Filtering by Tag: design

Objects of My Affection: Eames RAR Rocker

Added on by Patrick Greene.

The Eames RAR (rocking armchair rod) Rocker is a perfect example of timelessness in design: it could've been created in 2009 in a boutique workshop in São Paulo (it wasn't), or it could've been born in a crazy Renaissance-style think-tank/24-hour carnival/cultural epicenter in California for a competition at the MoMA six decades ago (it was). It's equal parts earthy/traditional (maple rockers, small footprint) and modern/industrial (bright-yellow fiberglass shell, steel base). It looks just as good outside on the deck as it does in a hyper-modern office, and looks even better when it's rocking a newborn baby to sleep.


It's also incredibly comfortable.

Just ask him.

Just ask him.

We got ours about a month ago at Machine Age, which is probably the coolest store on the planet. Some years ago, Herman Miller (the manufacturer) decided to switch to plastic shells (in the name of environmental soundness). Ours, though, is the original fiberglass, and it's got a wonderful texture.

I hope this stays in our family for generations. I hope our great-grandchildren park their hoverboards to stare at it, wide-eyed, believing that they've witnessed something sent back from the future to enthrall them.


A short rant on exquisite cars with terrible names

Added on by Patrick Greene.

As the dust of our economic collapse begins to settle, a handful of once-begotten automakers is on the ascent. One of particular note is Ford, which entered 2008 with a decidedly lackluster lineup, slumping sales, and an impossibly complex global manufacturing scheme, and emerged profitable, robust, and unified--all in the absence of the much-bemoaned (and yet undeniably successful) "bail-outs" awarded the other two of the Big Three American car companies.

I start off with Ford not because I'm going to discuss any Ford-branded vehicles, but because the two marques with which I'm concerned---Jaguar and Lincoln---have beenirrevocably affiliated with the big blue oval for quite some time, and both brands are getting back on their feet after decades of neglect and terrible decisions. One---Lincoln---because Ford abandoned Mercury, and the other---Jaguar---because Ford abandoned them.

Rolls down the road, not off the tongue

Jaguar, of course, is now owned by Tata, an Indian firm. Cut free of the Old Ford fetters (shoddy platforms, badge engineering, confused marketing), Jaguar has retaken its place as a global design icon. The current XJ, released in 2009, is---and I sincerely mean this---one of the most beautiful, uniquely artful automobiles I've ever seen. Like the evergreen E-Type, the XJ is fluid grace made manifest. And powered by a can of Whoop-Ass. Just look at this thing:

I didn't even notice the woman until the second time I saw this.

I didn't even notice the woman until the second time I saw this.

It's the kind of beauty that, though immediately apparent in pictures, is magnified when it's in motion. The interplay of light and dark, the gleam of black metal and cold glass, the sweeping profile of its greenhouse as it slips by you---it's just a masterpiece, and one that only cements Ian Callum's place in the pantheon.

And then, take a look at the strikingly redesigned XK:

The new, supercharged iteration of the XKR.

The new, supercharged iteration of the XKR.

While we're at it, here's the delightful XF:

This is the spankin' new 2012 model.

This is the spankin' new 2012 model.

What we have here is a thrilling lineup---just three vehicles, suited for different, distinct purposes and demographics. No bloated, confusing, cross-platform nonsense.

And yet, for the life of me, I can barely remember what they're called.

XF, XK, and XJ are acronyms utterly devoid of meaning to the average consumer. I'm a self-professed car nut, and I have to struggle to remind myself that there was a different XJ before the current one, and that it looked completely different. That the name "Jaguar XJ" has been in use, more or less continuously, since 1968. That the original XJ's powerplant was largely based on the then-new "XK engine," and that designs based on the XK engine (including the XJ) occasionally made use of an innovative fuel-tank arrangement adopted from the Jaguar Mark X.

All of this is to say that XJ means absolutely nothing. It's a half-century old term that supposedly bridges the heritage gap between these two vehicles:

What makes matters worse is that there's no discernible pattern here. The XJ, a full-size sedan (think Audi A8) is much larger than the XK (a diminutive grand-tourer à la the Audi A5), and slots in directly above its little sedan-brother, the XF (comparable to the Audi A4). Something the Germans do well (one of many things, admittedly) is plan: like addresses in a well-laid housing development, the numbers go up as you make your way through the line, but space is afforded between them in case a tougher-to-classify model has to slide in between.


