I’m an industrial design fanatic and a former media conservation technician, and I’m always fascinated by the way some things are just seemingly eternal, while others are indefinitely capable of maintenance, and some are just running on a lit fuse from the day they leave the factory.
I’ve got the oscillating Westinghouse desk fan my grandmother looted her savings passbook to buy in 1938, right after my mother was born, because it was unusually hot in May that year in Baltimore, and it works beautifully not because it made a pact with the devil, but rather because it is made of simple materials and simple systems, and every decade or so, I lay it out on newspaper on my workbench, dismantle it down to its components, clean out the dust and lint and hair and other greasy nonsense, change the carbon brushes if needed, clean and polish everything, apply grease and oil where it belongs and wipe it off where it does not, and it’s good for another five years. Seventy-eight years down, it’s good for another seventy-eight if someone gets it after me and takes the same care.
On the other side of the coin, I have the French blue steel crepe pan my sister bought me in 1986, which I’ve washed with soap about five times in thirty years, and barring a little warping it suffered when I was young and green and still learning the craft of cooking, it’s good for as long as someone owns it who understands the concept of seasoning and doesn’t idiotically soak it in the sink. Same goes for my slightly cheaper, but well-made, impersonations of All-Clad-type pro cookware sold as a house brand by the various stores owned by Federated Department Stores, Inc., which succeed by virtue of being slavish to the heavy build of what they cloned, unlike cheaper versions with riveted handles and heavy look but no real body.
Anything with nonstick coatings, beyond being worse than Pol Pot, famine, and child abuse, is doomed from the first day, and you’ll have the privilege of eating all that polytetrafluoroethylene in the tragic butter-free bomb-shelter-ration-grade meals you grind out without a trace of soul in those pots, not that I have a particularly strong opinion either way.
Simple materials are best. Composites are always bad, unless they’re proven over time. The rise of 3D printing makes it possible to resurrect old things with broken plastics and makes it likely that those things can have long lifespans as long as you can get the files to print new parts. Lightweight, slim, elegant things usually don’t last, though they’re pretty for a while, and fashionable, and Jean Cocteau says we’re meant to forgive fashion everything, seeing as it dies young. Old things and ingenuity work, too. The high spec drill I use as a construction worker was one I found immersed in water in a basement of a renovation project, and I took the time to strip it, wire-brush it, and replace bearings, and it’s good for another thirty or forty years, at least. I ever terrorized a coworker in my penultimate career by suddenly darting into busy traffic on a Baltimore street to retrieve a tool that I watched being run over again and again until a gap opened up.
“What the hell?” she asked, and I beamed back.
“Vintage Snap-On three-eighth’s ratchet,” I said with the delight of a lottery winner, feeling a bit sad for the poor schmuck who had it roll off their truck and delirious for myself, because those things are amazing, and it’s scuffed up from its time as a pinball and still absolutely perfect in every functional way.
Come to think of it, I’m about to be snowed in, and I think maybe I’ll stop writing on the internet for now, get that wrench out, and spend a little time giving my also permanently repairable LML Star motor scooter a little sprucing up in anticipation of a new season of zippification…which is all part of the peculiar instincts of the anti-materialist materialist making a way through the world.
Research well, buy smart, and make it last.
—writing on the lifetime of objects, 9 February 2016