Design your life to include more money, health and happiness with less stuff, space and energy.

Design your life to include more money, health and happiness with less stuff, space and energy.

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?

Via Good

Image Credit:

  • Alm11

    I have that pot/pan and I love it.

    • Red Glass

      Ford 8N Tractor.

  • A Le Creuset stock pot, some Montblancs, a set of Henckel knives (and 1 Shun) and a pair of Fisker, stainless steel scissors that can be taken apart and sharpened easily. I also plan on buying an old car (most likely VW Beetle) to work on to give my son when he becomes of age. He’s 2 now, so I have a few years. 

  • Beth

    Citroën 2CV, Lenox Eternal china, my sterling silverware, French jelly jar glasses, all my Le Creuset, wax sealer, fountain pen, LLBean clothes, Fisker scissors (both straight and pinking),some Coleman camp gear, and vintage linens.

  • Lilian

    I have a double boiler that I use on an average 3 time a week for the past 10 years. The parts can be replaced as and when needed. But alas the newer ones have been made with the main parts not replaceable. Sigh. I just bought a Kitchenaid food processor. Hope it holds up. Was worried when I read the part in your article that says ” older Kitchenaid products”.

    I guess, it doen’t make business sense if you made something last forever.

  • Anna K.

    Pfaff sewing machines made before 1990 (the later models had computer issues). Elna sewing machines are also very good.

    My Fiskar scissors broke, so I replaced them with tailor shears from a company that sells patternmaking supplies to fashion designers. Where heirloom goods aren’t available, industrial ones can work very well because they are made to endure much heavier usage than ordinary consumer goods.

    And don’t forget Schwinn bicycles!

  • Sdsunset2

    sometimes, though, you want to buy for the looks. they might be a classic now, but 50 years down the line? how about safety? 

  • Sdsunset2

    sometimes, though, you want to buy for the looks. they might be a classic now, but 50 years down the line? how about safety? 

  • Thyeargin

    Cast iron skillet that belonged to my Grandmother who passed away in 1985.  Well season and cooks perfectly.

  • Rainsong graphite acoustic guitars. These are made in the USA (Hawaii), and since graphite is impervius to climate changes and sunlight damage, they will outlast any other instrument on Earth while keeping their original sound intact. And for electrics, the list is ample: Steinberger, Basslab, Aristides…

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  • I love the idea of giving your children gifts that will be “the only *somethignarother* they’ll ever need to use” it’s a fabulous combination of usefulness and sentiment.

    The trouble with durable design is that its very difficult to hit upon a true classic, that folks of different generations will want to use for their entire lives. Our children might not find the same things useful and beautiful as we do and it should probably be up to them to choose the ‘forever’ objects that speak to them rather than having designs handed down from generations past.

    Certainly when I buy things I seek out “forever items”; things I expect to enjoy using for my whole life.

  • Setter Rob

    Pelikan fountain pens are much better than the better known Montblanc, but the $20 Safari is pretty good too. Noodler’s ink is the best. Rhodia paper products. I use my Benchmade carbon steel pocket knife a dozen times a day or more. My Brady shoulder bag is still giving some use 30 years after I bought it. Blundstone ankle boots. Almost anything by Patagonia, though they don’t seem to have gotten the knack with wool. Furniture made of solid wood, not veneer; scratch it, dent it, stain it, and it just gains more character. The model 98 Mauser, preferably a German one; mine was made in 1908 and can drive tacks. Vintage linens. Wool blankets either from Faribault or Macausland.

    • AA2theron

      My Safari lasted 2 years (4 semesters in college) before the nib mount wore out. Prior to that I used a Montblanc refill in a Pilot G2 body. But you’re mostly spot on in my book. If you can’t get a 98 get a Mosin-Nagant.

  • KDG

    My Pashley bicycle, hand-built in England, is the only bike I will ever need. I use my grandfather’s hand-me-down Sheaffer’s pen while working at the desk he built. I think my Henckles will last me forever too!

  • Rootsman

    My mission cyrus hifi system. Uk made, bought it in 1993. These hifi components still look the same after 20 years and sound fantastic. Analogue source is a technics sl 1200 record player; build like a tank. Too bad that my records are taking lots of space, but who cares, it’s a hobby not clutter.

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