some things change, others stay the same...

was browsing through a local hardware store the other day and saw the below small, plastic mirror clips.

the design/part is very common and can be found produced by a wide variety of manufacturers in all kinds of retail outlets.

what caught my attention was the art deco styling. i havent done any real research, but to me, looks like a design that perhaps first came out a long time ago (20’s/30’s?) , with the advent of the first plastic molding, as a part with some style, and hasnt changed in decades… its not something that really needs to be updated, so somewhere along the line, was just accepted as “standard”. there are other types/options, but by far this type seems the most common.

i was wondering if there are other products like this out there that have some sort of dated “style” that hasnt changed in years, for lack of need, etc. looking for things that do have a particular design, not just utilitarian/functional (ie. paperclips, pencils, etc.).

any thoughts/insight into how/why design phenomenon like this exist would also be interesting. it’s not for any particular project, just my own curiosity.

got any good examples?

(sorry for the small pic, was all i could find online)


Switch plate covers and receptacles. I never noticed how these haven’t changed until I met a designer from Argentina. In his portfolio he had a project that had a neat little modular system of receptacles and switches. I really dug it, but he said that there are a few competing companies in Argentina in this market. All of those companies hire designers to differentiate their products.

i dunno, i think the wall plates fall more into the functional/utilitarian category. not really designed, IMHO…


why not?

well really, is there any added design/style to them? the plates are pretty much the most basic shape/form with no decoration, etc. no more design than a you could say a blank piece of paper is designed. sure i bet there was some engineering gone into them (wall thickness considerations, etc.), but at least wasn’t really what i was looking for in terms of examples.

looking more for something that has been styled/designed at one point, then pretty much never evolved/changed. retro stuff doesnt count, btw.

a few other examples that could count might be the basic bic pen, zippo lighter.

ideally though i was trying to find stuff like the mirror clip that was so obviously styled/design and persisted as though it was just overlooked. the zippo/bic may have stayed the same, but seems more delibrate as a branding choice.

hope this makes some sense.


hows this? clearly a 30’s/40’s style thats just kept on going. although im sure at some point it kinda became retro, so maybe not 100% on point.

here’s another good one. brannock shoe measuring device. again, totally 30’s/40’s style graphics and all.


a design that perhaps first came out a long time ago (20’s/30’s?) , with the advent of the first plastic molding, as a part with some style, and hasnt changed in decades… its not something that really needs to be updated, so somewhere along the line, was just accepted as “standard”. there are other types/options, but by far this type seems the most common.

fits that definition perfectly though, it hasn’t been styled but it was still designed, no? [/quote]

I see your point. How about this:

How much more Canadian can you get than a baseboard heater? I don’t know. Stelpro’s baseboard has been in production for decades, Chromalux’s too. I think the Ouellet might be a little newer. Probably 90% of baseboard heaters sold are decades old designs. Reasons they never change: inertia. There are barely any designers in the business right now (maybe only me…I’m not even sure). Historically, management has not seen any advantage in changing the look of the products.

Interestingly, we will be seeing less of these in the future. Building codes are changing and centrally heating will ban the baseboard to only occasional use.

never thought of baseboard heaters as “canadian”, but i think you’re right. i remember one of those in my basement as a kid. dunno if i would consider it “styled/designed”, so much in the same category as the others…

How about the paint brush? The wooden handle paintbrush has been around for quite a while, but is not just a utilitarian design with no other logical options because in the last five years or so, new configurations and materials have been popping up, but still not as successful as the original. For instance, Wooster’s rubber handle brush or Rubbermaid’s ergonomically designed brush. I did a project with one of the big paint companies and learned that the wooden handle isn’t even the cheapest or easiest solution but still its the one that sells the best.

or maybe the drinking fountain designed a while ago, other options are available, but still you see the old standard.

Part of this could be that the purchasers have been specifying them their whole career. And someone who trained them told them they had been specifying the item for years and no one complained then either. Maybe this is what happens when you don’t pay attention to details.

hmmm. maybe ill rephrase the question.

im looking more specifically for examples that overt styling to them from a certain era that has persisted over time. art deco details, 50’s streamlining, etc. the objects i have in mind are more those that have never been redesigned, or overlooked, and the design stands out as an example from a particular era.

i dont think the paintbrush or waterfountain really fit. paintbrush is more utilitarian, and waterfountain is too new, at least the example pic you got.

Maybe this- could fit, but not sure if it has constantly been in production, or was reissued as quasi-retro, but the graphics are definitely dated. (in a good way, i think).


I for one find this thread fascinating. Occasionally someone will redesign one of these objects to much attention and accolades (home fire extinguishers? paint buckets?) But there are many more objects out there that haven’t changed in decades…

The mirror pin example is really a good one as i looked for brackets a couple years ago when i had to hang a mirror and this one style was mainly what was available besides using aluminum extrusions… (I opted for a completely different solution.)

