There is an odd aesthetic running rampant throughout the house. The telephone is hewn out of a jagged chunk of concrete. Sophisticated halogen technology illuminates wall sconces crafted of shattered windshield glass. On the floor stands a sculptural vacuum cleaner a la Henry Moore and the stereo system doesn't appear to have any buttons.
Industrial design today is buoyed between two sensibilities: raw "elementalism" of the '80s, when strange materials and even stranger applications of them were used, and the growing trend of simplification.
Simplification seems to be the discipline that imparts the look, feel and function of every household appliance, electronic device, automobile and the rest of the "stuff" that derives the inorganic world.
Consider, for instance, your basic iron, and what happened to its design in the last decade.
"Design became progressively more complex," says Peter Pang, 22, of Orange, an industrial design student at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. "An iron could have as many as 12 function settings on it, even though all it really needs is one for spray, steam and temperature control. People thought they were getting more for their money."
Pang says design in the '90s has returned to the "sophisticated yet simple" premise. "People don't want to have to learn to use an iron," he says.
In design studios and schools everywhere, the iron is still being improved upon.
One way for design firms to explore the future is to offer their resources to students like Pang who create prototypes, some of which are put into production.
With the aid of sophisticated computer graphics, students at Art Center construct clay, foam and wood models of sewing machines, boom boxes, radios, telephones, compact disc players, coffee tables and car wax buffers. Many of these designs bestow a Disney-dream, pie-in-the-sky sensibility, and that, says graduate Neville Page of El Toro, is as it should be.
"It's like going back to kindergarten," says Page. "It's sort of the Lego mentality. When you're a kid, you think you could build anything, and you imagine that it will work."
Page, who works at Studio X in San Francisco, a design consulting firm, says designers today try to co-opt their imaginations with two concerns: respect for the environment and "ergonomics," a concept that involves looking at the way in which people move--within an office or around the house--and designing the tools they use to benefit that movement.
"That involves intensive research," says Page, 25, who spent hours tooling around the streets of San Francisco in a wheelchair to understand how disabled people get around. He took that information back to his studio and designed a wheelchair of composite materials that is comfortable, modular and efficient. "The (wheel)chair's function had to dictate its form," says Page, adding that that dictum always applies to household appliances.
Fashion, as well as function, makes its mark on these creations. "For a while there was a pervasive 'MTV' sort of mentality about everything," Page says. "Everything seemed to filter down from that look--tons of disparate, vibrating images. It affected architecture and design."
Design in the home has been inspired by architects like Frank Gehry, long known for creatively exploiting unlikely materials--galvanized sheet metal, chain link and even cardboard--and artists like Scott Burton, who sculpted chairs of concrete and stone, says Page. These influences trickled down and affected the look of home appliances.
Pang, a transportation design student, says he sees a trend toward softer, more fluid lines, in contrast to the sharp, hardware store diversions of the 80s. He points to the high-end electronic designs of Bang & Olufsen as examples of today's simple sophistication.
"There aren't any buttons," he says. "The pieces are almost sculptural--they're not made to stand in an entertainment cabinet, but to sit on a coffee table."
Today's concept of "sophisticated" equipment, says Pang, is that is should be easy to use because it requires less knowledge of how it works.
Many industrial designs today reflect a concern for the environment, says Art Center graduate Darrin Caddes of Laguna Beach. "Household products have a major effect on the welfare and safety of both the public and the environment. We have to take design a lot more seriously."
While at Art Center, Caddes, 26, created a prototype of a toxic analysis unit, a home device that tests water, air and soil for pollutants. He calls it "Gaia," the Native American word for life energy and Mother Earth.
Chances are good that products like Gaia will soon appear on the market, says Caddes. After all, there was a time when aluminum cans were habitually tossed away, before the necessity of recycling prompted another designer to invest the can crusher.
"There is a shift toward a more ethical way of thinking about design aspects, particularly in the materials used," says Caddes. "Most materials (used) are biodegradable, and most people are becoming more aware of this."
Caddes calls himself a product of the "cornucopia generation"--a gluttonous time when the acquisition of "stuff" sometimes outweighed the need for it. It was the time when the more buttons you had on your telephone, the better off you were, even if your contact with the outside world remained virtually the same.
"We don't need any extensions for Q-Tips," Caddes quips. "New products should make a difference, they should make peoples' lives better in some way."
Pang says he asks three questions when he ponders a design project: What is the object's function? Who is using it? And therefore, what should it look like?
"The world doesn't need a new toaster," says Pang, "unless it's a better one."