Sunday, February 28, 2010

Mikiphone: Form Follows Function Without Apology

The other day I found myself comforting a good friend as his hard drive lay dying in that venerable computer hospital, Tekserve. I was a bit out of my element as I admittedly embrace the future while gazing fondly at the past. Scanning the room I felt drawn to the display of portable speaker systems available every configuration and hue. With the advent of mp3 technology entire "record" collections can now be carried in your pocket and the portable speaker systems allow music to be even more accessible to the masses. It seems that once a technology is perfected the struggle then becomes making it "smaller, better and faster." This of course has always been the case...

I present to you the Mikiphone, a Swiss product patented in 1924 as the "pocket phonograph." All of the components condense neatly into the round stainless steel case about the size of a large pocket watch (4 1/2 x 1 3/4 in.). It was the ipod of its day and was even lauded by modernist architect Le Corbusier for capturing the "essence of the esprit nouveau." His reaction is likely due to the fact that the Mikiphone was a modern refinement of the phonograph to its essential form with the utmost efficiency and honesty and not shrouded in the fripperies of a historicist cabinet. To see a Mikiphone in action click here.

You see, when phonographs were introduced in the late 19th century they resembled scientific instruments which were often an affront to the senses when placed within the domestic interior. Elsie De Wolfe herself had this to say on the matter in her decorating treatise The House in Good Taste (1913) "I prefer the good mechanical cabinet that offers us 'canned' music to the manual exercise of people who insist on playing wherever they see an open piano. Of course the mechanical instrument is new, and therefore, subject to much criticism from a decorative standpoint... I have a cabinet of 'canned' music that can be turned on for small dances when need be, and that can be hidden in a closet between times. Why not?" Well this prevailing attitude led phonograph manufacturers to form art departments whose sole task was to cloak phonographs in every period style known to man. The results are sometimes comical as seen in in the period literature and examples below.

This sort of blind historicism for sake of decoration would surely have given Ruskin a fit but it makes me laugh on some level. As if Abelard and Heloise fired up their 'Gothic' phonograph in the midst of a romantic moment, funny, but preposterous nonetheless. I'd take the Mikiphone over a faux Louis XV chinoiserie model any day...good design never needs to apologize for itself.

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