Built to Last

One advantage of being public school teachers (other than the obvious joys of July and August) is the access to old stuff. Items any business would long ago have relegated to the trash heap still reside in the nooks and crannies of schoolrooms, since we either cannot afford replacements or are too busy corralling children hoping they will sit long enough to learn something.

Toward the end of last school year I helped my wife move classrooms, an arduous task involving lots of dust and spider webs and books carried carefully in borrowed boxes. Amidst the rubble in her new room we found a desk chair. Clearly it had not been used in ages, but no one had banished it to the furniture graveyard out by the auto shop, where wonky tables and chairs with three legs wilt in the sun hoping to be rescued by some scavenging first-year teacher. The chair was vintage industrial, and you could almost see some engineer with black slacks, white short-sleeved shirt, black tie and horn-rimmed glasses sitting in it as he used his slide rule.

Given its age our friend the chair was in decent shape. We took it home and nursed it back to health, my wife wiping off years of grime and graffiti as I oiled squeaky joints. Soon it was near its original glory, bright shiny metal and blue nylon. Only a bolt for the back rest was missing, but a trip to the hardware store would fix that. Then we wheeled it next to my wife’s old metal desk with a linoleum top and drawers that slide as smoothly as they did the day it rolled off the assembly line. Chair and desk looked like long-lost friends reunited after decades apart.

As we worked the smell of WD-40 brought back old, warm memories. I realize this is completely contrary to my nature-loving ethos, but I love the smell of things like oil, turpentine, varnish…anything used for building or fixing things. Those smells always remind me of my father and his father, my Opa. For that matter, anything that is old and well-engineered reminds me of them. Both came from eras when men spent their weekends working on projects around the house. When we were kids my brother used to spend Saturdays following Opa around holding flashlights and handing him tools. One of my greatest regrets is spending most of those mornings watching cartoons instead of with them. There was so much I could have learned, and I don’t even want to think about how much bonding time I missed.

Back then a man knew how to build and fix things. If he didn’t he went to the hardware store, and the people working there knew. To this day my father, though long removed from his engineering education, can still recite formulas and take an idea from his head to paper to finished product without help.

Yet there was something else about this era, something more we are losing in the increasingly feverish pace of society: quality. When an engineer sat down to design a piece of furniture or bridge or airplane, he tried to build the best product he could. People would put their minds together to solve any problem, and tried to build things that would outlast them. Were price and ease of assembly considerations? Of course. Now, however, it seems price is the sole determinant of value, and quality is a distant consideration.

Can you imagine someone fifty years from now finding some particle board bookshelf and gluing it back together? Or squealing in delight upon discovering a discarded plastic CD tower? We have become a disposable society. In our rush for the newest and latest and fastest we are losing our concept of what is good. Price trumps quality or craftsmanship or even basic structural integrity. (Sorry, but tiny shavings of wood glued together and covered with a thin veneer made to resemble wood grain is not real wood.) What’s more, people don’t really seem to care. Furniture and cars and houses used to be designed to last, to have character. Now they are treated like clothes, to be traded in or sent to goodwill like last year’s fashions. To cater to customers’ desires manufacturers are forced to produce things at lower costs. Design is more about style than about quality or durability.

I can’t blame the companies. After all, they are just trying to make money. Why bother making something that lasts fifty years when people will only hold onto it for five or ten? Even if people really like, for example, a particular table, competitors are selling other tables for a tenth the price. Consumers might want the superior product, but most aren’t willing or able to pay the premium companies charge for it. Better products require higher costs for materials and labor, not to mention the loss of future income since people won’t need to replace things as often. Economies of scale have reduced production costs so much that people might want higher quality, but most aren’t willing to pay. In our efforts to improve production technology we are actually making vastly inferior products.

Now I’m not saying I’m against all technological advancement. After all, I have a fast computer and an almost unhealthy affection for my iPhone. But at the risk of being called a Luddite, I feel like I’m reaching a point where I just want to say, “Okay, stop. That’s far enough.” Before we change products we need to look around, take a deep breath and ask ourselves why. Why faster? Why cheaper? Whatever happened to better?

Scratch that. We need to re-evaluate the definition of better. Is faster always better? How about more features? Every time my email provider changes interfaces or adds more buttons or screens or capabilities, I find it increasingly time-consuming just to send and receive messages. Isn’t that all email is supposed to do? Sometimes it seems engineers are making things ever more complex for the sake of having something new and to justify their own existences, regardless of how it affects the quality of their design.

I am not ignorant of the need for companies to appease shareholders by showing constant growth, or that the public has an insatiable appetite for all things new and different. But is the iPhone 5 really going to be that much better than 4 or even 3? Are customers so sensitive that a slightly lighter, thinner, faster phone improves their lives considerably?

I’m also not saying the desire for new things is inherently bad. Some people don’t want to inherit grandma’s china or mom’s silver or dad’s chest-of-drawers. Styles and tastes change from one generation to the next, and one person’s priceless heirloom is another person’s “happy-to-get-thirty-bucks-for-it-at-our-garage-sale.” Also, there are huge potential benefits of design improvement, some of which might not be realized or even imagined until somewhere down the line. A faster computer might only be marginally better now, but what happens when they keep getting faster? What wondrous new capabilities could much faster computers have?

Still, do we have to place such a blind premium on change without bothering to ask ourselves if what we’re making is even better than what we had? More isn’t always better. Different isn’t always better. Sometimes faster isn’t even better. Can you imagine if they develop a way to get complete nutrition in less than five minutes? No more meal, just an IV bag full of goodness. Sure, that might give us more time to do other things, but isn’t eating one of the great pleasures of our lives? Aren’t all our tools and inventions meant to make our lives better? Isn’t life meant to be enjoyed?

Despite the troubling trends, I still see signs of hope. More people are buying local, seasonal and organic food even if it’s more expensive. I’m not taking a stand on this issue (at least not in this essay), but the point is people are choosing what they perceive as quality over low price. In response, farmers and grocery stores who had been increasingly commoditizing food are now offering a wider variety of edibles. There are also a few holdouts who continue the tradition of handmade goods. And in a perfect melding of old and modern, there is even a website where people sell their handmade and vintage goods.

But we need more than holdouts and signs of hope. We need thoughtful consideration of each step we take instead of rushing blindly into the unknown without knowing where we’re going or why. Before they are lost we need to preserve and pass on the science and art and skill of making quality goods using only our hands and our brains.

I prefer to live in a world where our landfills aren’t overflowing with barely used and broken items, where quality is not an afterthought, where average citizens can do math in their heads and build bookshelves without instruction manuals. We need more kids tagging along and holding the flashlight as fathers and grandfathers do repairs around the house. I was fortunate to have those experiences, and I don’t want future generations to miss out on them. I don’t want faster and cheaper to be the sole components of quality. I don’t want a disposable society.

The real definition of quality is like that old desk chair. Right now it is dusty and squeaky, but I worry that all too soon it will be discarded, never to be recovered.


Copyright Axel Schwarz 2011


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