Heliopoli_Full_EX126_OvaliaThere are some things one can find in the world that embrace and embody the design of Heliopoli, even if not found in Heliopoli itself — though, if you asked the chief archivist, he would say they originated in that city and escaped before it was shut down, leaving no examples behind.

Be that as it may, the Egg Chair, or Ovalia, is one such object. Designed by Henrik Thor-Larsen, it was exhibited for the first time at the Scandinavian Furniture Fair in 1968. The chair was sold up to 1978 and was in demand throughout the world. It was relaunched with a few improvements in 2005.

Though owing much to Eero Aarnio’s 1963 Ball Chair, Ovalia deserves its place in the history of furniture design in the Heliopoli mode. Touted on its website as a “chair with a lot of attitude,” the Ovalia embraces encapsulation, self-containment, the geometricism of its time, and spaceship (regrettably retro) aesthetic. It begs to be fitted out with stereo speakers.

No wonder the designer is pictured at such ease in his chair. One cannot doubt the optimism of the future whilst sitting in it. One cannot do other than move forward in time.

With Ovalia, one has landed. One has arrived.

The chief archivist will take an orange one, please.

Designer Henrik Thor-Larsen sits in his Egg Chair
Designer Henrik Thor-Larsen sits in his Egg Chair

Images: press photos from www.ovalia.com

The Orb

Heliopoli_Full_EX46Oh, the orb. If it didn’t sound so silly for the city of Heliopoli to have an official shape, it would be the orb — though it might run a close second to the circle.

Nevertheless, the orb dominates the forms of all lighting fixtures in Heliopoli. No one knows why for sure. Even the fiberoptic lamps with their rainbow sprays can’t match the orb.

The orb is a fixture in 1970s design. It produced pleasurable effects in the movie Sleeper and festooned an entire planet in “Space: 1999.” And who remembers the set of “The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour”? Even the chief archivist himself still owns an orb lamp from circa 1970 that to this day sits on his nightstand. The orb shade has had to be replaced twice due to accidental breakage, but it sits atop the original square of yellow plastic, secure in its orbic supremacy over all other lamps, however much a fire hazard it might now be. Measure your life in coffee spoons? This lamp has witnessed almost his entire life. The remnant of a Bicentennial sticker is still somewhere fixed upon it.

Wherefore the orb? Whither did it go? We may talk of zeitgeists and strange attractors, chaos theory and snowball effects, but it would come to nothing. It is not for us to speculate on. It is not of our time. And yet —

and yet —

could they each be a mini sun, after all?


The Ribbon Chair

It should come as little or no surprise that 573 ribbon chairs have been discovered in the excavation of the city of Heliopoli.

The Ribbon Chair was designed by the French designer Pierre Paulin in 1965 and manufactured by Artifort in 1966. It won the Chicago Design Award in 1968. It came in a variety of colors and represented a beautiful marriage between sculpture and function.

A website dedicated to an exhibition of Paulin’s work at the Galerie Alain Gutharc in Paris in 2000 has this to say about the designer: “A man of the future, Paulin scattered his path with poetic objects that were ahead of their time and whose rediscovery more than 30 years later inspire admiration.”

Truer words were never spoken.

The Third Honorary Citizen

Known as a concept designer and visual futurist, Syd Mead is an artist whose works include production designs for the movies Blade Runner, Tron, Aliens, and 2010. He has worked on car prototypes for Ford Motor Company and interiors for the supersonic Concorde. His work has been collected in the books Sentinel, Oblagon and Sentury, among others.


In an interview with Ballistic Publishing, Mead mentioned that he was working on “a series of Hypervan illustrations featuring my notion of the ‘next thing’ in luxurious, high-speed, private transport, featuring in-wheel induction motors, sealed cabin with RGB laminate with stereo/holographic variable eye-point focus and electro-lastic membrane interior surfaces linked to encephalographic monitoring control system.”

“My visual style is lush color, sleek object design, embedded in natural scenario entourage,” Mead said.

