February 22, 2007
Put a Cork In It
The perfect marriage of form to function.
I do not spend my time searching for perfect objects, because most of them are tiresome. There is a vapidity to so many pure and perfect things. This has always seemed especially true of a lot of Scandinavian design, which often has an earnestness that—and I know I am operating in the realm of wild generalizations here, but bear with me—doesn’t excite me in quite the same way Italian insouciance does. So I am a bit embarrassed to admit that I have fallen in love with a perfect object, that it is Danish in origin, and that I like it so much that after buying one of them, I went back to the store and bought five more.
The object is a wine stopper—the kind you put into a half-finished bottle in the hope of nursing a few more days out of it. There are a zillion wine stoppers on the market, and I have never before liked any of them. Some of them are ugly, many of them don’t work well, and most of them are ugly and don’t work well. Until now I have been one of those people who usually tries to shove the cork back in and hopes for the best, and then tries to rationalize things by saying that wine doesn’t really keep anyway.
Then one day I saw the wine stopper of my dreams. It was the box that first got me (never, ever believe anyone who tells you that packaging and graphics don’t matter). The box is little, black, and exceptionally elegant. Even the serif type on the box is elegant, and so is the picture, which shows this wine stopper inside a bottle of red wine. When you slide open the box, the stopper sits on a little black velvet bed, like a piece of jewelry.
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It is a cone-shaped object, three and a half inches long. The base of the cone, which is seven-eighths of an inch in diameter, is made of polished stainless steel that extends upward for about half an inch. The rest of the cone is black rubber. You operate the stopper by inserting the narrow rubber end into the bottle. Period. Because it’s tapered, it extends down to whatever diameter opening the bottle has. Because it’s rubber, it forms a tight seal, assuring that no air will penetrate. The steel end remains outside, a convenient handle for removing the stopper whenever you feel the urge to consume the rest of the bottle.
This stopper would be a lovely thing to look at even if you never used it. But I take great delight in using it: I don’t know when I’ve seen such spare, beautiful form married so perfectly to function—at least not since the paper clip. Admittedly this wine stopper is a bit pricier than a paper clip—it will set you back about $25—but then again, it is better crafted, and you aren’t likely to need to buy hundreds of them at a time. I suspect that like the paper clip, this stopper will not wear out.
Produced by Rosendahl, a Danish manufacturer of high-end home products, the stopper is part of a line of wine-related accessories called Grand Cru. It was designed by Erik Bagger, a 54-year-old Dane who was trained as a goldsmith and spent much of his early career working for Georg Jensen. Bagger became a freelance product designer in 1987—eager, he has said, to prove that it was possible to combine materials like rubber, steel, and plastic in such a way as to produce objects that felt comfortable and inviting rather than cold and industrial. One of Bagger’s earliest products is a flyswatter that resembles a feather duster. It consists of 350 polyester fibers mounted in a tubular stainless-steel handle, and—in a gesture that seems to carry the ethos of animal-rights activism into the realm of insects and objects—it is intended to stun a fly rather than kill it.
The flyswatter is beautiful, however, and so is almost everything else Bagger has produced. He began a collaboration with Rosendahl in 1993, of which the wine stopper was the first result. Since then, the Grand Cru line has expanded into, among other things, a wine pourer, a corkscrew, a wonderful foil remover, and what may be the niftiest object of all, a wine thermometer. The thermometer is mounted on a round sphere, half stainless steel and half black plastic, and sits in a conical holder, so that when it is not in use it stands as an elegant object—a miniature architectural tower.
None of these objects is particularly self-conscious. Bagger’s work is designed, but it is not Designed; and it doesn’t hit you over the head with that insistent “Use Me, You Philistine, and Be Better For It” swagger. If the best quality of Scandinavian modern design has traditionally been a kind of understatement, Bagger’s work possesses it, and yet it has a sleekness and refinement that make it clear he has paid no small degree of attention to German industrial design and to all forms of Italian design. He is a designer who loves simplicity, but he does not love plainness or dullness. Bagger seems to want to produce objects that are minimal and sensual at the same time. That is the magic of the wine stopper: it feels at once simple and rich. You could never call it ornate, but you certainly couldn’t call it ordinary either. When I use it, it makes me feel good, as if I am indulging in the purest form of luxury.