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#104 Design that flies
Fairground rides and pencil sharpeners
This week Design Lobster #104 is taking flight. From the curious story of a flying fairground ride in Blackpool, to the tale of the world’s most streamlined pencil sharpener.
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Question: Can a fairground ride be research?
Hiram Maxim was a prolific Victorian inventor credited with coming up with the curling iron, the automatic fire sprinkler and many different kinds of engines in the course of his career. He also had a longstanding fascination with powered flight and built a test track in his garden in Bexley, London for an enormous 3.5 tonne flying craft.
When this had to be abandoned due to safety concerns, Maxim channelled his aeronautical interests into a new kind of flying fairground ride called the Captive Flying Machines, first built for the Earl’s Court exhibition of 1904. This consisted of a central rotating support structure hung with passenger cars using wire ropes. As the ride spins, these cars fly out, reaching a maximum angle of 34 degrees. Maxim had intended to provide each car with wings and aerofoils so that rider could control their motion – providing an opportunity for both them and him to learn more about the dynamics of flight. Perhaps understandably this was determined to be too dangerous!
At one time there were five Captive Flying Machines across the UK, but only one can still be ridden nowadays at Blackpool Pleasure Beach in the north of England.
Design takeaway: How could you bring some more fun into your research process?
Object: Raymond Loewy pencil sharpener
Raymond Loewy was a titan of industrial design in mid 20th-century America and his name probably needs little introduction to many of you. He brought a new focus to the appearance of products, restyling Studebaker cars and Lucky Strike cigarette packets to give them a veneer of modernity that captivated the American middle-classes (and increased sales).
One of the ways Loewy worked was to streamline forms, borrowing the visual language of powered flight to give a jet age “look” to any product. This pencil sharpener, which Loewy patented in 1933, is one of the more absurd examples of this tendency. Though this device never leaves the desk, the teardrop of chrome looks as if it could happily fly through the sky or even space.
This thread, by reader Scott Berkun, provides several more examples of this kind of design, including a preposterously aerodynamic alarm clock. Though its easy to laugh at products like these – which tend to seem rather superficial – I’m inclined to be a bit more generous. Instead, I see the design choices in these products as a form of modern myth-making, helping the American consumer orient themselves in a new technological society.
Design takeaway: What myths about society or culture do your design choices espouse?
Quote: “Indulge your imagination in every possible flight”
– Jane Austen, novelist
Jane Austen holds a special place in my design imagination because of the esteem in which she is held by Paul Graham. In this essay – a favourite of mine – he talks about what designers can learn from how she writes. In any case, I hope this quote will help you soar into the next week.
Have a good one,
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