BMW's 1 Series (teeny tiny), 3 Series (compact executive), 5 Series (mid-size), 7 Series (full-size luxury). When they built a large, two-door executive sports express, they called it the "6 Series." When they wanted a small roadster, they called it the "Z4." When they want to specify things like engine displacement, the taxonomy specifies gradations within a given line, like "328" or "335." You know a 335 is rear-wheel drive when it's called a "335i." Likewise, you know it's directing power to all four wheels when it's labeled "335xi."

When they build a crossover, even, you immediately know the specifics of the platform in relation to those initial, odd-numbered product lines. The X3 is a sport-utilified version of the 3 Series. If you want something racy, look for anything with an "M" in front of it. The M3 and M5 are salient examples.

All this is to say that BMW's nomenclature---while not exactly thrilling or evocative---serves a purpose, and serves it well.

Jaguar's nomenclature isn't only devoid of thrills or evocations, but it doesn't tell the consumer anything about the vehicle they want. I'm a connoisseur of these things, and I don't even really know what to call them. When I mention the XKRS to someone, I have to stop and think if I'm even talking about the right vehicle.

In the end, though, I can mostly forgive Jaguar for these marketing mishaps. They are currently putting out only three vehicles, and these three vehicles are truly among the best in each of their respective classes. I can't quite say the same for our next guest, unfortunately.

A comedy of grammars

Lincoln doesn't produce anything right now that competes with any of the big players in the entry-level luxury arena. They have, however, produced some visually striking vehicles over the last two years, and on this basis alone have entered my "cars I vaguely desire" list.

One of said vehicles resembles, for all intents and purposes, a sperm whale. It is called the "MKT" (I had to look that one up, FYI).

Ahab would be covetous. His would be in white.

Ahab would be covetous. His would be in white.

Its basic shape is that of a distended sea cucumber (rendered in mammoth proportions), flanked by a grille looking for all the world like a gaping maw filled with baleen plates and a rear that looks like ... well ... this:

Here we go, Ahab.

Here we go, Ahab.

Yet there's something about the sheer ballsiness of the MKT that I just can't help but admire. I'm not sure if I'm revolted by it, or if I'm attracted to it, but I can't really take my eyes off the thing.

The MKT's little crossover-brother is the MKX, which is built on the same platform as its sedan alter-ego, the MKZ (the Ford CD3 platform). The MKZ's slightly larger sedan-brother is the MKS, which I'm just now realizing I've been calling the MKZ for the last year or so. Just to make things even more awkward, the platform underlying the MKS isn't the CD3: it's the D3. Not sure what was lost in the slipping of the "C," but it certainly wasn't size.

Lincoln is finally building cars that are interesting, if not quite enviable. They're selling many, many more of them than they were back in 2008, too. They just brought a new design chief on board, and he's just the right person to make the brand competitive with rivals both domestic (Cadillac, even Buick) and foreign (das Germans).

The problem is, it's very nearly impossible to remember what the heck these things are called. Here are three reasons:

  1. The whole "MK" business is directly descended from Lincoln's long practice of labeling things "Mark ___." I can get on board with that. It reminds me of WWII-era fighters. But now that they are "MK_," I don't really know if I'm supposed to be saying "Mark" or "MK" when I refer to them. I have to watch video reviews to find out, and even they don't always say the same thing.
  2. If you're going to have this diverse of a lineup (small sedan, large sedan, small crossover, large crossover, not to mention the Navigator and the on-its-last-leg Town Car), you absolutely have to come up with a way of making them distinct. The MKS looks like a bloated MKZ, but I can't even really remember why. It's just bigger and ... mushier. Not in a bad way---actually in something of a good way---but in an indistinct way. Naming them essentially the same thing just puts this problem in sharper relief.
  3. The Z is smaller than the S, and the T is larger than the X. I don't know what that's supposed to indicate.

The single most frustrating thing Lincoln's done in recent years---this is minor, sure, but it's frustrating to me at least---is to dump the one truly wonderful name it's resurrected in recent memory, the "Zephyr," in favor of "MKZ." "Zephyr" had historical significance for the brand, and was evocative, romantic even. "MKZ," on the other hand, was the first of the modern "MK" cars, and heralded the trend that's resulted in the mess I've been writing about.

Anyway, that's about enough about Lincoln. I still don't know why I like the MKT, but I have a feeling I wouldn't want to find out.

