Moody Hues of Design

WASHINGTON POST

Not so long ago, everything cool was black. Sound systems, laptops, cell phones and designer T-shirts all contributed to a somber tableau of minimalist chic.

Then designers developed coloritis. In the iMac era, Apples and New Beetles rolled out in kiwi green and lemon yellow. Vacuum cleaners were transformed into decorative objects by hues once reserved for motorcycle helmets. Pasta forks popped up in tangerine plastic. So what if orange clashed with the red clam sauce? They looked great in the dishwasher.

But an aesthetic based on comic book colors can be too strong to wear well. As the 2001 Industrial Design Excellence Awards, announced Friday, make clear, the design world is moving on. The new black, to borrow a term from fashion, is not a color. It's a mood.

"We're already seeing the shift," says industrial designer Bill Moggridge of IDEO, which won nine awards, including one for the Amtrak Acela Express.

Moggridge likens the next phase to Shinto, the ancient religion of Japan. Religious followers celebrate balance among the forces of man, nature and the cosmos. Designers presumably will strive for balance and harmony through simplicity of line and use of natural materials. The hallmark of this design would be elegance in a quiet package.

Apple's Titanium PowerBook G4 is a prime example. It comes in a silvery, slim case and weighs just 5.3 pounds. Jurors gave it gold for "understated elegance."

In all, the Great Falls, Va.-based Industrial Designers Society of America conferred 189 awards in categories as disparate as medical gear and toys. Winners are viewable on the Web at http://www.idsa.org and are featured in this week's issue of Business Week, a contest co-sponsor.

Among 44 gold medalists, the new serenity was not hard to spot. Nike's portable digital audio player, the "psa/play 120," was sleek. Designed for athletes on the run, the music player stood out for its palm-friendly shape and smooth function.

Karim Rashid's "Soft" lighting series for the George Kovacs company consists of colored glass forms that appear to float inside clear shells. The glass is mouth-blown in Italy. Equally elegant is Bodum's electric Santos coffeemaker, which needs neither filter nor stove top.

There are plenty of exceptions to the Shinto spirit. The Chrysler PT Cruiser, with its retro hot rod roots and gangster aura, vroomed its way to car of the year. Motorola's headset for National Football League coaches drew praise for a swooping single-ear design. And the Theater High Altitude Area Defense Mobile Command Shelter was recognized for a cost-saving, user-friendly concept of swift missile and troop deployment by the Army. The effort was judged "a fascinating example of classic industrial design meeting the science fiction world."

The Rose Center for Earth and Space, the new planetarium at New York's American Museum of Natural History, certainly qualifies as explosive design. The exhibition design by Ralph Appelbaum Associates has won more than 100 awards, in addition to this year's gold IDEA.

The IDEA awards, now in their 22nd year, provide a continuing snapshot of design. A scan of previous winners shows how industrial designers and firms have flourished in the digital era, while countless wholly new objects--such as hand-held computers or IBM's award-winning TransNote electronic legal pad--had to be created from scratch.

But juror Martin Gierke, vice president of industrial design at Black & Decker, acknowledges "it was refreshing to see a return to the simplicity and elegance of product designs that enhance the nondigital aspects of our lives."

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