Jared, who’s a big fan of my work
this is not what the internet was intended for…
Stanley Kubrick was nothing if not meticulous. Every detail of his movies had to be absolutely accurate; anything less would not have been convincing. He shot interior scenes of his 18th-century romp, ‘‘Barry Lyndon,’’ by candlelight, and the lugubrious War Room in ‘‘Dr. Strangelove’’ seemed so realistic that when the newly elected President Reagan moved into the White House, rumor had it that he asked his chief of staff to take him there.
Even by Kubrick’s standards, the design of his 1968 sci-fi epic, ‘‘2001: A Space Odyssey,’’ was excruciating. Creating movie sets that look as though they belong to the future is an art director’s nightmare. Kubrick obsessed over everything: from the names of the extraterrestial brands (Hilton Space Station and Howard Johnson’s Earthlight Room) down to the zero-gravity toilet. For the props, he took his pick of futuristic 1960s designs, like Olivier Mourgue’s sleek Djinn seating in the space station’s lobby. But when it came to the knives and forks that Discovery One’s astronauts used to eat their space food, Kubrick went further back in time and chose cutlery designed in 1957, not by a pop design hipster but by a portly, pipe-smoking grandee of Danish architecture, Arne Jacobsen.
Great choice. The flatware looked flawlessly futuristic when ‘‘2001’’ was released, and it still does today. Designing something that seems ‘‘timeless’’ (cliché though it may be) is fiendishly tricky for any designer; making it look ahead of its time by 50 years is even more so.
How did Jacobsen do it? The answer is he didn’t. Both as an architect and as a designer, Jacobsen had no interest in style. His overriding concern was to ensure that his designs could be used so simply and logically that the experience would feel entirely instinctive. It was this that dictated all of his design decisions regarding shape, size and choice of materials. The result often looked as though it had come from nature, one of Jacobsen’s passions, as realized by another one of his passions, technology.
The cutlery was typical. Jacobsen designed it at the height of his career, in his mid-50s, for one of his most prestigious assignments, the SAS Royal Hotel in Copenhagen. Having established his reputation as Denmark’s leading Modernist by designing first houses and then public buildings, Jacobsen sealed it in 1956 by bagging the most coveted position in Danish design, as professor of architecture at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts. The SAS commission offered an opportunity for him to create a new national landmark, a grand hotel for the jet age. This would require him to design not just the building but all of its contents: chairs, furnishings, curtains, lighting, even the cutlery.
Ignoring convention, Jacobsen started from scratch by imagining what eating utensils would be like if they were natural extensions of the human body, and came up with abstractions of the traditional shape for knives, forks and spoons. The light, slender slivers of metal shape for knives, forks and spoons. The light, slender slivers of metal are designed to fit neatly into the hand at one end and the mouth at the other, with wide, flat surfaces for the fingertips to hold on to. He even devised special versions of the spoons for people who were left-handed. Jacobsen developed the original set for the hotel in silver-plated stainless steel with the craftsmen at A. Michelsen Solvsmedie, the Danish crown jeweler. A second set was designed in stainless steel for industrial production by Georg Jensen, where it is still made today.
By basing his design on an intuitive physical gesture, something as natural as how food is placed in the mouth, Jacobsen took it out of the realm of period or style. Even if you didn’t know that, you could guess it simply by looking at the shapes. (Just as you can intuit how to use a great example of user interface software, like the iPhone’s, without reading the instruction manual.) It was this that made Jacobsen’s cutlery seem futuristically timeless to Kubrick in 1968, and what makes it look the same to us now. Coincidentally, it also ensured that each piece would be made from the least possible quantity of metal, giving it a very contemporary whiff of eco-responsibility. Last but not least, his cutlery works as intended, and I should know. I have used it every day for more than a decade, and it still looks and feels like new.
best 6 minutes 21 seconds of my life.