Or was it the MKX?

Lastly, a thought on the exotics

I'll end by comparing two cars that are so viscerally appealing that it almost pains me to look at them: the Lamborghini Aventador and the McLaren MP4-12C. I'll wait while you catch your breath, don't worry.

"Aventador" is the name of a famous fighting bull.

"Aventador" is the name of a famous fighting bull.

"MP4-12C" is derived from, well, see below.

"MP4-12C" is derived from, well, see below.

Here we have two cars representing the peak of modern automobile design, running in the same vaunted circles as the Ferrari 458 Italia and the Bugatti Veyron. Everyone who hears "Aventador" a few times will never forget it: the bull-fighting connection, the sweeping, exotic way it sounds when you say it out loud, the down-sweeping "A" jammed against the up-sweeping "V"---it's sensual, memorable, icon-worthy.

"MP4-12C," however, took me forever to memorize. The name is derived from about a thousand different sources. "MP4" is McLaren's internal name for the F1 chassis it's been building for thirty years. The "12" is apparently indicative of McLaren's internal "performance index," which it uses to rate vehicles on a scale of 1 to something. Probably not 10, but something. The "C" is short for carbon, or more precisely carbon fiber, a material used liberally in the construction of the car.

Two things make this even more ridiculous:

  1. McLaren's championship-winning, late-'90s Forumula One racer was called the MP4/12. So for 15 years or so, car geeks around the world were quite familiar with "MP4" and "12" being used by McLaren to talk about a vehicle utterly unrelated to the sports car that swapped the backslash for a dash and added a "C" to the end.
  2. In England, where the car is produced, people pronounce the "dash" in the middle. So whenever someone (take, for example, Jeremy Clarkson) wants to talk about the car, they have to pronounce six syllables, and not even syllables that constitute a word. They constitute a string of acronyms.

I've always liked my cars named, and named proudly. When I tell people I drive a Charger, they immediately know what kind of car I'm talking about even if they know nothing about cars. When I say I've been passionately pining for a Viper for most of my life, they can imagine why. When I say "Gremlin," everyone immediately reacts (usually with disgust, but often with fond memories of awkward little cars from a bygone era).

The first car that was truly mine was a brand-new, bareboned, black Pontiac Sunfire. It might not've been particularly sunny or pyrotechnical, but come on: Sunfire. That's just a wonderful name, and one that I'm glad for having said out loud.

Cars, whether we like to admit it or not, are never blank slates. They aren't just palettes on which we paint our personalities. They are developed over years by teams of people who love engineering and design, and they arise in response to our basic need to transport ourselves, to hurtle our bodies through the air so that we may get where we're going quickly, safely, and---some might argue---even thrillingly.

I say "bring the balls back."

Objects of My Affection: Samsung Series 9 Notebook

Added on by Patrick Greene.

The Duralumin plays some wonderfully subtle tricks with ambient light.

The Duralumin plays some wonderfully subtle tricks with ambient light.

The first thing you need to know about the Series 9 Notebook by Samsung is that it's just achingly, exquisitely beautiful. The second thing you need to know is that it's achingly (perhaps not exquisitely) expensive. The important thing to keep in mind is that this is a thoroughly premium product, and that you really do get what you pay for. The Series 9 backsup its looks with equally impressive internals, including a very fast Sandy Bridge Intel Core i5 processor, 4GB of RAM, and a 128GB SSD.

Why I like it:

1. It's beautiful

There are very, very few hardware manufacturers in the world that can challenge the eternal elephant in the design-review room, Apple. Two companies that can occasionally be thought of as being in the same league (emphasis on "occasionally") are Samsung (Korean) and Sony (Japanese). They might not be as innovative as the wizards from Cupertino, but they can at least keep pace in terms of build quality, ergonomics, and genuine, aesthetic value.

Sure beats printing things out to play through them.

Sure beats printing things out to play through them.

Sometimes, of course, this can lead to some problems.

Still, there are moments when each of the Big Ss strike design gold (check out the Sony Vaio Z Series). The Series 9 represents such a moment: it is aesthetically original, resembling its obvious arch-nemesis only in its footprint (and, to a degree, its touchpad). The designers have spoken at length about drawing inspiration from organic forms (a leaf, water, etc.), and I sincerely believe them. This isn't a design that comes about by iterating something for a test group. This is a design that came directly from some sort of artistic impulse, from a desire to create something beautiful.

