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The Practical and Beautiful

July 22, 1999|CONNIE KOENENN

"In this world, which is running out of landfill space, do we really need another clothespin?" asks designer Katherine Bennett, chairwoman of the Los Angeles chapter of the Industrial Designers Society of America. "The answer seems to be 'yes' if it can be this beautiful."

Bennett recently returned from Chicago, where last week the society handed out awards for excellence at its annual conference. A notable theme, she says, was the influence of design in everyday household products.

"The important players all know how to use design as a strategic tool these days, even in mundane products," says Bennett, who was a judge in last year's competition. Industrial designers are responsible for designing all the products we use at home, work and play.

This year's gold medal-winning Ekco clothespin of molded plastic with a self-contained spring is not only a "very clever use of materials," Bennett says, but also offers improved performance by eliminating the pinch and twist of a classic wooden clothespin, and it doesn't pose the danger of rusting. It also represents a whole field of "fun new stuff" for ordinary household chores, says Bennett, who is on staff at Pasadena's Art Center College of Design.

She recalls one year, during the 1980s, when no awards were given in consumer products because the judges didn't think the submissions warranted them.

"We've come a long way from there," she says, noting the predominance of items with "pick-me-up appeal. Consumer products are a rich playing field for designers lately."

People are loving the translucent, frosted plastic look of the clothespins, which is being seen in a whole range of household products this year, Bennett notes. In that category, another gold medal winner was the Tropicool personal fan from Holmes Products, a leading fan supplier. The judges applauded the summery colors and the unexpected triangular form, in both desktop and clip-on models.

Another humble product winning a gold medal for its playful design was the Oxo Good Grips soap pump palm brush, designed to make dishwashing as effortless as possible. With a sealed lid dispensing a precise amount of soap, the process is reduced to a one-handed operation to save time, water, soap and aggravation.

"It is a good marriage of marketing and design," the judges noted.

Shape also plays a key role in Craftsman's gold medal-winning, low-profile detachable vacuum, designed by Emerson Tool Co. for Sears, Roebuck & Co. Judges applauded the reduced height, which gives an image of power and stability while also allowing the vacuum to be more easily emptied and pulled about.

"People expect quality, and now they want fun, too," Bennett says.

Now in its 20th year, the competition is considered a prestigious recognition of excellence. The winners were selected by 15 jurors who devoted three days to intense evaluation of 1,131 entries, which produced 164 winners in the gold, silver and bronze medal divisions. The 47 subcategories ranged from cars and computers to museum exhibits and packaging.

"As jurors, we were made to feel like shoppers by the selection process," says jury chairwoman Katherine J. McCoy. "We were all hit with consumer lust for one beautiful product after another."

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