Fashion | Bird Kettles And Ball Chairs

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Bird Kettles And Ball Chairs
Text by Jahnvi Dameron Nandan
Published: Volume 17, Issue 6, June, 2009

Having hunted for good design for functional reasons, Jahnvi Dameron Nandan talks about the products that have best suited her life

Recently, I dug into the list of objects that have had the power to affect my life and once again I had the opportunity to indulge in my design fetish. Good design is something that is created not just by products that are usable and functional but that give pleasure, that extra uncovered oomph to make life not just easy but fun. It’s the physical manifestation of a great idea and price often has nothing to do with it. There are as many definitions of good design as there are designers making it impossible to attribute universal values to design. But good design does remain universal.

I have hunted for good design for functional reasons and in my research that has extended well beyond my university days, used and discarded hundreds of products hoping to find what best suits my life. So what follows are a few things that I have first studied, when I had enough money, bought, used, abused and finally lugged with me all around the world. This is my list of things to save if my house caught fire.

My kettle from Alessi is one of them. Alessi started off as a metal workshop way back in 1921 but its rise to recent fame has been because designer Philippe Starck decided to make the Juicy Salif lemon press that was a funny design object first and a lemon press later. Since then Alessi hasn’t stopped redesigning humble kitchen objects from obscurity to pride of place. But the design that really propelled it to international stardom was a humble stainless steel kettle, called the Bird kettle. Designed by architect Michael Graves in 1984, it sold more than half a million pieces and brought Alessi and thus postmodern design into homes around the globe. The kettle’s conical shape is timeless and the little bird on the snout toots and takes off every time the water boils transforming the mundane task of water heating into something to look forward to every morning.

I have to sheepishly admit that in the kitchen my next great love affair after this kettle is with Tupperware. When Earl S. Tupper launched these products just after World War II, he probably had no idea that one day he would be a global household phenomenon, a kitchen revolution of sorts, his name being used to generically identify plastic kitchen bowls with airtight lids that not only keep food fresh but are flexible and thus unbreakable. Their product range varies from twistable peelers to microfibre kitchen towels and everything in between in recycled granulate.

The most striking object in my house is perhaps my favourite chair. It’s certainly not the most convenient, it is not stackable, weighs a ton and impedes all kinds of conversation once I am in it. My chair is called the Ball Chair, a stunning, space age, rotating, massive fibreglass sphere resting on a solid round iron base by Finnish designer Eero Aarnio, made in 1963. ‘Design a plastic chair’ was Aarnio’s brief from furniture designer Asko in the 1960s. Plastic was the ‘in’ material at that time and manufacturers were all struggling to come up with innovative ideas in this material to capture the market. The Ball Chair and other similar ball-shaped designs he came up with, have unflinchingly revitalised what people think of chairs – the swivel and the scooped seating have revolutionised office furniture to airline seating. When you sit in the Ball Chair, you are in a cocoon, cut off from the sounds of the outside world, ensconced in an embryonic state. I learnt from design school chatter that Aarnio designed this so he could talk on the telephone peacefully while his kids hollered.

I discovered Mujirushi Ryohin or Muji as it is fondly known, because one of the Tokyo outlets was my neighbour when I lived there. Muji in case you didn’t already know, loosely translates as ‘good-quality-brandless-products’. While the Japanese have always dismissed Muji’s design aesthetic, their European stores, despite being much smaller, have a cult following. Muji is my one-stop shop to happiness, adding coolness into boring stuff like toothbrushes, notebooks and vacuum cleaners. There is nothing about Muji that makes it spectacular, neither is it about its line or the functionality of any of the items, nor is it about the colour (they are in varying shades of beige to grey) or the prices (Muji is really cheap). But Muji is Japan’s biggest design export. Twenty-five years ago, they only sold nine household products and a bit of food. Today, under the philosophy of ‘love with no frills’, Muji sells 4000 different items, Indian cotton T-shirts, unit sofas, DVD players, flashlights, mouse pads, espresso coffee makers, shampoo, bicycles, bonsai brown rice – in short, a zillion good ideas, and even modern design classics like the neat wall hanging CD player by ace product designer Naoto Fukasawa. Banality couldn’t get sexier than this.

Plastic is the love ‘n’ hate material of the design world (more on that later). I’m not a fan of plastic but I do have a lamp that has become the focal point of many a conversation. My lamp is Ferruccio Laviani’s white Bourgie Table Light, a transparent polycarbonate version of a baroque styled crystal lamp that produces light that is dim enough to create an atmosphere and bright enough for watch repair if one wishes. It’s from Kartell, a plastic manufacturer, with whom designers like Achille Castiglioni, Philippe Starck, Ron Arad and Antonio Citterio have all collaborated. As a result people are still lining up to buy Kartell’s circular container units (no bolts with sliding doors and a simple, postmodernist appeal) originally designed in 1967. You can’t help loving a brand that makes thrones and Roman urns in plastic (Philippe Starck’s Louis Ghost and Dr No chairs, and la Boheme stools). This is design at its quirkiest and I lust after just about everything Kartell puts on the shelf.

Environmentalists reading this article would cringe as many products here are in plastic and thus terribly environmentally unfriendly. I derive small consolation having sworn that I shall never throw any of these products, temporarily staving off the problem of degradation. While many companies like Tupperware, use recycled plastic, the durable nature of plastic makes it hard to break down naturally. But plastic encourages innovation. It is light, organic, soft, innovative, colourful and futuristic.

The day we create a truly environmentally friendly plastic will be the day we find the answer to what is good design and design will then become truly powerful. Finally, I am very curious to know what you would take with you if your house caught fire. And if you need to know where to source any of the things mentioned above, write in to

Jahnvi Dameron Nandan is the author of Tokyo Style File. A self-confessed travelista with the budget issues of a fashionista, she is now working on her new book on design.

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