Category: design

You may know it as Kallax, but it’ll always be Expedit to me

Somehow I missed this one when the news broke. IKEA decided to make some changes to the iconic, omnipresent (and often immovable) Expedit line of shelving. Specifically, they narrowed the outer walls (perhaps to save wood), softened the corners a bit, and renamed the whole thing Kallax. Rabid fans the world over lost their cool as word got out that the beloved vinyl-accommodating storage range was to be “discontinued.”

Expedits in action - check out those thick outer slabs!Design geeks geeked out on it. Environmentalists doled out praise, after all, even a millimeter less wood over zillions of IKEA units comes to something. LP lovers finally took a chill pill when it became clear that the interior dimensions of Kallax would be identical to those of Expedit. And one reporter noted that both Expedit and Kallax sound a bit like remedies for constipation.  I’m not wild about the design change, I have to say. I think you either have the outer walls the same thickness as the inner ones (as in IKEA’s equally omnipresent Billy bookcases) or you make a statement with much thicker ones. And boxiness is so much of the identity of Expedit, why would you want to round any of the corners, even a little?

But enough about design. What’s really interesting to me here is the name change. After all, if they hadn’t called it something else, nobody would have freaked out about it being discontinued. Lots of products bear the same name through generational changes much more drastic than this. Look at Apple iPods over the years, or Ford Mustangs for that matter.

Well-read monochrome modernists love Expedit tooHere’s what I think happened: I think somebody in marketing decided that Expedit was old and boring and that the brand needed freshening. What they missed was that “old and boring” aka “standardized and reliable” was part of the appeal, perhaps a huge part of it. At least they didn’t turn their back on the range of add-ons already perfectly sized to the cubbies by changing the interior dimension that, by the way, is also so popular with record fans.

A few years ago I wrote about the perils of changing your brand or even just your logo or web theme because you are bored with it or think it needs a change. The question to be asking is really, is the market bored with it? Can you really change it for the better and not lose something along the way? I doubt that IKEA has lost much by this, but they certainly didn’t gain, and the cost of doing the name change and dealing with the blowback wasn’t zero, either.

Proof of concept: catnip-filled toxoplasma gondii cat toy

Toxoplasma gondii tachy, from Wikipedia
Toxoplasma gondii tachy, via Wikipedia

There is no shortage of cat toys that are in questionable taste, but the one I was looking for – a soft, catnip-filled replica of the parasite that causes toxoplasmosis – was nowhere to be found. If you haven’t heard, this parasite, toxoplasma gondii, invades the brains of mice and makes them attracted to rather than afraid of cats. It also might make humans crazy, but this blog post notwithstanding, the jury’s still out on that. You can buy catnip-filled cat toys of seemingly every description, and you can even buy plush parasites, viruses, and bacteria, but the intersection… null.

So I decided to make one. What does toxoplasma gondii look like? Well, it looks like a single-celled organism, more or less paramecium-shaped and usually purple from the slide stain. Since the actual critters are just a few microns long, nobody, least of all your cat, is going to notice if the model is not so accurate. I chose purple felt from the craft store and some yellow embroidery floss for thread and interest.

Catnip-filled felt toxoplasma gondii
Catnip-filled felt toxoplasma gondii

You can download the sewing pattern here. No, you can’t, there is no pattern, and I can barely sew. I just cut out a couple of pointy-ended ellipses, dressed one up with a button and some stitching representing organelles, and sewed them together, stuffing a couple of old socks and a few spoonfuls of locally-grown catnip (from Blue Skys Farm in Cranston RI) inside as I went along.

If you’re sewing anything, your cat is probably going to want to help.  If you’re sewing something full of catnip, your cat is definitely going to want to help. Be sure to have enough extra catnip to occupy the cat while you work or it will not go well for anybody.

Initial field test of catnip toxomplasmosis toy
Initial field test of catnip toxomplasmosis toy

While there are clearly flaws in this initial prototype (not least the fact that it looks like a long-forgotten banana), the first test run went quite well from the cat’s point of view, and by the time I retrieved the toy for a photo (it wasn’t easy, let me tell you), it had gotten a good mauling and was a bit soggy, but at least my stitching had not come undone.

Next steps:

  1. Find a more suitable fabric
  2. Learn to sew
  3. Become an Etsy millionaire

You can direct distribution inquiries to my business manager, pictured at right.

Note for the humorless: toxoplasmosis doesn’t do much to most of us, but can be quite dangerous to the immunocompromised and pregnant women and their unborn children, so such people should stay away from cat poop and contaminated meat. Read more from the CDC.

Without bookshelves, how will we judge people?

Finger firmly fixed on the pulse of SciFi fandom, io9 asks, “Are bookshelves becoming obsolete?” Seems to me the question is more, “are paper books on their way out?” and I can dispense with that questions quickly with a simple, “yes.”

