Continuation of Fast Company’s MODs…
By: Danielle Sacks
Like musicians, we think through our hands,” says Gadi Amit, fondling three pieces of raw wood precariously bound together with masking tape. Amit has built his 22-year career designing award-winning technology devices for brands such as Dell, Palm, and Verizon; this year, he took top honors in the International Design Excellence Awards. Yet the 47-year-old industrial designer is curiously enamored of the power of craft. “Designers here are so computer minded; I say, ‘You guys have computer vertigo, go down to the shop,’ ” Amit says, referring to the windowless basement workshop of his San Francisco studio, NewDealDesign. “As you play and sculpt with foam and putty, you actually discover, versus a more analytical or cerebral approach. That it’s ambiguous and inaccurate is a good thing.”
Going analog isn’t Amit’s only unconventional stance. One of the brat pack spawned by Frog Design, he has become an unapologetic critic of the green-design movement. “In the sustainability crowd,” Amit says, “I feel that sometimes beauty is the first thing that takes a hit.” The “beauty” Amit is referring to isn’t some $20,000 chair enclosed in glass at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, but well-built objects so lust-worthy that people will want to hold on to them forever — objects like his prize-winning Slingbox 700U, a media device no bigger than a piece of toast, stripped of a plastic skin in favor of waffled aluminum that is virtually 100% recyclable. “My theory,” says the Israeli native, “is that beauty is a very positive, visceral force that we should harness for sustainability.”
Over coffee in his studio’s loft, Amit talked about how computers are like animals, whether sex appeal trumps carbon footprint, and why buying a Prius may ultimately be an irresponsible act.
FC: How did you end up designing technology?
I wanted to be a car designer, but the design school I went to [in Israel] is a very traditional European-craft type of art school, very much about creating furniture. Nearly antitechnology. But in 1985, I got to know the Macintosh, and I fell in love with it. It’s an intelligent object, and since then, I’ve only dealt with things that aren’t just docile objects; they have behaviors.
Some people view technology as cold, sterile. You don’t agree?
When I started playing with hard-core technology, I started to realize there is an architectural problem in putting together complex objects; like animals, they have organs. All these computers, these machines, have a brain, so you have to figure out where to put the brain, and the brain is usually next to the face, which is where you interact with people, so those are buttons and the screens. Then there’s the plumbing, the digestive system, and how you organize it. Much of the work we do today is essentially deciding whether an object has a body, a head, and four limbs, or a body, a head, and no limbs. It’s that fundamental.
You began your career in the Middle East but have spent most of it around Silicon Valley. You’ve seen a lot of shifts in design along the way.
The ’90s were the roaring age of product development meets design. It was basically the first time where the wide culture, not some geek enclave, met the digital age — the first mass distribution of cell phones, PDAs, Web appliances. The 2000s started with this nearly insane drive for all things Web. At the same time, China and Asia became a huge product-development force. Design became driven by a cult of personality, by a culture detached from delivering products for common people. The notion that some European superstar designer builds a chair that costs $20,000 has both a philosophical and a cultural richness, but it’s also related directly to the social indulgence of an economy going out of control.
When the economic crisis hit, was that the end of that era?
What happened in 2008 was not just an economic meltdown, it was a social realignment. If a designer in the ’70s opted to sell a chair that was a million units, a designer at the end of the ’90s or early 2000s wanted to sell two chairs that became a collector’s item. That ended in 2008 because the people who financed that were the guys who messed with our mortgages.