There are many common allergies out there. Purely off the top of my head, without even the help of Wikipedia, I can name gluten, pollen, dust, lactose and nut allergies. Chances are you’ll know someone who can’t tolerate at least one substance from that list. Maybe it’s just a mild intolerance, or maybe it’s a full blown, panic, ambulance-is-on-its-way job.
I myself have a couple of allergies. The first is penicillin. Before the age of which one has any recollection I apparently suffered a mild reaction to the drug, and from that moment on it was never to be prescribed to me again. The allergy was written in my medical records and will remain there till the day I die. When being assessed by medical staff for whatever ailment/injury has befallen me I always rattle off the same line when it comes to the ‘any allergies’ question. I even remembered it whilst high on gas and air, laying on a hillside in the dirt awaiting helicopter airlift after half removing my foot from its’ mountings, such is the autonomy with which I spout the line “I’m allergic to penicillin”.
I don’t think it’s that bad an allergy, to be honest. A friend of mine nearly died because of the stuff when he was a nipper, but from what my mum tells me I simply developed a mild rash and the doctors decided it would be better to try something else, just in case. So my avoidance of all accidentally medicinal windowsill-borne mould is merely a precautionary measure. Were I to take it, from what I can gather, the outcome might not be so bad.
I do however suffer much worse allergy. One which often causes me huge discomfort, mental unrest, sleep-loss, and a general desire to run in sheer terror whenever I encounter it. And yet this allergy, this terrible affliction is one I have to face on a daily basis, one from which I have very few places to hide, and one which – were they to even recognise it – the medical establishment would have no interest in. I speak of my absolute intolerance, my indescribable aversion, to the superfluous. Things that are superfluous. Even the word – the sound, the shape of it, that wave of a syllable comprising the second half – starts making me feel agitated. For there is nothing in this world I can cope with less than the superfluous.
During my time at college there was on the studio wall a rather brilliant display come notice board known as Quotation Corner. It comprised a collection of noteworthy quotes from famous and not so famous people that were collected by the tutor for their relevance, importance or potential inspiration to young design students. And whenever I find myself in a reminiscent conversation with old college friends and Quotation Corner is brought up, there is one quote that always gets a mention.
Good design is what is left when nothing can be taken away.
I think the quote was attributed to a certain Sheffield tutor more widely known for his involvement with late nineties Euro-pop sensation, Aqua. It seems that this one in particular stood out among the many other interesting pieces of wisdom as one that struck a chord with us young, sponge-minded students. And so it should. Good design as far as I’m concerned really is what’s left when nothing else can be taken away. In order to produce a good piece of design, one must first eliminate the superfluous.
That quote vindicated my attitude towards all things design. A gut feeling my naive, developing mind hadn’t yet fully clarified was suddenly backed up by solid, grown up thought. Finally, somebody had said what I felt, and what’s more other people seemed to agree. And so from that moment on, every brief I tackled was an attempt to live up to the rule I considered so golden.
Of course the definition of superfluous is quite transient, changing as it does with the whim and opinion of the people. One man’s ornament is another man’s abhorrent eyesore. One man’s useful gadget is another man’s irrelevant tat. But I think, because of my allergy, I am forced to take a much harsher stance than most on the position of the line beyond which things are considered superfluous. I hate mess, for instance. A tidy life, like good design, is what you have when the irrelevant is removed. Mess is bad as it is superfluous. I like a tidy life. I like open spaces and clean surfaces, and for things to be in their rightful place. And if you have a hold of something that you don’t need, take it to a charity shop or to the tip. Get rid, because it’s useless. Hoarding is my worst nightmare. It’s like living in a world constructed entirely of free-download novelty fonts.
But my hatred of the superfluous goes beyond having a tidy house or preferring minimal design. It applies to all aspects of life. And one such aspect of life that frequently exposes me to such levels of superfluousity that I’m left covered in hives, leaping backwards, screaming in utter terror and begging for Valium is technology.
I’m not one for technology. I’m no Luddite, but I despair at the sheer volume of people that can’t leave the house without their laptops and iPhones and Blackberries and GPS whatnots and Bluetooth this and wi-fi that. It seems this market-driven age has an unquenchable thirst for technology. For features and buttons. For functions and applications, extras and plug-ins and add-ons. He who dies with the most functions wins. We live in an age where a phone can’t possibly be restricted just to making and receiving calls. It has to text, to email, to browse and surf, to track, to auto update, to capture, to edit, to position, to locate, to scan, store, transfer and entertain at the very least. Anything less would be stone aged and embarrassing.
