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Friday, November 5, 2010

Bob Speaks: Of Thermostats and Dining Tables

In 1953 the legendary industrial designer Henry Dreyfuss was asked by the Honeywell Company to redesign one of their most popular and humble products - a thermostat.

I am sure that, no matter what your age, you have run across it: round, and dull-gold and you turn it left or right to set the temperature you want. It took a year to design and hundreds of test models. Just because Mr. Dreyfuss wanted it round.

Years later I met someone who had worked in Dreyfuss's office. He told me, "Whenever we were to re-design something that happened to be originally square, he wanted to make it round. And whenever we were handed something that was round, we were ordered to make it square."

I am convinced that this same perverse philosophy of design is at work every time a visiting bride says, "I really want to have rectangular tables. Don't you have any?"

This obsession to be different for the sake of being different, is no doubt thanks to the nagging of the Wicked Witch of Katona (you know, the one who owns a magazine and way too many other things). Of course, the irony is, as soon as everyone succumbs to her hypnotic suggestion, rectangles won't be "different" anymore, and the World's Foremost Authority will declare round tables the "in" thing once more.

But let us rise above the trendiness, and ask ourselves: where are rectangular tables the norm? Prison dining halls (See Jimmy Cagney in White Heat as he jumps all over them; in Army messes (remember Mash?); and - most recently - Harry Potter's Hogwarts. All the epitome of the regimented, militaristic, mass-production dining experience.

And should I point out the fact that rectangular seating arrangements are the death of human interaction at the table? Who can you relate to except the two or three people you are closest to? King Arthur was on to something.

And should we add that half the guests will have to crick their necks to see the speeches and antics on the dance floor? Or that they will be forced to walk 30 feet out of their way to get to the buffet?

That venerable Honeywell thermostat should live on - I like it. It's a perfect example of form and function.  But I can only hope that this mania for rectangular tables will eventually pass, and we will return to civilized, and somewhat elegant dining floor plans.

But that dishwater-blonde crone from Katona may have to croak first.