Michael Bierut | Essays

The It Factor

Cover, Quintessence, designed by John Jay, photographs by Dan Kozan, 1983

Imagine your son waking up on Christmas morning and rushing to open his presents in breathless anticipation of getting a shiny new iPod, only to find out he's got a Zune, which is like coming second in chess.

When I read this on David Galbraith's blog a few weeks ago, I had a moment of deja vu. More than twenty years ago, I heard an author describing an identical experience, except it he was talking about a little boy who was hoping for a real baseball bat; his clueless parents got him a perfectly good non-Louisville Slugger instead.

You know it when you see it. There's the iPod, and there are all those other MP3 players; there's the Louisville Slugger, and there are all those other baseball bats. As you've probably heard, Steve Jobs unveiled a long-awaited product last week; he intends to reduce the competition to nothing more than all those other phones.

What makes something the real thing? It's more than functionality, popularity, or beauty. The name of author who told the Louisville Slugger story was Owen Edwards, and he had just written a book that gave the phenomenon a name: Quintessence.

It was 1983. "This is a book about things," Edwards and his co-author Betty Cornfeld wrote in the introduction to Quintessence: The Quality of Having It, "things that offer more to us than we specifically ask of them and to which we respond more strongly than is easily explained. What the various things in this book have in common — whether candy or cars, cigarettes or shoes, baseball bats or blimps — is the quality of quintessence. In a wide variety of ways, they each exhibit a rare and mysterious capacity to be just exactly what they ought to be."

Edwards and Kornfeld try to unlock that puzzle, invoking along the way — among others — Marcel Proust, Immanuel Kant, Blaise Pascal, and John Ruskin (quoted on "the mysterious sense of accountable life in things themselves"). They take pains to point out that they're not interested in identifying the best: "'Best' is a judgment based on statistics, not taste or instinct; and in a world of constant technological innovation and furious competition, being the best of anything is usually a short term occupation." In some ways, long before John Aaker began publishing books on the subject, and barely ever using the word themselves, they created in Quintessence the best treatise ever written what it means to be a great brand.

The structure of the book is simple. It consists of a series of tributes, each with a photograph, each either a single page or a two page spread, to the things that Edwards and Cornfeld felt supported their thesis. The list is wildly diverse. The Stetson Hat. The Ace Comb. Wedgwood Plain White Bone China. The Spalding Rubber Ball. Ivory Soap. The Harley-Davidson ElectraGlide. Campbell's Tomato Soup ("A must for every cupboard and every bomb shelter.") Some of the items are luxurious (The Steinway Piano, the Mont Blanc Diplomat Pen, the Cartier Santos) but most are inexpensive (Oreo Cookies, the Zippo lighter, the Timex Mercury 20521). Although many are name brands, a few are generic or homemade (the Martini, the brown paper bag, the peanut butter and jelly sandwich).

If you doubt the critical acuity of Edwards and Cornfeld, consider that of the sixty-plus items they selected for Quintenssence, in my opinion only a few would fail to make the cut nearly 25 years later. The Polaroid SX-70 camera, for instance, hasn't stood the test of time, and in most people's minds Frederick's of Hollywood Lingerie has been superceded by Victoria's Secret. But it says a lot that the single object in the book that looks truly dated is the one that was discontinued and then revived: the VW Beetle. Tellingly, New Beetle creator J Mays described his design approach in terms you sense the Quintenssence authors would applaud: "There's a conscious effort on our part to try to take the next step forward while retaining the essence of the original idea."

Predictably, many of the products are familiar from our childhood; kids seem to have a nearly infallible sense of what makes something the real thing. "A rule of thumb often useful in determining whether something is quintessential," wrote Edwards and Kornfeld, "is whether it resembles a child's drawing of the thing." This childlike sensibility holds true today. Mays said the New Beetle's circular shape had much in common with Walt Disney's drawing of Mickey Mouse; David Galbraith goes to far as to label the Zune "unsafe for children," imagining that any child unlucky to get one will be fated to get "the shit kicked out of him at school by mocking friends chanting 'Zuny Zuny Zuny.'"

