The irresistible rise of curves
Do I want to get my hands on one of these groovy-looking objects? Yes, I do
Wednesday 09 September 1998
It's not just me. Both my daughters are hankering after the iMac.
"Mum, have you seen the mouse? It's just so sweet."
"You are not having a computer that costs pounds 1,000," I say sternly, all the time thinking that maybe I could get one myself and then off-load my old Mac on to them.
In fact, none of us needs one of these things. I use a computer as little more than a typewriter. My flirtations with the Internet and e-mail have proved immensely unrewarding. Do I want to talk to someone in Oregon about whether ketchup is better than mustard? No, not really. Do I want to read on screen badly written rubbish that I would never consider reading on a page? Do I want to engage in the kind of stunted conversation that e-mailing involves? No way.
But do I want to get my hands on one of these groovy-looking objects? Yes, I do.
It's always peculiar to feel yourself being manipulated and yet at the same time responding. Just as I can find myself crying during a bad movie or even, these days, a mini-series, it is possible to feel yourself being exploited and loving it. Theoretically I may be able to distinguish between want and need, but emotionally - forget it. Poor little manipulated me, a puppet on a string. Where is my guiding star? Where is my scepticism?
The iMac, after all, is not so brand-new when looked at in the design context of the last few years. We should not be amazed that we finally have a computer that is not a beige box, but, instead ask what took us so long. Isn't this just a sign of how conservative, how limited, how uninspired the driving forces behind the information revolution have been?
OK, so perhaps they were so busy conquering the world with interactive software that they paid scant attention to the look of the actual things that were to colonise our homes. Years ago I remember some nerd telling me that computers had to be beige because of something to do with the way that the light reflected. As all television sets at the time were black, I never understood this argument.
It has been clear for some time, though, that the "wired community" and its hologram of a representative, Bill Gates, have very little aesthetic sense whatsoever. Gates, don't forget, is the man who thinks that looking at a beautiful painting on a computer screen is the same as seeing it in the flesh.
Yet, of course, we do want flesh, or things that remind us of flesh - organic, natural, roundy shapes. This simple idea has made Philippe Starck's career, and a few others' too. For some time now designers have been using these more tactile shapes and materials, but it is only now that they are hitting the mainstream. Jelly kettles, and Smeg fridges and Ford's Ka, all employ these new lines. Square now is really too square, and even everyday consumer durables such as washing machines are designed with more fluid lines.
The iMac - note that lower case "i", which implies wacky user-friendliness - was designed by a Brit, Jonathan Ive, who was once a partner in the design company Tangerine. He worked in conjunction with a firm that had previously paid enormous attention to the colours involved in producing translucent sweets.
The iMac, then, is designed to stimulate all kinds of taste-buds, but above all to illicit a more human response to a machine than usual. This is not just a touchy-feely object but a touchy-fondly Tamagotchi for grown ups. You won't, apparently, feel embarrassed about having one in your living-room. The thing is though, if your living-room looks like the average living-room then this candy-coloured computer will look very strange indeed. Most people have invested heavily in television sets and video-recorders and music systems which are not see-through turquoise plastic but are in fact black, matt and as box-like as it is possible to be.
Never mind "Chuck out your chintz"; really you should be chucking out your black, hard-edged objects, which are as Eighties as padded shoulders. Now we want furry fridges and orange fluorescent television sets on purple stand. Believe me, I have seen the future at student design shows, at colleges such as Central St Martin's.
The Italians have been doing this sort of stuff for a decade , trying to "humanise" design because so many of us couldn't really cope with pure , hard-edged modernism. If you want an image of the way it's all going, I would say think Teletubbies; think childish, soft, huggable shapes. Think fun not function. Think nature, but nature as seen in a Technicolor theme park.
All of this is yet another example of what some would like to call the increasing "feminisation " of society. While the Eighties was all angular shapes and power dressing, the Nineties, belatedly defining itself as a decade as it comes to an end, is more fluid and organic and colourful. Is this feminine, I ask myself? Or is it just another form of repackaging?
The lust for softer, curvier forms may be described as feminised, but realists among us may note that it has nothing to do with the shapes of those other objects of desire - women's bodies. In design terms the idealised female form is elongated, minimal and straight up and down. Gwyneth Paltrow and Courtney Cox are the role models, not Kate Winslet or Alicia Silverstone, who are considered to be too curvy for their own good.
This is just another example of the word "feminisation" being used about something that has little to do with women themselves. Design has not become more feminine; it has simply wised up to the fact that if we are to live with certain products we would like them to be easier on the eye.
We can use words like "ergonomic" and "organic" and even, if we so desire, believe that curvy computers will enable us to do something fundamentally different to square old PCs - but they probably won't. Every time I buy my elder daughter another expensive item of clothing that has something to do with surfing, I have an argument with her about the fact that she never goes surfing, or has any intention of ever doing so. No, it's important that she has a watch that she can wear "in a tunnel", because it just looks good.
Advanced capitalism depends on built-in obsolescence. Why don't washing machines, for instance, ever work for longer than six years? Why do we all put up with the shoddiness of so many hi-tech goods that fail and can never be repaired? Why? Because design is a more effective form of built-in obsolescence than anything else.
By the time the thing stops working we don't bloody want it any more anyway. It just looks so wrong, so old-fashioned. The machine I'm writing this on is the ugliest thing I've ever seen. It is completely without style. Only a few years ago I was delighted with my brand-new Macintosh; it did stuff I had no idea a computer could do. Since then I have realised I don't want to do most of that stuff, but I would like the machine itself to be prettier.
At a time when we may be in the throes of a global recession I think we can truly define "inappropriate behaviour" as greed for things that we don't need but simply want. I spent the weekend both excited and worried that capitalism was in total crisis because of its own internal contradictions . It has only taken one advertising campaign to make me realise that capitalism is not going to collapse. Not in my house anyway.
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