When redesign is pointless

Today we were looking over some prototypes that we have been privy to the development of over the last year or so. In the course of the discussions, it came up that an iconic piece of design in the coffee world has been redesigned. It was while looking at the ‘new’ design that we kept asking the question: “Was that worth the effort?”.


The product in question is the venerable Atomic stove top espresso machine, designed by Giordano Robbiatti in 1947. Steeped in mystery and with a more than spotty production history spanning several decades, the Atomic has become a true collector’s item that unlike many, still finds good use today.

Like most Italian things, it’s on the temperamental side and you need to interact with it to produce a good coffee – it’s not one to be left alone. It bubbles, hisses and gets hot,as you can imagine but that’s part of its charm. In all though the design is pretty damn good and while not for everyone, those that have learned to use it enjoy it, not only for the coffee it makes but to look at what has become a design classic – it is a cool looking product.

Agreeing to say yes to redesigning the Atomic, or any classic, is not only brave but maybe also pointless. It all depends on how you as a designer choose to approach it. The first option is to decide that the original is great because of what it is, so you’ll essentially keep it the same but improve its internal functions. This option is one of merit, as it shows that you have the ability to accept that great is great but you do still have something to offer to make it better.

You can say that the original is just that, so let’s take cues from it but design something that stands on its own. The final design has merits off its own back yet still acknowledges its origins. This is the harder, yet ultimately more legitimate, road in our minds and is what one might call a natural maturing of a product.

Conversely, you could just say ‘that’s the original’, so let’s just restyle it a bit, to make it look like we did something, and add in some modern features and functions. In this option you don’t really do anything of worth. You alter a great design, in turn loosing the qualities that made it great in the first place. Then you change the way it works in an attempt to modernise it, yet the ‘what’ of what it is does not change (a stove top coffee maker), thus neither does the how, so the coffee will be much the same. Ultimately you have not achieved an awful lot.

Unfortunately the last option is what has happened in the case of this remake.

The ‘all new’ Atomic, under another name, looks sort of the same but is not. A few angled edges thrown in here, a few functional changes there. From a distance you’d think it was an original, though close up the nasty plastic handles and steam knob, apparently ergononic, look like something pulled from a catalogue. The styling changes to the casting emphasise very much ‘we had to do something’; the whole thing reeks of ‘product design studio’ rather than ‘passion’. While the case could be argued that the new version is an evolution rather than a revolution, the counter argument would be that the original in its last version had already evolved to the point that there was nothing more to do to it.

To quote the text used in the submission for a design award:

“The X Stove Top Espresso Maker combines classic Italian style with unprecedented functionality. The polished stainless espresso maker is accurately calibrated to produce two espresso shots and steam milk. Its appearance celebrates an attractive minimalist aesthetic while being ergonomically inspirational.”

It says everything really.

The Atomic was not, and is not, about being “ergonomically inspirational”. To make decent coffee, the operator needs to know and understand the machine and the coffee they put in it. Dumbing down a product does make it better, it just emphasises that we as a society are becoming lazy, complacent and want everything easy. “Unprecedented functionality”… you put water in it, pop it on a stove and coffee comes out; seems pretty much the same as the original.

As for ‘classic Italian design’, the rehash is not designed in Italy (butchered in Australia) so is not Italian and you don’t design ‘classic’; ‘classic’ is something an item ‘becomes’ over time. Lastly, never has the design of the Atomic been considered minimalist. Rather it was a celebration (and a shunned one at the time) of post war industry and a reflection of the atomic/looming cold war period of the early 50’s on.

In attempting to redesign a classic such as the Atomic, the designers naturally opened themselves up to the potential to be slammed; by people like us you might say. It’s always easier to say than do. But the reality is by deciding to not so much redesign, but ‘restyle’ and ‘refunction’, and then do so so meekly, only adds fuel to the argument that one can not and should not attempt to redesign something that is so right. To attempt to do so only demonstrates the complete lack of understanding of the appeal and intrinsic value of the original in the first place.

That seems to be a lot of the problem in society as a whole today….

Side note: Jack Grieve in Australia has started to make a premium reproduction of the original Atomic called “La Sorrentina”. These machines are true to the original and retain all of the glory yet have modern materials used in the internals.