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‘What makes you think you’re so special?’ That’s the title of a collection of thought provoking designs from Sony’s recent exhibition at the Blue Note Gallery. Are they a wry comment on nineties technology or blueprints for the future? Pretentious analysis from our resident art critic supplied at no extra cost...



A fusion of technology, fine art and fashion design; that’s how Sony described their exhibition of concept products, shown at London’s Blue Note Gallery. The project took the best part of a year to organise and formed part of the company’s 50th anniversary celebrations. Sony have cultivated a close relationship with the international design community, stretching back many years. Their philosophy of amalgamating design with manufacture has obviously paid off and succeeded in giving their products an edge in the consumer electronics market. In a world dominated by anonymous black boxes, Sony have a clear and distinct image, that helps them to stand out from the crowd.


The top-name designers invited to take part were given a selection of products and a open brief, to make them look as different as possible, combining elements of design and technology. The only proviso was that the equipment  should continue to function as normal.


Sony are not alone in fostering an association with famous (and not so famous), designers, though it’s notable they’re one of the few Japanese companies to have done so, with such conviction. European and American high-end hi-fi manufacturers have been enthusiastic supporters of the designer-label culture for many years, a few -- like B&O, B&W, Krell and SME -- have even become design icons in their own right. However, the appearance of well-known names on more affordable consumer electronics products is a fairly recent development. One of the more fruitful alliances has been between Ferguson’s parent company Thomson and top French designer Philippe Starck. His influence has become evident across their TV and VCR ranges during the past couple of years. Philips recently sponsored a series of studies by young designers in Italy and Holland, called Television at the Crossroads, culminating in a major exhibition of concept tellies at the Pompidou Centre in Paris in January last year.


We’ve put together a selection of the designs on show at the Blue Note exhibition. Most of them are fairly outrageous or impractical but several have features or elements that could be incorporated into mass-produced consumer electronics equipment. Will they ever make it into production? ‘It doesn’t end here’ says Sony spokesperson Simon Goodman; ‘our objective is to bring these concepts through to the marketplace, the question we’re now asking ourselves, is how can we do it’. We await with interest...



Top Turkish fashion and interior designer Rifat Ozbek’s contribution illustrates what can be done to play down the clinical high-tech profile of a MiniDisc Walkman. Bold painted stripes of colour and silver, reflecting Mr Ozbek’s background, help to break and soften up the rectangular shape.


Flags of many nations; now there’s an idea for Sony. Personal stereos decorated in the national colours of the countries they’re to be sold in could be very popular, especially with UK soccer fans.



Encasing one of Sony’s 28-in widescreen TVs in a light wooden surround neutralises the stark metallic grey exterior, giving it an ‘organic’ quality. The integrated ‘lighthouse’ lamp on the top adds a touch of functionality, and distracts the eye from the darkened screen, when it’s switched off.


Wood-box TVs are making a bit of a comeback, though there’s the inevitable concern over sustainability and the environmental impact of using of certain hard woods. Unfortunately knotty pine just doesn’t look the same, and mock-wood finishes remain very unconvincing!



A characteristically brash comment on the role of TV and video in 90’s music. The 28-inch widescreen TV has been transformed into a prickly, dangerous-looking object, reminiscent of a bomb or mine. It’s difficult to ignore, though the use of strong colours reaffirms its purpose as a source of entertainment.


We foresee some practical difficulties with this design, not least the possibility of viewers impaling themselves on the spikes, and the extra room needed to accommodate the box; maybe if they were made of soft foam...



Graphic artist and cartoonist Steven Bliss focuses on the strong visual persona of the camcorder, in this case a CCD-TR485. Intense colours and comic characters scattered around the panels, the eye-like lens and the smile beneath, stress the fun side of video movie-making, guaranteeing an animated response from those behind, and in front of the lens.


Very striking, and very easy for Sony, and other camcorder manufacturers to do, though doubtless it would add to the price. Several manufacturers have marketed models with brightly coloured cases elsewhere in the world, but not in the UK. Apparently they think we would not take them seriously...



Diesel Jeans have used their familiar livery and logo to very good effect, to brighten up this CCD-TR780 camcorder and MDR D77 headphones. The machine sits on a Diesel dragster  (the wheels can just be seen), a witty observation on the speed and mobility of modern technology perhaps?


And why not? Anything that livens up the dour appearance of most camcorders, makes them visually more exciting, has to be welcomed. There’s a major opportunity here for special editions, that would command a healthy price premium. There could even be investment potential, look at the prices of early limited edition Swatch watches!



Python skin -- it’s the real thing -- is used by shoe designer Patrick Cox, to encase a number of Sony products, including the CMD-H355 -- their latest analogue mobile phone -- MDR-D77 headphones and a TV remote control handset. The amalgam of once living, breathing animal skin, inert plastics and semiconductors blunts the sharp distinction between technology, and the people who use it.


We’re a little uneasy about the use of real animal skins for this one, and the snakes probably aren’t too happy either.



Clothes designer Karen Savage calls this pair of shocking pink MDR-D77 headphones ‘Beautiful is Painful, and it’s not difficult to see why; try wearing those in bed... Holmes from Slam City Skates has integrated a TR485 camcorder into the head of this model Star Wars ‘AT-AT’ Desert Walker. We’re not exactly sure why, or what it is supposed to mean, something to do with the threat of video surveillance in society, you work it out... Oddly enough it doesn’t look out of place. It’s Patrick Cox again, with another dead python (or two) covering a 28-inch widescreen TV, symbolising the pressure TV has on our lives. Is Alexander McQueen a James Bond fan? Maybe not, there’s something a lot more sinister about his golden TV, and the fact that he insisted on the movie Taxi Driver being show, suggests an undercurrent of violence.




Ferguson certainly got their money’s worth out of French design guru Philippe Starck, when they let him loose on the FV88 Super VHS video recorder. This boxy, minimalist design which first appeared in late 1994, provided them with a template, that they’ve used ever since.


Occasionally, very occasionally, a VCR stands out from the regiment of boring black boxes. The Philips VR-969 Super VHS machine is one of the few, not for any high-tech style points, clever or innovative features, but a bloody great analogue clock, slap bang in the middle of the front panel. Brilliant!


TVs all look the same these days, except this one, which, for some completely unaccountable reason takes its styling cues from a Fresian cow. BSE has got a lot to answer for...





* The Electrolux combination TV/fridge/microwave oven, to save you having to trek to the kitchen to get a cold beer or snack


* A modular AV system, designed by Lego, that clips together, without cables or connectors


* A Swatch VCR, with a transparent casing, lit up inside, so you can see the gubbins inside


* A CD player with an open-top deck, so you can fiddle with the disc, as it goes round


* Tough, waterproof, remote control handsets, that can be thrown at a TV or brick walls




Ó R. Maybury 1996 1009


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