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Curves Ahead


Curves are cool. Right angles are square.

Look, and you'll see a world going round. Automobiles, appliances, electronics, furniture and housewares with undulating lines and soft shapes have been replacing the sharp-cornered designs of recent years.

Shoe box-shaped only a decade ago, cars have become roly-poly jelly beans (Toyota Previa) and muscle-bulging beasts (Dodge Viper). Boom boxes, once as solidly rectangular as a brick, look like knackwurst. Remote controls with all the grace of a 3-by-5 card have been transformed into palm-sized ovoids. And overstuffed couches--slipcovered in antique fruit-print dish towels--are far more fashionable than sleek, black leather sofas.

This new generation of curvy products is popular with consumers, who find the look sophisticated yet comforting, designers say. A soft edge is more humanistic than a hard one. "People want friendlier products," explains Martin Smith, chairman of product and industrial design at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena.

But what really drives the curves is economics. Curvilinear shapes look new, and new shapes sell old products. Computer-aided design makes sinuous shapes easy to conceive and affords a more intricate end product. And because these curvy shapes require complicated tooling, manufacturers have fewer problems with cheap imitations flooding the market, says Herbert Tyrnauer, chairman of design department at Cal State Long Beach.

Although designers' infatuation with curves has been cresting for several years, it shows no signs of slacking off.

"Most product design periods run four to five years," says Tim Brown, director of the San Francisco branch of IDEO, an international product and industrial design firm. "Whenever it is just a design trend, it will reach a high point and fade away. If there is a sound reason for the trend, it can last longer."

Several products with soft edges have already found their way into product Valhalla, the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The Photura camera from Canon, a 1989 entry, has been chosen for the museum's permanent collection. So has a computer pointing device, or mouse, designed last year by Steven Kaneko for Microsoft. While most pointers are shaped like cigarette packs, the Microsoft mouse is rodent-like.

Even in the design schools, where students' imaginations are unfettered by such pesky details as budgets, hypothetical products are getting the treatment.

Darrek Rosen, a student at the Art Center, recently conceived a round camera with the heaviest parts under the lens, in the area grasped by the hand. His easy-to-hold design reduces the chances of a fuzzy picture or an accidental drop and makes a smooth switch from vertical to horizontal.

Experts cite another camera, the 1985-issue T90 instamatic by Canon, and the Mazda Miata, out in 1989, as the forerunners of the change of form. Where other cameras and cars were sharply square, these were sensuously bulbous.

"Japan is where it all got started," Brown says. "It started off in automotive design, and was clearly obvious in Japanese consumer electronic products."

In the past, products were shaped by their internal mechanics.

"In the '40s and '50s, most products were mechanical. In the '60s and '70s, they were electrical and mechanical. The '80s and '90s saw things become digital. . . . The mechanical nature no longer dictates the shape," Smith says.

The digital electronics that run answering machines, coffee makers and portable telephones also aid the manufacturing process. Because product parts no longer have to fit a universal standard, companies can produce novelty designs in small quantities without going broke.

The low start-up costs and quick turnaround of computer-aided design and computer-aided manufacturing open the door for bright colors and unusual sizes, shapes and hybrid combinations. A telephone, for example, could take the form of a hot-pink plastic high-heel pump or a curvaceous compact desktop fax/answering machine/telephone.

Where digital technology liberated designers, CAD/CAM freed manufacturers. They can now indulge in making secondary products to advertise their primary wares.

Go Video, a Scottsdale, Ariz., electronics firm, recently introduced a dual-deck VCR system--a model that could copy videotapes. But the accompanying remote control was too complicated.

"We needed something simple," says Ed Brachocki, vice president of marketing for the company, "something that would work with our VCR, have a broad application and would appeal to the mass market."

Translation: An inexpensive remote for the channel surfer--one with an on-off control, volume regulator and channel changer--that would work with the Go system and others. This product would put the name of the new company in many hands.

The company contacted Doug Patton, an Irvine-based industrial/product/software designer who had created a pen-shaped remote for Mitsubishi. He considered more than 50 designs, looking at every possible shape.

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