“We find mobile phones extremely boring”, explains Nick Roope of Hulger. “And talking on the phone with invisible devices doesn’t make any sense. It is convenient and practical, but it also makes you look like a madman.”

An ironic statement, sure, but also the drive towards a very precise design approach. “Why is new always better than old? Why is small always better than big? Why is technology so soulless? Why cannot it be also amusing, beautiful, personalised?”

It is a question that many young designers seem to ask frequently. A question that should not be read as a reject of technology but, rather, like a propositional outlook on the design of high tech devices.

Yes, you read correctly. High tech. Because Hulger’s phones are actually pretty contemporary, in terms of technology. Their newborn PIP, despite its 1970s look, is fitted for instance with Bluetooth.

Hulger is not the only one trying to enrich technology with a low tech look. Front, from Sweden, with wooden MP3 players, transparent glass speakers and CD players, and with an answering machine that looks like a drop of water also do this. All attempts are to enrich devices with a more human touch by revising the past and using natural materials.

It’s an interesting approach, that so far seems to be strongly favoured by young independent studios, rather than by the big technology players. Sam Hecht, of Industrial Facility London, explains why: “Technology continues to present challenges for successful positioning.

"I am not talking sales or marketing of a product – this is not my expertise – but how there can be some form of naturalness in the products that surround us. With furniture, typology has such strong and obvious presence that design concerns itself primarily on material and process (I rarely see successful reinterpretations of how to sit, for instance).

"But with a new technology, something that has not existed before, typology is open for debate. I feel that many companies see this debate as a dark room where either chance (deciding on a whim what a printer or tv should be), or vagueness as a reasoning to copy or mimic are the simplest and most banal ways of removing risk.

"There is another way to take a position in this dark room, and that is to study and form typology from memory and transcendence.”

And it is exactly what Industrial Facility has done with its LCD projector for Epson (which unfortunately remains a concept). “The LCD projector for Epson was born from thinking about what it is to actually watch a movie using a sophisticated piece of equipment.

"This is very different to watching a presentation in a boardroom, and so the product simply can’t migrate successfully from one landscape to another, from commercial to domestic space. It requires, and almost demands reinterpretation and thought. So we made the simplest of transformations: the projector is vertical rather than horizontal.

"Suddenly the product feels strangely familiar. But its familiarity is quiet, almost background, exactly what a projector should be, because we look at the screen and not at the product.”

Another manifestation of the current craze for vintage objects and looks? Not only. Many design experts actually think, like Hecht, that there is a lot more to this trend than just aesthetics.

Emily Campbell, director of the design department in the British Council says, “It is no longer enough for a product to have form; now it must have content, a story to tell, a metaphorical force.

And Marco Bevolo, design director at Philips Design, in the Netherlands, “I think that this general trend affects not only aesthetics but the world of intellectual ideas and artistic movements in the realm of fine arts. One can consider the current revival – or perhaps more appropriately return – of political art, from the Biennale of Prague and its Latin American section to collective exhibitions like ‘Populism’ in Amsterdam.

"If we observe the life of major institutions, from religions to modern states, we can see clear signs of what we could define as a nostalgia for how things were before, and a radicalisation of opinions and visions around core elements of ideology and ways of life.

"While it is clear that our age is one of knowledge and transformation, we are clearly experiencing a drive to rethink our past. I would think that societies will soon be in need for new capabilities to achieve new synthesis and improved balance in our way of life and especially our way of thinking, moving towards the future with the richness of our past to enrich us all.”

Despite the almost obvious beauty of the concepts and products that are issued following this design approach – that makes them highly innovative in comparison with their ‘high tech’ counterparts – it seems that low tech looks are still confined to the realms of ‘niche’ customers and producers, leaving mass production virtually untouched.

Often, as a matter of fact, the designers and the producers of these objects are actually the same people.
Yes, because while in an industrial society, designers need to forcefully confront themselves with companies in order to manufacture and sell their creations (and thus inevitably compromise of their creations), in the digital society they can be craftsmen as well as entrepreneurs – thus invent solutions, realise them and sell them through the internet.

“Many designers are ‘industries of one’ – engaged in the production and sales of their own products,” explains Emily Campbell.

“These practitioners invent new and entrepreneurial forms of distribution, especially through the internet, eliminating agents and middle-men.

"Maintaining this integrity of product, source and consumer community is a new craft which deliberately thwarts the conventional channels and media of commercial production and sales. Many commercial companies offer forms of customisation and personalisation in imitation of this kind of craft”, Campell says.

So, if you happen to fall in love with the gramophone with high tech heart (plays records, MP3, CDs, has an output range from 25 to 45,000 Hz, and a drinks cooler incorporated in the smooth ceramics, aluminium and glass structure); your only chance to get hold of it is via the designers’ website (www.cucumberlab.com).

Which is like saying that, almost paradoxically, without the high tech society there would be less low tech looks! A game of opposites, between low and high tech, between the past and the present, between people and machines, between independent, forward-thinking designers and mass-manufacturers. In search of a new balance. 


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