Jargon Watch: Heirloom Design

Saul Griffith in a presentation he gave as part of the Long Now Foundation talked about the environmental impact of our stuff. The possessions that we own make up about a quarter of our lifetime carbon footprint. The way to reduce this is to have stuff that lasts longer, and that we want to keep longer. From this came the idea of heirloom design.


It isn’t new, Sotherby’s and Christies have made very good businesses selling old stuff, Patek Phillipe talks in advertisements as the watch-owner not actually being the owner but the custodian to pass the timepiece on to the next generation and Rolex has an excellent reputation for taking lifelong care of watches it sells.


So its a new framing of an old idea, it has been adopted by some eco-conscious businesses such as Howie’s Hand-Me-Down range: a set of bags and a jacket that are so well made and so durable that you want to keep them for their natural life. The examples that are given are a Montblanc pen and a Rolex watch; both of which require considerable upfront investment as well.

Dieter Rams

However design also has a case to play in this: look at the prices on eBay for a genuine Charles Eames recliner, or any of Braun’s consumer electronics offerings; classic cars fetch a far higher premium than their newer, more sophisticated cousins because of their styling.

A second factor comes into heirloom design: design for servicing. Pretty much every part on my Technics turntables are replaceable, contrast this with the Denon DVD player I had which I had spent similar money on, yet the manufacturers couldn’t repair as they didn’t have the parts; or my Nokia E90 communicator which would have cost more to repair than two new Nokia E-series phones. Nokia’s Vertu phone range with their over-engineered cases and dealer-replaceable future proof guts may be the way forward.

The personally most ironic thing for me is that my Dad has bemoaned the quality with which things have been made for the past 30 years and is a staunch believer in progress through industry may finally have something to agree with the environmentalists on.

A number of brands practice heirloom design already but don’t shout about it:

Suggestions from a quick poll I did on Twitter included

(Kudos in no particular order to Ruby Quince, Ana Mangahas, Becky McMichael, Stephen Holmes, Tom Wynne-Morgan, Robin Clark and Abigail Harrison).

Which brands do you think represent great heirloom design? Feel free to leave a comment.

3 Replies to “Jargon Watch: Heirloom Design”

  1. As you say, pretty much any product for which there’s a healthy vintage market could claim to be a brand which represents heirloom design. On that basis, I’d add Belstaff to the list, though I’m not sure what it offers in terms of after-care or renovation.

  2. I’d have to disagree with Dyson – the build quality is cack, and they generally barely work after about 2 years. A triumph of hype over product design. On the plus side, their servicing is exemplary – fixed price (incl parts) and reasonably efficient, if you hassle them about the lack of available appointments. Unfortunately it looks like you need a service every couple of years just to keep the thing working, which is not what I bought into when I bought it! Essentially, every 6 years you’d pay enough in servicing to buy a new unit – d’uh.

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