First Click: Aging (dis)gracefully

September 21st, 2016

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Natural materials like wood, leather, and the face of George Clooney age gracefully. They weather, whereas artificial materials like plastic tend to deteriorate. Plastic is an interesting word in the English language. Strictly speaking, it describes a synthetic material. Informally, it’s something cheap, the opposite of natural. Plastic is the type of surgery favored by empty-headed Los Angelians overly concerned with external beauty. Plastic is the stuff Galaxy phones were made from before Samsung found its sense of taste in glass and aluminum.

aged to perfection Remy Labesque

Remy Labesque, a former top industrial designer at the lauded house of Frog, wrote a lovely defense of well-worn gadgets in 2011. In it, he likened an aluminum iPhone to an "heirloom pocket watch," after the phone had been polished to a fine patina by a ring of keys stored in a shared pocket. An old plastic Canon point-and-shoot with its tattered metallic-finish looked like "garbage," by comparison. Here’s an excerpt of his plea to fellow designers:

"Aging with dignity is a criteria designers should recognize in their efforts. I’m thinking of a future when products are designed not for the brief moment when they are new, but for when they have been aged to perfection."

At first blush, the jet black iPhone 7 seems to be designed for the very briefest of moments. Initial reviews noted how easily that particular flavor of iPhone scratched. After two days of "careful use," wrote Daring Fireball's John Gruber, his jet black model showed more wear than his space gray 6S did after nearly a year. My colleague Vlad Savov posted photos of our two-week-old jet black review unit yesterday that also showed several abrasions. Twitter was outraged, as it’s wont to do.

Several years ago I complained to the acclaimed industrial designer Philippe Starck that the sharp edges of his portable hard disk design kept scratching the surface of my new laptop. His response was swift and unequivocal. "I don’t give a shit about scratches!" he exclaimed with much Frenchness. He went on to lecture me on the difference between design and ornamentation; about finding beauty in the goodness of a product that fulfills its purpose. A lesson I still reflect upon today.

For example, the wood on the stairs in my newly renovated house is starting to divot and wear under heavy use. At first — for the briefest of moments — I was annoyed as I imagined my daughter’s "princess heels" and my son’s football cleats plodding up the steps in violation of our strict no-shoes-in-the-house policy. Then I remembered Starck’s lesson. The subtle scarring I see is created by the process that transforms a house into a home; imperfections forged by my children, themselves transforming into adults. Those stairs, disfigured as they are, fulfill their purpose of supporting my family on their daily journey through this world. Now when I look at the stairs I see a beautiful story.

So, will the jet black iPhone 7 age to perfection according to Labesqueian law? Hell, I don’t know — it might considering the raw aluminum chassis hidden beneath that thin black oxide layer. The more important question, though, is how well will the phone serve its purpose, however you define that. For me, a smartphone is a tool for staying connected with those I care about. And when that’s a product’s reason for existing, who gives a shit about scratches?

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