The industrial world of the 19th century and most of the 20th belonged to the connoisseurs. The baby boomers, far from being culturally revolutionary, may have been the last connoisseur generation, closer to their parents than to their children, who have replaced the floor-standing speakers of the 1960s with the earbuds of MP3 players.
And to connoisseurs’ chagrin, the market has rewarded dandyism. Consider the Sony Vaio 505 notebook computer, introduced in 1997. Teiyuu Goto, its designer, reportedly insisted on a profile of less than an inch and a magnesium-alloy case at a time when the competition was still using plastic. After some concessions to Sony engineers, Goto held the line at 22 millimeters in thickness, even though an imperceptible additional millimeter could have doubled the hard drive’s storage capacity. Despite or even because of this, the 505 was an outstanding success.
At Apple Computer, Steve Jobs spent hundreds of thousands of dollars making the sides of his impractically cubic NeXT machine precisely perpendicular. While the NeXT’s hardware could barely support its sophisticated operating system, and the platform subsequently vanished, it ultimately gave Jobs the tools to restore Apple’s finances and eclat (the Mac OS X was built from the NextStep OS). Apple’s current icon, the iPod, is a dandy technology with the solidity, storage capacity, and ergonomics that make it appealing to all but the most diehard connoisseurs.
The 7280 is within the reach of the affluent young; the Signature is for the prosperous and perhaps socially anxious middle-aged. The 7280 reflects the glories of rapid electronic obsolescence; the Vertu denies death – its own, and its owner’s.
I’d love to have it both ways. I’d love to think that a solid key click builds character. But dandies don’t mind what they’re losing. They can always discard the current model when engineers catch up to designers’ visions. “Stand out like a flame in the darkness,” urges the Nokia website. Dandies may sometimes burn good money, but they light the way for the rest of us.