Tony Hunter: In Search of Characterful Products
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Tony Hunter: In Search of Characterful Products

Tony Hunter: In Search of Characterful Products

Since childhood, and undoubtedly much to the frustration of my parents, I’ve been one of those individuals who spurned things needed until I was able to get what I really wanted. Be it pens, sofas, shoes, or cars, I was always fussy and this inevitably resulted in much saving of weekly pocket money, or later of monthly salary, for something that was for me “The Good One”. It would be beautiful, hand crafted, plastic free, and (predictably) the most expensive. It would be the one with character.

It wasn’t, I should point out, anything to do with the recent trend of showing off the right brand name, or having to prove (or fake) my fiscal worth in the local pub to impress the ladies. This was simply because I believed, and still do, that you should have nothing in your life that you don’t absolutely love, and sadly love has its price!

What is it though that makes us fall in love with a product? A million-dollar question, get this right and you have a good chance of “raking it in”, but I don’t necessarily think it’s such a difficult one.

“Love is your soul’s recognition of its counterpoint in another” I heard rather cheesily in a film. Another way of putting it might be to say it’s simply finding a character that perfectly complements your own, and this I believe can relate also to design. Subconsciously, sometimes very consciously, we pick a mate, or that which is around us for the ability to enhance our positive qualities, or counteract negative ones. Most of us love company which is fun, stimulates us, from whom we can learn, and that challenges our view of the world. With them we are happy, and though often difficult we are attracted, and fall in love with these characters, and I think act similarly with products. Perhaps it’s an attempt to separate ourselves from the mediocrity of the masses, but we seek and are drawn by that which is a little different, stands out from the crowd, and believe our choice of company or ownership reflects well on ourselves and renders us also a little bit more special.

Products with real character are becoming harder to find though. They are being wiped out. The tedious efficiency of mass production teamed with never-ending customer clinics and global marketing are an effective way of ensuring goods are as palatable as is feasible, in the theory that the market for them will be as wide as possible. Great for turnover perhaps, but such products are almost always inevitably tainted or ruined as a result by the dreaded “committee design”. Emotion, quirkiness, excitement, original thoughts, are all averaged out of proposals by cost downs and consumer research, resulting in objects easily used and fulfilling basic needs, but soon discarded for the next model when the customer gets bored. Regardless of how recyclable a product is, this surely isn’t a very environmentally friendly way to be? Wouldn’t it be more beneficial to create objects that last, with which one forms bonds for life, items cherished and passed on to offspring rather than ending their days pushing up daisies in landfill sites, or sapping energy whilst recycled into bargain store welcome mats?

It’s true that character can be polarising, but only the most optimistic marketing director expects his stock to sell to 100% of the market. Isn’t it better to create something loved utterly by half the people, even if hated by the other half, as the former will purchase, repurchase, accept a premium price, and link forever to the brand?

Alec Issagonis, designer of the original Mini said “The people don’t know what they want, it’s my job to show them”. Perhaps then we should hold back from the marketing clinics, not attempt to pacify the multitude’s opinions, and instead allow a designers spirit to remain in the design, let it retain their quintessence and character in the way the tool marks of a craftsman bestow his personality to an artwork. The finished product may be quirky, odd, challenging to use, but it’s these rough edges that allow us to bond with it and establish a relationship. Life as they say is not a spectator sport, it’s very much something to take part in and every item in our life should be there to enrich the experience.

I recently purchase a Morgan for a three month road trip around the Mediterranean, prompting many to ask why? Aren’t they bumpy, uncomfortable, an old design, unreliable? Wouldn’t I be better with a Boxster, a MX5, or Z4? Perhaps, but in the Morgan it will be more than just a journey, the experience of a car like this, character filled, will enhance the adventure and attract positive attention. People will smile, want photographs and be interested. A BMW might be more comfortable, I could step from the other end freshly air conditioned and with my linen suit unscathed, but what would I have learnt about myself in the process? How would I have stretched my mind, where would the spirit of adventure be?

We all need things in life to master, learn how to control and challenge ourselves to constantly improve our handling of them, whether it be a smooth gear change in a Morgan or a perfect espresso from a Pavoni.

We all need products with character, because without them we lose ours. More at Hiatus.