Universal Design Classics
Text: Gerrit Terstiege
How suitable are design classics and longsellers for older or disabled people? Gerrit Terstiege’s text was first published in the book “Universal Design” by Oliver Herwig (Birkhäuser).
Observing classic design products with regard to their useful
value to older or disabled people is an odd task. Because the great icons of product design, especially well-known furniture pieces, have long been considered superior to the pragmatic requirements of function and everyday necessity. But everyday objects must of course fulfill certain functions – even those whose formal qualities have turned them into classics. Yet when it comes to classics that have been ascribed the functionless attribute of “timelessness,” and which remain with their owners for decades, the question of how functional they are for older people might well have some merit. Now the term “design classic” is neither copyrighted nor is it particularly well defined. Nonetheless, it is widely used today and very popular in the advertising context. But just because a product has been on the market for a long time does not make it a classic. Konstantin Grcic’s designs such as Chair_ONE (2003) or the Myto chair (2007), on the other hand, are sure to become classics within a few years. Yet not all the famous pieces of furniture, electronic devices, and household appliances that have been successful on the market are tailored for the special requirements of the people profiled in this book. A closer look at the superbly designed “Max and Moritz” salt and pepper shakers, created by Bauhaus designer Wilhelm Wagenfeld for WMF, reveals that the metal lids on the glass bodies can be closed by applying just a slight amount of pressure rather than screwing. This is a welcome relief, especially for people with limited haptic ability. Yet this also exposes the weak spot in Wagenfeld’s concept. If the user happens to drop Max or Moritz onto a table, plate, or floor, the lid pops open and the contents go flying. The cylindrical, radically reduced vacuum jug, designed by Erik Magnussen for Stelton in 1977, has long been a standard in museum design collections and can be seen on thousands of conference or office tables across the globe. But handling the vacuum jug is somewhat tricky, because its spout is placed so high, that tea or coffee gushes out too quickly and with too much force. Classic chair designs should also be enjoyed with care. Stuttgart design professor Winfried Scheuer witnessed, during a visit to Achille Castiglioni’s studio, how the aged designer almost fell off his very own famous Mezzadro stool when attempting to sit on it in front of students. And the often-copied steel tube classic S34, designed in 1926 by Mart Stam, also harbours hidden danger. Getting up from the chair can present a challenge, because the user’s belt can catch onto the back of the cantilever chair, making it latch onto the body. At the best, then only the chair drops to the floor. In 1998, at Kunsthalle Krems the exhibition “Error Design” presented everyday objects and phenomena, whose shortcomings and faults have become part
and parcel of the work itself: remote control devices overloaded with tiny buttons, heat-sealed plastic packaging impossible to open without using great force, or a water kettle whose handle heats up along with the water inside.
In contrast, the classics listed on these pages are proof that well-designed objects need not always present a challenge to slightly disabled persons or the elderly. On the contrary, they are not only well designed and durable, but also function extremely well. Enzo Mari’s table calendar Timor can be adjusted on a daily basis by a simple turn of the hand; operating the mid-size Maglite flashlight is child’s play; and the Lamy Scribble by Swiss designer Hannes Wettstein sits perfectly in the hand and is equipped with an easyto-change fat cartridge. Almost every model of Rimowa suitcases is so lightweight and robust, that they have become reliable and useful travel companions. The straightforward medicine cabinet, designed by Thomas Ericksson in the form of a red cross, advertises its contents to strangers in the home of an injured or unconscious person, thereby helping to provide quick assistance. And in a case of emergency, that is what you want, no matter if you are young or old.