Monday, December 1, 2014

Any Coffee-maker In A Storm?

Photo courtesy Flickr user Dread Pirate Jeff
A late-quarter visit to the textbook section of the local academic bookstore yielded nutritious browsing. I went in to see what the bindings of scientific field references look like these days. The shelves were nearly empty, but what I found was much as I expected: flexible vinyl-bound palm-sized volumes, easy to thumb one-handed.

The veteran clerk was helpful and no doubt keeping an eye on his $230 offerings. I had a long browse through field science, engineering, and design. A work about green living discussed the environmental implications of consumer decisions. Advocating buying used whenever possible, the author shared his strategy of putting out an internet request when he wants something. The example he offered was a coffee-maker. The lesson he took from the process was that it works, but you have to take what is offered.

I was born to quibble with this approach, although not born to quibble with protecting the environment. A coffee-maker is not a coffee-maker is not a coffee-maker. The language is imprecise, and the many variants of the appliance, both high and low-tech, disprove the author’s strategy. I question the economy of his process, since the cost of acquisition of a cheap appliance is apparently greater than the price of the thing itself.

Design, or choice, is a matter of focus. The low-tech coffee pot or powered coffee-maker as we know it is a product of millennia of cultural and technical evolution. Crete mastered the dripless spout, not a trivial consideration for the laundry worker. The best of the high end pots consider the anatomy of the user’s hand. A good form supports rather than challenges fine motor skills. Originally a luxury item, coffee was brewed in careful ceremony akin to the drinking of tea.

I think it significant that Apple founder Steve Jobs studied high-end kitchen appliances as he experimented with the form of the PC. Jobs emerged from an environment of significant mass domestic privilege, growing up in an Eichler-designed house in the unprecedented prosperity of the Sixties Peninsula. I think it also significant that Jobs’ designer Jonathan Ive, Sir Jonathan now, trained with a silversmith father. Both guys grew up rubbing shoulders with sheet metal work. The culture of intelligent privilege that produced England’s brilliant tradition of silver, and incidentally the audio treasure of the crown jeweler Garrard, also produced the cognitive appliances for which Apple is known.

To my mind, it makes more environmental and economic sense to buy used at a local thrift store and to choose appliances passive or powered that can be recycled. Silver service for every day seems a bit much, but a silver pot won’t break, is a traditional store of bride wealth, and was valued for its anti-bacterial properties, low toxicity, and ability to amplify light. 

Precious metal respects the time and skill of the person who fabricates it. Cooper-Union’s catalogue celebrating the two hundredth anniversary of the founding of the state of Delaware is an essay on the history of Swedish silver. The Triumph of Simplicity lays out centuries of the best work for the most privileged tables. The volume is a meditation to read.

Grousing about the construction of I-5, Seattle painter Mark Tobey described progress as "the queen of the giants, to whom the intimacy of living is of no importance". Ordinary daily amenities affect quality of life as surely as income.


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