Tag Archives: simplicity

Simple by design


One of these things is not like the others.

Last week I attended a holiday party held by a local publication. This biannual event is always characterized by classy live music and an atmosphere of big-city sophistication found so rarely in the south-central Indiana college town where I live that it always seems to verge on the surreal.

Another defining feature of the event is the elaborate presentation of food. A central table holds crudités, charcuterie and fish. On this occasion the fish were two strapping salmon (discreetly shorn of their heads and tails) festooned with cucumber-slice scales. The muscular fish were artfully arranged side by side to evoke their movement while swimming. (Nothing says “eat me” like a headless corpse positioned so as to suggest its once-lithe motion.)

This pair were joined by a regiment of jumbo prawns hanging from the edge of a silver tureen, as though hitching a ride on a passing ocean vessel. Or perhaps they were meant to evoke a still from a synchronized swimming performance.

Arranged around this table of plenty were servers at designated stations offering roasted meat, stuffed duck and vegetables. I headed for the vegetables, at least the ones I could spot — namely, the mashed potato station, which had sweet potatoes and white potatoes, some plain and others with garlic — comfort food at its most comforting. The entry end of the station was set up with the dishware into which your choice of mash would be spooned: cocktail glasses. Now, I’m no snob when it comes to dishes; I’ve eaten my fair share of meals out of cardboard boxes, melamine bowls bought at thrift stores and even, in a pinch, off roughsawn boards. But the prospect of mashed potatoes in a cocktail glass when regular ceramic plates are available strikes me as no less distasteful than a headless salmon swimming coldly across a serving board in a cloak of cucumber.

These glasses were clearly intended to make a statement. You may be eating the most common dish in Midwestern cuisine, they seemed to suggest, but in this establishment, you’re going to do so with Style. Or perhaps they were meant to be ironic. (Then again, we are in Indiana, so probably not.) Either way, I couldn’t handle the pretension. So I went over to the main serving table and got a good old-fashioned hors d’oeuvre plate.

A stern woman was standing behind the potatoes; there seemed to be a problem with one of the tureens, and she was trying to fix it. Feeling slightly abashed at violating protocol, I explained that I’d rather eat potatoes off a plate, because I found the cocktail glasses affected — perfect for a sidecar or martini (full disclosure: I have never had a sidecar), and even fine for zabaglione or sorbet. But mashed potatoes? I meant my comment to be received as a gesture of solidarity with the server.

Well, no such luck. She looked pointedly at my name tag. (This is one of those events where you get a name tag at the entrance, so other guests know who you are and which business you work for.) “Design?” she sniffed. “You’re in design? And you find the idea of eating potatoes out of a cocktail glass just ‘too too … ‘?” She trailed off, allowing me to complete the sentence.

Taken aback, I looked at her name tag. And realized that I had just unwittingly offended the director of catering.

The word “design” appears in my business name because when I started the business in 1995, I wanted to make clear that the thinking and intentionality implied by the word “design” were central to the kind of work I wanted to do. In other words, I wanted to design, as well as build; I wasn’t setting out to operate a mill like the one at a then-flourishing lumberyard, where you could take your sketch for a toilet seat and see it made three-dimensional in burly walnut, or hand over your drawing for a pair of corn hole boards to coordinate with your FratBoy Blind Date Horror game. This interest in maximizing my agency in an enterprise where I am working not for myself, but for clients, on every job, is not synonymous with a sense of obligation to demonstrate my chops by adopting the latest sparkling novelty or trend. To the contrary.

–Nancy R. Hiller, author of Making Things Work

Note: The mashed potatoes in the picture above were not from the party but made at home from yellow potatoes, and I have the greatest respect for the late Esther Williams.