02 January 2008

They Really Don't Make 'Em Like They Used To...

I like old shit. I always have. I won't forsake a modern convenience simply to be cool and do something the old fashioned way or the hard way but when it makes sense, I do prefer employing older methods for most things. To me, old means built to last quality whereas most things new and modern are built to be disposable. Old is character. New is faceless.

I have an old truck that is made out of two giant pieces of steel. That's it. Two pieces of steel, 4 rubber tires and an engine. When it breaks down there are like three things to check and that's it.

Would I love a brand new car with five adjustable climate zones, a Sequential Manual Gearbox, heated seats, a 131° reversing camera and a robot that tells me when to make a left? Sure, but it isn't necessary and certainly doesn't mean its better. I think 'better', like beauty and obscenity, is in the eye of the beholder. If having all those modern luxuries is better to you, cool.

If you like things bare bones then you'll realise all that shit isn't necessary. Just like we all seemed to get along just fine before microwaves. Just like we all seemed to get along just fine before computers. Just like we all seemed to get along just fine before beepers. Before the Internet. Before laptops. Before cell phones. Before Mapquest and mp3's. Before flat screen televisions. And so on.

We couldn't imagine life now without our cell phones or whatever the personal digital assistant of the day happens to be but somehow, remarkably, we seemed to survive just fine in those dark, gloomy days before they were invented and became mandatory after-market human appendages.

Anyway, the only reason I'm here writing this is because I've been thinking of getting a landline in my haus after all. For years I absolutely loathed talking on a cellphone inside my apartment. I used to have a landline specifically for that pet peeve. But once I realised I was paying like $130 a month for my cellphone I figured it was foolish to afford both.

Does anyone know where I can find some cheap service? Not Verizon. Not Time Warner cable-phone. None of that shit. I want some half-assed start up company. Are those fly-by-night "ZTel"-esque companies still around? I wanna pay like $20 a month TOPS. Hook me up, will ya?

I wanna hear that loud ring echo through the house and bounce off the ceilings. I want people to hear me loud and crisp and clear. Doesn't it ever seem like we're doing a Killing Time and taking one step forward and two steps back with cellular technology? There used to be no such thing as "dropped calls". That term is quite new to the worldwide lexicon. Fuck "dropped calls" and cellphones so thin I like my cheese sliced thicker.

I want a goddamn curly cord attached to my phone. I wanna pass that big, dumb receiver around when Aunt Irene calls on Christmas Eve. I want to be strangled by that cord stretching from the kitchen into the living room. I need a phone I can beat someone to death with not swallow when the spies come! Those old phones had actual cast iron bells inside them! I mean, c'mon!

Back in the day phones were owned by the telephone companies rather than the homeowners, and so they were built to an industrial standard that simply does not exist these days.

Henry Dreyfuss' famous "Model 500" was the original rotary phone for Bell back in the dizzy. They were replaced about 30 years ago by touch-tone service and the communists.

When Henry Dreyfuss was first approached by Bell Laboratories about redesigning the telephone, it was as part of a program for artists to conceive the future of the telephone. Dreyfuss declined, insisting that the "appearance should developed from the inside out." Bell at first disagreed, only to return months later with the news that while the other artists offered original designs, they were all impractical.

My Grandma had this exact phone up until a few years ago. It was in her kitchen and we'd pass it around on the holidays to say hello to whichever relative was calling from parts unknown before she put out the struffoli. The phone had turned a yellowy beige from years and years of kitchen heat and olive oil. She'd had it since my mom was a kid.

Such began a remarkably fruitful partnership. Bell Telephone, while perhaps an evil regulated monopoly, deserves some props for their appreciation of good design. They had the insight to hire Saul Bass to redesign their logo in 1969, and to work with Dreyfuss.

Anyway, Dreyfuss presents all the factors that went into the phone design: ergonomics, maintenance, aesthetics. You can read more about it at the National Design Museum's site on "Documenting the Process". And it's worth viewing the evolution of the shape of the handset.

The ubiquity of the telephone means that we tend to forget what an amazing design artifact it is. What Dreyfuss could have never guessed was just how wildly popular this design would be -- I can't find the page now, but I came across a statistic of something on the order of 90,000,000 such phones produced. And, as a sign of the design's brilliance, when Ma Bell released a touch-tone phone, the basic shape of the Dreyfuss 500 series remained intact.

It's an actual crime these things are only rolled out once a year.

It's worth going a step back, and thinking about the design of telephone calls. Using a telephone is so simple, we forget how remarkably complicated the process actually is. The genius of Alexander Graham Bell, and the phone system in general, is that they placed all the complexity on the other end of the phone -- at phone switches and the like. The user interface to the phone was made intentionally basic... From party lines (pick up the phone and just talk) to operator assisted calls (pick up the phone and tell the nice lady what you want) to telephone dialing that allowed instant access to pretty much anywhere in the world.

Phones were meant to have heft, and be easy to use. And because it was in Ma Bell's interest that customers never need to replace the phone (since the phone was 'free' with your service), they were designed to pretty much last forever. Compare that to the shoddiness of contemporary phone design.

This place sells original Dreyfuss 500 rotary phones for $40 a pop. HOLLA.

My parents had this one growing up.

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