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One man's kitsch

MY wife and I went shopping recently for a kitchen timer for my mother-in-law. We darted into one of those shops with a European flair that specialize in items for the kitchen and bath. And, lo and behold, hanging there on the wall in what the retail trade calls a ``blister pack'' was the perfect kitchen timer. We gratefully grabbed it and hurried to the cash register. After paying, we turned to leave when my eye fell on another kitchen timer. But this one was to the first as a Ferrari is to a Jeep. It featured a flat area encircling the round timer switch with crisp, white numbers on a black background. And its very presence said, Buy me!

``Wait,'' I said to my spouse. ``Look at this one! It's a really neat design.'' She agreed, and we switched timers with the salesclerk (who, I might add, was happy because the second one was almost twice the price of the first).

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Now I used to be a design maven. I thought every item I owned had to be a reproduction of an object existing in the Museum of Modern Art's Design Collection. I coveted those West German electric toothbrushes that looked as if they had been carved by Brancusi himself. I yearned for the perfect living room, which would consist of chrome and leather chairs and a glass and chrome coffee table sitting on a sisal rug. Every appliance in my kitchen, from the toaster to the juicer, had to be clean, crisp, and contemporary.

It even got to the point that I couldn't walk into someone's home without automatically shifting into critical gear and noticing all the garish furnishings (or so I thought). ``Harrummph,'' I'd grumble. ``This place looks like it was done in busy Baroque.''

Then somewhere I changed. I don't think I accepted the inevitability of what I considered design ``kitsch,'' but I began to accept the fact that there were many different levels of taste. And that maybe -- just maybe -- my taste was not the ultimate test of what was universally best.

Now this is hard for someone trained as an industrial designer to admit. You feel as if it's your ordained responsibility to bring ``good'' design to the public (even if the public's notion of what's ``good'' is different from your own). You chafe against the possibility that someone else can come up with an equally good design solution. And you rebel against whatever is stylistically gauche or commonplace.

Yet it's sometimes the commonplace that expresses the best design. For downright honesty of form and content you can't beat a wooden clothespin, a pair of metal pliers, or a screwdriver. They don't pretend to be what they're not. And they get the job done.

Which brings us back to the timers. I was attracted to the first for its blunt honesty. It wasn't pretending to be anything but a kitchen timer.

The one we bought . . . well, it did have a couple of extra features. . . . But I think what really sold me was its intelligence, purity, and grace . . . classic qualities, of course, . . . expressed in modern terms.

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Paul Sedan

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