I am convinced that ebooks have won. There will always be holdouts and it will take a long time for paper books to get to where vinyl records are now (temporary hipster renaissance), and then eventually where wax cylinders or clay tablets are (museums only), but there’s simply too much for readers, publishers, and authors to gain from ebooks. I’ve covered this ground before, and I may again, but let me indulge in a little sappy nostalgia (again? yes, again.) for what we’re losing.

Your taste and knowledge on display

I’ve heard that ebooks are enabling a resurgence of smut because you can buy dirty books in private and read them in public without having to hide the cover. Hard to say if that’s good or bad, but in the paperless book future, you won’t be able to peruse your friends’ libraries so easily when visiting their homes, and you won’t be able to impress your own guests so easily with the size or depth of your own library. If you find yourself in a bookless home, you’ll have to run off to the loo and peek into the medicine cabinet to get insight into your host.

Bookcases, early 21st Century

Design and the nature of shelves

Owning, storing and displaying stuff creates constraints and challenges, but constraints and challenges also create opportunities for design and innovation. I won’t miss packing, moving and unpacking tons of books. As a dweller in small apartments, I’d be happy to reclaim the space taken up by my paper books, but I’ll also be sad to leave behind the design choices of bookcases. The Economist notes that IKEA redesigned the ubiquitous Billy bookcase to be any “anythingcase” unbound from the size and shape of books. I guess we’ll always have bookshelfporn.

Every book for itself

No matter how many or how few, how fancy or how plain, your paper books are yours, and each one is a separate object that you can loan, sell, gift, even alter or destroy. Those books exist outside of Kindle, outside of iPad, outside of DRM, the internet, and electricity. Until the ebook world comes up with a satisfactory method for giving away or lending ebooks, maybe even inscribing them, I’ll miss those possibilities most of all.

Two Rolled Steel Slabs, Two Ways

I saw a lot of art on a recent trip to New York, but I think the works that made the biggest impression on me (not literally, thank goodness) were four steel slabs by Richard Serra, two at MoMA made in 1974-75 and two at Gagosian from 2013.

Inside Out (2013) at Gagosian

At Gagosian’s hangar-like Chelsea space, Serra has set up two undulating arcs of beautifully rusted steel about ten or fifteen feet high and 80 feet long each forming corridors and cul-se-sacs for visitors to wander around in.


Some of the spaces are narrow enough to make it awkward to pass other people and others are almost cathedral-like.


The rusted steel looks almost like velvet in some places and its shape and angle reminds you of the hull of a ship.


In at least one spot, you can see bootprints on the steel, and the seams where the plates are connected are not hidden but neither are they ostentatious.


Delineator (1974-75) at MoMA

In an otherwise ordinary gallery space at MoMA, a piece called Delineator is installed. It takes a moment to even realize there’s something there.  On the floor, a slab of steel with a smooth finish that you’re invited to walk upon.


As you do, you notice the second slab, attached to the ceiling right above but offset 90 degrees from the one on the floor. The slab on the ceiling seems to have a rougher texture, maybe because nobody’s been walking on it.


Once again, you are in a sense “inside” the work, even part of it, but this piece from the ’70s contains a lot more menace than the sensual curves of the 2103 work. You’re forced to touch the work by walking on it and you’re forced to ponder what’s keeping the 2.5 ton slab up there. Where Inside Out is welcoming and even playful, Delineator (as the name suggests) asks point blank, “are you in or are you out?”

I’d rather live with or in the 2013 Serra, but the 1975 piece appeals to me more as art that makes you think a little as you pass through it. It’s nearly impossible to “get” these pieces from pictures or blogs, so see them in person if you get the chance.

Halloween Kit Kat? Give me a break

It’s the week after Halloween, and that means tons of leftover candy. Especially since it’s the stuff you couldn’t palm off on the young extortionists in costume, I usually don’t pay much attention. But this week, somebody left a bunch of Kit Kats in the office, and some of them had orange labels. And we all know that means peanut butter, right?


Wrong. These orange-wrapped Kit Kats are in fact “Halloween Kit Kat” and they are orange in color but not in flavor.  They’re not peanut butter, they’re not pumpkin pie, they’re not orange Creamsicle, they’re not even candied yam or cantaloupe flavored, they are white chocolate that’s been dyed orange.  It’s a bit like a wafers wrapped in a crayon.


This is so disappointing because I know they could have done so much better. In Japan, Kit Kats come in all sorts of seasonal varieties, many of them fruity. Even right here in the USA, there are candies in seasonal flavors like pumpkin spice, so why would Hershey phone in such a weak Halloween Kit Kat?

We gave the world the bacon chocolate bar, can we not put some real pumpkin flavor in a candy bar? Don’t America’s children deserve more squash in their goodie bags?