Hard to find these days, the old-fashioned post-order catalog. Mostly you’ll find copies of this almost distinct species on kitchen tables, in crowded newspaper baskets, and for sure it’s to be found at the restroom, true?

You can browse for hours and sniff up all those beautiful products featured on glossy pages…


Here in Germany the catalog of all catalogs, next the one from IKEA, is issued by Manufactum – in their catalog you’ll find all those things you’ve been looking for all those years on flea markets (yes, and on ebay these days…), or hoped to inherit from a forgotten auntie. All products featured posses a timeless elegance, are quality build and they have the potential to serve his owner over many, many year, until both reach a well deserved retirement or a more drastic finale. These products are not affected by short lived hype and fashion – they are true classics, and you can still buy them, brand new!

The reason why the catalog usually is tucked away in a rest room is for the design of those classics: to most consumers they look just too dated – and the prices are quite high…

When I was flipping through a Manufactum lately, it made me think though. It triggered the designer in me: is it really true, that all products made today, as the editor implied, are actually not better than those featured in this ‘miss manners-guide’ for product design?

In the Manufactum catalog it says, that “today, at the latest, the enemy of the good is not the better, but the worse, the cheap, the banal. There hardly is any quality product around, which is not endangered by sickeningly inferior, way cheaper competitors and copy cats. How many of what can be bought today will later turn into a good, cherished and beloved old piece?”

Good question. As a designer one has to except that not only those catalog owners address this issue to you: How does it feel, if you are not making things better, but cheaper and fancy? Has design become the tool to continuously create short lived consumer goods, instead of long lasting products? How does it feel to create landfill? Well…

It’s true that many products are not intrinsically better than their predecessors, but rather reinterpret the style of the product. As long as those products are not worse in their quality, it should be possible to create these variations on a theme and with that cater for the individual taste of consumers: the fact that their is no ‘taste-doctrine’ is an achievement over those days, when there was no space for individualism and variety. Way better.

If you combine this effort with the opportunity to ensure that the product can be produced in a simpler and cheaper way, it then can also be bought by people, who so far could not afford it. In this way good design-work supports the democratization of our society, which essentially is also way better.

As usual, the real problem lies in the greed of humans, and that they can use their skills to make only themselves ‘better’ (in financial terms): greed makes product cheap instead of affordable, it turns products into fast moving goods and from long-lasting into short-lived consumables ending up as landfill. That’s why all, being designer or consumer, client or employee, should follow their conscience and refrain from greed – it only leads in one direction, straight into the pockets of those lucky few, who exactly live as those ‘bad products’ they produce: short lived, banal and obsolete.

What remains is the designers conscience, since they live of the fact that the wheel of renewal needs to keep turning for business and products to not end up in a final catalog for eternity – that would be it then…

Can designers still go to work with confidence and in good spirit?

To answer that I stick to the quote in the Manufactum catalog: “the enemy of the good is the better!”  – and it can always be done better!

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