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Posts tagged apple
I’m a girl who is in love with her books, all her books: super-sized art books, life-changing novels, and tattered, secondhand paperbacks from college. I live with them in piles, on shelves, and lying randomly throughout my home. Then last year, to save trees, I started reading the newspaper on a tablet, and then, because it was easier than running to the library, I started reading newly-released books on a tablet, and then, when I was packing for a summer getaway and realized that I was, suddenly, freed from lugging a separate tote bag with magazines and paperbacks, I had a revelation. Who really needs books?
Now I’ve arrived at a more moderate position. Last night I downloaded a new novel onto my tablet, settled into my couch, and was poised to dive in when I realized that this book looked exactly like every the other book I’ve ever read on my tablet. I’m ready to surrender the pleasures of a physical book for the convenience of a tablet: an evocative dust jacket, the satisfaction of moving through a stack of pages, and the comforting bulk of the thing in you lap. But I’m frustrated with the reading software my library uses, that reduces a book to a stream of text without graphic hierarchy. This makes it possible to download an entire book in less than a minute, which is important for accessibility. But it renders all books in an identical font and format, so that War and Peace looks exactly like Huckleberry Finn looks exactly like Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? The software offers ways for a reader to adjust font size, screen brightness, and page orientation, but none to adjust page width and line spacing. The software simply floods the screen with text, and wading through it requires a special tenacity. The New Yorker and McSweeney’s have luscious, graphics-heavy apps that capture the feeling of physical issues of those magazine, but they require downloading files that are a hundred times the size of a book on my tablet. This is one solution. But there has got to be a middle ground, a way to set font, kerning and paragraphs within an easily downloadable text file, so that each e-book is something special.
For a very long time, what inspired envy more than anything else were ladies I saw on the subway carrying authentic Hermes Birkin bags. Now, what inspires envy more than anything else are kids I see on the subway sporting Dr. Dre Beats “Studio” headphones. They’ve been designed by the rapper/producer to deliver recorded music in all its richness while reducing outside noise. And they’ve been designed to call attention to themselves. They’re huge — each earpad is fist-sized, and hides a pair of AAA batteries — and they’re awesome. They come in all different colors but my favorite are the red ones, which are an impossible-to-avoid shade right between fire engine and Ferrari. It’s a joyous, electric color.
Unlike a lot of fancy headphones, the “Studio” headphones are designed so that the headband, the earpads, and the connection between them all feel substantial. These are headphones for a serious audiophile, that can cost more than an MP3 player, and that would look right on a DJ or a recording studio technician. So it’s funny seeing them plugged into a tiny player or phone. I remember the first generation of Walkmen, when the devices were showy and the headphones were small. Since the release of the iPod and its little white earbuds, the listening device has became a discrete, precious object and the headphones have just about disappeared. The Beats headphones turn that around, drawing attention away from the music player to the act of listening, and to the listener himself. They turn headphones into fashion.
What puzzled me most about Steve Jobs was the personal uniform he adopted in mid-life: black mock turtleneck, faded Levi’s, and white running shoes. How could someone so savvy about product design feel comfortable in such sad, suburban duds? In an interview with a biographer that was released after his death, Jobs revealed that those sweaters, which I had assumed were from Land’s End, LLBean or some such fuddy-duddy purveyor, were custom-made for him by Japanese designer Issey Miyake.
After visiting a Sony factory in the 80’s and seeing the black uniforms Miyake had designed for the workers there, Jobs commissioned Miyake to design a nylon jacket with zip-out sleeves for Apple employees. Miyake sent Jobs several prototypes, but by then the whole notion of a uniform had been rejected by Apple leadership. But Jobs went ahead and implemented his own personal uniform, and asked Miyake to whip up scores of these simple, anonymous-looking sweaters. Apparently he had over 60 of them when he died. Why didn’t he commission a sweater that was amazing-looking and better-fitted, or ask Miyake to design his jeans and sneakers too? It’s puzzling and also humanizing. Hitherto the only really personal things I knew about Jobs (gleaned from this breezy, trashy, out-of-date biography) was that he had once dated Joan Baez, and that his favorite meal was a bowl of shredded carrots. The story about the uniforms reminds us that all of Jobs’ ideas were not great ideas, and that he wasn’t consumed by good taste.