The look works because it marries the masculine (brushed, black Duralumin case, sharp edges) and the feminine (that beautiful "light-catcher" that curves around the periphery, a sense of fundamental lightness and elegance) without appearing to try very hard.

It also achieves the same impossibly-thin look as the Air, but does so through different design cues. Part of why the Air shocked everyone when it debuted back  in 2008 was that, from certain angles, it basically looked as thick as a supermarket tabloid. This was because a) it was as thick as a supermarket tabloid, and b) because Apple engineers pushed anything remotely bulky in the chassis all the way to the hinges, tapering the rest of the case to an impossibly thin crease. This was a masterful application of trompe l'oeil, emphasizing just how portable this next-generation laptop was (and is). The Series 9 underscores its own svelte lines not so much by tapering, but instead by way of a delicate aluminum band elegantly tracing its profile.

Both laptops have eliminated optical drives from their respective equations. I use an Asus external disc drive for my Series 9, but when I say "use" I really mean "purchased, utilized to install Finale, and then held onto as a nice little sculptural piece for my desk."

Samsung further slims the Series 9 by way of concealed ports. Each side has a flap-down compartment containing three connection points (left: network, HDMI, high-speed USB; right: micro SD, headphone/microphone (combined), USB).

That's actually the ethernet port on the left: you connect the network cable by way of an included dongle.

That's actually the ethernet port on the left: you connect the network cable by way of an included dongle.

The ports feel (and, indeed, are) very sturdy, opening and closing with a solid (albeit small) "thunk."

2. It's functionally well-suited to writing music

The primary purpose of any computer I own is to help me compose music more effectively. Three key aspects of the Series 9's design have proven invaluable in this respect: the screen, the keyboard, and the trackpad.

First, the screen. Aside from the fact that it has absurdly bright, crisp colors and a striking contrast ratio (this is Samsung, after all, and they're known for their screen technology perhaps above all else), it's matte. This, more than just about anything, was what steered me towards the Series 9 and away from the glossy-screened Air. It means I can routinely enjoy moments like this:


The fact that the whole thing is just so darn portable makes it that much easier to tote it around with me wherever I go, whipping it out if inspiration strikes.

Backlighting and chiclet-style keys make me happy.

Backlighting and chiclet-style keys make me happy.

The keyboard also has some distinct advantages over the competition. Among other things, it's backlit. Not only that, but the backlight is manually adjustable (and very responsive to ambient light conditions when left to its own devices). The chiclet-style keys are a joy to navigate, with softly textured faces and precise weighting.

The trackpad might not be quite up to Apple standards, but it's easily the best I've ever seen on a non-Mac computer. It has a soft, rubberized texture, and features fluid multitouch capabilities that I've never experienced on a PC before. The thumb-down-while-navigating-using-another-finger method works like a charm. Dragging articulations, entering notes, and even simple graphic design is just a pleasure. I used to wonder how it was possible that my friend (and Mac-geek) Andrew Paul Jackson actually preferred entering notes and other score items via trackpad, and had no desire to buy a mouse for his MacBook. Using this buttonless, multitouch, accurate trackpad has been quite an enlightening experience for me, to say the least.

3. It is among the most well-rounded devices (of any kind) I've owned.

In summing up, I can't think of a better compliment to give Samsung than the fact that I, as a relatively tech-savvy, aesthetically judgmental, cash-strapped consumer not only bought this computer, but that months of using it haven't changed something I realized the moment I first turned it on: I wouldn't change anything about it. I still get that little thrill when I flip the lid open and it wakes up from sleeping in 3 seconds, the keyboard backlight surging to life, the Duralumin gleaming darkly like a panther.

I love how, after hours and hours of intense usage (running Finale, Word, Chrome, Zune, even SketchUp), I can hover over the battery icon and see that I've still got 60% remaining. I love how "60% remaining" means that I've still got a few hours before I start looking for a wall port.

I love how I can tote the system around in an office-use-only envelope and no one has any idea I'm carrying a fully fledged, desktop-replacement-worthy system.

I love how I can look at the Series 9 every day and feel like I made the right choice, even if the right choice was an expensive one in this case.

It was worth it.

ADDENDUM: Check out this ridiculous line of crystal-studded Series 9 notebooks announced at Samsung's IFA press conference last week.