Clearview stoves, Apple, and the purpose of design

Which is better designed, a Clearview stove or an Apple Macbook? Okay, so you might say it’s a fatuous kind of question, like comparing, say bananas and oranges, but the two items cost about the same and they're discretionary purchases that the makers would claim will make a difference to your life. At any rate, the question does cast a light on two highly divergent design principles, which the following two vignettes help to illustrate.

A few days ago a customer came into the showroom needing a new blanking plate for the rear flue outlet of his Clearview Pioneer. The stove was eighteen years old and performing well, but there had obviously been a slow leak at the back of his chimney and the water ingress had caused corrosion at the back of the stove. The retaining screws had rusted over and the customer had to drill them out to remove the corroded plate.

Fortunately, the design of the Clearview Pioneer has not changed a jot in those eighteen years. The customer bought a new plate, took it home and fitted it himself.

Clearview stoves were designed to last, to be easy to use, easy to maintain and easy to fix, as well as being outstandingly functional, efficient and beautiful. The very fact that Clearview have seen little need to tinker with this best-selling design is further evidence of the brilliance of the ground-breakingly original Pioneer. The only addition over the years has been a riddler for the grate.

Generally, when we sell a Clearview we only see the customer again when they need replacement rope or glass or firebricks.

By contrast, when the screen brightness on my Macbook recently dimmed to the extent that it became unreadable, I made my way down to an appointment with one of the T-shirted smurfs at the Apple Store. No complaints there; it’s a complex machine, it’s seven years old, and elements will fail from time to time. In fact, quite a few parts have failed over the last few years, but Apple customer service has always been superb and I have yet to be charged for a repair. This time, however, I was informed that, having passed a notional time threshold, my computer was now classed as ‘vintage’ and could no longer be repaired by Apple. However, Apple would offer me a free service to migrate my data over to a new Macbook, perhaps this new Macbook Air, sir, over here?

Now, I don’t mean to pick on Apple. I’m just referencing them as exemplars of a certain type of modern business philosophy (and, perhaps, to be frank, because I’ve read an awful lot of guff about their design brilliance). Everyone who has ever owned a computer has experienced the creeping redundancy of an operating system or the hundred other minor deteriorations that gradually consign a device to uselessness. 

But my point could apply equally when I pop the lid on my Volvo. My father-in-law used to rebuild classic cars; looking at the carapaced guts of my steel horse his face occluded in bafflement like Sigourney Weaver examining an alien spaceship. The battery is buried deep inside the bowels of the car. Errors are recorded and coded by sensors and in-car computers which can only be deciphered by company technicians with diagnostic machines. Many small components cannot be changed, a whole pre-assembled unit needs to be ordered instead. All the owner can do from the outside is to pour fluids and food into the beast to make it work.

When my fridge failed three years ago, the repair method turned out to be a closely guarded company secret made available only to licensed repair men armed with massive call-out fees and eye-wateringly expensive spares.

It is really a phenomenon of the last couple of decades that design kudos has come to derive from not being able to see how things are put together, at about the same time as service contracts evolved alongside the acceptance of built-in obsolescence in consumer culture.

Apple exemplifies this trend with their beautiful machines, intuitive software and ground-breaking interfaces. Their sleek slivers of steel, which harness tardis-scale computing power, are the purest modern expression of magic.

That their design philosophy should be conflated with religion is no accident, given the oft-quoted Zen-inspired approach to whittling their products down to sublime simplicity, and their monomaniacal CEO’s quasi-spiritual infatuations and self-mythologising. Lauded as a guru, Jobs had multiple incarnations, as mystic hippie visionary, as comeback king, as ascetic corporate monk, tyrant savant, business idol. He lives on as a corporate saint, inhabiting a particular intersection of religion and commerce, as outlandish and cybernetic as anything in a William Gibson novel.

It is instructive that Jonathan Ives, now the high priest of Apple, disclosed in a recent interview that while working he listens to techno, the closest thing in the musical pantheon to a shamanic rhythm section, which in traditional societies allowed the visionary access to other worlds.

Alfred North Whitehead said, ‘Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking about them.’ There was a time, not long ago, when this was demonstrably true. Mechanisation, sanitation, medicine, engineering, have all made massive contributions to human well-being; as De Quincey is supposed to have opined, a quarter of human misery is toothache, but sometimes the towering scale of humanity’s industrial achievements blots out how many things we humans already knew how to effortlessly do, many of which we are now in the process of forgetting. And modernity has of course opened up its own Pandora’s box of monstrosities.

Of all the horizons of possibility undreamt of by the common man even a generation ago which modern computing makes possible, it is worth asking how many of these things are at all important to civilisation (they seem mostly to consist in by-passing human expertise and providing distraction from pursuits either useful or fulfilling, or simply from contemplation itself).

It is also questionable how much one can ever be said to own a modern computer, given how dependent you are as a user on the service provider. Increasingly, even media ownership is disappearing into the same corporate black hole. You no longer own your music or movies; you rent them and then store them in rented ‘cloud’ accommodation.

This type of design has been pressed into corporate service; it has a superficial Teflon-like beauty, but its seduction is treacherous: inside it is hollow and antisocial. 

Contrast this with the wood burning stove: heavy and solid, it becomes an integral and indispensable part of the fabric of your home, it makes no claim to mediate with a higher reality, but is transformative, gritty, earthing and real, and copes effortlessly with hoary, rough slabs of wood. It requires a sensible user with a bedrock of appropriate knowledge and competence. You can maintain and fix it yourself. Its product is sensual and nourishing and consistent. It demands only that you feed it fuel which you can prepare yourself through your own competence and work and which grows freely with the willing assistance of the sun.  It enables and liberates and makes no claim on your soul.

So which is the better design? Mmm…

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