I’m not sure if a Heirloom perspective is still relevant today’s design world, but if the retro trend was anything to go by, consumers are very receptive to nostalgic design. Because of this and it’s environmental potential, the subject of Heirloom Design deserves some consideration.
As a child I grew up eating at a trestle refectory dinning table very similar to the one below. It belongs to my mother who inherited it from her father, who inherited it from his father and so on. This same table has been used to eat off for more than 300 years and has probably been in the family for just as long. Sometimes I ponder over all the stories it could tell, if this table could only talk.
Looking at the table I wonder which products I can buy today that might still be useful and beautiful in 40 or so years when I’ll be old and wise? What products I’ll inherit and which ones I’ll hand down?
However Heirloom and antique products are not only romantic expressions of heritage and lineage, they’re also another opportunity to reduce the current environmental impact of consumer waste. The environmental benefits of Heirloom product are twofold, by handing it down we avoid creating waste and by receiving it we avoid using natural resources.
There was a time when a lot of product was built to last and inherited, but what product made today can be deemed “hand downable” and why?
4 factors determine the longevity of a design:-
1. Functional Relevance
2. Strength (hard-wearing)
5. Emotional Bond
Next consider today’s products and the reasons for their obsolescence and disposal:-
1. Rapid technological innovation that quickly makes many designs outdated and obsolete.
2. Most materials cannot hold up to prolonged use without failing.
3. A Fashion culture of seasonal “perceived obsolescence” that makes products aesthetically dated.
4. Many products are not designed for cost effective repair and are replaced rather than fixed.
5. Consumers are drawn to novelty and change.
I agree that these are all factors that have shaped the design industry into the thriving business that it is today and also paved the way for my personal career. But at what cost? And is there an alternative progressive design perspective waiting to replace the current one?
Nowadays Heirloom products which stay useful, hard wearing, aesthetically relevant and repairable have become rare and remarkable, and only a few of the iconic designs from yesterday continue to be made today.
Below are a few examples of what I consider Heirloom product, interestingly many are from England.
The Brigg Umbrella and the Barbour International Original Jacket.
The Mont Blanc Meisterstuck and the Eames Lounge Chair.
The Jaguar E-Type (no longer in production) and the Rolex Submariner.
But which of today’s new designs will still be produced in 100 years time and what is being made today that will be handed down tomorrow?
We live not according to reason, but according to fashion” – Seneca, 1st Century AD
Despite the longevity that makes Heirloom product more environmentally friendly, is there still a place for Heirloom product in our modern culture? Do we even like old product which is handed down to us? And are we interested in using a product for such an extended time that we expect to hand it down to our children?
Exploring the potential of Heirloom would make an interesting challenge within our specific design fields. But in order to design, produce and experience new Heirloom product we must begin by defining it. Starting with the following questions we can begin developing a heirloom design perspective:-
1. What long term uses and functions are best suited for “Heirloom” product?
2. What materials will stand up to the test of time the best?
3. What aesthetic can stay relevant and survive is such a dynamic fashion culture?
4. How do we design product which encourages repair instead of disposal?
5. Can we design product that offers long term discovery, or one that changes over time and to which we can create an emotional attachment?
Is there a way to design with a heirloom design perspective and continue providing the same financial rewards to sustain our design industry? Can heirloom design be applied to high volume product?
And lastly a personal question, what Heirloom products do we wish we had?