Remember when all televisions and hi-fis had wood-effect cabinets and fibreboard backs, and you really longed for something that was sophisticated and black, such as you occasionally glimpsed in design and style magazines? Look where your stupid desires led you. Go to any domestic goods store now and the black casings stretch as far as the eye can see, endless aisles of funereal injection-moulding. Computers have to be in contrasting light tones, otherwise customers might kill themselves in despair. How do you make any kind of aesthetic decision in such a place?
You don’t. You ask the shop assistant to blindfold you and spin you round, finger outstretched. The TV it points to is the one you buy. That done, you continue to wait for the moment – surely not far off, you tell yourself – when televisions slough off their bulk and become flat screens on stalks such as you see in banks. When speakers disappear from view entirely. When all you need to supply music, films or whatever is the DVD drive of your computer, which you hope by that time will be considerably smaller than the distended midi-towers you have to buy now.
So – that is the design decision sidestepped. In the meantime, you can’t help noticing that the same shop with the endless black TVs and off-white computers also sells gas and electric cookers in 18 different rich colours. Cookers which combine authentic Fifties flip-up grills with brass knobs redolent of Victorian ranges. Ah, the paradoxes of modern life.
I went to a Currys superstore. I like Currys precisely because it is a shop that offers a surreal mixture of wannabe hi-tech, shameless retro, and astonishing ordinariness. Unlike © those chain stores that appeal mainly to men of the camcorder tendency, Currys also goes big on traditional white goods – fridges, washing machines, cookers, vacuums. Think: in a department store, the white stuff is usually in the basement with the kitchen utensils while the black stuff (and computers) is right at the top. Why? Because these departments are like single-sex schools. But Currys is co-ed.
And it’s mass-market, so no danger of tripping over a Bang and Olufsen Beosystem. Let me put my cards on the table. One of the reasons I like such shops is that I find things in them like the Glen Stranraer coal-effect two-bar electric fire. It could not be bettered for kitsch, whether artless or cynical I could not say. I should like to buy it under the name of Stephen Bayley and have it delivered to him when Terence Conran was round for tea. Amusing, no?
The best-looking thing in the store by a mile was the Dyson DC02 Clear vacuum cleaner – that’s the see-through, pull-along type. I think it’s the mannerist feel of Dyson’s products that appeals to me: you just can’t imagine the fastidious Dieter Rams at Braun producing anything so gamey, even if he had the technology. Note how Hoover now offers in response a vivid green upright with a clear plastic base, and Electrolux an ugly upright with a cyclone cassette and an oversized by-appointment-to-Her-Majesty crest. They just don’t get it, do they?
I got a little bit interested, however, in a Candy washing machine with a clear acrylic section in its casing, allowing you to see the workings inside. Then I realised this was merely a display dummy, and that the workings of a washing machine are deeply boring anyway. All the other washers were identical but for the rather appealing Zanussi Studio compact model, which could sit on a table and which, instead of the usual confusing dashboard, has just one huge dial and four big buttons.
The audio section was as ghastly as ever, since it consisted entirely of cheapo mini and midi systems, which have none of the glamour of separate components. The best of a very routine bunch was Sony’s Micro system, consisting of three small equal-sized silver-grey boxes: the one in the middle for the CD/tape/radio bit, the other two being the speakers. This was OK, but scarcely earth-shattering. No question about the worst in this section, however: there is a tendency for these systems to get highly sculpted and techno-looking, and of these the ugliest was a Panasonic CD-based system that goes for youth imagery. Its main console tries to pretend it’s part of some shoot-’em-up computer game, while the speakers are moulded with a random lumpy pattern like the underside of some trainers. Technics, I noted, offers a retro brass-and-teak-look system for those of you longing to revisit the early Seventies.
Just to return to tellies for a moment: Bush, always cheap’n’cheerful, at least offers four colours other than black (red, green, silver, yellow) in its basic 14-inch range. The rather drab yellow, so the man in the shop informed me, was popular because it happened to go with Swan’s Mellow Yellow range of kitchen gadgets – toaster, kettle, coffee-maker and so on. I realised I had stepped into a different world, the world of colour-co-ordinated interiors. Why, in God’s name, buy a telly to match your toaster?
