A year on from 9/11, I was dining at the Algonquin Hotel in Midtown Manhattan. My companions were architects, engineers and designers. What they had in common was the fact that their work took them frequently from New York to Chicago. None was enamoured with the idea of flying. I suggested they band together and get a “21st Century Limited” – a glamorous sleeping car express complete with cocktail bar, gourmet restaurant, every digital convenience and a late night party guaranteed on every trip - onto the rails between Grand Central and Chicago’s LaSalle Street stations. It would, of course, be steam hauled.
We toasted the idea, although when it came to steam power, I was accused, good-humouredly, of being a man of the past. Sure, trains had a future, but steam? Yes. Announced last year, the Minneapolis-based Coalition for Sustainable Rail [CSR] Project 130 is an attempt by international railway locomotive engineers and two environmental research departments at the University of Minnesota to shape a 130mph “carbon neutral” steam locomotive. This re-design of the steam engine will run on sustainably produced US timber, its exhaust will be very nearly as clean as that of a domestic kettle and it aims to be 50% cheaper to run than diesel-electrics. And, far from being stuck in the past, CSR team members are young, well informed and computer savvy. In fact, its President, Davidson Ward – an architecture graduate from the University of Minnesota – is just 25. He has been passionate about steam, he tells me, since he was two.
Will it happen? Maybe. One of the great strengths of the design world is its ability to look back at the past, at precedent, and to think of how we can move forward while learning from the past. In fact, designers and manufacturers around the world continue to look at existing designs and old technologies, wondering if they, too, might create if not a radically improved steam locomotive, then a better vacuum cleaner, mobile phone, electric plug or car.
‘Bow to tradition’
Take Sir Kenneth Grange, for instance. The British designer has been designing objects as diverse as food mixers, irons, Instamatic cameras and the distinctive nose cone of the InterCity 125 High Speed Train for more than 50 years. In the mid-90s, he was asked to design a new London taxi. Produced from 1997 to 2002, the resulting TX1 was not a revolutionary design, but a self-conscious reworking of a format and style that had served London well for the best part of 40 years. Here was a case of not trying too hard to reinvent the wheel because “cabbies” and “fares” alike expect a London taxi to be a very particular type of vehicle: tall, spacious, preferably glossy black, discreet and able to turn on a sixpence [or 2.5 pence in post-1971 currency]. Carbodies, the company behind traditional black cabs, had ideas in mind for a great leap forward in taxi design, yet Grange held back, and wisely so. “The job of the designer,” he told me, “is not always to make something that looks dramatically new. Sometimes, you bow to tradition.”
Other designers have made brave leaps into the future hoping to change the way we see and use familiar gadgets and appliances. But, such designers are usually inventors, thinking anew about the way familiar objects work as well as look. Sir James Dyson has won fame for his radical cyclonic vacuum cleaners, while a host of largely anonymous inventors and designers has changed the very way we communicate with one another through computers and the internet, mobile phones and a plethora of digital gizmos.
Even then, designers simply can’t help designing and re-designing in a perpetual quest for the equivalent of the perfect chair. Because, though, we are all shaped slightly differently and look at the world through slightly different eyes (and designer glasses), the “perfect” chair will remain an elusive if tantalising goal. But because we have become a society hungry for novelty, we expect everything from sofas and shaving razors to change.
While it is easy to imagine radical designers like Flaminio Bertoni - the stylist behind the sensational 1950s Citroen DS – or Philippe Starck with his famous Juicy Salif lemon squeezer from 1990, shaking their heads in disagreement, most design, from the commonplace to the very particular, is a constant and fascinating reworking of what has gone before.
Put your hand in your purse, or your pocket, and look at the mix of coins there. Coins might seem unchanging things, yet they too go through redesigns. The thing is, these redesigns have to be gradual, as any change in the proportion and weight of coins has a huge effect on countless coin-operated machines and in the way people with visual disabilities handle them.
Take another example: the Harrier jump jet. Designed by Ralph Hooper and John Fozard of Hawker Aircraft, this highly sophisticated 50-year old aircraft has been modified and updated throughout its life not just to give it greater power and performance, but to bring it into line with the world of computers, fly-by-wire and digital technology. The AV-8B Harrier flying with US Marine Corps today is a very different machine from the first of its kind, yet designers have worked progressively to keep it up-to-date. Superficially, it might seem to be the same aircraft that first hovered in 1960, yet redesign has transformed it, just as light bulbs, the quarter in your pocket or even the mobile phone have been reworked and will continue to change.
Think of Apple and its iPhone. Since it was launched in 2007, the company has sold over 250 million of the handsets worldwide. In 2011, this tiny, hand-held device accounted for 43% of Apple’s sales and 70% cent of profits: it is easy to understand just how critical a redesign of the iPhone is to the Californian-based company.
To keep pace with breathless developments in software while keeping the hardware – the casing – of the iPhone up to date, Apple’s design team (led by British-born Sir Jonathan Ive) has produced six incarnations of this sleek mobile phone in as many years. Most of the changes have involved updating software, yet the look of the phone has changed subtly, too, with a shifting balance between the use of aluminium, glass, plastic, stainless steel and colour. In 2012, the iPhone 5 was given a bigger screen, and sales rocketed anew. Expect further annual changes as Apple competes in a hard-fought and crowded global market; the look of the phone affects sales as much as what it can do. Much rests on Ive’s shoulders.
Like designs for a better toaster, lemon squeezer or London taxi, it seems safe to assume that a new iPhone with a tweaked and evolved design will appear soon. Sadly, I am less confident that my steam-hauled 21st Century Limited will be anything but a dream.