I for one recall my unease at visiting a neighbor's house where the staples were not Oreos ("The quintessentiality of the Oreo is mysteriously and precariously balanced") and Coca-Cola ("Nothing works like Coke does. Not even water"), but rather Hydrox Cookies and RC Cola. No matter that Hydrox were invented before Oreos; no matter that I secretly thought they tasted better: there was just something profoundly disturbing about a family that would so obliviously distance themselves from the American mainstream. If I learned these people were sacrificing live goats every Friday night their basement bumper pool table, I wouldn't have been all that surprised.

Looking at the book today, one is struck by its sincerity. In 1983, indulging in poetic connoisseurship over something like M&Ms ("little lapidary bits of confection, in their rather sober brown bag") seemed daring and even a bit transgressive. Writing in the New York Times, Christopher Lehman-Haupt called the book "informative, pungent and witty;" the cover alone, with its lovely juxtaposition of cheap candy, cocktails and luxury goods, seemed to promise a new way of thinking about everyday life. Of course, today, one isn't permitted to discover the charms of M&Ms on one's own. Why bother when a bombastic 25,000-square-foot "retail experience" has been erected on Times Square to subject vistors to a "three story sensory immersion into the world of M&Ms?" Quintessence was a single drop in an ocean, the ripples from which, twenty-odd years later, have metastasized into a never-ending tsunami.

But the original still stands up to scrutiny, not just as a book of essays, but as an example of the very thing it sought to describe. In the making of Quintessence, Edwards and Cornfeld collaborated with John Jay, then a wunderkind art director at Bloomingdale's, today executive creative director at Wieden + Kennedy. His layouts look a little dated (the headlines are Bodoni — quintessential — but the text is, um, Avant Garde Book) Nonetheless, the pages are still clean, powerful, and confident. Ketchup bottles, sneakers, and Hershey's Kisses, all boldly rendered in Dan Kozan's black and white photographs, have never looked more iconic.

If you can get your hands on the first edition, grab it. The book was reissued in 2001, and in a redesigned form, with pretty color pictures, different typeface choices, and new layouts. It looks a little more modern, perhaps. But in an unspeakable bit of irony, it lacks somehow that quality that, according to Edwards and Cornfeld, "can no more by stalked and captured than can true love." In short, it simply is no longer quintessential.

Posted in: Arts + Culture, Business, Media

Comments [22]

... and the word quintessence means the fifth element (after air, earth, fire and water) .....

Your story about the Hydrox and RC is so hilrarious.
But perhaps from your neighbors' perspective, we're the disturbing ones for even thinking that they're weird.


Purity of essense! (Peace on earth, too.)

Stolen from Mr. Kubrick -- and "Jack D. Ripper."

Joe Moran

It is worth reading the definition of quintessence in the Apple dictionary (yes, there is one built into OSX). Right click or control click on the word and choose "more..." to open the full defintion.

As the child of a mid 1960s to early 1980s diet RC Cola family (I don't think we had Oreo or Hydrox - Mom baked!), I now realize that it was all about penny pinching. Penny pinching that helped send me to college.
Although, at the time, I think I might have prefered Tab.
Now, no carbonated beverage is drinkable for me.
Design Professor

God, that posting about the Zune was hilarious! I worked as a product designer at MS for one month (I was lured by the money - what can I say??) and got out before it was too late. Here in Seattle, it's known as the place designers go to die.

The only reason I figure anyone can stay out there is it must be the health insurance....

I have been one of those strange people (I think from birth) that has always recognized the quintessential quality in things (and in people), but never felt that it had to restrict my personal choices. I STILL think that Sunshine Hydrox were the BEST and Oreos are nasty, and I bought a Creative Zen player instead of an iPod. Nevertheless, I am going to find a copy of this book and I thank you for bringing it to my attention because the authors raise important points as to how we live and why we choose what we do.

