I know the question of the most beautiful phone ever made is a deeply personal one. The starkly minimalist iPhone 4 would be a good shout for many. Or the luxurious pillowy plastic of the Nokia N9. But if you ask me, the distinction goes to various members of a unique and very Japanese line of phones that’s lasted well over a decade.
The Infobar line is the work of Naoto Fukasawa, one of the most famous and influential industrial designers in Japan; he’s also behind the ±0 brand and several iconic Muji products like the wall-mounted CD player. Fukasawa conceived the first phone in the line, pictured above, as an intentional breakaway from the flip phones you probably associate with Japan in the 2000s.
“I designed this mobile phone in 2000, the year in which the market for mobile phones expanded dramatically towards a situation where there would be one phone per person,” Fukasawa says in Phaidon’s excellent monograph on his work. “Manufacturers, communications companies and consumers alike were predicting that, after an over-production of certain design styles that had lasted a number of years, the new standard for mobile phones would be the clamshell — and that there was no scope for doubt.”
As a reaction against this homogeniety, Fukasawa created a candybar-style phone unlike any other. The Infobar featured an extraordinary angular design where the multicolored buttons ran edge-to-edge and interlocked like a jigsaw puzzle. And although it was available in a range of colorways, the red, white, and blue "Nishikigoi" scheme (named after a type of Japanese carp) you see here became an instant classic and one closely associated with the brand from then on out.
The product’s design and naming speaks to the way that Japanese featurephones of the time pioneered much of the functionality of what we now know as smartphones. "Since, down the road, the phone function would become just one of the functions of this portable information device, and email, internet access, music downloads, and digital moving images would be added, it was decided that a suitable name would be Infobar — a bar for information — rather than simply a ‘phone,’" Fukasawa says.
Although it didn’t do much to stop the explosive proliferation of flip phones throughout Japan in the 2000s, the first Infobar was nonetheless a big hit for carrier KDDI, which to this day is known for promoting design-forward products like Marc Newson’s Talby phone and Tokujin Yoshioka’s Fx0 Firefox handset. Three years after the first Infobar, KDDI and Fukasawa continued their collaboration with my personal favorite phone from the range.
The Infobar 2’s design is just astonishing. It extends the display right against the edge-to-edge keys of its processor, then smooths both halves out to sit flush with the phone’s gorgeous curved edges. Fukasawa describes the design as "shaped like a square candy that has melted in your mouth and has just started to take on a roundness." It’s comfortable in the hand and makes efficient use of space, but just as importantly it’s flat-out stunning to look at. It’s the first phone that really made me turn my head when I first came to Japan.
Unfortunately, I couldn’t track down a Nishikigoi model in time for this column. (It has to be Nishikigoi.) I’ll keep looking and follow up with some bonus pictures when I can, because it’s really worth it.
Despite some early resistance, even Japan had become swept up in the smartphone tornado by the time of the next Infobar release. As such, 2011’s Android-powered A01 was the staidest design yet, its front dominated by a 3.7-inch touchscreen. It still included three chunky edge-to-edge buttons along the bottom of the screen, but the effect was inevitably less distinctive than that of its predecessors. 2013’s HTC-built A02 excised even those buttons, although last year’s A03 marked a return to a certain degree of design flair.
There is one Infobar Android phone that fully maintains the line’s heritage, however: the wonderful C01 from 2012, which you see pictured in this column. It matches the classic physical ten-key layout to a 3.2-inch touchscreen, and the result is one of the most delightfully usable phones ever made.
Through a quirk of phonology that I won’t get into here, a ten-key phone keypad is a really great way to type Japanese, so to have that in a smartphone alongside a touchscreen that you can easily use one-handed is something special. If it weren’t for the CO1’s deprecated software skin that runs atop Android 2.3 and can no longer access the Play store, I would seriously consider using this as my main phone today. That’s quite an achievement for a four-year-old handset that I bought in great condition for about $30. There’s simply nothing like it.
In many ways the modern smartphone form factor is the successor to the candybar — a simple slab that puts what you need front and center. So, while the Infobar series has lost a little of its distinctiveness due to the necessity of accomodating a large black rectangle, the modern smartphone paradigm serves as vindication of Fukasawa’s initial motivation.
"While we can’t really predict what form the standard of this instrument will take in the future, I’m not the only one who has the feeling that this bar type will endure as one of those standards," Fukasawa said of the original Infobar in the Phaidon monograph. "Because, after all, it’s the kind of shape that feels comfortable to the touch."