“I find that ‘future’ stuff I read about happening ‘now’ I either illustrated twenty or thirty years ago, or have thought about and inserted, visually, into a painting.”


“Keep in mind that object-specific realism needs, most of all, some form of coherent idea behind it.”


“Idea trumps technique every time,” Mead said in the interview. “Don’t assume that technique alone will save your ass. It still is the idea that wins … every time. Remember that elaborate technique and dumb story produces a demo reel, not a narrative.”


In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Mead described his work on Blade Runner.

“We called the whole look ‘retro deco,’ ” Mead said. “What I did in my imagination was to mash together every architectural style I could think of. So, I violated architectural motif, and it’s funny because architects love that film. Maybe it’s cathartic for them. Because it’s a wholly fabricated world, and the typical thing to do would have been to give it one style.”


“We don’t go into any future barehanded, from zero,” Mead said. “There’s always baggage because the audience has to, in some way, recognize what you’ve designed.”


Syd Mead is the Third Honorary Citizen of Heliopoli.

(Images from www.sydmead.com and www.ballisticpublishing.com.)

The Sorapot, Designed by Joey Roth

It would be presumptious to say that the city of Heliopoli left behind a legacy. It is still not known if there were any inhabitants to carry on its memory, and its builders, if any survive, are silent. Surely, though, it is clear that the aesthetic of the city reflected an aesthetic of the times during which it was built and, perhaps, that aesthetic can be reflected back today. Objects can be found in the present that, whimsically, can remind one of Heliopoli.

The Sorapot, designed by Joey Roth, is one such object. It is a teapot in which the tea leaves are free to steep in a glass tube, floating above one’s tabletop. Once a student of creative writing, Roth, according to his website, “strives to make each product an immersive world.”

“I’ve always been entranced by small, beautiful things that are so detailed, they seem like miniature worlds, yet so ordinary they’re often left unnoticed,” Roth said.

The Sorapot is an economy of design married with function. Though not an exact aesthetic match, one can see in the Sorapot geometries reminiscent of Heliopoli, namely the Tube, the Orb, the Sweeping Curve, Glass, Transparency, and the Arch. If a revolution of design can be found in a teapot while retaining a sense of nostalgia, it abides in the Sorapot. What Roth seems to have achieved most with his design, however, is an evocative spirit that sparks the imagination — in other words, exactly what he set out to do.

“You might even see a tea-colored shadow cast by sunlight that passes through the tube and comes to rest in a gossamer puddle on your table,” Roth said.

The chief archivist and the excavators see worlds pouring from the Sorapot.

The Fourth Honorary Citizen

focusWe can be nearly certain that 87.4 percent of all furniture in Heliopoli is based on designs by Eero Aarnio.

One of the pioneers in using plastic in industrial design, Aarnio is the designer of the Ball Chair, the Pastil Chair and the Bubble Chair, among others. The Finnish designer was born in 1932 and studied from 1954 to 1957 at the Institute of Industrial Arts in Helsinki. He opened his office as an interior and industrial designer in 1962.

Ball Chair

Aarnio designed the Ball Chair in 1963. It was produced some years later in fiberglass, a material that was a novelty for the furniture industry of the time. The ball is built on a swiveling metal base and upholstered with foam and fiberfill. The original colors were white, red, black, and orange.

When sitting in the Ball Chair, sound from the surrounding environment is softened. It lends a feeling of privacy. According to his website, Aarnio himself had one fitted out with a telephone.

Pastil Chair

Aarnio continued to work in fiberglass after designing the Ball Chair. The resistant, yet workable, material allowed him to design ergonomic forms without restriction.

More recent designs include the Parabel table (1994) and the Focus chair (2000).

The Fourth Honorary Citizen of Heliopoli is Eero Aarnio.