"Panasonic's crazy color tape recorder,
You don't need much to afford 'er.
Red, yellow, white, grey or blue.
Even the mic's built in for yooooou.
Runs on batteries or plugs right in,
You can even take take-n-tape out for a spin.
Take-n-Tape, Take-n-Tape..."

How is it that I remember the advertising jingles for the stuff I didn't get?

Every year for Christmas I gave very specific lists to my famously overindulgent Grandfather. Every year, he got it wrong. Instead of the bright blue Take-n-Tape, I got this incredibly ugly, and probably much more expensive cassette recorder. Instead of the Toot-a-Loop radio, I got a Hitachi transistor that could get WLS Chicago at night (in podunk Alabama). Hey, it was a big deal back then...

"They call it the Swinger, the Polaroid Swinger."

I still have the Polaroid Land Camera instead of my choice—the Swinger. SO WHAT if it took much higher quality, larger photos. My cousin got the little blue Swinger that took those nifty little pictures. Maybe that is why I had such a blast with the i-Zone cameras despite all the other great "real" cameras I have. (It made great party pics for on the spot birthday books.)

How tragically deprived. Fortunately I hid that fact, no kid ever beat me up, probably because it was known that my Mother bought real Coca-Cola and Oreos and both were relatively unguarded because she taught piano in the living room. (Don't open the French doors unless you are bleeding. Badly.)

My grandfather drank RCs and ate banana MoonPies. It had to have been tragic to be so terminally un-hip.

Then again, when he died (heart/diabetes), he had saved enough by buying those sugar waffle cookies instead of the good ones, that my grandmother lived the next 20 years quite comfortably.

When I go, I will leave my super cool late model i-Pod, assorted Macs, some amazing, yet uncomfortable shoes, a lot of black clothes, an obscene amount of Fiestaware and mountain of art and design books.

Thanks for the book recommendation. I've tracked down an original copy. To add to the previously mentioned mountain.
Michelle French


Some questions on fonts: back in the seventies, when I was working on some books, I was disappointed that none of our book designers wanted to use classic roman fonts like Caslon and Garamond in my old architecture books, but instead got fonts like the one above, with very thin bars and outlines that had different proportions than the old fonts (the letters above are vertical, for example, but you know much more about this than I do -- which is why I'm asking).

When I got my PostScript computer, I had similar feelings about many of the ITC fonts. Example: I liked Adobe Caslon or ACaslon but none of the ITC Caslons I saw.

Did these changes come about because of digitization? Was there simply a fashion for redesigning fonts in the 60s and 70s? Or was it something else?




PS: I looked at Bodoni at linotype.com and wikipedia. Wikipedia uses an ITC Bodoni and talks about the thin/thick contrast but Linotype's Bodonis have less contrast.

Is that Bodoni on the cover? "QUINTESSENCE" is also condensed compared to the other Bodonis and even the words below. It seems very 60s to me.

Sorry if these questions are too naive. The fonts of the 60s and 70s have long been a pet peeve.

Fonts too can be "quintessential." To wit, Bodoni has been timeless for 200+ years. Avant Garde seemed to survive only Lubalin's handling of it, and now conjures the early 1970s almost every time used.

Speaking of the early 1970s, ITC recreated some absymal versions of fonts then, ie ITC Garamond. By the time ITC created ITC Bodoni in the 1980s, they made trips to Parma and studied Giambattista Bodoni's original fonts. So, these typefaces more closely resemble his work than other versions, such as Bauer Bodoni. Study the serifs: rather than being rigidly geometric hairlines, they are worn rounded at the edges.
Marty Blake

hydrox rule!

I have a much more commonplace book about design, but one, nonetheless, that highlights questions when read in combination with this blog post.

Uncovering more detail of what makes something real, functionality, popularity, or beauty, I came across two names from the 30s.

