Tom Strini
Design in Your Life

Packing up Christmas

By - Jan 3rd, 2011 02:09 am
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My boys, snug in their suspended-animation chambers. TCD photo.

The transformation of the Christmas tree from enchanting symbol of the season to stripped, curbside evidence of spent enthusiasm brings me down every year. But as I packed away the ornaments Sunday afternoon, the season stayed a little brighter a little longer.

You know how traditional glass balls nest in flimsy cardboard boxes that never hold their shape? And how thin, brittle, transparent plastic covers those windows? That plastic affords a nice view to the shiny objects within on the store shelf and entices you to buy. But it never lasts even one season and does a lousy job of protecting the ornaments for subsequent years — if you can get them back into the cheap, shape-shifting box at all.

It doesn’t have to be that way.

This December, Lee Ann casually picked up three 12-packs of ornaments while we were in big-box home store on yet another trip related to a bathroom remodel. They came packed in clear plastic boxes, with negative hemispheres on tops and bottoms to accommodate each bright silver ball. The items were so cheap and common that I thought nothing of them.

In opening the boxes at tree-trimming time, I found that the top connects to the bottom with a sort of plastic hinge, rather in the way of an egg carton. Five little cups in the bottom — no doubt molded, stamped or vacuum-formed in the one fell swoop that created the whole package from a single sheet of plastic — received five pegs molded into the top to snap the two halves closed. These fasteners popped when I opened them, and I thought: That’s it, this one-and-done will never close again.

Simple. Smart.

And now, my little post-Christmas miracle: Not only did the boxes close again Sunday after I re-loaded the ornaments, they locked with a satisfying pop. And there’s more: The crown of each glass ball popped  securely into a little nook in an equally satisfying way, so the little spring hooks and foil collars will be exactly in place for Christmas 2011. As each ball nestled in, the practically weightless package squared itself up, which made it easy to align the pegs and cups and close the box. You could drop the thing onto a hardwood floor with no damage to the contents, you can see exactly what’s inside, and the seal is such that you won’t have to dust the ornaments before they adorn the next tree.

I know what you’re thinking: Gee, it doesn’t take much to make Strini happy. But think for a minute about the businessman who had to admit that packaging in the ornament industry sucks, thereby creating work for himself. And think about the designer, who not only had to arrive at this elegant solution, but also make it cheap and durable enough to make the company a little money (even thought they practically gave these things away at Lowe’s). That involves knowing materials and manufacturing processes, not to mention mastering the communications skills and testing required to make sure the packaging actually works not only in the plant and the store, but for customers for years. None of that is easy.

Good design=positive feel and public image=good business.

Over the last decade, I’ve become increasingly aware of how good and bad design reach into every corner of our lives, for better and for worse and in large and small ways. It adds up. (It could particularly add up in Milwaukee, where many firms and academic institutions are suddenly becoming more design-aware. More on that here.)

I fully expected the ingenuity and customer-centric behavior behind all this to come from some ambitious Chinese outfit. Only after I sat down to write this did I notice the Made In USA tag on my Holiday Living LW000133A 12-PK Glass Ornaments sets. Holiday Living is a brand name of Christmas by Krebs, a family-run business based in New Mexico. The company has some operations in Germany and Asia, but does most of its work in the good old USA. Now it’s entirely possible that they jobbed the packaging to some Chinese outfit, but even if that’s the case, the Krebs people cared enough to try to raise the design bar.

Here’s to you, Christmas by Krebs, to many Merry Christmases to come, and to good design. Thanks for giving a damn.

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