Is there anything left to say about Apple chairman Steve Jobs, who passed away on Wednesday? He was just 56 years old and he died from pancreatic cancer, a fast, cruel way to die. The commentary, both in newspapers and on twitter, praises him for “changing” the way we communicate, watch movies, listen to music, make presentations, and, basically, live. And it credits him as a “genius,” breaking boundaries in computer technology. The truth is that Steve Wozniak designed the first Apple computers, and that Jonathan Ive designed the roster of current, iconic Apple products: the iMac, the iPod, the iPhone and the iPad.
If Jobs had a genius, it was for taste-making. He wasn’t a scientist, he was an aesthete, an aesthete with an astounding gift for marketing. Just the day before he died Apple unveiled the latest iteration of the iPhone, the 4S, that resembled the earlier model but was enhanced with voice-detection. Both geeks and and laymen were disappointed, because they didn’t just want a phone that was innovative, they wanted a phone that also looked innovative. (Rumors predicted that the 4S would be all-glass, or tear-shaped.) Jobs had set them up. During his tenure at Apple he made product design important in a way that it has not been important since the Bauhaus, when looking modern was very nearly the same as being modern. Jobs brought high design into our everyday lives.
I just updated my internet setup and replaced my graphite-colored Apple Base Station, vintage 1999, with a faster, smaller wireless router. But I like my old device too much to get rid of it. Unlike my new router, which disappears into the sea of cords and plugs around it, the Base Station looks like an instrument that does something important. And it doesn’t have the hyper-modern gloss that so many Apple products have. Its shape evokes simultaneously mountain, UFO and silicone breast implant.
The Base Station’s design feels naive in relation to the next generation of Mac routers, which were designed to look like plastic dinner plates, and the current routers, which are designed to look like phone rechargers. My Base Station has a coat of glitter beneath its cool acrylic surface. And when it’s plugged in, and its three green lights are blinking at staggered frequencies, you can sense information streaming back and forth in the air. Perhaps it’s such an appealing object because it tries to illustrate exactly what it does.
A crucial element of good product design is not letting the design get in the way. Look at Karim Rashid’s designs — they’re stunning formally, but so idiosyncratic and expressive, so “Karim,” that it’s unlikely they’d find a comfortable place in your home. The best product design is egoless, and the best-designed products, however precious, fall right into your life.
That’s one remarkable aspect of the work of Dieter Rams, the legendary product designer for Braun. (His SK4 record player is shown above.) I have a calculator, coffee pot and coffee grinder that are all Rams’ designs. And while they’re great-looking that doesn’t interfere with how I use them. They give me pleasure but they aren’t anything particularly special — I stuff them in the mess of my desk drawer and kitchen cabinets along with everything else. In a review of the new monograph about Rams’ work, “As Little Design as Possible,” I make the obvious comparison between Rams’ work at Braun and Jonathan Ive’s work at Apple. The devices that Ives has created for Apple (the colored iMacs, the iPod, the iPhone) are seductive, innovative things that, like Rams’, somehow, seem unfussy and instantly familiar. For product designers, it’s an awfully difficult trick.
Last week I passed an electronics recycling event outside the Tekserve store on West 23rd Street. It filled me with sadness seeing hundreds of hard drives, monitors and speakers, formerly state-of-the-art stuff, being abandoned. Over time they’d lost their allure.
Then I saw a gentleman carrying over a banged-up Bondi blue iMac G3 and my heart lept. This is a pretty, joyous machine. Its translucent case, look-at-me color, and softly swollen shape still seem fresh. Compared with the sleek, chic, anti-material aesthetic of current Apple products, it’s appealingly naive.