We are all critics of product design. Recently our toaster bit the dust and we bought a new one. Our old Cuisinart gave way to a shiny new Hamilton Beach. But we soon realized that our bagels were no longer tasty. Or so it seemed. We asked Eastside Marketplace whether they had changed bagel brands; no, they had not. Could a pair of different toaster brands really toast bagels so differently? Finally, we went on eBay and sent away for a “factory reconditioned” version of our original Cuisinart.
This morning, after it came by post, I rushed out to get bagels, returned to toast one in the new toaster, spread the cream cheese and ate the result. It was delicious, entirely superior to the Hamilton Beach bagels, which had seemed dull and heavy, as if they’d been toasted in a cardboard box factory. The Cuisinart bagel was crisp and cheery, with a rich bagel smell.
The Cuisinart toaster is a chubby white machine with soft edges that seems to smile at us from the counter. The Hamilton Beach was made of reflective silvery steel. It seemed to revel in its bogus functionality. It didn’t even offer a numerical “brown” meter, as the Cuisinart did. The toasters’ personalities were diametrically opposed. You could tell just by looking at them.
So what were the product design boys up to here? It would be just as easy to manufacture a toaster that looked friendly but acted badly. It’s hard to say that the inviting toaster was more likely than the uninviting toaster to do a better job toasting bagels. After all, to have bagel halves jammed into you, and to get all hot and bothered without being allowed to eat them, is a dirty job – and thankless to boot. One might equally imagine that a nasty-looking toaster looks nasty because it has a dirty job to do, works hard at its job, and understandably frowns at the sweaty labor involved.
It is also not hard – certainly not for me – to put a pro-traditional, anti-modernist spin on this entire affair. Just like architecture, we experience product design day in and day out. And so we trust our ability to judge good and bad design. But isn’t the taste of a bagel a matter of … well … of taste? I throw up my hands and scurry back to my architectural watchtower.