Initiates of the cult of ic! berlin
At dinner the other night, 23‘s Magnus Christensson and I laughingly admired each other’s ic! berlin eyeglass frames, and it reminded me that I’ve been meaning to write about both this superior product line and its social implications for quite a good while.
Unaccountably, I don’t appear to have sung its praises before, at least not that Google is currently able to help me find. I’ll never forget the day I saw my first pair, in a tiny optometrist’s in Portland during the 2003 IA Summit (and mere hours after the outbreak of “shock and awe” in Iraq): the frame was a minimal armature of matte titanium, mechanically utterly unlike any I’d seen before, and the lenses themselves were refreshingly novel in shape. Even the temple pieces were special, terminating in “pads” formed of latex surgical tubing.
The overall effect was unmistakably European, just a touch louche, and subtly and self-confidently malevolent: think Michel Foucault, appearing at the door in a kimono. Yow! I remember going a little weak in the knees; of course, they had me at “minimal armature of matte titanium.”
What really set the glasses apart was their ingenious simplicity: by notching the temple piece just so and holding the tongue thus formed in tension against the frame, the designers did away with a conventional hinge and its attendant hardware, bulk and weight. (The ic! berlin logo alludes to this.) It was simultaneously clever and materially elegant; you couldn’t possibly have designed a line more likely to appeal to architects and designers of whatever stripe if you set out to do so.
Point is this, though: up until about a year, year and a half ago, you could be reasonably certain that anybody sporting a pair of these things was worth talking to, in all the best ways. Aesthetically distinctive and not always easy to find, they’re simply not glasses that people are likely to choose at random, and so the pool of users has always tended to self-select for traits like persistence and attention to detail. The result has been that people come up to me in video stores, in airports, at the counter at Jo’s during SXSW to talk ic! berlin, and whenever they’ve done so the encounter has continued in interesting directions.
They’re more than mere conversation starters, though – as Magnus points out, some bond is forged between ic! berlin wearers at the moment of mutual recognition, however tiny. It reminds me of the little rituals VW or Volvo owners used to enact upon recognizing each other, way back when those marques were rare in North America: they’d dip their headlights at one another, or wave, in the spirit and shared pleasure of reciprocal appreciation. Back in the day, you could have said the same thing about Jil Sander, Helmut Lang, or Ann Demeulemeester’s lines, on the fashion side of the house, but those were all at considerably higher price points; the analogy is imperfect.
What a delicate sweet spot this must be for product designers. You’ve got a customer base large enough for users to plausibly imagine that they’ll meet others in the course of their daily lives, but not so large as to deprive those users of the conceit that they’re in on something special. I tell you what, if I had a product I was about to launch, I’d think long and hard about how to maximize the time it spent at this point of precarious balance – what you might call “dwell time.”
Because, inevitably, one day I know I’ll be on the checkout line at the grocery store, and find myself face to face with a tabloid headline in which some tacky-ass celebrity is sporting a pair of ic! berlins, and that’ll be it. They’ll be everywhere, and that’s the kiss of death for a certain kind of value proposition – sure, short-term revenue will spike and spike and spike some more, but they’ll be over as anything of real interest. You’ll never again be able to map the fact that someone is wearing these glasses onto a plausible assumption that they’re fun to talk to or be around.
Is this snobbery? Sure it is. There’s no way around admitting that. But I hope you’ll agree that it’s not indefensible, that there’s room in the world for people who literally do see things in an unusual way to recognize each other. And if there’s any truth at all to notions of an “long tail,” there should be a stable region of economic possibility space where products like this can dwell indefinitely – selling respectably, never getting too well-known, providing their users with almost untoward amounts of pleasure. That’s where I’d aim, certainly. But then, I’m not like most people, as we’ve already established.
What’s your favorite cult product, and why?