Bubble Chair

Ball Chair

Pastil Chair

(Images: Downloads and press photos from www.eero-aarnio.com)

Kindle Me This

The KindleThe excavators have become intrigued by the criticisms and praise heaped upon Amazon.com’s new e-book reader, the Kindle, and what connections can be made in regard to their explorations of Heliopoli. They have persuaded the chief archivist, at first reluctant, to examine the situation.

After a cursory investigation, only one comment has been found on the Internet in praise of the Kindle’s design aesthetic, calling it “1970s retro styling.” The chief archivist agrees with this praise. Nearly all others decry it. One said it looked like something that fell off the original Battlestar Galactica. Others have called it “dated,” “copied from the Atari 2600″ and from “some 70s alien movie.” What is remarkable beyond the comments themselves is that so many mention the 1970s in connection to the Kindle’s design.

What is it about the Kindle that reminds one of 1970s aesthetics?

Why are 1970s design aesthetics automatically regarded in a negative light?

What conclusions can we draw from an assumption that 1970s design looked to the future, and now that a piece of that future has been made manifest, it is regarded as a relic of the past?

How quickly does design that looks to the future become outdated, even if you eventually are holding a functioning sample of it in your hand?

How does the Kindle kindle these reactions?

The chief archivist, upon first seeing the Kindle, assumed that its design was merely utilitarian. Its white color, its wedge shape and a certain fumbliness of buttons can be ascribed to pure functionality. But then he remembered what the Kindle reminded him of: the Olivetti Divisumma 18.

Divisumma18_350The Divisumma 18 was a printing calculator made by the Olivetti company in 1973. It was designed by Mario Bellini, who was trained as an architect.

According to an article by Larry Gilbert published in 1998 and reproduced on www.vintagecalculators.com, Bellini’s intention was to “produce a technological product that was totally humanized, almost playful, and that invited human touch.” Gilbert describes the Divisumma 18 as “infused with the Pop spirit of the age” and “a true period icon, appearing in many books that discuss landmark 20th-century designs.”

When the Divisumma 18 was released, something like the Kindle was, of course, science fiction. Now the Kindle is here, and reminds us of the Divisumma 18. The Divisumma projected itself into the future; the Kindle, according to the critics, projects itself into the past.

The KindleThe Kindle has a wedge-shape design when looked at edge on, meant to reproduce the feel of a book. This recalls the 1975 ad campaign for Triumph’s TR7 sports car, which touted it as “The shape of things to come.” The ad copy reads, “From ancient instinct to computer design, the shape that cleaves the air is the wedge.”

TR7: The Shape of Things to ComeIs there a cultural afterimage retained in the collective mind’s eye that assigns the Kindle’s shape to the past — a shape once ascribed to the future?

Is it better to wish for than to have? We anticipate, as children, our Christmas presents, as we can anticipate the future. When we think about some cool device of the future, we only imagine its perfection, its functionality. When such things become real, there are always flaws: glitches in service, the entropy of battery life, design elements convenient for one type of person and not another, placement of certain buttons that seem illogical, a price that seems too high. It never seems to come into being in that perfect state we wished for.

We do not recognize that catches in design are part of making such things real. We do not recognize that there is always a price to pay. There are manufacturing and other practical considerations to take into account.

Is this the source of negative reaction to the Kindle, even from those who do not yet own one? Has the anticipation of the future set up unrealistic expectations? Are we playing with our Christmas present, only to find it is not as good as wishing for it? The criticisms, at least, will drive improvements in design.

Are only people of a certain age enthusiastic about the Kindle’s design? Not that Amazon founder Jeff Bezos had a direct hand in its construction, but perhaps he signed off on certain design elements, if they were not purely functional. He was, after all, born in 1964.

One must wonder if such things contributed to the collapse of Heliopoli. What disappointments were discovered once the city was made manifest? Did the sidewalk pavings develop cracks? Did the pedway rubberized surfaces become frayed on the edges? Did the chrome and glass not remain shiny?

There is always a price to pay.

The chief archivist would like to own a Kindle, for the chance to step into the past.

One can only hope that a future version will be colored orange.

The Kindle