What is Heirloom Design?
A few years ago, inventor Saul Griffith gave his newborn son a Rolex and a Montblanc pen. Why? Because he wanted these items to be the first and last watch and pen his son needed.
The gifts were a demonstration of what he calls “heirloom design”–the principle that we should design, produce and consume timelessly designed stuff that lasts and can be repaired rather than faddy, disposable stuff with built-in expiration dates.
Heirloom design can sometimes seem counter-intuitive. For example, it’s nice to think that the recycled/refurbished/upcycled product is always the right choice, but often this is not the case. Oftentimes it’s better to use things with higher embedded energy (the collective amount of energy it takes to produce a product) that lasts 5-10 times longer than the “eco” product that’ll wear out in a year or two. In this way, a luxury product like a Rolex can be the smartest, most eco watch you buy.
We think the above Le Creuset pot/pan combo is a perfect demonstration of Griffith’s principle: its cast iron construction surely has a high embedded energy, but its durability and function make it worthy of passing from multiple generations.
Some other products he cited to Good Magazine a couple years ago as heirloom quality are:
Bialetti or Bodum coffee makers, Iittala glassware, Vespa motor scooters, the Citroën 2CV, the Volkswagen Beetle, Lego toys, Zippo cigarette lighters, Montblanc pens, the Land Rover (the old aluminum ones before the queen bought one), the older KitchenAid products
The vast majority of stuff Griffith believes shouldn’t be made at all. He says:
The principal and only way to make an heirloom product is to design something that people will need not just this year, but for the next 50 or 100 years. Choose good materials that will last that long; but in essence, don’t even bother making fad products. If you have to design something, choose things that we need as opposed to frivolous things that we might just want for a month or two for bragging rights. In many respects, designing heirloom products means saying no to designing consumer crap that you know will not last very long.
Griffith was also trying to address the issue of electronics, which have notoriously short-lives. For example, he believes things like upgradable firmware can extend the life of our electronics considerably.
Of mechanical items, an heirloom product should be durable and repairable. This iron by designer Samuel Davies–part of a concept he calls “RepairWare”–is a perfect demonstration of that.
Every piece of it is replaceable and repairable. It can be disassembled with a quarter. Bad news is it’s only a prototype.
Consider keeping the heirloom design ethic in mind with all you purchases. Ask yourself, “Is this something I would/could hand down to the next generation? Is this timelessly designed or something that will seem old in 6 months? Can I fix or repair this? Etc.”
If the answer is no to any or all of these questions, consider getting something worthy of handing down even if it costs more. If you can’t afford that expensive thing, look into used products–if something is old and still in working condition, it’s likely heirloom quality.
What are your favorite heirloom products?
Image Credit: sjdavies.eu