Friday, September 5, 2014

Over-Designed Flatware

Flatware (or silverware, as perhaps most people call it) presents an interesting challenge for designers. The basic pieces -- knife, fork and spoon -- have specific tasks in the eating process. Moreover, they must be held by human hands of various sizes (though the range for adults is fairly limited), and therefore cannot be too large or too small. In fact, flatware items of a given type (table knife, butter knife, soupspoon, teaspoon, etc.) are usually pretty much the same size across sets.

The design challenge largely lies in creating a distinctive appearance for a flatware set when there are already many hundreds of patterns having appeared over the years. Usually the distinction-creation focus is on ornamentation and detailing, the general shapes being largely traditional.

But the ethos of Modernism in its classical form holds that ornamentation is to be shunned. Therefore, a modernist designer must concentrate on shape alone to create a distinctive flatware set for the marketplace. The task is difficult thanks to this additional design constraint, and it isn't surprising that some designers seem to try too hard. In this case, the result often is a visually interesting design that is marred by ergonomic (human factors) defects.

Let's look at some examples of flatware designs that suffer from that problem.


Josef Hoffmann for Wiener Werkst├Ątte - c. 1903-04
Hoffman (biographical links here and here) thought of himself primarily as an architect, but he also devoted considerable effort to domestic design, such as for the silver flatware set shown here.  The tips of the handles contain tiny bits of what can be called decoration,  The round opening between the tines of the center fork also is pure decoration.  Potential ergonomic problems include the arbitrary round spoon bowls and the broad, flat handles on most of the other pieces.

Josef Hoffman - Hugo Pott 86 - 1955
Half a century later, not long before his death, Hoffmann created this design.  The little round knobs at the ends of the handles serve to help balance while holding the piece, though they are basically decorative.  To me, the problem is that the handles seem too thin to grasp comfortably.

Arne Jacobsen - 1957
As Wikipedia indicates, Jacobsen also was basically an architect who practiced industrial design on the side.  The (partial) set shown here is interesting to look at, but probably not easy to use.  For example, the fork tines seem too few, too short and perhaps too sharp.  The flat handles might be a little uncomfortable to hold.  The knives and spoons could be better balanced.

Sasaki Aria Asani
This set is from a Japanese firm, but I don't have a date for it.  Again, wide, flat, poorly balanced handles.

Yamazaki Haiku
Another set from Japan, designer and date unknown (to me, anyway).  The design is interesting and creative: note the split handles (a decoration, not being functional) and uneven fork tine lengths.  But yet again, I doubt that the pieces would be comfortable to use.  And the split handles might be hard to clean.

1 comment:

Hels said...

ahhh I believe the ethos of Modernism in its classical form should NOT hold that ornamentation is to be shunned. Form follows function, to be sure, but form need not be lost altogether.

With something that is used daily, like cutlery, the design task should focus on ease of use, comfort in the hand, meeting different hand sizes, meeting different eating habits (eg Americans put their fork in their right hand), hygiene, costs etc etc.

Designers who worried about eliminating a tiny decorative dot from each handle had their minds on the wrong goal.