the ever louder noise and re­duce. The one who takes his Jim Beam 1955- and ‘90-style in the midst of her­os and bean sprouts. Hats off, Ale­jandro. Now to the In­ter­webs.

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