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January 21, 2009

Giving a hand to the tools we use.

When it comes to utilitarian objects, which do you prefer: beauty or brains? I agree, both would be ideal, and having both is possible, but for this example, you have to choose. When it comes to the tools you use every day, do you reach for them because they’re attractive or because you like how they work?

I was in an Apple store recently, watching how customers react to products on the shelves. In that sleek white environment, everything begs to be touched, picked up and held. Thumbs spin iPod wheels, index fingers stroll across iPhone screens, palms roll track balls to and fro. It’s a den of fondling. And it occurred to me that what Apple has so brilliantly done, is reconnected us to the joy of play. There is great appeal in fooling around with something that is accessible and easy to use. 


 

Which made me wonder about objects that aren’t technology-based. Can something as mundane as a saltshaker, for example, elicit the same sense of playful fascination? More importantly, can it do so without sacrificing functionality? I know you’ve heard of Steve Jobs. Now let me introduce you to Beat Wietlisbach.

Wietlisbach’s story (you knew there had to be a story) begins in 1997, when he was traveling around New Zealand. Among his backpacking gear was a stash of salt, which he kept in a 35mm film canister. As you’ve already guessed, one day the top of the canister popped off, and salt was scattered throughout his gear and unmentionables. After a few choice words and a bit of foot stomping, Wietlisbach finished his trip salt-free, and began work on a new kind of saltshaker. 


His goal was to create a spill-proof container that keeps contents dry, clean and hygienic, in any environment. The first prototype was made of aluminum, which was very strong, but too heavy to be practical for travel. Wietlisbach pursued various types of plastics, and returned home to Switzerland to work with experts in natural and synthetic compound technologies. When a solution was found in food-grade polymer, a prototype was sent off with the Swiss Alpine members, who spent two years in the field (budget control anyone?) testing Wietlisbach’s saltshaker.

Using feedback from the field, Wietlisbach made his design even smarter. For starters, he made the two caps differently shaped to help differentiate salt and pepper, even in the dark. Like the Apple products mentioned earlier, as soon as this saltshaker is in your hand, everything about it is intuitive. And for me, there’s something in its spring-loaded caps and sleek clear body that elicits a feeling of play. Wietlisbach also made it possible to unscrew the shaker heads to transform the container into an airtight and watertight case for pills. (For others, this might be how it elicits a feeling of play.)


Ever since it proved it could stand up to the rigors of the Matterhorn, the Swiss Salt and Pepper Shaker has been used in expeditions worldwide, including treks across the frozen Arctic with Marc Cornelissen and up Mt. Everest with Wilco de Rooij. Its most recent voyage brought it to Design Within Reach.

One more thing, should you have drawers full of old film canisters, the following “recipe” might be a fun way to put them to use. It could also serve as a way to signal for help, should you get lost in the woods, carrying all your old film canisters.

Film Canister Rocket
You’ll need:
-An empty 35mm plastic film canister and lid (it’s rumored that the semitransparent canisters work best)
-One Alka-Seltzer tablet
-Water
-Safety goggles

How to create your rocket:
1. Put on your goggles
2. Put one half of the antacid tablet in the canister
3. Add a teaspoon of water to the canister
4. Quickly put on the cap and snap it tightly
5. Quickly put it cap-side-down and step back
In a few seconds, the film canister will launch into the air. In the event of a misfire, wait at least 30 seconds before approaching the canister. Launching the rocket outdoors is recommended.

Comments

Congrats on the launch. And the new blog looks incredible.

This was a very interesting and informative article.

"The Swiss Salt and Pepper Shaker is intuitive to use and fits in the palm of your hand (left). The Matterhorn, elevation 14.692ft (right)"
Really nice parallel :D
fine blog by the way!

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