Of course the common wall lightswitch is ubiquitous but there are other options with additional functions now… The same for many of these (lighters, pencil sharpeners, measure cups, paintbrushes). I don’t see how these objects are any different (for purposes of this discussion) than pencils or hundreds of other things where there are design options - even if the “old style” is still the most common style. (toilets, light bulbs, tea cups, baby bottles, silverware, …) Occasionally i find myself irritated at some things such as lightbulbs, where coiled fluorescents could offer expanded variety but instead mimic (poorly) the incandescents they replace. (I know, i know, so they can fit existing light fixtures which themselves have been limited by the incandescent bulbs… - but thats my point, there could be a lot more flexibility in light fixture design with the incandescent bulb limitation removed or changed.)

It seems to me that the drinking fountain isn’t really designed to be attractive yet as an architectural appendage, it should be. I would think there should be dozens of designs of this product to fit different demographics and architectural styles! but usually you see just this one or a custom made one out of a column of cement…

looks like some good material for a design challenge!

bathroom accessories come to mind: soap dishes, toothbrush holders, cups, etc.

The first molded ones in bakelite had the ‘tortoiseshell’ variegated colors. Later cast, later injection molded, still today they maintain the variegated swirling colors.

Years ago I toured a molding plant where they had some old machines still molding these items. Now rare and obscure, the plant manager delighted in explaining the barrel was a plunger, no screw, which is how they achieved the swirly colors, with two different color pellets.

The things you learn…

There are more contemporary coolers than the one shown. The best selling newer cooler is shown in the rendering and first photo.

The basic form factor of most coolers is similar for a few reasons. The need to comply with ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) regulations is a primary one. The internals, some of which are normally purchased parts, and their arrangement for airflow and servicing is another. If that doesn’t inhibit creativity enough, marketing often wants the mounting and connections to be in the same place as older units for ease of retrofit. There are also issues such as the fabrication capabilities or preferences of the manufacturer, vandal resistance and of course tooling and manufacturing costs.

I’m sure everyone on the forums (with the possible exception of students, who usually get a rude awakening when they get their first job) is frustrated by similar constraints regardless of the product. It’s really easy to critique a design if you don’t know what the problems were.

When there are fewer constraints and management is receptive, we can have some fun doing something that’s more in keeping with current architecture.

Not sure I agree with this. I do agree having free reign is “fun”. But at the same time, I tend to find that the more (realistic) constraints that are placed on a job makes it easier. Analysis paralysis is a common symptom of open ended designs.

I tend to think that “design freedom” is a myth. Getting everyone to agree on a reasonable set of constraints is the frustrating part. Does a constraint help or hinder the end user or does it just make someone’s job easier?

I couldn’t agree more about total freedom. The hardest projects are those begun with a clean sheet of paper and no guidelines. That said, the constraints can help to explain why a product was designed the way it was. Also note that I didn’t write “no constraints” but “fewer constraints”. At the other end of the scale, there can be so many constraints, all of which may be thought by their proponents to be reasonable and necessary, that you end up perfuming the pig.

In the example shown, cost was a major factor. The bi-level cooler with the tube mounts is much more expensive to produce, but is intended for higher-end applications such as the public or executive areas of buildings. We also had the freedom allowed by mounting the major mechanical components behind the wall.

getting back on topic, im interested if anyone has any more examples that fit the bill ?


Though there have been some attempts to market modern casket designs, there hasn’t been any notable success. The box, or “shell”, has been pretty much the same for decades. Even the hardware, i.e. handles and corners, that are popular are either old designs or slightly updated versions.

The “Cocoon” casket (the designer’s name, not mine) was designed in Europe and won an IDEA Silver Award in 2006. As far as I know the manufacturer (if there is one and this isn’t just a prototype or very short production run) wasn’t able to find a distributor in the States or Canada.

There are some things, like burial services, that seem to be regarded as so traditional that consumers are very resistant to change. The casket industry has, however, been impacted by an increase in cremations. There are various explanations given such as lower cost, a feeling that it’s “greener” and a more mobile population so there’s less emotional connection to a home town in which to be buried.

Despite the fact that they aren’t very comfortable, aren’t easy to make, and don’t hold up well over time (the leg joint with the seat is quite weak), the bow back Windsor Chair is produced on the order of probably at least 10 million / year, maybe even more like 50 million. I don’t know that anyone has ever done the research to support this, but it has to be the best selling chair ever made. There are several factories in Asia that do nothing but make bow back Windsors in rubberwood. They retail for under $50, sometimes under $25, which is astonishing given the number of parts and processes that go into one. And at the high end, you can have the exact same chair, only made by some guy in a workshop in Maine using a different wood, For $500.

The Windsor was designed by some furniture maker in the 17th century.

chair and casket are interesting examples but a little different what i was thinking of. here, they are more examples of people wanting “faux” tradition, i would say, in the same way lots of outdoor household lights, number plates, cast iron patio furtniture, etc. has a olde victorian style to it (plus all the crap at restoration hardware).

in my original post i was thinking more of things like the mirror clip that just never changed with a definite/overt style that was almost overlooked, and not merely retro, or reproduced.

the two examples given would be interesting to look at from another perspective though- new products that are designed to look traditional/antique and products that keep a traditional look but are reproduced in new materials (ie. the house number plates that look like cast iron but are plastic.

still, im looking for more examples that fit the original case, if you got them. ive been thinking for a few days now, and cant find others, but im sure there are. some small hardware store stuff im sure must be out there (not hammers or anything) that is still art deco for no particular reason…