And this attitude means that manufacturers of technology – from cars to white goods and everything in between – appear desperate to add as many functions as possible to their products. And the place I first started noticing this, many years ago before I chose to follow any kind of design related path, was in the design of hi-fi equipment.
I like good hi-fi equipment. I think it’s a bi-product of having a musician’s upbringing I otherwise largely dismissed. I’m not a hi-fi snob – one of those awful evangelists who rank alongside serious, beardy real-ale enthusiasts as the world’s most tiresome and self-righteous bores, and I don’t have the money to splash out on the sort of hi-fi equipment I would like, nor the sort of outlook on life that would ever allow me to justify it, but I do appreciate a good sound and a half-decent quality bit of kit. And from an early age I’ve had a strong idea of the sort of thing I want from such equipment. Not having much of a head for electronics I can only say that I want the ‘gubbins’ inside to deliver the goods when it comes to sound. And having a head for design and an aversion to the superfluous, I want the outside to be simple, clean, well made and straightforward. And nothing more. No spectrum peak analysers. No bass boost, surround effect, touch screen, scrolling info bar, sound visualisation or other such irrelevance. I just want a featureless box with the bare essentials I need to control the few settings I need.
And growing up, the only products that fitted my idea of what a hi-fi should be were made by NAD. Even the logo worked for me. Flat in colour, just three simple letters framed by a key-line square. That’s what I was talking about. And the finish on the stuff was, and remains to my eyes just gorgeous. Flat panel fascias, simple square buttons and big featureless knobs. Minimal graphics printed on the surface providing all the guidance you could need, and that’s that.
There was a simple, refined elegance that I fell in love with from the first moment I became aware of my Dad’s NAD 3020 amplifier. Amidst the LED-happy 80’s contemporaries from other manufacturers that accompanied it in the waist-high hi-fi rack that dominated the room, it was a sea of calm and order. Above it was a new fangled CD player, with its high tech digital readout and glass over brushed aluminium fascia looking gaudy and tacky. The tape deck and tuner below were also brushed aluminium, with huge, deep set digital displays within plastic bezels, surrounded by bright green LEDs and various badges making statements about the super-technology within. But the NAD just sat there, doing its job without any fuss or bother. It had the dignity to not get involved in the power race, the struggle for attention fought by the others. It was self assured, secure and masterful, its few tiny protruding LEDs quietly reassuring you that it’s got things covered. And I loved it.
At the time I didn’t know that the NAD 3020 was a well-known product, the king of the budget high-end as it apparently was. All I knew was that it looked sharp and sounded good. And it always left me wondering why everything didn’t look like that. Why was there so much superfluous design elsewhere in the world? Why hadn’t everyone seen that the NAD style was the ultimate, that the pinnacle had been reached and that nothing else was relevant? I would later, like so many designers, feel the same about Helvetica. To me, NAD was the Helvetica of the technology world.
I read an interview with Peter Horbury who was design director at Volvo cars during the period when the brand went from boring, ugly box to sleek, attractive and stylish. One aspect of these cars that had really appealed to me from the first time I went and blagged brochures from the showroom was the interiors, in particular the dashboards. They had a gorgeously clean, functional appearance that was reminiscent to me of the NAD aesthetic. So I was very pleased as I read on through the article that he actually named NAD as the inspiration for their dashboard design. Needless to say, my favourite car interiors are to be found in Volvos.
I’ve not really kept up to date with the later NAD product line up. I did hear a while ago that NAD took a dive in quality at some point, cost cutting with far eastern outsourcing and the like, but that did come from one of the aforementioned hi-fi snobs so I won’t take it too seriously, though the thought upsets me somewhat. And a quick browse of their online catalogue shows that while they’ve still got a clean style, it’s not quite the brutally clean that has always so appealed to me.
But luckily, I’m not in the market for an amplifier. During my late teens my dad excitably replaced his faithful old 3020 with a newer, all singing, all dancing AV amp. And though to me it felt like retiring the NAD was sacrilege, it didn’t matter because I had a shelf waiting for it. And there it lives to this day. There’s a good chance it’s older than me, that amplifier. And yet its slightly bashed edges, woolly sound and too-few inputs (hindered further by the unusable for anything else phono channel), together with the well worn markings and slightly knocked-off-centre volume knob don’t stop it looking by far and away the coolest bit of technology I own.