Hard to find these days, the old-fashioned post-order catalogue. 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 catalogue of all catalogues, next to the one from IKEA, is issued by Manufactum – in their catalogue, 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 feature a timeless elegance, are quality build and they have the potential to serve his owner over many, many years until both reach a well-deserved retirement. These products are not affected by short-lived hype and fashion – they are true classics, and you can still buy them, brand new!

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 catalogue, 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 accept that not only those catalogue 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 there 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 than before, where many products were only accessible to few.

As usual, the real problem lies in human greed, and in the fact that they can use their skills to only make 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 that end-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 into one direction, namely straight into the pockets of those lucky few, who exactly live as the ‘bad products’ they produce: short-lived, banal and soon to be obsolete.

What remains is the designer’s conscience, since they live off the fact that the wheel of renewal needs to keep turning for business and products. If they stop turning products out, the stop designing…

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

Course they can, and they must! I would stick to another quote from the Manufactum catalogue: “the enemy of the good is the better!”  – and every product can always be done better!

Leave a Reply