0314MEM_CoverMy friends tell me that it’s called a midlife crisis. I tell them they’re nuts. After all, I’ve been hankering for a Vespa since I was in my early 30s, and that’s hardly considered midlife, except maybe if you’re under the age of 15. Besides if it was really a midlife crisis you’d think I’d opt for the much faster and muscular Harley than a Vespa.

Well, maybe that’s not entirely so. I love the way the Vespa looks, and I like the way it makes me feel. The sleek lines, the shiny paint—of course, it has to be red. The more retro the model, the more I’m attracted to it.

The iconic design takes me back to when I was seven years old and visited my Italian relatives for the first time, in the small town of Penna San Giovanni, situated in the Adriatic-hugging region of Le Marche. My uncle Leo (for some reason they called him Ennio) had an old, light blue Vespa. It was beat up but served as the primary transport to town, which was a few miles away from the farmhouse that he, my aunt Gina, and my cousins lived in growing up—and boy, could uncle Ennio slaughter a pig with his bare hands to make insane prosciutto.

Product designs become iconic for many reasons. For me, the Vespa takes me back to my days as an innocent kid when an uncle I barely knew and who spoke a language I barely recognized would lift me on the back of his scooter and take me for a ride. I still remember hugging hard at uncle Ennio’s waist and hanging on for dear life as he would whiz through the dirt roads of Penna, seemingly oblivious to the skinny little kid sitting behind him. I see a Vespa today and it tugs at the strings of my heritage.

Our cover story this month, a series of vignettes written by top industrial designers and compiled by associate editor Alan Brown, looks at six product designs that fall into the iconic category. Some of the products are more publicly recognizable as icons than others, but all, as Brown says, perfectly match form with function. “They not only make a promise; they deliver.”

Industrial design is art that, like the works of master painters and other artists, moves us and transports us to places we’ve been or experiences we’ve had. Contemporary industrial design wows us with functionality, making our lives easier and our tasks more pleasant. Sometimes we don’t recognize a product as anything special, and what turns a design iconic is the passing of time.

I’m too young to have used the black Western Electric Model 302 phone, but I’m old enough to remember the equally iconic, old pink Princess telephone that was still in use in my house to make those overseas calls to Zio Ennio and Zia Gina when I was a kid. Nobody thought that the pink phone was anything really special back then, unless you were a teenage girl who yearned to have one on her nightstand. Others, like the iPhone, become icons the minute they appear.

This may just be the year when I finally get my (red) Vespa to zoom around town myself. As for butchering a pig, I might need a little more encouragement.


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The Editor

John G. Falcioni is Editor-in-Chief of Mechanical Engineering magazine, the flagship publication of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers.

March 2014

Twitter from John Falcioni

Twitter from Engineering for Change

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