Raymond Loew, a stylist.
Henry Dreyfuss, who was not. Re-worked phone design.

Any thoughts from those knowledgeable on the topic if those designer paths and the realness they created have merged today or if those still are so very distinct?

design student

I remember the days when my Mom purchased Toughskin jeans for my brother and I (This was a jean Sears sold exclusively in the 70's). I wore these jeans for years and did my best to try and fade them so they looked and felt more like a Levis (a higher priced jean), unfortunately, just like the advertisement promised, they never wore out. Times were different then. Today I see a lot of iPods that are owned by the small and the tall.
Rocco Piscatello

"It's more than a camera, it's almost alive, it's only nineteen dollars and ninety-five..."

I had a Swinger. And an Instamatic (remember Flash Cubes?).

I wonder... If Quintessence were written today, what products/objects would make the cut? Are there more "it" products now due to today's explosion in design? Would the book have more pages--or would the standards for "it" have to be raised even higher?

"(Hershey's)...bombastic ..."retail experience"

I finally stopped with the family...couldn't agree more. If you really need to stand in line for a $13 teddy bear with emblazoned Reese's logo you can buy one for half that at any drug store in New Jersey; sans the logo and long line. I guess we're all still emersed in the (latest buzzword) "story" experience.
felix sockwell

A good Japanese wood chisel is the quintessential tool. I've noticed that car mechanics tend toward wrenches and screwdrivers. What idiots. That's probably why the right sort of people don't hang out with them.
Gunnar Swanson

That's probably why the right sort of people don't hang out with them.

But then the right sort of person would have said why the right sort of people doesn't hang out.
Gunnar Swanson

Ahhh, but even within the Mattel factory there was Barbie.


And then Skipper.

I got a brunette Midge. This was fine with me. Her face was less angular and a more friendlier design when compared to the pointed, high brow, fashion falutin Barbie. I remember even thinking it was fine because she was different. Knowing without knowing, as so often a child does, I most likely recognized the friendlier face shape. But then my sisters made fun of me for having a "miiiidddge" doll. I think it was not quite long after that, that I started playing baseball with my brother.
design student

I know from conversations over the years that I'm not the only '70s kid to have gotten a very gay Big Jim and his sports camper instead of the very "it" GI Joe with his camo survival pack. I didn't figure it out until I became a parent, but I think my mother was trying to psychologically engineer me to be a liberal pacifist. It only partially worked.

I also got the nameless toy motorcycle instead of the Evil Knievel Stunt Set. Now that I'm an adult and in control of my own destiny, all my toys must have an Apple on them or play very nicely with the other toys that do.

This seems a little far fetched but I like the idea:

Modern day patterns of consumption were not known to Plato, anyhow he came up with this:

He thought there were aspatial and atemporal objects that embodied the very essence of what they were. Ideal perfect examples if you want or Forms.

And I because of my conditioned patterns of consumption I have to agree that RC Cola is not what I have in mind when I have the demand for an ideal perfect example of cola.

I love that the authors included M&Ms among the products with "quintessence." (I'd use the word "soul" -- sounds less frou-frou and gets the same point across. But whatever.)

Though highly processed foods are rarely worth any admiration, M&Ms are undoubtedly one of the most perfectly devised mass-produced ingestible items ever created -- the peanut butter ones especially. (No I'm not a shill for Mars Inc.)

M&Ms are the iPod of the chocolate world.
Jon Resh

The idea of achieving quintessence with a product is one of the main driving factors behind being a graphic designer. We all do our work with the hopes that it will outlive us far into the future. How awesome would it be to be the designer behind such a product, have the design changed, everyone hate the new design, and the company be forced to go back to your original design and refer to the rebirth as "classic" or "the original". (Of course I'm not referring to anything having to do with the Coca-Cola Company and their past recipes...wink, wink.) The idea that as a designer you can possess enough power to sway a consumer into thinking your product is better based on appearance and hype alone is somewhat scary.
Brandon K.

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