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Good to the last drop; Design that Keeps Working
by N. Rain Noe

In design school you become convinced you're going to design the next Ferrari, or a really cool Bang & Olufsen psychically-operated stereo. It's the same thing all over: inexperienced actors think they're going to land a starring role in Scorsese's latest, and aspiring musicians believe they're "right around the corner" from signing their multi-million dollar deal.

Then, eventually, an ugly bastard named Reality becomes your fourth roommate. So, the actor does a commercial for fire-retardant car wax; the musician finds himself recording commercial jingles and playing variety gigs at Injun Joe's Comedy Wigwam; and you, the industrial designer, become involved with projects that are decidedly more mundane than those initiated by Italian carmakers and Danish stereo gurus. A project like, say, designing a plastic bottle to hold Prestone anti-freeze, which is what John Frazer found himself doing in 1972.

But herein lies the beauty of Industrial Design and mass-produced products. The no-name actor plugging the bottle of Asbestos Turtle is never gonna move as much product as George Clooney would; the dime-a-dozen singer crooning "By...Mennen" is never going to spread his angst as far as Eddie Vedder can; but the designer doing concept sketches for a commonplace object is going to have an impact that extends far, far beyond the reaches of his studio.

In 1972, Union Carbide was looking for a designer for the Prestone bottle. Frazer, a former Union Carbide employee, had his own design firm; he submitted a bid and won the contract.

The award-winning Prestone bottle was designed with multiple considerations, among them ergonomics and ease-of-use. The horizontal handle-a common sight today, but "unheard of" in 1972 - was the first of its kind to be blow-molded. It was considered revolutionary (within the field of pouring liquid, anyway) and makes the bottle significantly easier to use. On top of that, the horizontal handle lends the bottle a distinctive, unforgettable shape, one of those things that lives in the back of our brains alongside lyrics to songs we knew in high school and the name of the person you lost your virginity with. Hell, if I was playing some automotive version of 'Pictionary' and the word I got was "coolant," I'd probably draw Frazer's bottle.

Frazer, whose friendly but rapid-fire style of diction and infectious enthusiasm makes you think he could have had a successful second career as a salesman, currently runs his own design practice in Barnegat Heights, New Jersey. He does primarily package design and boasts clients such as Kraft, Valvoline, and Shering Plow. Frazer's a regular guy; he drives a bronze Honda, he used to have a golden retriever (now dearly departed), he enjoys fishing. But despite his Joe Everyman qualities, Frazer bears the telltale stamp of a designer: acute knowledge of production esoterica. "Extrusion blow-molding is still an art form!" he insists. He speaks fondly of the early days of his career, when blow-molding was a technology to be reckoned with. "Back in those days, we thought we could blow-mold anything-bumpers, garbage cans, garbage cans with wheels, golf carts, you name it!"

In the years between 1972 and now, Frazer's original Prestone Coolant Anti-Freeze bottle design has been modified only slightly (due to technology advancement in molding techniques, etc.); a nearsighted man without his glasses would be hard-pressed to tell the difference between the bottle in stores today and the one that came out of Frazer's office when bell bottoms were in style for the first time.

Frazer estimates that Prestone sells 100 million of the bottles in a year. The handle that Frazer conceived of and drew on a piece of vellum with a pencil has been touched by millions. His bottle has sat in millions upon millions of supermarket aisles, auto parts stores, car trunks, garages, and toolsheds across this great land of ours.

Frazer has won awards for the design of not only the Prestone bottle, but a host of other containers as well, such as a Valvoline motor oil bottle and the container for Country-Time Lemonade. He holds over 40 patents for bottle and cap design innovations, and he's no stranger to the types of numbers you normally hear coming out of Carl Sagan's mouth. "I've designed a water bottle for a European company which will remain nameless," says Frazer, careful to honor his client confidentiality contract. "They sell 3 million of these bottles a day."

Despite the staggering amount of bottles in the world Frazer has been responsible for, I'm guessing that most of you have never heard of him. Which tells you something about the unsung profession of industrial design. In America, most people don't care whose idea was whose. As James Garner said in Barbarians at the Gate, "What, am I supposed to mail Thomas Edison a dime every time I turn a light bulb on?"

Yeah, we designers will never be famous, but here's a big secret: most of us don't care. A designer can live all of his life in relative obscurity, but still profoundly affect the daily experiences of a sizable chunk of the population. If you're a designer and Reality is sitting in your living room with his feet propped up on the coffee table, folding your bills into pointy paper airplanes and throwing them at your head, it doesn't bother you as much. You're a working designer, and you're content. Unlike the actor and the musician and a host of other creatives, you and your marked lack of fame have no problem living with Reality. And since you're content, Reality's best friend and partner-in-crime, Bitterness, is going to have to crash someplace else.