Alexandra Lange | Essays

From the Cabat to the City

Large Houndstooth Cabat, Bottega Veneta, 2009

I've often complained about the New Yorker's coverage of design and architecture (Zaha Hadid: too personal; James Dyson: too gee-whiz). I must give credit where credit is due. Last week's profile of Bottega Veneta designer Tomas Maier opens with a set of personal fusses with which I think most design people would identify, from a publicist who removes lint from writer John Colapinto's suit ("If that's there, he won't be able to think of anything else.") to the news that Maier removed the H from his first name to achieve lettristic balance (Oddly, I have also always found Tomas more attractive than Thomas).

But the following paragraph sums up the quest of a certain species of industrial designer in language everyone can understand.
For instance, the coffee saucer at the Bulgari Hotel, in Milan, where he used to stay. "It drove me crazy," he told me. "Every morning. You lifted up the cup and by the time you put it down -- because the saucer was too curved up -- the spoon had always slid down." With a certain fierce pleasure, he pantomimed the entire act. "Not, in this hand you hold the newspaper, and with this hand you lift the coffee up and have a sip, and you want to put it down and you put it crooked on the saucer because this spoon is underneath. You drip half the coffee overm so that means you have to put the paper down, you have to take the glasses off, pick up the spoon --" He threw up his hands. "I mean, hello! Whoever designed that should have designed it right."
(I hope the Bulgari Hotel is ordering new china as we speak.)

The irony, of course, is that this explication of product design specificity occurs in a profile of a fashion designer, which usually seem to me (at least as profiled in the New Yorker) a different breed from the designers about which I write. The minimal drama of the profile, in fact, are the ways in which Maier attempts to set himself apart from the stereotypes of his profession: "Who cares how thin he is?" he asks re: Karl Lagerfeld; repeating the woven leather Cabat bag season after season; living in Delray Beach, FL. Saying, in what becomes the article's title: "Just have less." The profile reads as if Maier is trying to be a neo-modern industrial designer in the fashion world, from the engineered-to-flatter shapes of his own line of swimwear, to his rigorously edited swatch library, to the monochrome interiors (by an unidentified architect, typical) of Bottega Veneta's new Milan headquarters.

The Cabat, the world's most fabulous tote bag, is so right for a world where we all have tens of canvas and nylon and string reusable tote bags. Maier suggests -- and this is where the fashion bug gets him -- that we could have one too if we gave up all those other bags. Not likely. Point being, Colapinto delivers a design profile that re-sold me on the intellect and artistry of a $6000 handbag. Would that the New Yorker could more often do the same for something large and public, with texture, like a building.

Posted in: Arts + Culture, Media

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