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Photograph for TIME by Robert ClarkSILVER HAMMER: Elegance can now be found in the toolshed as well as the living room --and it pounds nails just fine
We have technology to thank for that access. "We used to wish we had the technology to do things," says Ian Schrager, the man who pioneered the affordable-boutique-hotel trend. "Now technology is giving us things we don't even know how to use yet." London hotel guests in Schrager's St. Martin's Lane can alter the color scheme of their room simply by adjusting a knob next to the bed. Computerization and new materials have made production of just about anything cheaper and more efficient, and quality easier to maintain.
The combination means that form no longer has to follow function for a product to be profitable. Carmakers like Toyota can afford to gamble on a quirky-looking car like the new Echo, jam it with extras and sell it for less than $10,500. Sony miraculously rescued its personal-computer business by introducing the ultraslim Vaio, a silver-and-purple machine that, when you come right down to it, does little more than any other laptop; it just looks and feels a lot better.
Nothing underscores the technological revolution better than plastics, long viewed as cheap and ugly. Not since the early-20th century popularity of Bakelite has plastic been so loved. Polypropylene, for instance, the plastic that has been around since the '50s, can be molded so smooth it is almost sensuous, and it takes dyes like silk. German design firms Authentics and Koziol have made much hay out of plastic's new pizazz. Koziol's spaghetti forks with a smiley face, ice-cream scoops with eyes and the "Tim" dish brush with legs are some of more than 300 "cutensils," as they're known, that flew off shelves of American stores last year.
"I had no doubt these would sell in Chicago, New York and Boston," says Elliott Zivin, president of Koziol's U.S. distributor, Majestic. "But they're selling like crazy in Bogalusa, La., and west Texas." So much so that Zivin is bringing in 100 more plastic "blobjects"--another nickname--this year. Shopping for household items is no longer dutiful; it's part of a person's articulation of his or her personal style. Everything is an accessory. It could be coincidence that manufacturers started to think more about making household products fun not long after men started shouldering some of the burden around the home. It could be.
Corporate demand for these new design strategies is surging. Fitch's Bill Faust says his design shop got so many big corporate clients that he went back to school to pick up an M.B.A. "Designers are being invited to the table more and given a voice in making business decisions," says Faust. "I wanted to give the executives more of a reason to consider a design than 'We think this is cool.'" Well, cool could be enough. General Mills is re-examining cereal boxes, Kodak has ditched the black-box camera, Swingline has streamlined its standard stapler. Any company without in-house talent is reaching for a hot design consultant. "Manufacturers recognize that consumers are looking for more than functional benefits," says Barry Shepard, co-founder of SHR Perceptual Management, the design consultancy that helped conceive the Volkswagen Beetle. "A product that matters needs to say something about the person who owns it."
And it doesn't have to say it for long. Buying a cool toothbrush is a way of expressing your personality without making a huge commitment other than to dental hygiene. Your sense of style changes, you buy a new toothbrush. Starck was one of the first to sense this with his translucent Brancusi-esque dollop of a toothbrush for Fluocaril in 1989. Now pharmaceutical companies have released a plethora of toothbrushes--ridged, twisted, tapered, with bands, dots and swirls. The same philosophy applies to dozens of products we used to regard as banal--garbage cans, toilet brushes and cheese graters. They're cute, they're cheap and they're disposable.
Cheap is O.K. by Starck, whose cheerful whimsy with juicers, bottle openers and hotel rooms did much to spark America's current fling with design. He says he wants good design to be a commodity--but without being wasteful. He points out that every time he designs a chair, it's less expensive than the one he designed before. "I want everybody to have the best products for the price of any bulls___ in the grocery store," he says.