The lights dim. A hush falls over the crowd. And suddenly, Jony Ive’s breathless, halting words float over the crowd: bead-blasted aluminum. Rotational 3D polishing. A protective oxide layer. A magnetized, ultra-fine iron particle bath. A pristine, mirror-like surface. Absolute unity and efficiency.
These mainstays of Apple’s product release cycle are routinely mocked. It’s easy to forget that this preciousness about materials has plenty of precedents in the classical, capital-m modernism that Apple’s design ethos is derived from. Le Corb had concrete. Mies had almost mystical ideas about steel, glass, and marble. Alvar Aalto famously obsessed over wood; stripping it, skinning it, steaming it, bending it. After all, materiality and craft are two pillars of 20th century design.
Ive left one detail out of his paean to the iPhone 7’s industrial design: the fact that if you want it to stay pretty, you’re going to need a case. Apple actually says this in a disclaimer. M.G. Siegler pointed out the fine print today on Twitter: The “jet black” iPhone 7’s “high shine may show fine micro-abrasions with use. If you are concerned about this, we suggest you use one of the many cases available to protect your iPhone.”
It’s a bizarre contradiction: If you want to keep your jet-black iPhone’s shell beautiful, you should expect never to look at it or touch it. The carefully machined body and high-end materials will remain hidden for its useful life–more of an idea than a reality for any user. It’s a funny caveat for a product whose extraordinary price (the 32 GB iPhone 7 plus will cost almost $1,000) is justified in part by its high-end finishes and lovely industrial design.
This isn’t a contradiction that’s unique to the jet-black iPhone 7. As Mark Wilson recently wrote of the iPhone’s extremely crackable screen, it’s “impossibly beautiful because it connotes fragility—the preciousness of something you have to handle with silver polishing gloves. The problem is that it’s actually fragile.” According to this logic, fragile, premium devices are beautiful–even if you can’t look at or touch them. The best-case scenario is that when it’s time to trade it in for the next model and you pry it out of its dirty plastic sarcophagus, its body remains scratchless.
If you consider an iPhone a piece of art, this might be okay with you. But for most people, phones are tools–delightful tools!–that are hopefully also beautiful, maybe as a function of their durability. This is a theme that runs through modernism, too. Use, and the wear and tear that inevitably results from a well-used object, is what gives a design its ambiance, its soul. Japanese culture calls it wabi-sabi, or objects that are perfectly imperfect, as industrial designer Remy Labesque points out.
“Aging with dignity is a criteria designers should recognize in their efforts,” Labesque wrote on Frog’s Designmind blog in 2011, about his scratched iPhone. “I’m thinking of a future when products are designed not for the brief moment when they are new, but for when they have been aged to perfection.” Contemporary design today is filled with examples of designers who are doing just that: rugs that are dyed to fade, revealing new hues. Cor-ten steel, like that often used by the architect David Adjaye, is specifically designed to weather over time. If you truly respect a material, you don’t hide it.
Why can’t Apple embrace the same idea–that objects should be designed to be used, to remain beautiful even as they age? The obvious answer has to do with running a sustainable mega-business and keeping up with a grueling product release schedule. But it’s a shame that Apple, which spends so much time showing us how beautiful and thoughtful its design is, has to warn us against using it.