As for the shelves of kettles, they only confirmed the steady downward progress of Russell Hobbs since its unbeatable, graceful K2 of long ago. It’s current traditional models are clumsy, crude affairs. I generally dislike plastic jug kettles, but the best thing to be found in this sorry display was an unexpectedly good example of the genre: Swan’s Acqua Filter kettle. I don’t know if its gimmick – to filter the water as you fill it up – works or not, but it looks friendly and dolphin-like and just a shade unusual.
It worries me that toasters are getting bigger and bigger. They used to be neat little things, now they’re almost the size of microwaves. This is for two reasons: we are toasting bigger, thicker things, and their now universal cool wall casing is bulky. Clearly it’s time for a technological re-think, but at least there’s a reason for their present hideousness. With irons, however, I can’t see any reason at all. Why have irons become so enormous? Most of them are now styled to look like a Ford Galaxy. But there was one redeeming product, tucked away on a bottom shelf: Kenwood’s Discovery steam travel iron. Small (about as small as the original irons you heated over the fire) with a clever fold-away handle containing the water reservoir. It felt good. Someone had thought about it. Would this by any chance be a Ken Grange/Pentagram design?
Sorry, no good cookers – interesting, however, that the freestanding cooker has survived the onslaught of the fitted kitchen with its separate oven and hob components. This is probably due to the Aga effect, which may also explain the big range of colours, brasswork, and so on, available on otherwise utterly standard products. Fridges? Well – when did you last see an exciting fridge? Fridges should just keep things cold and mind their own business. Hotpoint offers red, blue, green and black ones (you could get a black one to match your telly, there’s a thought) but inside they’re just, well, fridges. Servis tries to recreate a curvy American Fifties look, but gets it wrong – it merely looks tacky.
PCs are getting very over-styled – look at Packard Bell’s paunchy Pulsar range, which could do with a spell at a health farm – but in this sector all the design effort is now going into palmtops. The Psion Series 5 continues the origami-like packaging miracle of its hugely successful Series 3, even managing something like a real keyboard within its slender casing.
Always near the computers in these stores are the phones, and conventional phones too seem to be getting uglier and bulkier, as design attention switches to the portable market. I still haven’t found a portable I like much, though Nokia’s range isn’t bad. But I do know what the worst-ever trad phone is, at least in Curry’s. It’s called the Astral Warwick and it comes in a queasy highly-polished woodgrain-effect plastic. Its fake dial does not rotate, but contains push-buttons. Unlike the wondrous Glen Stranraer coal-effect electric fire, the Warwick is incapable of being used ironically. It is just vile.
Hey, but listen. I found a camcorder I like. I’ve never possessed or used a camcorder, but now the technology is changing and the latest digital ones look just like the beautifully compact Super-Eight film cameras I coveted as a boy, and which hip directors are rediscovering. The one I liked was in silver and has a flip-out LCD screen to see the picture on as you shoot. You then download the images to your PC, thus avoiding those horrible VHS machines and their clunky tape cassettes. This being Currys, I was astonished at the price: 1600. Ah well – can’t think what I’d use it for, anyway.
1 Swan Acqua Filter A23PI jug kettle, 29.99. Can Russell Hobbs regain the design initiative from its old rival?
2 Zanussi Studio FC1100 compact washing machine, 439.99. Small and simple, this is almost jolly for a white box.
3 Sony PMC-D305L micro CD hi-fi, 199.99. This contrives to be self-effacing, which is a rare virtue in this sector.
4 Psion Series 5 palmtop computer, 499.99. Serious, sleek and clever styling is on offer here.
5 JVC digital camcorder, 1599.99. New compact upright styling for the new breed of video camera.
6 Kenwood Discovery ST50 travel steam iron, 16.99. This is the way all irons should be: sized and shaped to the human hand.
7 Dyson DC02 Clear dual cyclone vacuum cleaner, 219.99. This is the best-looking of our man James’s aesthetically variable range.
AT A PINCH
8 Bush 1433 model coloured-plastic TVs, 139.99. At least they’re quite small and not black.
SO BAD IT’S GOOD
9 Glen Stranraer coal-effect electric fire, model 2103, 59.99. Send the design guru of your choice mad today!
10 Panasonic SA-AK 40 CD mini hi-fi, 299.99. Is it a games console or a pair of trainers? Either way it’s pig ugly.
11 Electrolux 1720 upright vacuum with cyclone cassette, 179.99. This fell off the back of a bandwagon.