The Design of Things

human endeavor + the natural world

Month: May, 2012

dials, caps, and folded-up triangles

Sometimes the best design is so simple we never even notice it. The cap on the toothpaste – a slim threaded screw top. A piece of waxed cardboard folded up to become a carton for milk. A dial that turns.

Our Toyota Prius has a touch screen for all the interior controls, requiring the driver to take her eyes off the road to adjust anything. The screen is set high and is fully lit, so the white-green light is a constant glare against the black of a nighttime highway.

The Volkswagen has dials, lit quietly in red and blue circles, sitting low and within easy reach of the right hand. Everybody knows that dials mean yesterday. I don’t mean to stand in the way of progress, but the dial is a design that cooperates beautifully with the supercomputer that is the human brain. Fire up muscle memory and all you have to do is reach over, without looking, and turn up the heat or change the tunes.

The tube of toothpaste in our house right now has a “family style” top that attaches to the tube and clamps over the end. It is much bigger than a toothpaste cap. It never really closes, particularly after any toothpaste has been squeezed out and a little bit lingers on the end. It makes a mess of toothpaste where it sits, and it’s made from at least twice the plastic of a simple cap.

Many milk cartons now feature a round hole with a plastic cap on the side for pouring. When bakers want to be precise, they create a paper triangle from which to measure out flour. When you pour from a round hole you might pour more, or you might pour the same, but do you need the extra plastic? Apparently, if you have children (say the advertisers) you do.

All the extra plastic waste turns to tiny beads that are often ingested by marine life, like dolphins and whales. The constant light of screens not only takes our eyes off the road, but messes with our brains and our endocrine systems, hopping us up and dropping our levels of the cancer-fighting hormone melatonin.

Not to mention all that toothpaste lost to American sinks.

It’s enough to make you appreciate the beauty of a dial, a small threaded cap, and a folded up waxed paper triangle – still available, if you can find them, in a showroom or grocery store near you.

outside in

“The palace is a palace, a brick building. It’s not where the magic is,” Renzo Piano on the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum.

The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum is a rich woman’s palace built in 1901 to house her expansive art collection and share it with visitors from all over the world. Dark and dreary, encrusted with religious art and cathedral relics and cases filled with revolutionary autographs, the house has always been a favorite stop in Boston.

Despite the millions and the masters on the walls, however, the chatter is always about the courtyard. The light, floating greenhouse in the center of the palatial gloom.

“Oh, you’ll love it!” everyone says, after mentioning the art. “It has the most wonderful courtyard.”

We are admiring of buildings – or even rooms – that bring the outside in, whether we realize it or not. Our senses recognize the feeling of expansion even before our eye can see it. Our bodies and minds respond to air and to natural light.

The architect Renzo Piano transformed Isabella’s palace by extending her secret courtyard to the outside with the addition of a soaring glass structure that houses a “living room” complete with shelves of design books and comfortable egg chairs, a café, a concert hall, and, of course, a greenhouse.  Everywhere you sit, you are surrounded by glass, by green, by the city. You are no longer simply visiting a museum but comfortably sitting in the landscape.

There is a gift shop, but the appeal of the building and its surroundings is not stuff. It’s doing, being, seeing, borrowing, reading, thinking, relaxing, eating, reflecting. Living. It’s a great place to go to live for a few hours.

Just what our homes should be, and often aren’t. We can’t change (usually) the architecture of our homes and offices but we can invite the light. We can open our floor plans to windows, making it possible to sit by them, work by their light, feel the passage of the sun and shadows or hear the rain throughout the day.

I worked in three boxes in Washington, D.C. but in each one I had a window around which I oriented my workspace. I live in an old Victorian that was stuffed to the gills with furniture before I moved in so that I did not see the windows, and beyond them, the outside.

Turn your desk to the light. Move an armchair by the bay. Angle the sofa so even if you can look at the television you’re close enough to the sash to feel the breeze and hear the birds and look over the lawn or out at the treetops.

“They’re not buildings that take possession of the land. They fly on the land. They welcome people. You look for lightness, and you get transparency.”

Renzo Piano, architect, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, new wing.

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