Designer Ron Arad used to have a rule about CD racks. Just Say No. "I always say to students, no CD racks, no mirrors, no clocks. There are an infinite number of mirrors, clocks and CD racks out there."
But then, I ask, what is this I see before me in the new Alessi catalogue? It is called "The soundtrack" and is described as "self-adhesive CD rack in thermoplastic resin". Underneath the blurb, it says "Design Ron Arad, 1998". What can it mean?
"It means I've just disobeyed my own orders," he says. I wait, expecting a rationalisation. I don't have to wait long. "But it's a product that, when you use it, you don't see it, so maybe I have conformed to my own rules."
What he means by this is that the product - which he describes as sticky tape with teeth - is pretty innovative as CD racks go. But that, really, is no excuse, because the rule was Just Say No. There was no little asterisk, no footnote that said: unless you can do one that is really cool. So Ron Arad - the man who brought us the Rover chair - has said yes, and that means he is part of the problem.
But then, so are a lot of people. Everywhere you go there are CD racks. They are the mug-trees of the Nineties - unnecessary, ubiquitous, irritating - but one hundred times worse. These days, you could make a career out of the pointless pursuit of the perfect CD rack. And, it seems, some people do. At Heal's in London's Tottenham Court Road, there are no fewer than 12 different types, priced from pounds 8.95 to pounds 130. Next door, in Habitat, there are half-a-dozen more. Across the road, at Purves & Purves, there is one that looks like a jagged iceberg for pounds 295, another that looks like a smooth iceberg for about pounds 400. In the adjoining accessories department, there are CD racks with so much personality that they've probably been invited on to TV chat shows. Some look like shower curtains, others zig- zag across the wall. One could double as a pyjama case.
It is a style nightmare but it can - and does - get worse. There is, for instance, the Ikea tower. Cheap but not cheerful. Naff is the word that most people use. If only they were taller, they could jump off each other and put us all out of their misery. "You know, towers are old hat," says Dawna Walter of The Holding Company, which is dedicated to the very Nineties theme of making storage sexy. "And the thing is, they really don't save you any space."
She points out that, if you have a big CD collection, you may need four towers. Who wants Hong Kong in their front room? Not Walter. She says she has seen "millions" of CD racks, and her favourite is something called the Roladisc, which stores up to 300 naked CDs in a 33cm by 41cm tray. ("What really takes up space is the cases, you know.") She also likes it because it has dividers, and she says I can save loads of time by picking out my favourite CDs and putting them in a category called "Favourites". I'm not sure if this is more naff than a tower.
But the crucial failure of the Roladisc is that it provides no opportunity to display the owner's personality. For most people, this simply will not do. After all, CDs can go perfectly well in a drawer or cupboard, so the only reason for putting them on display is to show off. Product display syndrome is nothing new - if people removed the unread books from their shelves, there would be a lot of empty space around - but the CD version is especially virulent. This is because, unlike books or records or magazines, both the collection itself and the storage container can be seen as indicators of personality. What this usually means, in reality, is that the owner may not have one.
Take the new Tudor-style "revolving CD storage cabinet" from Old Charm furniture. It may be the worst CD rack ever, but its makers think it has a fabulous personality. "Featuring attractive Gothic archway carvings on the sides and glazed leaded light doors both on the front and the back of the cabinet, this ingenious design houses two layers of CDs. It even features a swivel base allowing easy access to both sides of the cabinet and providing an interesting talking point at dinner parties!" And all for just pounds 725.
Ron Arad talks of products in terms of function. The main function of a rack is storage. The problem, he says, comes about when they strive to be more than functional, "like the wavy ones, or the ones that look like guitars, or the ones that look like animals". This is something that Mark McCarthy knows all about. He is a 23-year-old design student at Central St Martin's, and has designed a CD holder that looks like an elephant. It is blue, it is plastic and it is strange. An explanation seemed in order. McCarthy's excuse is that the people from Microsoft came to St Martin's and said that the company is seen as huge and grey and not much fun. Could Mark design something to counter this? So Mark chose a huge and grey animal and then gave it loads of colour. Mark seems a little embarrassed, but not much: "I know that it is one of those things that everyone seems to design. I guess it's because it is possible to get them produced."
There is something strange going on here, and Lorraine Gamman, a lecturer in product design and cultural studies at Central St Martin's, believes she knows what. She says that product designers may be compulsive obsessives when it comes to such things as CD racks. They cannot stop designing them even though they are completely unnecessary.
So here's the thing. Designers can't stop themselves from designing them. Consumers can't stop themselves from buying them. And interior designer Rupert Matthews, with Conrad Design Company, believes that it may be true that some people go out and buy CDs just to fill the rack. Someone has to "just say no" and Mr Matthews is happy to volunteer: "I actually hate them. The best place for CDs is in a drawer and out of sight."
Now we just need someone such as Ron Arad to stop before it's too late, but somehow I don't think that is going to happen. He's already talking about next year's rack. It's even more minimal, it's the smallest object he's ever designed, it's vertical. Clearly No is no longer an option
Main photograph, facing page: Ron Arad CD rack (Alessi), pounds 12 approx, to order from Oggetti (0171-584 9808); Porc-u-pine animal CD rack, pounds 29, from Aero (0171-221 1950). This page, clockwise from top left: Hayden CD rack, pounds 99, from Ocean Mail Order (0800-132 985); K-Nine CD rack, pounds 65, Aero, as above; Old Charm Tudor-style revolving CD cabinet, pounds 725 (enquiries 01920-465 241); Zotefoam auto-closing CD case by Jam
(enquiries 0171-278 5567)
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