A return to form

Camera design has for decades been dictated by the bag-friendly dimensions of the compact or the pseudo-professional look of the SLR, and digital has only served to reinforce these stereotypes. John Stones breathes a sigh of relief as a new wave of products hits the high street that major on form, not facilities

According to the Theory of Forms suggested by the Greek philosopher Plato, every object has its idealised and perfect form. It’s a notion much contemporary industrial design would support – objects such as toasters or kettles reach a plateau of development where further innovation seems unlikely or flippant. And so it seemed with cameras, until recently at least.

While in the middle of the 20th century cameras existed in a bewildering array of shapes and sizes, in the past decade or so they have largely polarised into either a ’serious’ single-lens-reflex format (first seen in 1949) in black plastic, or a ’fun’ compact ’point and shoot’ the size of a cigarette pack in a shiny finish. Even the advent of digital barely caused any ripples in the incredibly conservative product design philosophy that reigned supreme.

Last year this design stagnation was blown apart by Olympus’ E-P1 (Review, DW 9 July 2009). Half-way between an SLR and a compact, with an attractive retro-styled metal body, it showed the appeal that a more emotional design language could have – a lesson that car manufacturers had learned a decade earlier.

Understandably, it’s the minnows challenging the dominance of Canon and Nikon that have most availed themselves of design as a differentiator. For example, Pentax’s K-x entry level digital SLR is now available in a rainbow of colours as well as some striking limited editions. Fuji, meanwhile, has caused a minor sensation with its GF670 which has just gone on sale in the UK. Not only does it use – shock, horror – medium format film, but it is a folding camera with concertina bellows of the kind common in the early 20th century. Furthermore, it is fiddly – completely ignoring the consensus that all products should be simple and bombproof. (Japanese brand Horseman has taken a different route – its VCC Pro allows you simply to attach your DSLR off the end of a traditional sliding bellows contraption.)

And Lomographic Society International, the Austrian company that has fought an eccentric rearguard analogue campaign against digital photography, has just produced its most whacky product yet. Designed in-house, the Spinner 360 has a pull cord to spin the camera around and capture a 360-degree panoramic view.

It is relatively rare for external product designers to be brought in (or at least for their involvement to be acknowledged publicly). However, when, in the mid-1980s Canon’s design team collaborated with eccentric German product designer Luigi Colani, it resulted in the classic T-90. Its novel organic form and interface still informs the look of Canon’s SLRs a quarter of a century on.

André Lüthy, of Swiss design consultancy Estragon, believes camera design tends to be overcomplicated. ’Too many features and functions are a trap – less is more. The user only needs a fraction of what is possible,’ he says. The studio’s design study for flash manufacturer Metz adopts the form of a Vespa headlight, while it has also worked with niche manufacturer Alpa to create a new version of the 12 TC, creating a handle that could redefine the way people interact with the camera. ’We chose wood as a material because it has great tactile qualities (especially in very cold or hot environments) and has a pure and natural look,’ he explains.

Sony, of course, is the grand master of minimalism. It has just launched the intriguing NEX series of cameras and camcorders, with pared-down design and interchangeable lenses, and now Nikon, too, is hinting it’s about to launch a completely new format.

Not in a long time has camera design been so frenetic and open – September’s Photokina, the biennial trade fair in Cologne, is set to be a particularly interesting affair.

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