The 2005 Industrial Design Excellence Awards offer a dizzying portrait of a consumer society on steroids.
Shoppers gorge on smarter phones, sexier music players and multifunction cameras. The new leisure class relieves stress with self-watering flowerpots and back-saving kayak racks. Caffeine hits may be taken from a personal coffeemaker in a black zippered wet suit. Decorative floating buoys light up the swimming pools prosperity has bought.
Even Fido is stepping up to high design. The pet products company Wetnoz International sells a stylish rubber toy called Spring Roll for $15, in tasteful moss or brick red, to replace unsightly rawhide bones.
The new products are nifty. But amid the blur of gadgets and goodies, it's fair to ask: Is this the best a design revolution can produce? Are these the products we really need?
"It's a different kind of necessary," says Tucker Viemeister, jury chairman for the Industrial Designers Society of America, which unveiled 148 winners in a dozen categories on its Web site last week.
When compared with lifesaving technologies, consumer goods are inevitably tinged with frivolity. But Viemeister, who is president of the Springtime-USA design firm in New York and years ago helped design the Oxo Good Grips kitchen tools, expresses no guilt.
"It's a little wasteful, a little indulgent," he said. "But a beautiful dog toy is a cool thing. Why not have a beautiful thing?"
The IDEA contest was created to spread awareness of how industrial design enhances quality of life and bolsters the bottom line. A jury of peers is instructed to give equal consideration to innovation, environmental responsibility and aesthetic appeal. A product is supposed to demonstrate benefit to users as well as the client company.
More than a third of the awards this year went to lifestyle enhancements such as the iPod Shuffle, the iRobot Roomba vacuum and the Mac Mini, Apple Computer's 2.9-pound, two-inch-high, $499 machine.
The single most costly design most people own -- a car -- was conspicuously absent. No automaker proved worthy of a gold medal.
"This year was an off year for cars," Viemeister acknowledged. Without pointing fingers at specific companies, he added, "From the jury's point of view, we want cars to be more ecological. It seems hybrid cars are a giant step in the right direction."
Detroit is on a different planet.
The jury mustered a silver medal for the BMW-designed, British-made Mini Cooper convertible, which has an innovative top-down system. BusinessWeek, a longtime sponsor of the awards, was clearly besotted with a macho Jeep Hurricane, which is spread across two pages of its July 4 issue. Mud-encrusted tires can be turned 45 degrees for traveling sideways on rough terrain, which would be useful in, say, Afghanistan. The Jeep is only a concept, but one could imagine a limited edition for executive getaways in the Neiman Marcus holiday catalogue.
Innovation was lacking in office and domestic furniture, so the jury picked a throne: Kohler's Purist Hatbox toilet. The minimalist model is tankless. It comes with a maxi price tag -- $2,890 -- but no heated seat. Money is no object in the spa bath but function is still a feature of good design. Kohler gives its $283 Cimarron model higher ratings for cleanliness, noise and water use.
The electric guitar, symbol of pop culture, made its way to the winners' circle. Americans spent an estimated $538 million on electric guitars last year. Designer Ravi Sawhney of RKS Design in Southern California is hoping to profit from a novel "open architecture" design, developed with guitarist Dave Mason, which uses less precious rainforest woods and comes in dazzling green, orange or hot pink. The $2,500 instruments will be on display at the Wardman Park Marriott Hotel during IDSA's annual convention Aug. 24-27.
The design gallery will also feature BYO neoprene lunch bags, which hug a sandwich tightly, then unfold to serve as placemats, and a novel rectangular container for latex paint with a lid that serves as a roller tray.
"There are thousands of everyday problems like this that would benefit from the thoughtfulness exhibited by the designers of this packaging innovation," said juror Chris Conley of Gravity Tank.
Philippe Starck designed the VIOlight Toothbrush Sanitizer and Storage System that kills germs with ultraviolet light. The jury thought the silvery cup was an example of a mundane object elevated to a higher level. But the VIOlight barely registers in the People's Choice contest, which IDSA is conducting for the first time. (Anyone can vote at www.idsa.org.)
The runaway winner at this writing is a hospital environment called Ambient Experience for Healthcare. Devised by Philips Design, initially as a trade show exhibition, the program seeks to alleviate the stress and claustrophobia associated with MRI exams through customized lighting, music and imagery.
Photos submitted for the IDEA contest show a child awaiting testing. The machine is still forbidding and the surfaces antiseptic, but a pastel wallscape of stars, spaceships and colorful fish alter the clinical ambiance of a hospital setting.
It would be easy to celebrate thoughtful enhancements like Philips's, while docking a consumer giant like Nike for tempting children with another pair of costly shoes. But Nike is crossing the bridge from sporting gear to saving lives.
A one-of-a-kind hemp and leather desert boot aimed at mass-market individualists won an award. But so did a multifunction garment developed for search-and-rescue workers. The high-tech CommVest uses conductive fibers and "smart" fabrics to incorporate radio functions into the cloth. At $175, the bright red vest is only slightly more expensive than a pair of shoes.
People will buy what they see, as the marketplace proves every day. The Philips and Nike projects reveal how easily imaginative design can be employed to transform human experience.
That is a surer measure of the value of industrial design.